This is not an article about hedonism. Oh, no. The 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 one of culture. What is it about this rocky stretch of southwest Italy that has drawn such disparate artistes as Wagner, D.H. Lawrence, Turner, John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal? Oh, 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 as it runs down to the sea. The Jacuzzi, in my marbled bathroom in Positano’s Le Sirenuse hotel, comes with an underwater HD screen and a bottle of champagne, or rather the room does — perhaps to console one for having to remortage 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 me doing 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 Rufalo in Ravello. Wagner once said he would never have composed Parsifal had he not been inspired by its tangled 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. Gore Vidal remarked that the majesty of the view from his house in Ravello spurred him to write Lincoln. Moreover, 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 400 metres above sea level, and many of its houses are built into the hills, punctuated by ravines revealing secret coves once used by pirates smuggling silks and spices from the East. Every year there is the famous music festival which finishes officially in November but, in reality, continues well into the New Year.
Originally dedicated to the works of Wagner, the festival is Italy’s oldest. No stage could have a more felicitous backdrop. That study in vanity Cecil Beaton once remarked that ‘it surpasses even my designs’. No wonder musicians and performers have included Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Rudolf Nureyev, who once appeared on the stone wall above the sea to execute an impromptu series of terrifying leaps.
The main stage is in the Rufolo gardens which surround the ruins of a 13th-century castle. The garden was planted as an arboretum linked by stone arches; in the centre is an opening which reveals plinths and columns. It is overgrown with wildflowers in the spring, which cling to an ancient well. In 1880, when Wagner saw the gardens for the first time, he wrote: ‘The enchanted garden of Klingsor has been found at last’ — a reference to the wizard’s magic garden in Parsifal.
I walk to the nearby Villa Cimbrone, where Turner set up his easel, to stand on its fabled ‘terrace of infinity’. It stretches above the sea with Roman busts arranged in a row, like sentinels. It is a view seemingly without beginning or end. As the painter said in a letter to a friend, ‘Never in my life have I seen such a vista as this. Can I ever hope to capture it? I can only strive for a poor approximation.’ I wonder if Le Sirenuse would move my Jacuzzi here?
The glory of the Amalfi coast is its dualism. When the sun sets and the stars stand out bright and clear, high-mindedness gives way to an irresistible sensuality. No wonder the Roman emperors holidayed here. Augustus and Tiberius sojourned near Ravello before building houses on nearby Capri. The priggish Augustus was so turned by the coast that he transformed one of the caves into a nymphaeum. Porcelain-white girls in short robes stood gingerly on the rocks, becoming the first human statues, or bathing beauties. According to the historian Suetonius, Tiberius liked to swim in circles, while teenage boys and girls paddled beside him massaging his legs. Was this the first Jacuzzi?
An Italian friend who knows the area well says that Romanesque partying has been revived by the more louche inhabitants of the coast, once most of the tourists have gone home. I hear tales of wild toga evenings given by counts who come out of hiding during the winter months. I decide to look for some wild parties. To my delight, I spy a pleasure-loving English peer and former Tory minister in a restaurant. I ask if he has been to any toga parties. He says, repressively, that he is here for the culture. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
The next day I take a 20-minute journey to the village of Amalfi. John Steinbeck liked it here so much he stayed for two years. I am staying at the Santa Caterina hotel, which, like Le Sirenuse, is family-owned and run. Built in 1880, it is cut into a cliff. Signora Ninni Gambardella, the present chatelaine, is like a mother-hen to her guests. Worried by my lack of a wedding ring, she takes me to see the honeymoon suite. This is actually a little round house of infinite fancy, set apart from the rest of the hotel. It has a charming round sitting room, a round bed and its own garden with an infinity pool. All I need now is a round man. Even the treadmills in the gym have views. I don’t know why the vista-deprived characters in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View didn’t come here instead of Tuscany. In fact, it is impossible to avoid a view.
My breakfast is so placed that my croissant has a view of half of Italy, as well as sea which seems made up of colours long forgotten. In the torpor of a sunny morning, a dog lies on the steps of Amalfi’s Moorish cathedral. There is a palpable sense of well-being, as though nothing bad could happen here. Back in my bathroom, I begin to sneeze. The lukewarm water in the Jacuzzi has given me a chill. For the rest of my stay the view is mainly of my handkerchief. This has a positive result. I get out a Life of Wagner with a CD, and return to London able to hum the overture to Parsifal. Amalfi makes virtuosos of us all.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 December 2012