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Sorrento - Historical information

by Vincenzo Russo
(Translated by Marianna Mastro)

The most ancient prehistoric testimony of the Sorrentine Peninsula, discovered inside the natural cavities along the coast between the Baia di Jeranto and Positano date back to the Middle Palaeolithic Age to the Mesolitic Age. For the following ages the archeological researches have demonstrated a constant concourse of the area between Piano di Sorrento and Punta Campanella, from the Age of Enea (the tombs of the “Civiltà del Gaudio”) to the Roman Age.

During the Archaic Age, the Italic population settled in this area and became, as time went by, natives of the place who had mostly during the 6th and 5th century before Christ, contacts and a commerce with the Greek and the Etruscans by whom they were also particularly influenced.

After the beginning of the colonization , maybe the Greek visited Sorrento occasionally and later on more frequently.

Since the 6th century before Christ, the cult of Athena in the famous sanctuary of Punta Campanella is often documented. This cult continues during the Samnite occupation, as proves an inscription discovered in 1985 on a wall of the headland.

Punta Campanella - Foto G. Ruggiero

It’s difficult to speak about a “Greek Sorrento” considering the state of the researches at the moment, first because of its’ complete Hellenic occupation during the brief period from 474 to 420 before Christ (from the Naval Battle of Cuma to the Samnite Conquest) and second because various indications demonstrate in the 5th century before Christ the occupation of the Samnites in the Sorrentine area.

Considering, therefore, the various cultural members who cohabited between Stabia and the extreme end of the Sorrentine Peninsula, some historians have preferred to speak of this area as a “frontier land” which became part of the “Lega Nucerina” after the advancement of the conquerors descended from the Appennine Mountains.

As a member of this federation, Sorrento participated in the Samnite wars and later sided up with the Italic, against Rome, during the social war in the year 90 after Christ. This event caused a deduction of settlements during the Silla Age in the lands surrounding the city, to which, maybe, followed a second deduction during Augusto’s government.

In the beginning of the Imperial Age, the Roman aristocracy class chose the Sorrentine Peninsula as a vacation resort and built here beautiful villas on the sea of which today remain very important ruins such as those of the “Villa of Agrippa Postumo”, of the “Punta del Capo” (Bagni della Regina Giovanna) and of the “Marina di Puolo”.

Concerning the period between the end of the Roman Empire and the European Renaissance we have only rare and fragmentary information. We know that, from the 5th century after Christ, Sorrento had its own diocese and became a part of the Byzantine dukedom of Naples, after the Greek – Gothic war.

The government of the city was entrusted to authorities who had both civil and military duties since they were also involved in opposing the dangerous incursions of the Longobards and the Saracen.

During the early years of the 11th century Sorrento separated from Naples and became a self-governing dukedom, following the example of Amalfi; its autonomy lasted until the Norman Conquest, under the leadership of the Sergi noble Family.

Once become a city of the State during the reign of Ruggiero II, Sorrento became part of the history concerning all the monarchies who ruled the South Italy.

With the royal authority (the governor and the baiulo assuring the justice and the public order, the political power was, from one epoch to another, in the hands of the nobles who were always able to maintain their supremacy.

In the Angevin Epoch, the nobles divided in two “Piazze” called “Porta” and “Dominova”. These groups met separately in order to elect the representatives, the Town Council who had also a minority elected by the “Piazza del Popolo”.

The Council was formed by authorities with specific duties and was ruled by an executive of three mayors one for each “Piazza” assisted during the Spanish Epoch by some collaborators called the ‘elected’. The mayors presided the Town Parliament and carried out the decisions.

“L’Università” was the administrative organ of the Sorrentine community; it obtained the economical means necessary for paying the taxes to the State, the administration fees, the public works, etc. From the indirect taxation on groceries (le gabelle), from the work activities (le collette), and from the real estates (il catasto). The first was the most important of the three sectors of the public treasury which was based essentially on the flour (le gabelle).

Many groceries (wine, oil, fruit, meat and milk products) were local traditional products exported by ship to the ports of the Gulf of Naples and Southern Italy.

The land property belonged mostly to the noble and ecclesiastic patrimony and produced considerable incomes to the aristocratic families and to the numerous monastery.

The richness of the city and its social-economical life were greatly damaged by the Turk’s sack of the town in 1558 while many persons were killed and imprisoned and every development prospect was cancelled for the rest of the 15th century.

Following the dramatic experience of 1558 it became necessary to resolve the ancient problems to defence the territory.

Therefore, the walls surrounding the city were restored and fortified and in 1568 began the building of the sentinel towers along the coast, which had already been ordered for years by the court-state monopoly.

During the following century there was a serious economical slackness, due mainly to the impoverishment of the resources and the pressure of the public revenue of the Spanish government.

The tension between the peasants and the ruling class led to the 1648 revolt during which the nobles were besieged by the populace of the Piano guided by the Genoese Giovanni Grillo.

During the 18th century the conditions became better for the recovery of the work activities and the living standard improved. The sea-commerce gradually developed, reaching during the 19th century a considerable position followed by shipyard, ship building and insurance enterprises.

Following the unification, the Sorrentine navy became one of the most industrious and important of Italy thanks to the number of ships built and the very good business developed.

Around 1840 the increasing number of foreign visitors began to develop the tourist activity, which would become the fundamental economical sector and would stimulate the beginning of new activities such as the famous inlaid wood works.

The tourism, the commerce and the wood handcraft are today the main resources of the town while the traditional cultivation of the lemon, oranges and olives is partially decreased being the agricultural areas reduced for the increment of the habitations.

Today, Sorrento is characterized by a continuous evolution and in this technological and computer age it seems it is starting to deal with new cultural and working experiences maintaining in the same time a major tutelage and preservation of its artistic patrimony and its extraordinary natural beauties.