Ravello: love and war

The name, the foundation, the origins of Ravello swirl deep in the fog of mythology, and those myths have made the place famous as a slice of heaven on earth, standing on a rocky spur that sticks out from the Amalfi Coast.
And this old myth gave rise to a newer one. Ravello established itself as a pilgrimage site for the “last romantics”, in Yeats’ words, who here lived, loved, and breathed in the history of the place.
Some say that the name Ravello is a corruption of “rebellum”, meaning “rebels”, but the number of patrician families who lived around Amalfi rather gives the lie to that. Ravello doesn’t pop up much in the pages of ancient history, but that doesn’t mean that you only find it in the glossy travel mags that point the well-heeled tourist towards the local five-star hotels. No, Ravello features time and again in the biographies of the great and the good, for so many famous people have come here over the years, whether in search of sanctuary or inspiration. It was an obligatory stop on the fabled Grand Tour, but it also offered a peaceful retreat, far from the madding crowd.

And it was in Ravello that King Vittorio Emanuele III briefly held court, from the villa Episcopio. He roamed the town streets in the company of the philosopher Benedetto Croce, seemingly at peace with his reversal of fortunes. This is one of the less memorable moments in the obscure decline of the Savoyard monarch, living out the last days of a long, long reign.

Ravello has always been at ease with VIPs. Greta Garbo eloped here with musician Leopold Stokowski, desperate to get away from the Hollywood glitterati and to gaze into the endless horizon from Villa Cimbrone’s eponymous terrace. The coup de grâce comes when you look down at the 300-metre plunge and the beauty of the place is really taken to the next level. It seems as though you could almost reach out and touch the skyline, yet at the same time it seems infinitely vast and unfathomable. And all the while you get dizzy on the light, and the depths below.
Imagine this diva, diva in the real sense of a demigoddess, languishing here in her tempestuous love story, while flopping theatrically into one of the poses that won her fame.

But imagine too Richard Wagner, who came to Ravello to seek inspiration for what would become his opera Parsifal. It didn’t disappoint: more than a little of Wagner’s worldbuilding was based on what he found in the gardens of Villa Rufolo, another patrician residence that hosted a long line of Romantic – and rich – characters from foreign lands. It was, indeed, largely by the hands of these broad-thinking visitors that Ravello was transformed into an outdoor treasure trove, its gardens filling up with ancient sculptures and ruins, real or reconstructed, to give the idea that this was the place where beauty reached its highest form.

So yes, life in Ravello certainly has an élite flavour, but it’s no less bewitching for all that.

The Amalfi coast is stippled with little villages, gardens and fountains, full of rich and enterprising men who work in trade like many others. These villages include Ravello, which, just as it has rich men today, had a particularly rich man in the past: one Landolfo Rufolo…

[Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron – second day, fourth story]