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Watching Over Amalfi’s Legends

Torre dello Ziro Amalfi

There’s something captivating about an old watchtower, isn’t there? Even if it’s crumbling or half ruined, its very nature tells us that there are stories – something to be protected, something to be taken, conquests, danger, mystery. Sitting in the mountains above Amalfi is a watchtower that certainly has its share of mysteries and legends to protect. Called the Torre dello Ziro, this watchtower dates from 1480 when it was constructed on the ruins of a 12th century tower. When the tower was built, Amalfi was a wealthy feudal duchy that was run by Antonio Piccolomini, the first Duke of Amalfi. This takes us back to the time when the legends of the Torre dello Ziro began. Antonio ruled Amalfi until his death in 1493, when his son Alfonso Piccolomini succeeded him as the second Duke of Amalfi. Just a few years before, Alfonso married a beautiful woman named Giovanna d’Aragona, whose name will forever be hauntingly connected with the Torre dello Ziro.

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Postcard of the Torre dello Ziro and Amalfi from 1965 (Author’s private collection)

As the daughter of Enrico d’Aragona, half-brother of King Frederick of Naples, Giovanna d’Aragona brought royal family connections to her marriage and her role as the Duchess of Amalfi. However, it was a role she was destined to play for only a short time. Her husband’s early death five months before their son was born left her Regent of Amalfi. As if that wasn’t enough drama, Giovanna’s story continues as she rules the Duchy of Amalfi and looks after the education of her children, Caterina and Alfonso – the future Duke of Amalfi. Sounds fine, right? Well that would be until Giovanna fell in love with her steward, Antonio Bologna, who she later secretly married. Too much of a shock to the social rankings of the day, they kept their relationship, marriage and three children together secret. Or so they thought.

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Old postcard of the Torre dello Ziro with inscription about Giovanna d’Aragona (Author’s private collection)

When Giovanna’s marriage was discovered by her brothers, Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona and Carlo d’Aragona, Marquis of Gerace, her story comes to a tragic end. Antonio fled Amalfi to escape the vendetta of Giovanna’s brothers, eventually meeting his death in Milan. Giovanna was captured with her children, and local legend says that they were all killed in the Torre dello Ziro watchtower. And you probably thought Amalfi was all sunshine and lemons, right?

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Postcard of the Torre dello Ziro with photograph by Ernesto Samaritani (Author’s private collection)

With its royalty, power, loss, ill-fated love and tragic ending, Giovanna’s life and mysterious death have inspired many stories, starting with  Matteo Bandello’s Novelle from 1554 and later the better known Duchess of Malfi by John Webster in the 17th century. The legend of her stormy life and sad ending have lingered with the fate of the Torre dello Ziro. While searching for some vintage postcards to illustrate this blog post, I happened across the two above, likely from the 40s or 50s, that bear the inscription: “Amalfi – Torre dello Ziro ove nel 1500 fu rinchiusa ed uccisa dai suoi fratelli la Duchessa di Amalfi Giovanna d’Aragona.” (Translation: “Amalfi- Torre dello Ziro where in 1500 the Duchess of Amalfi Giovanna d’Aragona was imprisoned and killed by her brothers.” Over 400 years after her death the legend of Giovanna’s death was being sent around the world by visitors to Amalfi who perhaps had that family member or friend with a sordid sense of humor.

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If you’re curious to find out more about this fascinating tale, track down The Mystery of the Duchess of Malfi by Barbara Banks Amendola. This detailed book by writer, art historian and Amalfi Coast local delves into the life of Giovanna and the legend of her death.

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Despite its connection with Giovanna’s tragic ending, the Torre dello Ziro sits peacefully above Amalfi and offers an incredible viewpoint of both Amalfi and Atrani. While it cannot be reached from Amalfi, it’s an enjoyable hike from Pontone in Scala to the watchtower. Just imagine what that watchtower has seen in over 500 years of looking over Amalfi. How many secrets does it hold? What really happened to Giovanna d’Aragona and her children? Those are questions we won’t be able to answer and secrets that will remain in the Torre dello Ziro for centuries to come.

 

Italy Blogging Roundtable

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This blog post is part of a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Every month our group of Italy based writers takes on a new theme, and you can read about this month’s topic – Myths & Legends – at the links below. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please share the stores if you’ve enjoyed them!

At Home in TuscanyOf Starvation and Cannibalism in Pisa

Bleeding EspressoNatuzza Evolo: Calabrian Mystic

BrigolanteCommon Myths and Misconceptions Regarding Italian Culture Fostered by Guidebooks

Girl in FlorenceHow Not To Learn Another Language As An Adult

Italy Explained4 Italian Myths Debunked

Amalfi Coast Travel Basilca Sant Eustachio Ruins

Remarkable Ruins of the Basilica of Sant’Eustachio

Amalfi Coast Travel Basilica Sant Eustachio Scala

Along the stone steps between the sleepy villages of Minuta and Pontone in Scala, you’ll find something a little unexpected. Set in a commanding position on a promontory surrounded by terraces of olive and lemon trees sits the ruins of what was once one of the finest churches in the Republic of Amalfi in the Middles Ages. Following the zigzaging steps down, the remaining walls of Sant’ Eustachio keep coming into view, closer and closer, as you approach Pontone. Thanks to a locally run association, you can visit the ruins of Sant’Eustachio, which is beautiful stop on the walk from Scala down to Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Church Pontone

This remarkable church was constructed in the 12th century during the peak of the powerful maritime Republic of Amalfi. While Pontone is a frazione, or hamlet, of Scala today, in the Middle Ages all of Scala was part of the Duchy of Amalfi. Pontone was home to the prominent D’Afflitto family who constructed this church and dedicated it to a saint important to them, Saint Eustace, an early Christian martyr in the 2nd century AD. When you step into what was once the nave of the church, it’s hard to imagine the original splendor of this church.

Amalfi Coast Travel Basilca Sant Eustachio Ruins

A pathway leads around the walls of the church where you can stand below the curves of the three apses. Here there are signs of the elaborate decoration, which has been restored in areas to reveal the original structural polychromy. Staring up at the traces of design and architectural details, it’s easier to see that at its height Sant’Eustachio must have been an absolute jewel.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Restoration

Although in ruins, it is one of the truest examples of the unique architectural style that existed in Amalfi during the Middle Ages – a blend of styles with touches of Sicilian, Arab and Norman influences to name just a few. From this spot high above Amalfi it seems a stretch to imagine traders hundreds and hundreds of years ago crisscrossing the Mediterranean. Yet they did and returned home to build beautiful churches and grand homes high above Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Architecture

The setting for one of the finest churches on the Amalfi Coast was naturally chosen for its incredible view. The small promontory juts out between the Dragone and Canneto valleys that run down to Amalfi and Atrani. Peeking through the trees you can catch a glimpse of Amalfi down by the sea.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio View of Amalfi

From the tip of the promontory below the ruins the view is breathtaking. Directly below is Pontone, while down the valley to the right is Amalfi and down the valley to the left is Atrani. Look left and you see Ravello sitting high atop its own promontory while to the right is Pogerola, a frazione of Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Stunning View

Whether you’re looking at the expansive view or peeking through a window of the ruins to a view across the valley of Ravello, you’ll spend plenty of time just taking it all in.

Amalfi Coast Travel Ravello from Sant Eustachio

Don’t miss walking down into the crypt, which was one covered with frescoes and was likely one of the most beautifully decorated areas of the church.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Crypt

One wall features a painting that is an architectural rendering of what Sant’Eustachio may have looked like originally. It’s helpful for kicking your imagination into full gear before heading back up to the ruins. Just how might the interior have looked originally?

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Architectural Rendering

Now there are only a few traces left to help us figure that out. But what remains is incredibly evocative, as is the entire setting.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Column

If you’re planning a hike on the Amalfi Coast, one of my favorite is the walk from Scala through Minuta and Pontone down to Amalfi. If you follow that hike, do plan a stop in Pontone to visit the ruins of Sant’Eustachio.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Sign