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The Sorrento sea | Photo: vkolisova, via Pixabay

Sorrento: an Art-Filled Walk through the Heart of the City

  1. Category: Art and culture
  2. Keywords: artemisia gentileschi, penitent magdalene,, museo correale di terranova, sorrento, sea, piazza tasso, museobottega della tarsia lignea, sorrento cathedral, villa comunale, chiostro di san francesco d’assisi, sedil dominova
  3. Author: Fabio Pariante - © 2018

Sorrento is a small and quiet urban centre. In order to fully enjoy its tiny side-streets and its sudden views opening up onto the sea, it is essential to explore by foot. Every corner is rich in history and it’s no coincidence that the Gulf of Naples has often been chosen as the backdrop for many film productions, both Italian and international. Unforgettably beautiful, films such as Pane, Amore e Fantasia (1955) by Dino Risi with Vittorio De Sica and Sophia Loren and Love is All You Need (2012) by Susanne Bier with Pierce Brosnan, to mention a more recent production, have immortalised this amazing landscape. The smell of the sea, the colour and scent of lemons, represent the soul of the historic centre of the city.

Sorrento is a liveable city. From Piazza Angelina Lauro, near Circumvesuviana Station, it is a brief walk to Museo Correale di Terranova, founded in 1902 within Villa alla Rota, thanks to the donation of both property and contents to the city by brothers Alfredo and Pompeo Correale, the Counts of Terranova.

The museum has 24 halls laid out over three floors (plus the building’s attic), which host, among other things, a marvellous collection of Capodimonte porcelain, precious masterpieces created in the 1700s at the Real Fabbrica, instituted by Charles Borbon. Not to be missed during a visit to the museum, the Neapolitan Mannerist paintings of the XVI Century, including the Penitent Magdalene by Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian painter of the Caravaggio School that lived during the 1600s and the Portrait of Marcantonio Colonna by Pascaletti. The archeology section offers a look at ancient Sorrento. Worth admiring, the altar from the Imperial Age - probably used for a statue dedicated to Augustus - on its four sides are engravings commemorating the inauguration of the Temple of Vesta on the Palatine of Rome.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Penitent Magdalene, 1627-1629, Oil on canvas, Museo Correale di Terranova, Sorrento
Artemisia Gentileschi, Penitent Magdalene, 1627-1629, Oil on canvas, Museo Correale di Terranova, Sorrento

Close to the museum is the most famous town square of Sorrento, Piazza Tasso dedicated to the Sorrentine poet Torquato who lived during the 1500s. Almost hidden along the nearby side-streets are tiny shops specialising in wood inlay, but to understand this refined art better, one can visit the MUTA inside Palazzo Pomarici Santomasi. Within this building once belonging to nobility, there is the Museobottega della Tarsia Lignea which hosts important collections of furnishings from the 14 and 1500s, created using the ancient Sorrentine technique of wood inlaying.

Besides the works of Neapolitan art, the artisan works of Sorrento figured highly with the kings and aristocracy of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, especially during the XIX Century. An art that tells of voyages and stories of one of the most important stops on the Grand Tour, visited by illustrious guests such as Goethe, Stendhal, Shelley and Dickens. The Sorrentine “tarsia” became known worldwide with objects and furniture created by the Sorrentine School and masters of the 1800s like Francesco Grandi, Giuseppe Gargiulo, Roberto Pane and Michele Grandville. The MUTA also hosts a collection of contemporary works.

“The museum is located in a building from the 1700s,” affirms Alessandro Fiorentino, Director of the Museobottega della Tarsia Lignea. “The building was the residence of Baron Achille Pomarici Santomasi of Gravina in Apulia. It is in the historic centre of the city and contains art that, today, is considered priceless, marvelled at by visitors, mostly foreigners. In the ‘80s, I began acquiring furniture and objects which, today, are on display. The MUTA is subdivided into sections distributed over three floors with a singular uniting theme: Sorrentine Inlay,” explains the Director.

“The museum was created to protect artisan work through memory. There is also a small workshop open to the public, which makes it a museum/bottega: we create work which is sought out all around the world. The artisan workshops, which once abounded in Sorrento, today, unfortunately are always less in number. “It’s important to remember that along the Coast,” adds Director Fiorentino, “there were the magnificent villas of the Borbon family. In order to know the real Sorrento, today, you have to go to museums, where works of art and valuable furnishings allow us to relive the environments and history of the past.”

Corso Italia, the main street of the historic centre, is the thoroughfare of Brand Name stores but also historic businesses like the Gelateria Primavera of Antonio Cafiero, with its wide variety of flavours such as fig, Neapolitan pastry, almond and pine nuts, as well as some flavours connected to local agricultural traditions such as walnut gelato and lemon gelato.

Along the Corso is the Sorrento Cathedral in the Renaissance style, the church is dedicated to Saints Philip and James. Inside, one can admire worked carried out by Sorrentine artisans at the start of the 1900s, such as the wooden choir box. The works by contemporary local artists blend in with the canvases from the 1700s by the Neapolitan School, the precious marble work of the Archbishop’s Throne from the 1500s and a painting from the same period by Silvestro Buono. Also admirable is the Chapel of the Sacrament: the splendid wooden cross from the 1400s above the altar created at the end of the 1600s in polychrome marble with putti on its side created by the bottega of Domenico Antonio Vaccaro.

Sorrento Cathedral, tha nave | Photo: MatthiasKabel (Own work), via Wikimedia Creative Commons
Sorrento Cathedral, tha nave | Photo: MatthiasKabel (Own work), via Wikimedia Creative Commons

A place for events and art exhibitions, Villa Fiorentino, on Corso Italia, is one of the most important cultural centres of the city. At the behest of husband and wife Antonio Fiorentino and Lucia Cuomo, producers of lace handkerchiefs, architect Almerico Gargiulo built the villa in the ‘30s, initially creating it as a place to greet the clients of the family business. Today, the building and its magnificent garden can be visited during the numerous art and cultural events organised by the Fondazione Sorrento, the organisation that manages the property.

To take in a spectacular view of the Gulf, head over to the Villa Comunale, created at the end of the 1800s in the gardens of Franciscan friars. Meanwhile, just a few steps away from Piazza Sant’Antonino, you can visit the Chiostro di San Francesco d’Assisi along with the Church from the late-Medieval period: numerous architectural styles can be seen here which evolved over time and make this structure quite unique. On the sides of the portico of the cloister, in perfect late 1300s’ style, the arches in tufo are crossed, while on the other two sides, there are round arches resting on octagonal pillars. During the summer, the cloister hosts musical events, religious functions, art exhibitions and international cinema festivals.

From one side-street to the next, you come to Via San Cesareo, home of the Sedil Dominova, one of the oldest administrative seats of the Italian nobility, the only one which can still be visited (for free), decorated with the remarkable frescoes of Carlo Amalfi and its dome decorated with majolica ceramic works. This building has its origins in the 1400s: here the nobility of Sorrento would meet to make decisions and discuss administrative questions. Today, it is an important point of reference for the inhabitants of the city, a symbol of local political and social power. Since 1877, it is the headquarters of the Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso of which Carlo Cuomo is the current President.

Since 1973, local businessman Gaetano Maresca manages the restaurant that finds its home inside the ancient administrative seat of the nobility. “We also make Limoncello and lemon and orange marmalades. We’re the most important enoteca (wine bar) in Sorrento.”

The lemons of Sorrento, he sole component for the Limoncello, the sweet liqueur has become a must in the world | Photo: Richardthelion, via Pixabay
The lemons of Sorrento, he sole component for the Limoncello, the sweet liqueur has become a must in the world | Photo: Richardthelion, via Pixabay

One of the best locations for passing time near the sea is Marina Grande, just a short walk from the Villa Comunale. And don’t miss out on visiting the Bagni della Regina Giovanna, a pristine pool of water nestled between the rocky beaches and breakers of Sorrento. The famed “Bagni” (“Baths”) can be reached by foot, following the directions for “Ruderi Romani” (for the beach) or with specially dedicated buses. Nearby, you can also visit the ancient Villa Pollio Felice, a large Roman villa from over 2000 years ago which still possesses all its historic charm.

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