Art & Culture

The mysticism of San Salvatore de Birecto

In the Byzantine era, it was the place where the doge’s election ceremony took place. Today the church-monument is a museum of sacred art

By Annamaria Parlato, photo by Vito Fusco

Nestled among the rocks,  Atrani is situated next to a beautiful beach, where at night, the sea is filled with the local fishing boats’ lights. The tiniest village in Italy is located near the Dragone river’s valley, a peculiar name that comes from the local myth that a dragon used to hide in its waters.

The Medieval origins

During the Middle Ages, Atrani was the center of a rich religious turmoil. There were about three hundred churches and private chapels around the area, and six monasteries on the Monte Aureo. But that’s not all, Atrani was also the center of the aristocracy, and it had a strong relationship with the Amalfi Duchy. The ceremony of electing a duke was held inside the Atrani’s church San Salvatore, where the chose on was given the unique headdress called “Directo.” The San Salvatore church is an important historical monument: at first glance, it would appear to have been built following a neoclassical style but dates back to an earlier period. It has been founded in 940 a.C., but the church’s door was built in 1087 as wanted by Pantaleone Viarretta. He had it made with the gold melted in Costantinopoli using a technique similar to the Amalfi Dome one. With elegant trefoil arches resting on marble columns, the church overlooks the Umberto I square, and a staircase connects it to the churchyard.

A body of water

Inside this religious monument took place the election ceremonies of dukes, where they were required to wear the ducal cap that was called “Directo” in the local dialect. Even if we don’t have documented sources on the name, it seems like the word would come from “Directo,” which indicated a body of water. It might make sense given that the church has been built on the Dragone river banks, which runs through the city of Atrani. To built churches around river’s overpasses was a common practice for the local aristocratic families of the Amalfi Coast, as indicated by the signs of erosion found in the ancient walls. The building facade shows two different registers. The upper one is neoclassical with two pairs of pilaster strips with Ionic capitals framing a clock, crowned by a bell gable where volutes and a tympanum can be recognized. In contrast, the lower one presents two unequal arches, one incorporating the entrance and the other a large window. The main entrance to the building has been made during the XIII century. Still, it also contains elements from different eras: the two 12th century pillars support 15th-century capitals, which bear a curved broken tympanum that is from the same period of the creation of the portal. On the tympanum, the engraving of the year 1772  is still visible today.


A view of Atrani where San Salvatore de Birecto is located
The church lives embraced by the small houses
Founded in X century, San Salvatore de Birecto is among the oldest churches that belong to the Amalfi Coast cultural and spiritual heritage
The bell tower, with his clock, rises in front of the mountains
The decorative details of the capitals
The entrance portal built in the Eighteenth century
The marble elements of the portal

The artistic masterpieces

While strolling around the church, it is possible to see numerous maybe works dating various periods. For example, we have Roman urns and funerary stumps, medieval burial slabs, inscriptions, spiral ceramics, and even typical bells from the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th. Right at the entrance, there is a large bronze bell dating back to 1299. Similar to these are the ancient bells that have been found in Castello Arechi, Villa Rufolo, and the monastery of San Lorenzo. On the marble pluteus, there are relief sculptures of peacocks from the 12 century with Byzantine features that refer to themes such as resurrection and the soul’s immortality. Various paintings adorn altars and chapels: they date back to the XIX century, and, even if the artistic quality is not the greatest, they have an essential value for the town citizens. Inside the church, it is possible to see two different sculptures of the Virgin Mary with child: one is an example of the 15th-century art that has been linked to the Neapolitan studio of Pietro e Giovanni Alemanno. The other one is an 18th century wooden Madonna with child and Angels that recall Giuseppe Sammartino and Giacomo Colombo’s nativity scene.  “This church has always shown a clear identity to me, even if the documents about it were scarce. Studies have shown that this building had an important role in the relationship between Atrani and Amalfi and how it was a significant center of reference for the area. Also, given the economic value of the artistic works present inside, it shows the financial power that surrounded the church at the time. It would mean a lot to bring back to life the story of this place to deepen our knowledge on the Middle Ages,” says Lina Sabino, area officer for twenty years and art historian for the Salerno Superintendency.

Renovation and the FAI support

Thanks to the strenuous and expensive restoration work that lasted almost 30 years and led by the Superintendence of Salerno, it was possible to present once again to the visitors a brand new vision of the building in 2012. The struggle they faced was to renovate the walls of the church and understand the role that this monument used to play in the lives of the community. A series of initiatives to promote the monument, currently managed by Don Carmine Satriano, has been taken on still in 2012. For example, 8000 people took part in the sixth edition of the “Luoghi del Cuore” census promoted by FAI in collaboration with Intensa Sanpaolo to renovate the wooden Madonna’s face with Child whose features had been seriously damaged. The project, made possible thanks to the support of “Luoghi del Cuore”, the Cavaliere family, and the Parish of Santa Maria Maddalena, was carried out using non-invasive technology. The work was led by the Soprintentenza per le Belle Arti, the Paesaggio of the provinces of Salerno and Avellino, in collaboration with the MiBACT Regional Directorate. It was also carried out by the Spada company of the Cava Dei Tirreni.

Byzantine calendar

Following ancient traditions, the Amalfi Coast celebrates on the 30th of August and on the 1st of September Byzantine New Year. This festivity used to mark the beginning of the fiscal and legal year during the Byzantine Empire. To commemorate this anniversary, Atrani and Amalfi in 1997 started to celebrate it with a high cultural celebration that still takes place today. The event is organized by the Municipality of Amalfi, in collaboration with the municipality of Atrani and Centro di Cultura e Stria Amalfitana. On the 1st of September, you can follow the historical procession that brings the Magister from Amalfi to the Jarvis of the Chapel of San Salvatore de’ Birecto, where the investiture ceremony takes place in the presence of the Archbishop. Then, following the cheering procession, the Magister reaches the impressive staircase of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Amalfi for the official presentation to the citizens. A great reenactment that represents a significant attraction and that brings lots of tourists in the area.


San Salvatore de Birecto's interiors
The artworks kept within the walls
Atrani, the tiniest village of Italy, protected by the sea and the mountains

Important monument

Walking inside the San Salvatore Church is an emotional experience that takes the visitor back in time to the ancient Amalfi Duchy splendor. “Atrani is a unicum in the economic background of the Amalfi Coast. A village with a peculiar territorial structure, various monuments, breathtaking landscapes, and a wealth of traditions is still present. These are the reasons why we need to work on how to protect and enhance Atrani’s potential.  At the same time, we need to make sure to not alter its natural predisposition as a quiet little marine village”.

(Translation by Michela Pandolfi)

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