I first heard of Positano from Alberto Moravia. It was very hot in Rome. He said, “Why don’t you go down to Positano on the Amalfi coast? It is one of the fine places of Italy”. Later John McKnight of the United States Information Service told me the same thing. He had spent a year there working on a book. Half a dozen people echoed this. Positano kind of moved in on us and we found ourselves driving down to Naples on our way.
To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it. But there are other hazards besides the driving technique. There are the motor scooters, thousands of them, which buzz at you like mosquitoes. There is a tiny little automobile called “topolino” or “mouse” which hides in front of larger cars; there are gigantic trucks and tanks in which most of Italy’s goods are moved; and finally there are assorted livestock, hay wagons, bicycles, lone horses and mules out for a stroll, and to top it all there are the pedestrians who walk blissfully on the highways never looking about. To give this madness more color, everyone blows the horn all the time. This deafening, screaming, milling, tire-screeching mess is ordinary Italian highway traffic. My drive from Venice to Rome had given me a horror of it amounting to cowardice.
I hired a driver to take me to Positano. He was a registered driver in good standing. His card reads: “Signor Bassani Bassano, Experienced Guide-all Italy-and Throt Europe”. It was the “Throt Europe” that won me.
Well, we had accomplished one thing. We had imported a little piece of Italian traffic right into our own front seat. Signor Bassano was a remarkable man. he was capable of driving at a hundred kilometers an hour, blowing the horn, screeching the brakes, driving mules up trees, and at the same time turning around in the seat and using both hands to gesture, describing in loud tones the beauties and antiquities of Italy and Trhrot Europe. It was amazing. It damn near killed us. And in spite of that he never hit anybody or anything. The only casualties were our quivering, bleeding nerves. I want to recommend Signor Bassano to travelers. You may not hear much of what he tells you but you will not be bored.
We squirmed and twisted through Naples, past Pompeii, whirled and flashed into the mountains behind Sorrento. We hummed “Come back to Sorrento” dismally. We did not believe we could get back to Sorrento. Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted livestock. We didn’t see much of the road. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically, while in the front seat Signor Bassano gestured with both hands and happilly instructed us: “Ina da terd sieglo da Hamperor Hamgousternos coming tru wit Leeegeceons”. (Our car hit and killed a chicken.) “Izz molto lot old heestory here. I know. I tall”. Thus he whirled us “Throt Italy”. nd below us, and it seemed sometimes under us, a thousand feet below lay the blue Tyrrhenian licking its lips for us.
Once during the war I came up this same lovely coast in the American destroyer Knight. We came fast. Germans threw shells at us from the hills and aircraft splashed bombs at us and submarines unknown tried to lay torpedoes on us. I swear I think it was much safer than that drive with Signor Bassano. And yet he brought us at last, safe but limp, to Positano.
Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water lips gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide.
Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it. You think, “If I tell, it will be crowded with tourists and they will ruin it, turn it into a honky-tonk and then the local people will get touristy and there’s your lovely place gone to hell”. There isn’t the slightest chance of this in Positano. In the first place there is no room. There are about two thousand inhabitants in Positano and there is room for about five hundred visitors, no more. The cliffs are all taken. Except for the half ruinous houses very high up, all space is utilized. And the Positanese invariably refuse to sell. They are curious people. I will go into that later.
Again, Positano is never likely to attract the organdie-and-white linen tourist. It would be impossible to dress as a languid tourist-lady-crisp, cool white dress, sandals as white and light as little clouds, picture hat of arrogant nonsense, and one red rose held in a listless whitegloved pinky. I dare any dame to dress like this and climb the Positano stairs for a cocktail. She will arrive looking like a washcloth at a boys’ camp. There no way for her to get anywhere except by climbing. This alone eliminates one kind of tourist, the show tourist. The third deterrent to a great influx of tourists lies in the nature of the Posianese themselves. They just don’t give a damn. They have been living here since before recorded history and they don’t intend to change now. They don’t have much but they like what they have and will not move over for a buck.
We went to the Sirenuse, an old family house converted into a first class hotel, spotless and cool, with grape arbors over its outside dining rooms. Every room has its little balcony and looks t over the blue sea to the islands of the sirens from which those ladies sang so sweetly. The owner of the Hotel Sirenuse is an Italian nobleman, Marquis Paolo Sersale. He is also the mayor of Positano, a strong handsome man of about fifty who dresses mostly like beachcomber and works very hard at his job as mayor. How he got the job is an amusing story.
Positano elects a town council of fifteen members. The council then elects one of its members mayor. The people of Positano are almost to a man royalist in their politics. This is largely true of much of the south of Italy but it is vastly true of Positano. The fishermen and shoemakers, the carpenters and truck drivers favor a king and particularly a king from the House of Savoy. This was true when the present mayor was elected. The Marquis Paolo Sersale was elected because he was a Communist, the only one in town. It was his distinction in a whole electorate of royalists. One of Sersale’s ancestors commanded a galley of war at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 when the power of the Moslem was finally broken and Christian control of Europe assured. He does not say why became a Communist. But he does say that he left the party in 1947 not in anger but in a kind of disgust. The township was a little sad about his losing his distinction, but they have elected him ever since, in spite of that.
The mayor of Positano is an archaeologist, a philosopher and an administrator. He has one policeman to keep order and there isn’t much for his force to do. He says, “Nearly all Positanese are related. If there is any trouble it is like a family fight and I never knew any good to come of interfering in a family quarrel”. The mayor wanders about e town upstair and downstairs. He dresses in tired slacks, a sweat shirt and sandals. He holds court anywhere he is, sitting on a stonewall overlooking the sea, leaning against the edge of a bar, swimming in the sea or curled up on the beach. Very little business gets done in the City Hall. The police force has so much time free that he takes odd jobs to make a little extra money.
The history of Positano is rich, long and a little crazy. But one thing is certain: It has been around a long time. When the Emperor Tiberius moved to Capri because he was detested in Rome, he didn’t trust anyone. He thought people were trying to poison him, and he was probably right. He would not eat bread made with the flour of his part of the country. His galley instead crept down the coast to Positano and got the flour from a mill which still stands against the mountain side. This mill has been improved and kept up, of course, but it still grinds flour for the Positanese.
This little town of Positano has had a remarkable past. As part of the Republic of Amalfi in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, it helped to write the first maritime laws we know in which the rights of sailors were set down. In the tenth century it was one of the most important mercantile cities of the world, rivaling Venice. Having no harbor, its great galleys were pulled bodily up on the beach by the townspeople. There a story that on one Holy Saturday when no church bell was allowed to ring in all Christendom, a Positano ship was trouble from a great storm. The bishop who was officiating at the altar declared the rule off, rang the bell himself and then joined the population on the beach and in his vestments helped to pull the crippled ship ashore.
Like most Italian towns Positano has its miraculous picture. It is a Byzantine representation of the Virgin Mary. Once long ago, the story goes, the Saracenic pirates raided the town and among other things carried away this picture. But thhey had no sooner put to sea when a vision came to them which so stunned them that they returned the picture. Every year on August 15, this incident is reenacted with great fury and some bloodshed. In the night the half-naked pirates attack the town which is defended by Positanese men-at-arms dresseed in armor. Some of this fighting gets pretty serious. The pirates then go to the church and carry the holy picture off into the night. Now comes the big moment. As soon as they have disappeared into the darkness, a bright and flaming image of an angel appears in the sky. At present General Mark Clark is the sponsor of this miracle. He gave the town a surplus Air Force barrage balloon. Then very soon the pirates return their boats and restore the picture to the church and everybody marches and sings and has a good time.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Positano became very rich. Its ships went everywhere, trading in the Near and Middle East, carrying the spices and silks and precious woods the Western world craved. Then the large and beautiful baroque houses that stand against the mountain were built and decorated with the loot of the world.
About a hundred years ago a tragedy came to the town. Steamships began to ply the ocean. Positano could not compete; year by year it grew poorer and more desperate. At that time there were about eight thousand citizens. Between 1860 and 1870 about six thousand of the townsmen emigrated to America and the great houses stood vacant and their walls crumbled and the painted designs paled out and the roofs fell in. The population has never got much above two thousand since.
If Positano bites deeply into a stranger, it is branded on the Positanese. The bulk of the émigrés went to New York and most of them settled on Columbus Avenue. They made a little Positano of it, they celebrate the same festivals as the mother town, they talk Positano and live Positano.