Ciao Amalfi Newsletter - November 2022
Meandering through E.M. Forster's Ravello.
I enjoy meandering when I read just as much as I do when out walking. You never know exactly where you’ll end up. One reference or suggestion leads to another and yet another and suddenly you find ideas and inspiration—sometimes from seemingly disparate origins—that lead to one specific place. I enjoy finding actual places while out and about where stories mingle in the same way. Recently, I found one of those places in Ravello: Villa Episcopio.
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But we have to go back a little bit to earlier this summer when La Rondinaia, the villa clinging to the cliff side in Ravello that was the home for over 33 years of American writer Gore Vidal, released a short film called Ravello Rendez-Vous. It’s about Vidal’s stunning villa and his experience living there. Side note, I’ll always remember learning the Italian word cortometraggio, which means short film, and associate it with La Rondinaia. I love the layers that words take on, especially when they’re tied to place.
The trailer captures the dreamy spirit of the short film, which has an actor interpreting Gore Vidal. You can watch the entire Ravello Rendez-Vous short film here. It’s currently only available in Italian, but when I reached out to La Rondinaia I was told there’s a version with English subtitles in the works. I’ll be sure to share it when it’s available. There is, indeed, much more to share about La Rondinaia, but that’s a story for another day.
First, back to the trail the led to Villa Episcopio. In the short film, there’s a mention of when E.M. Forster visited Ravello and was inspired to write his short story called “The Story of a Panic.” And I realized in that moment that I had walked past that very spot where Forster stayed in Ravello and noticed a plaque stating that very fact. (The one above.) And yet, I had never read that story - or any of his short stories. This year I’ve been reading a lot of short stories, so I got myself a copy of Forster’s short stories. Earlier this summer I wrote about how much I like E.M. Forster’s A Room with A View, and dipping into his shorter fiction has been a real pleasure.
- The steps up to Villa Episcopio in Ravello.
How place inspires creativity is one of the things that intrigues me most about life. So, naturally, I found myself climbing the steps up to Villa Episcopio and stopping along the way to look up at the soaring pine tree above. It was early morning and utterly quiet yet utterly alive in that special way that is Ravello. Stairways hiding and then revealing views that make your heart hiccup, especially when the sun is shining across the Gulf of Salerno.
At the top of the stairs you come to the Villa Episcopio in a quiet spot behind the Duomo. Dating back to the 11th century, this villa was home to the bishops of Ravello for centuries. Its name, Episcopio, has far more syllables than you think and literally means “the residence of the bishop.” In the second half of the 19th century, Francis Nevile Reid, the Scottish owner of neighboring Villa Rufolo, purchased Villa Episcopio and began restoring it. Eventually it was transformed into Ravello’s first pensionem, or hotel, by Pasquale Palumbo, who worked for Reid, and his wife Elizabeth Von Wartburg. On May 26, 1880, Richard Wagner arrived in Ravello by donkey (listen, folks, don’t complain about the bus being uncomfortable …) and stopped in at the "Pensione Palumbo" during his visit to the Villa Rufolo where he was inspired by the gardens for his opera Parsifal. It would be the first of many illustrious visitors over the years.
The villa is in the process of being restored and last I heard is intended to be a center for young musicians - in keeping with Ravello’s tradition as the “City of Music.” I have no idea when it might be complete (the doing and finishing of things is a never-ending opera here), but mention it because that’s why you’ll notice the walls look so new yet the windows are boarded up and the doors look old enough to be the same ones Wagner walked past. I rather like those old green doors though, don’t you? (And, yes, I did kneel down and peek through that crack.)
If you’ve taken the bus to Ravello, you might have noticed Villa Episcopio right above the bus stop but perhaps didn’t know what it was. It has beautiful terraces and arched windows looking out over that postcard perfect view from Ravello. (The bus stop view is the one at the very top of this newsletter.) In this place surrounded by quiet and stunning views, the French writer André Gide wrote The Immoralist and E.M. Forster wrote his first short story, "The Story of a Panic." It is a place where one can easily imagine encountering inspiration.
“Ravello is a delightful place with a delightful little hotel in which we met some charming people.” - E.M. Forster, from “The Story of a Panic”
In Forster’s story, everything begins quite calmly in the delightful little hotel for a group of English travelers. But things take a sudden turn when they take a picnic up in a chestnut forest above Ravello. It’s an odd tale, but I won’t tell you more in case you’re curious to read it for yourself. If you do pick up a copy of Forster’s stories, “The Story of the Siren” is set in Sicily and, for something completely different, his futuristic (but disturbingly familiar in parts) story “The Machine Stops” is the most surprising short story I’ve read this year.
If you’re interested in hiking and enjoy a literary theme as much as this girl, Ravello has recently launched a new Digital Grand Tour Hiking and Walking Experience. With this online map you can find information on many different excursions, including one dedicated to E.M. Forster that leads up into the Fontana Carosa. Yes that’s the very chestnut forest where “The Story of a Panic” takes place.
And it’s not just where the key moment of the story happens, it’s the very spot where the idea of the story came to Forster in 1902. Many years later he wrote about the experience:
“…The Story of a Panic, is the first story I ever wrote and the attendant circumstances remain with me vividly. … I think it was in the May of 1902 that I took a walk near Ravello. I sat down in a valley, a few miles above the town, and suddenly the first chapter of the story rushed into my mind as if it had waited for me there. I received it as an entity and wrote it out as soon as I returned to the hotel. But it seemed unfinished and a few days later I added some more until it was three times as long; as now printed.” - E.M. Forster, Introduction to Collected Short Stories, published by Sidgwick & Jackson (1947)
(Photo courtesy Ravello Digital Grand Tour)
So from Gore Vidal to E.M. Forster and now next up Gide’s The Immoralist, that’s a little look at my recent meandering through Ravello. May it inspire your own reading - or to lace up a pair of hiking shoes and explore E.M. Forster’s Ravello on your next visit!
Ciao from Montefiascone (I told you I liked it here),
AMALFI COAST TRAVEL NEWS
If you’re a cycling or sports enthusiast, mark your calendars for May 11, 2023 when the Giro d’Italia returns to the Amalfi Coast. The 6th stage will depart from Naples and head over the Valico di Chiunzi pass to Ravello and then down to Amalfi and along the coast through Positano, up over Sant’ Agata dei due Golfi and then down along the Sorrentine Peninsula back to Naples. I saw it zoom through Amalfi many years ago and it’s an exciting experience!
Want more Amalfi Coast and Italy? Keep on reading:
Well, here’s the lovely Julia Buckley for CNN covering something a bit unexpected in Amalfi.
This article, also by Julia, has me wanting to visit Brescia and Bergamo even more than I already did.
I’m looking forward to this new biography of Shirley Hazzard, a writer who spent a great deal of time in and loved Naples and Capri.
I loved this list of Gillian’s favorite works of art and where to see them. I have to write my own!