The Borgo of Ravello
Over the centuries, Ravello lived in the shade of the great and powerful city of Amalfi, but this bougainvillea draped jewel knew how to hold its own, favored by princes, kings, and even an Emperor, it is one of the most fascinating cities on the Amalfi Coast.
Tonalities of green blend with the infinite, miraculous blues of the sky and the sea, creating an incomparably magnificent landscape, softly enveloped in a veil of tranquility: the secret ingredient to the magic of this borgo.
The music of tranquility plays lightly in the background of Ravello’s ancient streets. Have you heard it? It is nothing like the deaf notes of silence or the driving rhythms of the busy city.
Ravello’s melody is the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, and the distant murmur of the sea. Its rhythm is the calm beat of footsteps on stone across the piazza, its pauses are moments of pure wonder. The treble clef of Ravello’s song starts at the Belvedere of Villa Cimbrone, with its breathtaking panorama, proceeding along the coastal cliffs to the exquisite churches and elegant noble homes.
A thousand exquisite notes combine in a Mediterranean symphony that enraptures the heart and enthralls the soul… Welcome to the divine borgo of Ravello.
Ravello is situated on an inland promontory of the Amalfi coast. Like many of the towns in the area, it is said that Ravello was founded by a group of Romans who were shipwrecked nearby. Historical evidence tells a different story however, as traces of human settlements have been found which preceded the arrival of the Romans.
The Republic of Amalfi was founded in 839, and written documentation from this period also cites Ravello. Amalfi had always been considered the most important city center in the area, but the arrival of the Normans threatened to change the status quo. The new rulers forged close ties with Ravello’s noble families, which gave them leverage and clout over Amalfi’s noble class.
When Ravello was attacked by Pisa, it was the Norman, Ruggero d’Altavilla, who rose to the borgo’s defense, managing to repel the assault. Unfortunately, in 1137, Pisa attacked again, this time with success, devastating the borgo and the surrounding territory.
A ray of light and hope fell upon Ravello with the arrival of the visionary ruler Emperor Federico II of Swabia, who initiated friendships with the local nobility, entrusting them with prestigious positions in his court.
In 1282, during the Angevin reign, Ravello was drawn into the War of the Vespers, a Sicilian insurrection against the Angevins. For twenty years, conflict raged on the seas between Palermo and Naples, irreparably damaging sea trade, the principle driver of Ravello’s economy. The borgo soon found itself in an economically precarious situation, worsened by local power struggles and clashes with the nearby town of Scala.
In 1583, Maria D’Avolos, the last descendant of the ruling feudal family in Ravello, put the fief up for sale. For the price of two hundred and sixteen ducats, the remaining noble families bought the borgo, changing its status to a demanio reale, or royal city.
During the reign of the Bourbons, the construction of a new road increased attention on Ravello and it became a favorite destination for European travelers.
After making it through the Unification of Italy and the corresponding rebellions associated with the new shifts of power, Ravello then went through the dark years of the World Wars. At the end of the Second World War, King Vittorio Emanuele III came to Ravello. Escaping from Brindisi, the King of Italy found refuge in Villa Episcopio, where he passed the reins of power to his son Umberto and signed the agreement for a provisional government.
The complex of the Cathedral/Duomo
The complex of the Duomo of Ravello is composed of three structures: the Cathedral, or Duomo, the Church of Corpo di Cristo (the Body of Christ) and the Museum of the Duomo.
Ravello’s Cathedral is a treasure chest containing some of the most precious and unique works of art and religious reliquie in the entire borgo.
The splendid façade of the Cathedral, which is dedicated to San Pantaleone, faces the Piazza del Vescovado, the vibrant fulcrum of life in Ravello. An incredibly luminous white, the simplicity of the façade is an invitiation to explore and discover what lies within.
The lines of the interior are dictated by two colonnades, which create three naves in the Latin cross layout.
Wandering through the marvelous paintings and statues of saints, we reach the chapel dedicated to San Pantaleone. This chapel was added to the Cathedral in 1643 at the behest of Bishop Bonsio, who wanted a more secluded place for the reliquie of San Pantaleone, moving the relics of the saint from the main altar, a position he felt was too exposed. Today, an ampoule is kept in the chapel, protected behind two grates, which preserves the blood of San Pantaleone. This reliquie is one of the most fascinating mysteries of faith. The blood of the saint, which has been dry for centuries, returns to liquid form every year on the 27th of July, the anniversary of his martyrdom, as witnessed each year by the faithful as they await the miracle with bated breath.
Continuing our visit in the church, it is impossible not to notice two structures, called ambos: the Rogadeo ambo and the Rufolo ambo. Ambos are common in early Christian churches, a kind of pulpit on stilts, they are raised structures used for giving sermons and readings of the Holy Scriptures and for recounting homilies.
The Rogadeo ambo is named for the bishop who commissioned it in the first half of the 1100’s. It is distinguished by a mosaic decoration, divided in two levels. The lower part is dedicated to the theme of Divine Eternity, and the upper half recounts the Christian Resurrection through the biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
The Rufolo ambo was commissioned by Nicola Rufolo, a prominent member of one of the most important noble families of Ravello. The entire structure is crafted in luminous tonalities of white, resting on six columns supported by six white marble lions.
The balustrade contains other sacred elements: a Madonna and Child depicted with the coats of arms of the family, surrounded by lilies, which were the symbol of the Angevin dynasty. All the decorations on this ambo are inspired by the Garden of Eden. The presence of an eagle is of particular symbolic importance. The eagle has a singular trait: when it senses that death is approaching, it flies higher in the sky to find new energy. This symbolizes the Christian faith: even when all seems lost, new lifeblood can be drawn through the example of Christ.
An imposing bronze portal graces the Duomo of Ravello. Crafted by Barisano of Trani in 1179, it is among the first bronze pieces to be made with the technique of fusion.
It is composed of eighty panels, arranged on two doors. Framed by geometric patterns, fifty-four panels contain representation of sacred scenes, and the other twenty-five embellish and complete the work as decorative elements. The last panel functions as an epigraph, with the date, who commissioned the work and the artist’s name. The portal has recently been restored.
Since 1983, the crypt below the Cathedral has hosted the Museo del Duomo, a museum composed of two rooms and a small entrance. The museum exhibits artwork and historical artifacts from the Duomo, but also from other churches in the neighborhood. Of all the treasures contained in this museum, one of the most important pieces is a female bust in white marble. Initially it was believed to have represented Sigilgaida, the wife of Nicola Rufolo. Later, various details, such as the typical smile found in classical art, have advanced the hypothesis that the woman is a representation of the Triumphant Church.
The Church of il Corpo di Cristo, built in the fourteenth century, is in a separate building, and for years now it has been stripped of its ecclesiastical function and is used as an art gallery, or ‘Pinacoteca’.
The complex of the Duomo is the priceless centerpiece of Ravello’s spiritual and cultural heritage, not only because of its religious value and reliquie, but also for its important contribution to Art History
The Church of San Giovanni del Toro
Ravello’s history has been strongly influenced by the presence of its noble families, who were primarily occupied with sea trading. The Chiesa of San Giovanni del Toro was the church used by the nobility in the Medieval period, located not far from the most important noble residences. It was consecrated in 1276, and the façade with its bell tower is characterized by a clean white simplicity.
It is accessed by three portals that open on to three naves, delineated by two colonnades. The interior is entirely covered in frescos. Of particular interest are the frescos in the ‘lunette’ and in the Capella dei Frezza, dedicated to San Nicola. Also of note is the pictorial cycle in the crypt, which is strongly influenced by the fourteenth century artistic style of the Amalfi Coast.
The ambo from the twelfth century is richly embellished with artistic themes centering around Jonah and the Whale, recalling the Rufolo ambo in the Cathedral.
The church is also historically important, because of the presence of a sarcophagus from the third century AD, which provides evidence of the common practice of reusing elements from monuments and buildings dating back to ancient Rome.
The Villas, Symbols of an Ancient Nobility
The private homes of Ravello are exemplary narrators of the magnificent past and opulent glory of the local nobility. Astonishingly beautiful, the palaces and villas are open books recounting the magnificent details of the Ravello’s local history.
Of all of the wonderful patrician residences, Villa Rufolo stands apart as the home of the most prominent family in Ravello. The building we see today is the result of the numerous expansions and remodeling interventions implemented over the centuries.
The original nucleus, dating back to the thirteenth century, is composed of kitchens and a square-plan garden which can be accessed by one of the villa’s two towers, following a long tree-lined avenue. The towers are built with a square-plan and have an important symbolic value. The first tower functions as an entrance, and the second is very similar to the tower of the Cathedral and to a building that was probably the Civil Curia, indicating a conceptually unified municipal plan.
The villa has had a long series of owners, concluding with the Scotsman, Neville Reid, who created a second terraced garden, planting aromatic herbs and essences. During this same period the German composer Richard Wagner was a guest at the villa.
Villa Cimbrone perfectly the reflects the architectural style of Ravello. Following the long tree-lined avenue, you arrive at a fairytale-like palace of unbelievable beauty, with crenellated walls, elegant arched windows and a myriad of other marvelous architectural details. One of the towers resembles the bell tower of the church of San Martino, and the cloister is clearly inspired by cloister of the convent of San Francesco, as can be seen from the graceful spiral columns and the sumptuous decorations of the central well.
Villa Cimbrone is a place of endless fascination, with its romantic Renaissance-style Tea Room set in the rose garden and its world-class botanical garden luxuriating around the villa, which leads to the promontory of the Belvedere, with its breathtaking view of the spectacular panorama of the Amalfi Coast.
The Palazzos: Historic Homes and Buildings
While the Villas represent the local nobility, the Palazzos make up another piece of the puzzle in the Ravello’s history. In the past, this borgo was an important hub for maritime commerce, and some of the most important businessmen and merchants in Italy came to settle here. Their homes, the Palazzos, or what remains of them, are the perfect expressions of their social class.
Of all these historical homes, Palazzo Confalone is certainly in the best condition. It is a two-story patrician home with a sloping roof, characterized by the presence of columns with pointed arches, as well as sumptuous decorative elements in floral and plant motifs.
Palazzo d’Afflitto also has two stories and is surrounded by a luxuriant garden. It is characterized by the presence of marble elements from the Church of Sant’Eustachio.
Villa Episcopio belonged to the local clergy, and its construction was complex and drawn out. It is best known as the location of an important historical event: the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III was a guest here at the end of the Second World War. Here in Villa Episcopio, he abdicated in favor of his son, and signed the agreement for a provisional government.
In the last few years this palazzo has undergone extensive restoration interventions, leaving only some of the characteristic features from the 1700’s intact.
Ravello and Music: an Epic Love
For more than sixty years the Ravello Festival has been a world-class musical event, and its perennial success has made it one of the longest running and most prestigious music festivals in Italy.
It all started in 1880, when the composer Richard Wagner came to Ravello as a guest at Villa Rufolo, leaving the eternal echo of his melodies in the air of the refined noble home.
By the 1930’s, the idea of organizing concerts in honor of the beloved German composer was already circulating, but it would be another twenty years before the proposal began to bear fruit.
The project was launched by the painter Paolo Caruso, a native of Ravello, who with an innovative spirit of adventure, conceived of a series of concerts on a stage suspended over the panoramic Amalfi coastline. The idea seemed unrealistic and absurd, until Paolo Caruso’s vision was taken seriously by the Provincial Tourist Board, under the direction of Girolamo Bottiglieri.
Since then, Wagner’s melodies have been played every year on that stage suspended over the sea, floating and cavorting through the streets of Ravello, and every year, the musical love story between the borgo and the composer is born anew.
Over the years, the most important orchestras in the world have played on this magnificent stage: the London Symphony Orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the RAI Orchestra and the Maggio Musicale, accompanied by world-class artistic directors, dancers, choreographers, and also actors and directors.
The secret to the Ravello Festival’s success is the combination musical excellence with the intoxicating atmosphere and breathtaking panorama of the Amalfi coast.
Ravello’s Illustrious Guests
In May of 1880, Ravello’s city gates opened to welcome the German composer Richard Wagner. The great man is certainly the artist to whom the borgo is most attached, and who it remembers most fondly, but other great names have walked Ravello’s poetic streets as well.
The town was abuzz during the stay of orchestral director Leopold Stokowski, who spent his entire holiday hiding from the paparazzi, so as to enjoy his secret love story with Greta Garbo.
Ravello’s charm has also attracted famous writers: among the most noteworthy are Paul Valèry and Nobel Prize winner, Andrè Gide, who wrote his most famous novel, “The Immoralist” right here in Ravello.
In the 1950’s, Ravello was chosen as the set for “Beat the Devil”, made by the power trio John Huston, Truman Capote, and Frank Capra, and the borgo became full of Hollywood’s best actors, set designers, directors, photographer’s and screenwriters.
Richard Wagner was neither born nor did he die in Ravello, but city is inextricably bound to the German composer in a mutual love that lives on even after his death.
He was born in Lipsia on May 22, 1813.
He frequented theatres as a child and soon began his musical studies, which were often interrupted. After working in Wurzburg, and writing his first symphony, “Die Feen”, he worked in various other cities, and while travelling from London to Paris, his ship hit a terrible storm, which inspired him to write one of his most famous pieces, “The Flying Dutchman”.
In Paris, he realized that he wanted to compose autonomously, and 1842 saw his symphonic debut in Dresden with “Rienzi”. It was a great success and the beginning of a glorious and satisfying career.
In April of 1879, he finished writing ‘Parsifal’, which is considered his musical testament. The only thing missing was the orchestration, so he decided to take a break and leave for Southern Italy with his wife Cosima and his son Siegfried. First they visited Naples, and then Amalfi, which had been attracting artists from all over the world for years, and finally, they reached Ravello, where they stayed at Villa Rufolo as guests of the Scotsman, Neville Reide.
Cosima Wagner described their visit in great detail in her diary and at the end of their stay, the Maestro praised Ravello as a city that is “beautiful beyond description”.
His visit in Southern Italy continued, and in Palermo, in 1882, Wagner finished his last work. That autumn, he and his family moved to Venice, in the Palazzo Vendramin. A few months later, Wagner died of a heart attack, and was buried in Bayareuth, so he could rest in peace near his beloved theater.
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The Amalfi Coast is not only known for its breathtaking landscape, but also for the irresistible scents, aromas and flavors generated by presence of its legendary lemon groves. This area has been cultivating lemons since antiquity, as attested to in some writings from the 1600’s, nominating “the Lemon Gardens”.
When we speak of lemons, we are not talking about your average, run of the mill citrus fruit, but rather the supreme lemon of lemons: the ‘Sfusato Amalfitano’ , a variety that is present exclusively on the Amalfi Coast.
This sublime fruit produces the best quality Limoncello to be found anywhere in the world.
The procedure is quite simple:
- 5 ‘Sfusato Amalfitano’ lemons, not chemically treated;
- 500 ml of distilled alcohol;
- 750 ml of water;
- 600 gr of granulated sugar.
The first step is to wash and dry the lemons, removing any impurities. Finely peel the lemons with a potato peeler, taking care not to include the white part, which is particularly bitter. In a hermetically sealed glass container, add the alcohol and the lemon rinds and leave them to marinate for thirty days in a dark place.
After a month, prepare a syrup by boiling the water and adding the 600 grams of sugar, turning off the heat before the mixture caramelizes. Add the syrup to the lemon rinds and alcohol, and let the new mixture rest in the dark for another forty days.
After forty days, the liqueur should be mixed and then filtered with a strainer. Your limoncello is now ready.
It is best conserved in the refrigerator or in the freezer, and should be served ice cold.
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