When we think of the Amalfi coast most will think of spectacularly beautiful, and fashionable towns clinging to precipitous rock faces, expensive hotels, and maybe even the odd film star walking the streets of Amalfi or Positano. Made popular as a holiday destination by the British in the 1920′ and 1930’s, I would imagine that few of us know that the town of Amalfi itself is a former Byzantine vassal state and its cathedral is rich in Byzantine treasures including great bronze doors looted in the Fourth Crusade.
By Tom Sawford
First mentioned in the 6th century, Amalfi acquired importance as a maritime power, trading grain from its neighbours, salt from Sardinia and slaves from the interior, and even timber, in exchange for gold dinars minted in Egypt and Syria, in order to buy the Byzantine silks that it resold in the West. The Amalfi tables provided a maritime code that was widely used by the Christian port cities. Merchants of Amalfi were using gold coins to purchase land in the 9th century, while most of Italy worked in a barter economy. In the 8th and 9th century, when Mediterranean trade revived it shared with Gaeta the Italian trade with the East, while Venice was in its infancy, and in 848 its fleet went to the assistance of Pope Leo IV against the Saracens.
An independent republic from the 7th century until 1075, Amalfi extracted itself from Byzantine vassalage in 839 and first elected a duke in 958; it rivalled Pisa and Genoa in its domestic prosperity and maritime importance before the rise of Venice. In spite of some devastating setbacks it had a population of some 70,000 to 80,000 reaching a peak about the turn of the millennium, during the reign of Duke Manso (966–1004).
In 1073 the republic fell to the Norman countship of Apulia, but was granted many rights. However, in 1131, it was reduced by King Roger II of Sicily, who had been refused the keys to its citadel. The Holy Roman Emperor Lothair, fighting in favour of Pope Innocent II against Roger, took Roger prisoner in 1133, assisted by forty-six Pisan ships. The Pisans, commercial rivals of the Amalfitani, sacked the city; Lothair claimed as part of the booty a copy of the Pandects of Justinian which was found there.
In 1135 and 1137, Amalfi was again taken by the Pisans and rapidly declined in importance. A tsunami in 1343 destroyed the port and lower town, and Amalfi never recovered to anything more than local importance.
In medieval culture Amalfi was famous for its flourishing schools of law and mathematics. Flavio Gioia, traditionally considered the first to introduce the mariner’s compass to Europe, is said to have been a native of Amalfi. The patron saint of Amalfi is Saint Andrew, the Apostle, whose relics are kept in Amalfi Cathedral (Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea/Duomo di Amalfi). The remains of St. Andrew were reportedly brought to Amalfi from Constantinople in 1206 during the Fourth Crusade by Cardinal Peter of Capua.
The towns of the Amalfi coats contain many interesting Byzantine references and influences, none more than Positano, where the church of Santa Maria Assunta features a dome made of majolica tiles as well as a thirteenth-century Byzantine icon of a black Madonna. According to local legend, the icon had been stolen from Byzantium and was being transported by pirates across the Mediterranean. A terrible storm had blown up in the waters opposite Positano and the frightened sailors heard a voice on board saying “Posa, posa!” (“Put down! Put down!”). The precious icon was unloaded and carried to the fishing village and the storm abated.
Please enjoy these photographs taken during our holiday last year.