The cave sites: the early forms of settlements around the Amalfi Coast
The hidden Coast
By Raffaele Ferraioli
If we could define the Amalfi Coast with just two words, we would use the dialect terms CostieraAnnascunnuta (Hidden Coast). Indeed, there is a whole part of the Coast that shies away from the eyes of the wanderers. Places where we can still witness the merging of secular and religious past in a landscape that once Homer described perfectly as somewhere where “cliffs falls down upon the waves”.
This unique site, abandoned and neglected for centuries despite its cultural importance, was the subject of a study a few years ago, entrusted to the Centro di Storia e Cultura Amalfitana by the Comunità Montana. The study aimed to restore the location so that it could be inserted into cultural tours to offer tourists; doing so, they hoped it would gain wider recognition. To be able to that, Universities’ professors specialized in this field were involved in this project: they made sure to get the sites, assessed their status, produced extensive photographic documentation, and even traced the owners of these settlements.
Cave sites on the Coast
A high-valued commitment that sadly never saw a publication. That’s why we came up with the idea of sharing the work in glimpses with our articles. Almost like throwing rocks on a water surface, we hope this small act can stir the hearts of our fellow citizens and, maybe, even of the tourists that continue to visit and appreciate our magical Coast. Here we list a few of the settlements: Polveriera del Bonea, Ravello; Chiesa di Sant’Angelo dell’Ospedale, Amalfi; Grotta della santissima Trinità,Tovere; Furore: Eremo di Santa Barbara, Case di Centena, Stalle di Cichere, polveriera di Pino, Casa di Pizzocorvo, Casa Caramante allo Schiato; Scala: Grotta del Salvatore a Pontone; Tramonti: Cappella di Sant’Angelo a Gete; Maiori: Eremo di Santa Maria de Olearia :Minori: Chiesa dell’Annunziata; Praiano: Grotta di Cerasuolo; Positano: S. Maria del Castello.
Refugees and hermits
Initially, these settlements were the first shelters for the ancient Roman “refugees” that had to flee because of the Barbarians. Soon, they discovered that the area offered a lot of natural cavities thanks to the rocky cliffs and that the opportunity to settle there was too good to miss. Living there would mean a chance to limit building costs and also protect the communities from aggressions. So, protection and easy-to-build houses were two of the main factors why the Romans chose to stay on the coast. But they weren’t the only ones who understood the appeal of the area. In the past, in the absence of monasteries and convents, many religious priests opted to live in shelters offered by nature. As time went by, those monks, who had chosen hermitage in the beginning, then formed small Christian monastic groups to help those who were facing religious persecution. Today, many of those buildings are now charming hotels like Cappuccini, Luna di Amalfi, and Santa Rosa di Conca Dei Marini.
Casa del Ferraiuolo
One of the most fascinating cave dwellings is undoubtedly the Casa del Farraiuolo, in Centena * in Furore. Here lived N’giullo, a farmer-miller, and producer of spelled. The house is composed of two adjacent cavities at the foot of the Pizzocorvo rocky wall, some twenty meters apart and at a similar height above ground level. The cave to the east was used as a dwelling, while the one to the west was used as a workshop where the friendly owner worked and chatted with anyone passing by. And to everyone who asked him how was it going, he would always answer with a local proverb that says “the big fish eat the small one”.
The building is simple, austere, and essential and shows beautiful architectural elements that are typical of the area. Protected by the rocks and incorporated in the natural cavity, the house’s walls are made by a mixture of stones and lime mortar following the ancient Roman technique called opus incertum. The roof is made of chestnut beams and chiancarelle (thin slabs of limestone), covered with a screed made from a mixture of pumice mixed with clay and lime, that gets spread and beaten until it is waterproof. Inside the building, it’s still possible to see the remains of a fireplace and a little tank for harvesting rainwater. The verses of Antonello Leone come to mind: Stones from the myths / where the eco brings back / ancient days / now it’s all covered in iron feathers over there / to overcome, brightly / the weight of old dwellings, […], the sea / interprets the silence / hides the thunders / offers shelters. This settlement can be found at the beginning of the Sentiero dei Nidi di Corvo that leads to the Sant’ Alfonso Chapel and the Santa Barbara hermitage; then, through the Valle dei Briganti in Agerola, this path encounters the famous God’s path.
The importance of our roots
To be able to really own our identity and not let anybody tell us who we should be, it’s fundamental to know our history. To be able to watch these settlements more closely and explore our territory means to rediscover our roots once again. So that we can be proud of what our ancestors passed on to us and what we are today.
- centena = the word in ancient Latin meant a group of a hundred families. For the Germans it meant the largest demographic subdivision; for the Franks, it was a territorial, political-administrative district where the centurion ruled over everybody since he had military and civil powers.