The Biddington's Bentley Takes to the Road
inlaid wood picture of Sorrento

Arts and Archeology along the Amalfi Coast of Italy

Editor's Note: Jake Biddington writes this September 2004 installment of The Bentley .

Like a gorgeous model with no bad side, the Amalfi Coast begs to be photographed. Visitors to Sorrento simply cannot curb themselves from repeating: "Look at that view!" So it's hardly surprising that a spot so photo-op friendly has grown into a prime venue for destination weddings. Pick any 5-star terrace and find the perfect backdrop for a luminous bride in white peau de soie and a bevy of friends in sexy black dinner dresses. Pleasantly buffered by a limoncello fog, wedding guests can entertain themselves between official festivities exploring the arts, sites and curiosities of the region.

Sorrento and the Bay of Naples Wood Inlay Picture

Vesuvius and Pompeii Street


Readily accessible via a 30 minute commuter train ride toward Naples from Sorrento, the archeological site of Pompeii is surely the prime cultural destination in the region.

At the mouth of the Sarno River in the protected Bay of Naples, the town of Pompeii was a natural trading site that grew into a substantial city. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD toppled many structures and covered the city in over 20 feet of cinder and ash. (Nearby Herculaneum was covered in molten lava which explains the different state of preservation there, and the much more arduous task of excavating that site.) For reasons not fully evident, Pompeii was left essentially undisturbed until 1600 when workers digging a canal to divert the Sarno River stumbled upon ruins of ancient buildings.

Pompeii Via del Foro with Vesuvius in the Background

Figure painting from Villa of the Mysteries

Like a vast museum, the scale of Pompeii makes it too large to cover in a single visit. So, a sampling of the site is more fun. The intensity of the sun drives visitors to explore not only exterior structural ruins but also to seek out the remarkably well-preserved villas with their fascinating interior fresco paintings. Painting styles at Pompeii were so developed and varied that art historians use them to date not only when houses were constructed, but even when they were renovated.

Cult of Dionysus Figures
Fresco Painting
Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii

Architectural painting from Villa of the Mysteries

Wall paintings subjects include decorative motifs, beautifully painted figures and trompe l'oeil architectural panels such as those at left. These architectural frescos strikingly illustrate that Alberti and other 15th century Renaissance masters developed and codified--but surely did not invent--the concept of single-point perspective.

Architectural Fresco Painting
Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii

Artisanal Works in Wood and Shell

In current day Sorrento, those with artistic talent appear to channel their efforts more toward fine craftsmanship rather than toward painting. The area produces two quality distinctive and regionally specific crafts: inlaid wood and carved cameos.

shapes for wood inlay

Wood Inlay

The craft of wood inlay was introduced to the Sorrentine peninsula in the 19th century when a local artisan who had learned the craft in Rome returned to his native Sorrento and taught it to others. The objects now produced include the ubiquitous--but charming--music boxes, trays, game boards as well as large objects such as chests and dining tables. The production technique involves cutting thin layers of wood veneer using an extremely fine blade that is driven by a machine resembling an electrified version of a treadle sewing machine. Finely detailed patterns and their negatives are produced by the craftsmen. The cut pieces are then glued onto the solid wood base and when the pattern is all painstakingly put in place, the item is waxed (or lacquered). Depending on the skill and preferences of the artisan, the result can be representative scenes or intricate patterns that give the illusion of tapestries.

Cut Wood Pieces for Inlay

Both Mayflower, corso Italia and Gargiulo & Jannuzzi, viale Caruso, offer demonstrations of the cutting process. While the aesthetic of this craft remains mid-19th century, a well-crafted inlaid wood piece makes a handsome counterpoint to an apartment furnished in 21st century minimalism.

carved cameo from Sorrento

Cameo Carving

Whether in shell or in, more rarely, in local stone such as lava, carved cameos set as jewelry are abundantly produced by the artisans of Sorrento. Subjects include the basic profile of a woman, or they can also be more complex full figures or mythological scenes. Anyone who has ever attempted to carve a bas-relief will appreciate the challenge of making this kind of sculpture read properly. The skill of the carvers varies greatly. While price/quality are somewhat linked, a good pair of eyes--aided by a magnifying glass--is rewarded.
Carved Cameo of Pompeiian Figure
Sardonix Shell
For those fascinated by process, Bimonte Gioielli, at 62 via P. Reg. Giuliani, has a cameo carver working at the front of the shop.

Examples of both wood inlay and cameo carving can be purchased at prices low enough to make them suitable for gifts or for quality souvenirs very specific to this part of Italy.

Amalfi cathedral

Dining and Travel Tips

Dining Sorrento and Amalfi:
Caruso's--exceptional dining and service with operatic memorabilia in Sorrento centro. Pay up for a fine northern Italian or French wine, or drink the local white Falanghina or Fiano de Avellino for a song.
Vela Bianca--at Sorrento's Marina Piccola, both the veranda and taverna offer the freshest seafood featuring a local specialty whole fish called cuccio.
'O Canonico--good indoor/outdoor restaurant dining on Piazza Tasso in Sorrento.
Fauno Bar--stop here for a pre-clubbing amaro digestivo on Piazza Tasso.
Cantina San Nicola (Amalfi)--a wonderful wine bar with food housed in the dining room of a 12th century monastery. 8 Salita Marino Sebaste, Amalfi.

Amalfi Cathedral

Best Terrace Views Sorrento:
Bellevue Syrene--the most perfectly composed, suitable for painting, view of the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius.
Excelsior Victoria--for those dressed formally enough to get past the Cerberus at the gate, this hotel terrace is the best Sorrento centro stop for a grappa or elegant cocktails and views both up and down the coast. Corso Italia.
Parco dei Principi--set at some distance from the center of Sorrento in its own botanical garden, this terrace of this hotel provides the most sense of seclusion and calm. Via Rota.
Hotel Bel Air--lunch here for a high view looking up the coast from the Cape of Sorrento. Via Capo.
Forestieri Club--for Sorrento centro people watching as well as fine scenic views, the huge terrace here sees everything from prowling wedding parties to tour bus groups. Via di Maio.

Best Budget Hotel:
Hotel Il Faro--In a town of impossibly expensive accommodations, this family-run hotel and restaurant offers comfort, cleanliness, service and value. It is situated down the escarpment in Sorrento's Marina Piccola for easy excursions to Capri, Positano, Amalfi and Ischia.
Transfer from Naples Airport to Sorrento
In a region where taxis and car hire prices make even a New Yorker see stars, Curreri Bus runs a comfortable, efficient and cost-effective service from Naples' Capodichino airport to Piazza Tasso in Sorrento.
Amalfi Coast Road:
The spectacularly beautiful coast road from Sorrento to the lovely town of Amalfi via Positano is not to be missed. Single lane with much two-way traffic and continuous blind hairpins, it's best enjoyed from high in a bus. Weather permitting, the optimum circuit is to bus down and ferry back.

More Art & Antiques Destinations:
Art Museums, Neighborhoods & Dining in Buenos Aires
Art Museums & Restaurants in Amsterdam
Cultural Touring along Spain's Costa del Sol
Art Touring in Lisbon
Art Touring in Milan
Art Touring in Antwerp
Art Touring in Barcelona
I-80 Park City to New York City Art & Antiques
Art Tourism New York City 2003 Update
Art Tourism New York City 2002
Art & Antiques in Hudson, New York (Columbia County)
Art & Restauarants in Rome 2002 Update
Hartford & Wilton, Connecticut
San Francisco Jackson Square
New Hampshire Route 1A
Morris County, New Jersey


Here at BIDDINGTON'S, our work is also our play. When we're not exhibiting and discussing art & antiques online, we're learning about wonderful objects in shops, at great shows and in museums all over the world.

In this article, Jake Biddington offers suggestions and descriptions of interesting art tourism, dining & antique hunting destinations. Some of these venues are always in open; others revolve around special or seasonal events. These are art travel excursions we at BIDDINGTON'S--upmarket, online Contemporary Art Gallery--have enjoyed making. We hope you'll like them, too.

Contact Jake Biddington about His Travels

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Downloading or printing for online or print reproduction of any materials without specific written permission from Biddington's, Inc. is prohibited.

PEDIGREE & PROVENANCE--art words & terms defined. CREATIVE PROCESS--artists' studio visits.
JAKE BIDDINGTON'S INVESTING--financial advice on art & antiques collecting. MY ART--art for kids.