Villa RufoloThe jewel of Ravello
CONSTRUCTED BY THE POWERFUL LANDOLFO RUFOLO, WHO AMASSED HIS FORTUNE BY TRADING WITH THE MOORS AND SARACENS, THE RESIDENCE SEAMLESSLY MERGED ARABIC, SICILIAN, AND NORMAN ARCHITECTURE, MAKING IT SPECIAL AMONGST ITS KIND.
After a vertigo inducing bus ride up a windy and steep corniche to Ravello from Amalfi, I climb off clammy and shaky, hoping the town is something special. The first thing I notice is how peaceful Ravello is compared to say, Positano or Sorrento. It’s July, peak season for the area, and I was anticipating throngs of red-faced tourists with bum bags pushing their way through the crowds. But in their place is an edited crowd of stylish couples and families in idle chatter ambling by. Maybe this is due to Ravello’s location, haughty and high up on the hills overlooking the Bay of Salerno, or perhaps it’s simply because of the inflated price tags on hotels and restaurants in this commune of elite Southern Italians and privileged holiday folk. Whatever the real reason may be, this town is the kind of place that makes you feel like you’re in on a secret. You’re inclined to ask in a hushed tone, “Why aren’t there more people here?”
I was only vaguely aware of Ravello before reaching the Amalfi Coast. I had heard about the many beautiful villas and gardens that I should call on if in town, but they were on the backburner in my list of things to do. As a first time traveler to the beloved Southern Italian seaside, I was more interested in lounging on the beach with a good read; going for occasional dips in the sunkissed Mediterranean water; sipping on limoncello; and tucking into fresh seafood that’d leave me gesticulating wildly while proclaiming, “Molto bene!”. And though I liberally indulged in all of these fine activities, none of them quite measured up to the afternoon I was about to spend at a historic villa in Ravello.
Located right off of the town’s central Vescovado square, Villa Rufolo is a palatial estate that dates back to the 13th century. It bears the name of the family who built it – if the verses of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron are to be believed – and at the height of its importance, the villa boasted to have more rooms than there are days in the year. Constructed by the powerful Landolfo Rufolo, who amassed his fortune by trading with the Moors and Saracens, the residence seamlessly merged Arabic, Sicilian, and Norman architecture, making it special amongst its kind.
The villa remained within the Rufolo family until they sold it in 1588. Thereafter, the property gradually fell into disrepair as a result of general negligence, and it wasn’t until the 19th Century that it was finally restored to its former glory. We have Scottish botanist Francis Neville Reid to thank for that, who undertook extensive remodeling of the property.
The design that Reid implemented is the one that remains to this day, though the original structure was compromised to meet modern demands, resulting in the additions of 18th Century cloisters, Romantic 19th Century gardens, and most recently, the facilities for the Ravello Foundation, the Ravello Festival, and the European University Centre for Cultural Heritage.
To the modern eye, it’s not so much the original medieval structure as the modern splitlevel gardens that most impress. Wagner visited them in 1880 and was so overcome by their splendour that he was prompted to write the second act of his final opera Parsifal, in which he declares “the magical garden of Klingsor has been found!”. Every summer since 1952, Villa Rufalo has hosted the Ravello Music Festival in his honour, the orchestra performing on a platform erected on the edge of the precipice. The location, right on the edge of the world – or so it feels – is a special one, but when I first stumble on these grounds, it’s the assault on the senses that most impresses. The vibrant jungle of Mediterranean colours and scents is so intense, it actually takes a few moments to adjust. Before me is a striking courtyard bedecked in tall cypresses, yuccas and cycads. Bright white hydrangeas, deep purple morning glories and pink oleanders grow in profusion on either side of the cobbled pathway. You don’t have to be an aficionado of Italian gardens to appreciate why so many artists have come here in search of inspiration. The intoxicating scent of Romanticism prevails and everyone speaks in muted tones, as if not to offend or disturb the abounding flora.
I sit on one of the stone benches tactfully placed for contemplation of the trees and vines cascading down the bordering hills, and admire the fuchsia bougainvillea sprawling over the ancient stone walls. I realise I have never seen so many of the plants amassed in one place. As I gaze out on this matchless panorama, as if on cue, the bells ring out from a church nearby. From this staggering elevation, I stare towards a powder blue horizon, blending into the brilliant blue of the Bay of Salerno punctuated only by a solitary pine shooting up from just below the lower garden. I take in lemon trees, vineyards, and tiny villages clinging to the rugged cliffs. Even flowers I can readily find back home look beautifully exotic against this backdrop. This view alone, I think, is reward enough for my pilgrimage up the corniche to Villa Rufolo.