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The Shadow Ruins of Positano
While watching the ferry disgorging day-trippers in Positano, I imagine how Anthony Bourdain would have made an episode about this most famous town on the Amalfi Coast.
The camera would pan over two knockout beautiful women posing for photos, then to a middle-aged German couple promenading with ski poles and backpacks strapped to their chests. Bubbly 1960s music would play over the scene to highlight the fantasy that millions come to Positano to experience. Finally, the camera would land on Bourdain staring at the sea, looking miserable. He inspired millions to travel, but he was also a secret best friend to those of us who feel unreasonably grouchy in the most popular tourist destinations. I glare at the packed “beach” of grey sand and cigarette butts and smell the diesel from the constant flow of ferries. Then I lift my phone to take a photo, and the most gorgeous scene appears. Positano confuses me.
So many places in South Italy reward an open heart, but Positano is best met with an open wallet. If you go, I recommend staying at a fancy resort to fully enjoy the swish amenities that frame the dramatic landscape and give you private access to the water. Otherwise, the cascade of colorful houses built into a crevice of sea-facing rock feels like what my friend Rob calls a “tourist wedgie.”
I shared this joke with my colleague Francesca who grew up in nearby Herculaneum, expecting that she would share my cynicism, but she shook her head and assured me that Positano is magical. She advised going in the off-season because you can better feel the ancient world pulsing below the surface when it's not so trodden.
Two thousand years ago, Positano’s theatrical landscape was home to luxury villas. In 2004, one was discovered directly underneath the cathedral. It was buried in 79 CE during the same eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and belonged to a rich Roman named Posides Claudi Cesari. The natural valley that now delivers tourists from the autostrada to the 5-star hotels was then a superhighway for volcanic gas and ash.
Positano was re-colonized in the 10th century by people fleeing Paestum, a Roman city on the plains just south of the Amalfi Coast. Pirates attacked Paestum to capture people and take them to North Africa to be sold as slaves. Also, as Paestum declined, the marshland around the city wasn’t managed, and malaria took over. The cliffs of Positano served as natural defenses against enemies, and the rocky coast was far less hospitable to mosquito breeding. There are no known artifacts transferred from Paestum to Positano, but the continued worship of Saint Vito in both places, from the Middle Ages to the present day, serves as what I call a shadow ruin — a ritual that persists even though the stones of a temple or church are no longer known.
Magic arrived in the 12th century and became Positano’s founding legend: A band of pirates who stole an icon of a Black Madonna were sailing across the Amalfi Coast. As they passed Positano, the icon whispered, “posa posa” — put down, put down. A giant storm formed, so the pirates decided to bring the icon to shore. Suddenly, the skies cleared, and the icon was placed in a crypt, but the Madonna Nera didn’t like where she was put down, so she moved herself to a myrtle bush, where the faithful then built her a new church. Posa Posa is celebrated every August 15th when fishermen take a statue of the Virgin Mary out to sea, then bring her back to Positano at sunrise on a boat laden with candles and flowers. (This ceremony was dramatized in “The Talented Mr. Ripley. The scene begins at 1:31.)
In the ancient world, the goddesses Hera, Minerva, Isis, and Cybele ruled Southern Italy, and myrtle was an ancient symbol of femininity and fertility. That Positano’s icon is a Black Madonna is a strong indication that a temple of Isis or Cybele — one of the mother earth goddesses brought to South Italy from Anatolia — is buried below modern Positano.
The Black Madonnas of Southern Italy are all placed in rugged and dramatic landscapes that continue to be pilgrimage destinations, and Positano is undoubtedly both. The draw to Positano is ancient, and undeniable, no matter how difficult it is to push through the landscape and now the selfie sticks.
And for crowd grumps like me, the magic is always there to discover in the off-season.
We’ll be discussing the Madonna Nera of Positano in my upcoming Context Conversation, “The Black Madonna Shrines of Southern Italy.”
See the full menu of my Context Conversations here: https://www.contextlearning.com/collections/danielle-oteri