Spa baths and sonatas
The hedonistic Amalfi coast has also inspired great artistic achievements
THIS is not an article about hedonism. Oh, no. Italy’s Amalfi coast may be the favoured historical playground of the bad and the beautiful — from Tiberius to Sophia Loren and Gwyneth Paltrow — but my theme is culture.
What is it about this rocky stretch of southwest Italy that has drawn such disparate artists as Wagner, DH Lawrence, Turner, John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal? Heck, you win. Let’s have some hedonism first.
I am sitting, bubbling nicely, in a Jacuzzi that, through the picture window beside it, looks over the town of Positano as it runs down to the sea. The Jacuzzi, in my marbled bathroom in the Leading Hotels of the World group’s Le Sirenuse, comes with an underwater HD screen and a bottle of champagne, or rather the room does — perhaps to console one for having to remortgage the house to pay the bill.
It is quite a Jacuzzi. Around me are the emerald hills of Positano, its brightly coloured little houses and shops full of Bulgari trinkets, gleaming like gems set in the silver of the waves below. In the distance, a sinuous island rises from the water resembling a woman with three breasts. As Aristotle Onassis once remarked, ‘‘If you take a woman to the Amalfi coast and fail to seduce her, you are not a man at all.’’
But what’s a girl like medoing in a Jacuzzi like this? Researching the cultural legacy of the coast. Or that’s my excuse. Forget five-star hotels, homemade tagliolini and all those bella figuras — including Jackie Kennedy, Paul Newman, Madonna and Miss Loren (who has a villa here) — who have walked the cobbled streets. What interests me is why men of genius were drawn here like iron filings to a magnet. It can’t have been Jacuzzis.
The unique feature of the Amalfi coast is its unadulterated natural beauty, honed, but unspoiled, by the touch of man: it is illegal to build here. Deep down I am pretty superficial, but this blessed plot induces a state of irresistible reverie. Look to the right and a sonnet begins to form, to the left a concerto.
Nearby are the gardens of the Villa Rufolo in Ravello. Richard Wagner once said he would never have composed Parsifal had he not been inspired by its beauty.
Without the bay of Positano we would have fewer Turner seascapes. Tennessee Williams penned Cat on a Hot Tin Roof after hearing the story of a dysfunctional local family. Vidal remarked that the majesty of the view from his house in Ravello spurred him to write Lincoln. Without the coast’s amethyst sunsets, a local songwriter called Eduardo di Capua would never have composed O Sole Mio. Where would Cornetto ice-cream advertisements and the Three Tenors have been without that?
So I reiterate, this is not an article about decadent trivia. I emerge from the Jacuzzi, slip into something less comfortable to catch the evening bus to Ravello. There are large groups of tourists, even in the winter months, and the sun seems to shine every day, warm enough for sitting outside in December and January, growing balmy and then scorching in the spring and summer.
Ravello is 400m above sea level, and many of its houses are built into the hills, punctuated by ravines reveal-