A Museum of Hospitality.
The sense of great peace and the sacred is barely perceptible amongst the comings and goings of the guests here. It is hard to believe that this monastery, created according to the wishes of our most humble saint in 1222, has become, some six centuries later, a house and then a hotel.
St. Francis of Assisi, singer of creation and voice of our poetry, must have thought this a perfect place for a small community of brothers. That rocky outcrop, between the coastal inlets of Amalfi and Atrani, defying the sea, seems to have been forged by the hand of God: strong and powerful and yet, delicate as lace.
This land was blessed. Despite the intrigues of traders and merchants, the much talked about favours from the Orient, Amalfi has always given proof of its great faith. From the defence of the Church and Rome in the bloody battle of Ostia in 849 against the Saracens, to the construction of the hospital in Jerusalem, which could accommodate 2000 people. This hospital was built by the Knights of St. John, originating in Amalfi, and later linked to Cypress, Rhodes and then Malta, where the Order is still active.
Oh yes! It is certain that Amalfi would have given every possible help in the construction of the monastery and the number of brothers would have increased year after year, century after century. This is its story, that is until the early 1800s, when the monk's cells began to out- number the monks, and the Terracina Agreement between the Bourbons and the Church rewrote the fate of many of the kingdom's religious communities.
This is how this old Franciscan seat became the property of the Parish of Assunta in the small village of Pastena and subsequently passed to the Barbaro Family. A simple but wealthy family, closely linked to the sea, links which were influential in the decision to make the old monastery their home.
It could hardly have been a comfortable dwelling place. The building, which follows a ridge, had been added to over many years, up the breathtakingly steep hillside. Then consider the cells, small and inhospitable, even though steeped in atmosphere, the large refrectory with its kitchen, the vegetable garden, the cloister and chapel, but above all, the sea, where legend ends and history begins.
It is a large building, even for a growing family. For this reason, the family decided to set a few rooms apart for visitors to Amalfi who often found a scarcity of lodgings. I talked about the Luna's early beginnings with Andrea Barbaro, law degree under his belt, a restless wanderer who has connections at every latitude, interests in art and music, with the affable courtesy of one who was born and lived in a house-hotel.
Yes, we were the first, he says. Other hotels were to follow, a room here and there in the heart of the Valley of the Mills, but none with a sea view and all with the difficulties and inconveniences that a lack of space entails. So, our hotel ( a few cells, some intercommunicating for families) quickly became the most desirable for visitors to the Coast.
To be sure, whoever came here was not in transit. The journey along the coast from Positano to Vietri, was a real adventure. The only easy way was by sea, but come winter, the sea is never kind. The alternative was to use the mule tracks and steps that rise from the sea to the top of the Lattari Mountains. So, any traveller here had to be seriously motivated and would often find the unexpected pleasure of a period of rest here, enraptured by the hospitality and natural beauty of the area. And when the time came for departure, the traveller would have learned all there is to know about the people, customs, and beauty here. These early visitors would write of us in their travel journals, talk of us to their friends, with a particular mention of the "Locanda della Luna" ( as it was then called). There was always someone, invariably from Northern Europe, asking for a room over the sea, full of light and sun.
Then, in 1857, the road arrived. A daring enterprise, stealing the monopoly of access from the sea, favouring links with Naples. Here at the Luna, they were ahead of the times. As soon as the planned route for the road became known, work started to improve the building and the service offered. The Luna became a hotel, the first and for some time, the only hotel on the coast.
Half way into the last century, the hotel Luna was very different from today. The summer beach holiday had not yet been invented ( and wouldn't be for some time to come). Visitors, for the most part from Northern Europe, arrived in winter, escaping from the fog and snow of their own regions. Therefore summer was the quietest time for the hotel. But it wasn't a time of leisure for the women of the family ( and how many there were, a veritable army of women involved in cleaning the rooms, washing the linen, carrying the guest's luggage). When the sun was at its hottest, beating down, the women of the Hotel Luna were busy making pasta by hand. The great sheet of dough, nervous and tight as a drum, gave birth to mountains of tagliolini, tagliatelle, whilst a rudimentary gadget, respectfully referred to as the "machine" turned out spaghetti and vermicelli. The fresh pasta was then put to dry in the sun on the roof or in the cloisters.
The arrival of the road brought many changes to life on the coast. Carriages began to appear in summer and guests more and more often expressed a desire to see the towns of Ravello and Scala. This involved an expedition on the back of a mule, as no road went even a centimetre inland towards the hills. These travellers were artists, writers, naturalists, and they recorded details of their emotions and memories on canvas or in books with great charm.
This is how the churches of Scala, the magic of the silence of Ravello's villas entered into the imagination of visitors, and in turn, into the imagination of their readers. The Amalfi Coast owes an enormous debt to these early visitors.
Early morning, our guests would find mules and grooms awaiting them on the ground floor, in a room which came to be known as the "mule room". In 1880, none other than Richard Wagner waited here for his mule to take him to Ravello, where he would find the inspiration for his Gardens of Kingslor scene in The Parsifal. At that time, but for the Barbaro Family, Wagner passed unnoticed here, in the same way as Ibsen in the previous year. In 1879, Ibsen stayed for three months in room 5. His "The Doll's House" was born here and indeed the second act concludes with a rip roaring rendition of tarantella music.
In the winter of 1840, an English visitor, with an illegible signature ( who was he? A writer? A botanist?) was the first to put pen to the Visitor's Book of the Luna. The Luna was still a locanda, an inn, but by that time, had 20 years of experience of providing hospitality and the Barbaro Family were aware that they were destined to make history. For this reason, they created The Visitor's Book (such a thing belonged only to the realm of fancy, city hotels at that time). These registers ( there are five very old ones indeed) are full of comments and notes and relate a small history of Amalfi and the famous guests at the Hotel Luna.
The most frequent comments all refer to the house and the welcome they received, warm, yet discreet and the feeling of being more part of the family than a paying guest. This welcome has continued through the years unchanged. The Barbaro Family are still very much involved in the running of the hotel. This explains the strong ties that grow with guests here, a rather privileged relationship. The only change is the natural handover of one generation to another.
This continuity is present in the hotel staff too. The manager, Mr. Andrea Milone had been at the Luna for over 40 years, in the position once held by his father, Biagio, who has historic memories of this museum of hospitality. We should ask Biagio about the simple and austere habits of King Gustav of Sweden, the worries of Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini's telephone calls, the insistence of the young Paola of Lieges for excellent coffee. Milone remembers Bergman's excitement at the views of Amalfi and the immediate decision to stay in the tower. This is a 16th century construction which sinks its very roots into the sea, where night-life and swimming are the main activities. At night, when the moon and the stars convene and the sirocco softly blows, rippling the waves, they say you can hear the music of the sea between the walls of the tower. There is only one room in the tower and Ingrid wanted that room for her Italian love.
The guest book beats all memories, and goes back even further in time, as far back as Gregoriovus, Bismarck and Morse and many other less famous guests. Putting together an anthology of all these notes and comments would be interesting, if only to see how customs have changed. One event, now forgotten, but which must have caused some worry at the time " Joseph, Janette and Rosa Albertini from Cava passed the 13th day of June 1857 in this good hotel, where they took refuge in fear of the celebrated passing of a comet, and notwithstanding this fear, ate good fresh fish and good maccheroni".
And yet more words of praise for the Luna : " Everything changes in this world, centuries pass, every year flowers bloom and fade, Spring passes all too quickly, but the beautiful view from the hotel window, the courtesy and hospitality of the owner, and not least the excellent cuisine and service will never cease".
Then, in the climate of the First World War, the inevitable rhetoric : " Living here, oh Amalfi, the moments that you wished for were not fleeting, one feels only pride in being Italian, and for having shed one's own blood in order for Italy to be remembered and those who forgot the greatness of Rome to be reprimanded."
Finally, a notation worthy of better fortune. In February 1858, the presence of the Emerald Grotto was mentioned: "Alessandro Brambilla of Milan, with wife, two children and two servants. For the benefit of travelling visitors, lovers of beauty, the above signed, is pleased to say that, near Amalfi, in a little village called Conca, a type of cavern was discovered about a month ago. I describe it as ominous due to the quality of its beauty, it is a true phenomenon and will leave even the well seasoned traveller ecstatic. This phenomenon, born of nature, can, without exaggeration , compete with Vesuvius in satisfying the most exacting critic. I advise a certain Luigi Milone as a guide for his full regard for the needs of visitors."
This is the only information about the Grotto prior to 1932 when the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera published the news of the Grotto as a recent, extraordinary discovery.
The guest books are not the only piece of archive. There is substantial correspondence to put in order, not only here at the hotel, but also between other institutions, famous people, men of State, who had connections with Amalfi. This correspondence constitutes a reserve of history. Mussolini's distinctive hand writes " I have a great vision of Amalfi, the sea, the sky, the glory! I too was an unknown pilgrim passing through your town: I stayed at the Luna, I knelt before your great cathedral, republican, imperial and marine; I wandered the path of the mills. I have only the warmest of memories and nostalgia. Dear, dear, adorable Amalfi...."
In 1929, when he was no longer 'an unknown pilgrim', Mussolini donated the only manuscript of the Amalfitan Tables , belonging Doge Marco Foscarini and recently found in Vienna, to Amalfi.
Will anyone ever have the inclination and the patience to put their hands on these papers? The past meets you at every step here, it is all around you, you can find it in the stones, architecture, in the furniture, in the paintings, it counteracts everything that has been added to and changed by time. Here, the lamps of the fishing boats light up pointed arches, and the majolica tiles of the bathroom light up the mullioned windows. History is home here.
Around the perimeter of the cloisters, shaded by the orgy of leaves, spotted by plump yellow lemons, I spy two foreigners, walking slowly, hands behind backs, a light whisper of words. I hesitate for a moment, then nod my head. I wanted to say: Peace be with you brothers.