A ceramic mural depicting scenes from Amalfi history (located near the tourist office), Amalfi history, Amalfi, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
A ceramic mural depicting scenes from Amalfi history (located near the tourist office)

The glorious, powerful, rich medieval city-state of Amalfi—and what happened to it

A ceramic map of the medeival extent of Amalfi's marittime power, Amalfi history, Amalfi, Italy. (Photo Public Domain)
Amalfi trade routes and ports under its control at the 12th century apex of its power, Amalfi history, Amalfi, Italy. (Photo Public Domain)
Italy in the year 1000. Note the size of the Amalfi Duchy., Amalfi history, Amalfi, Italy. (Photo by MapMaster)

Amalfi's first golden age was as an indepedent marritime city-state from AD 830 to 1135, during which it rivaled Venice, Genova, and Pisa as a Mediterranean trading power. By the 10th century, it was the seat of a Dukedom and minted its own coinage.

Amalfi's connections with the Orient stuffed its coffers with trade goods and made it the gateway to Europe for such Arab innovations as paper, coffee, carpets, and the compass—though Amalfi (all historical evidence to the contrary) still proudly claims they themselves invented that last one.

They've even erected a statue in the middle of the piazza at the port of hometown boy Flavio Gioia said to have fabricated the first compass in 1302. (This is patently untrue; Gioia might have popularized it, but the compass was undoubtedly an Arab invention, introduced to the West by Arab sailors—conceivably, yes, via the busy port of Amalfi. At best, Amafitani sailors were early adopoters of this revolutionary navigational aid.)

Amalfi again entered history when a local monk, backed by Amalfitani merchants, founded a hospital in Jerusalem along with a benevolent order that later became known as the Knights of Malta—today the only surviving order of knights from the Crusader age.

At its height, Amalfi had a population of 70,000, lorded it over the Thyrrhenian Sea, and was a European center for papermaking. Then the troubles began.

The Normans gave the town a whooping in 1131, and soon after Pisa swept in to trounce its rival. Twice. In 1135, Pisa sacked its defeated rival city-state, and it was all over.

Amalfi as an indepdendent city-state ended then, in 1135, but the real final blow came in 1343. A one-two combination of tidal waves and earthquakes slumped much of the proud, defeated Amalfi into the sea, erasing most of the city from existence and nearly obliterating the population.

Amalfi had nearly 70,000 inhabitants before the earthquake and tidal wave. It lost nearly 90 percent of its population in the catastrophe.

Ever since, Amalfi has struggled to maintain a population of around 6,000.

Amalfi limped along as a fishing port (with a sideline in that old art of papermaking) on an isolated but beautiful stretch of coastline. Curious grand tourists and German watercolorists occasionally popped in starting in the 19th century.

By the 1940s and 50s, the Jet Set had discovered the Amalfi Coast. Hollywood starlets and mid-century moguls flocked to Capri and the Amalfi Coast, soon to be followed by the sun-seeking masses, kicking off Amalfi's second, current golden age—that of tourism.

Photo gallery
  • A ceramic mural depicting scenes from Amalfi history (located near the tourist office), Amalfi history, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • A ceramic map of the medeival extent of Amalfi
  • Amalfi trade routes and ports under its control at the 12th century apex of its power, Amalfi history, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Italy in the year 1000. Note the size of the Amalfi Duchy., Amalfi history, Italy (Photo by MapMaster)
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