Long Journey

Back to Positano

In 1953, US writer John Steinbeck visited the small town on the Amalfi coast and made it famous in an essay, which still resonates today. Heike Blümner took on his lead together with photographer Roberto Salomone.


Introduction by Francesco Sersale, Hotel “Le Sirenuse”

Let’s start in the present. No easy task in Positano, where even the sun is intent on overriding your sense of time. “Foschia” means fog, but it is also this particular atmosphere of light, which occurs when it’s hot and the sea and the horizon, ships and rocks lose their definition in a gentle haze and seem to melt into one another. It is the visual equivalent to two glasses of wine around lunchtime. Cause and effect, yesterday, today and tomorrow all merge into one.

In order to avoid falling victim to vagueness right from the beginning, Positano, the vertical town, is best explored on foot: nine churches – one for each district – and six priests serve the 3,000 inhabitants. Narrow alleyways with countless steep staircases connect the stone houses, which were once stacked on top of each other in an unfathomable system on the green slopes of the Amalfi cliffs.

Giovanni Cuccaro is the personal trainer at Hotel “Le Sirenuse” and a local. A 42-year-old man with muscles, manners and intuition. Sporting a crisp outfit with azure sneakers and a wide bandana wrapped around his head, he bounces up the steps effortlessly and notices before I do when my breath is running short. Then he stops abruptly and, like the gentleman he is, turns around and opens his arms widely. “The view!” he says matter-of-factly directing my gaze – even if the view is simply of some worn stone steps. No face loss for me, the visitor from the horizontal city of Berlin. Most of the time, however, the view is right on cue. In the bays, the sea shimmers in every conceivable shade of blue.

Boats dance on the waves and the whole scenario is framed by houses and churches in sandy colours, light blue, apricot and pink, sanded down by saltwater wind. And although the coast is vast and rocky, everything about this place is curvaceous and sensual: the bay, the streets, the window arches and even the banisters. Falling for Positano literally happens as you pass through it. Every day, over and over again with many visitors anew.

Most of the time, however, the view is right on cue. In the bays, the sea shimmers in every conceivable shade of blue.

One such visitor was US writer John Steinbeck. The Nobel Prize winner for literature and author of “East of Eden” came here in the early 1950s. He was not the first to find a temporary muse in this remote fishing village. There was the Swiss futurist Gilbert Clavel, who rebuilt one of the three lighthouses, according to his plans, as early as 1919. Picasso was another Positano dweller around this time as was Le Corbusier, but so were lesser-known painters like the Düsseldorf-based Karli Sohn-Rethel, who created his main work there with expressionist beach scenes and studies of fishermen. During the Nazi period, a remarkable number of exiles sought refuge here, including the writers Stefan Andres and Armin Wegner. After the war, the Americans arrived. Patricia Highsmith, for example, is said to have found inspiration for her character Tom Ripley on the beach of Positano, which culminated in her most famous novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.

The US writer John Steinbeck, 1935

No one, however, is likely to have left such a resonance with his work here as Steinbeck has, whose travel essay “Positano” put the place on the world map of dream destinations – long before Instagram assumed that responsibility.

In 1953, the piece appeared in Harper’s Bazaar magazine. A reluctant story of enthusiasm, overshadowed by a dichotomy familiar to many travellers in a desire to keep the newfound love to oneself in some kind of anticipatory jealousy, while at the same time letting everyone know about the sheer joy of your discovery: “Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it”, he writes. But a few lines later, the author reassures himself. There would be “not the slightest chance” that things could ever become touristy here in an unpleasant sense. Elegant ladies would collapse like a “washcloth at a boys’ camp” if they tried to climb the stairs for cocktail hour. Besides, the locals would be content with what little they had and “will not move over for a buck.”

Today, one thing is clear: Steinbeck was wrong. Now, he would have to share the former fishing village every summer with swarms of people spat out by ferries and buses for a few hours and who almost wedge themselves with their selfie sticks into the narrow alleys around the harbour, where the drama of globalised travel unfolds: Desires and clichés are teased via social media and are then hunted down by tourists, that try to affirm them with the same pictures and posts. There is no room in all of that for the essence of foschia, for the diffuse. But in return, plenty of money flows – also from the pockets of elegant and wealthy ladies and gentlemen who seem to have no problem climbing stairs for a couple of glasses of Falanghina or Biancolella. There is probably no family in Positano that has not profited in one way or another from the influx of tourism. No trace whatsoever of a lack of business acumen.

But, on the other hand, if you look closely, you will notice that the aura of the almost enigmatically exquisite and special has been preserved in Positano.

Like a promise that life here not only looks easier and more beautiful, but it actually is.

To fathom why this is so, you can cling to Steinbeck’s work like you would do to the railings along the steps. His writerly dissection of the place and his fascination with it is based on the people he met there: locals, of course. But newcomers, too, who found a home in Positano. “In a few days, we became aware of Positano’s greatest commodity – characters,” he noted. This is still true almost 70 years on, and anyone who wants to learn something about the place should sit down at a table with the people here.

For breakfast, for example, with the Sersale family on the terrace of the Hotel “Le Sirenuse”, where black tea and fried eggs are served on fine china and starched pistachio colored tablecloths and people sit on wrought-iron chairs with white cushions. The Sersales have been running the place for 70 years. “Spotless and cool,” was Steinbeck’s verdict, who stayed there back then. The writer was followed by an unending stream of glamorous guests. The building in Pompeii red with its white balconies and dark green shutters, and which partly dates back to the 17th century, stands up energetically to the profane hustle and bustle in the lower parts of town at high season: “Culture has always been an elitist affair,” says Carla Sersale. “The cultural standard in the fifties wasn’t higher. There were just fewer people out and about.”

The Sersale family are the owners of “Le Sirenuse”. Antonio and Carla run the hotel. Their sons Francesco (director of marketing and communication) and Aldo (food and beverages manager) will eventually be the next generation to take over the business.

Here, at “Le Sirenuse”, it’s easy to float wonderfully in a bubble of the sublime. Today, Antonio and his wife Carla run the house. Their sons Francesco and Aldo, after years in England and the US, have recently been warming up for their upcoming leadership roles and are specialists in culinary concepts and marketing. Their future task is to develop the hotel not just as a destination, but as an exclusive brand. An established associated fragrance line, “L’Eau d’Italie”, already exists and since 2013, also the fashion label “Emporio Sirenuse”, which builds on the aesthetic traditions of Mediterranean style, mixes them with other ethnic influences and interprets them in a contemporary way. The most recent project is a beach club a bit further north up the coast. So, what do you have to look out for when you transfer a legend into a brand? “It’s difficult,” says Francesco. “You have to learn to say ‘no’. Lots of amazing people come to us with their ideas, but it’s about being strategic with what you want to develop. Ultimately, we always go for something that enhances our offer, the experience and the brand.” That is the sound of the 21st century.

When there is heritage and history involved, the development needs to be particularly sensitive. The 58 rooms of “Le Sirenuse” display a kind of elegance that cannot be planned or constructed. Unpretentious and full of depth. There are old paintings, historical furniture, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern works of art, lush plants, Mediterranean playfulness, local craftsmanship and selected contemporary works of art by Rita Ackermann, Alex Israel or Martin Creed, whose “Don’t Worry” neon installation provides the name for the house bar. A kind of interior design foschia, a total work of art.

Video: The facade of “Le Sirenuse” is pompeii red. Parts of the building date back to the 17th century

 But as Antonio puts it: “If you want to go to a museum, go to a museum. Come here if you want to experience a living organism”.

The Sersale family is of Neapolitan nobility. During the Second World War – so the family story goes – they sold most of their real estate there and buried the money in the garden, which turned out not to be the best investment strategy. What remained was, among other things, the house in Positano, where the siblings Paolo, Aldo and Anna, and later Franco, moved in. In 1951, they opened their private family estate to guests, which they continued to build and expand over the decades. Aesthetically, it was mainly shaped by Franco, a worldly, art-savvy globetrotter who furnished it with a mixture of heirlooms and art treasures from all over the world. However, the essence of this house is ultimately determined not by the objects, but by the people – the owners and above all the staff, some of whom have also been working here for generations. “Where there is a family business, there is interaction. And that’s what people love about us,” says Antonio. For the team at “Le Sirenuse” working here is more a vocation than a job.

If this hotel is Positano’s cultural body of resonance and a hub for international society, then the town’s stomach is the tiny harbour and bay at its feet.

Here, ferries to Capri and Sorrento leave from a brutalist little concrete peninsula. Boats take people to the surrounding bays or to the yachts and superyachts anchored further out. On the beach, blue-and-white striped parasols spread over the rented sunbeds; the locals have their own area – there’s no furniture, but you don’t have to pay. It’s a tangle of movement, colours and sounds – splashing, engine whirring and children’s voices.

However, the people who once helped the Amalfi Coast achieve global fame and were the image for exotic fantasies of the post-war economic boom have disappeared from the scene: the fishermen. These “veterans of leisure”, as the German writer Stefan Andres describes in his volume of stories from 1957, also titled “Positano”, “squatted on the walls and lay on steps, silent, yawning and releasing short sentences into the twilight with the smoke of their cigarettes, and doing so as if their words were themselves clouds of tobacco.”

Fishing was, to be sure, a back-breaking job. And those who went out to sea at four in the morning, armed with nothing but harpoons and sharp eyesight, were probably not veterans of leisure but simply exhausted by the afternoon. Today, the best equipment is of little use – industrial fishing further out has decimated the stocks on this coast as well. In Steinbeck’s day, 200 fishermen lived in Positano and almost the entire economy of the town ran on their work. Today, there are only three and the profession is even more acutely threatened with extinction than the catch itself.

Salvatore O’Fratillo is one of Positano’s last fishermen. During the time of John Steinbeck, fishing was the main source of income in Positano

Salvatore O‘ Fratillo is one of the last to still cast his nets every day. The 78-year-old is waiting on the quay on an unusually overcast day and decides not to sit for our conversation. He prefers to stand, to gaze into the indefinite and let memories and inspiration surge like the tide. He sets the tone right at the beginning by saying, “I’m always happy because I grew up on the sea”, while looking solemnly into the distance. His father and grandfather were fishermen as well, and since the age of five, he has been setting sail every day. On many days now, though, he only pulls just enough fish out of the sea to pay for the diesel, much to his wife’s chagrin. “Every day she’s mad at me,” he says, opening his palms to the sky. But he has to do what he has to do. That’s why he tells his wife: “You paint your nails, you paint your lips. Do I ask you what that’s all about? Mind your own business and I’ll mind mine.”

Almost three quarters of a century at sea seem to have lifted the old man with the lively eyes to a level of consciousness that many people with professions closer to civilisation are prepared to pay a lot of money for in their search for meaning. This man, who can still remember the times when Steinbeck (“very nice man, very passionately interested in Positano”) was part of the scene, is not a nostalgic person but seems perfectly present and young for his age. “In general, it’s possible to say that people don’t get better,” he concludes. “They don’t learn. They lose the meaning in their lives because they chase money and status. When you wake up in the morning and the sun is shining and you think, ‘I’m alive and I feel so good!’ – that’s true wealth.” Then he turns with a piercing look and adds: “We are nothing. We are no more than the sand on the beach.” And as you crumble to dust inside, he smiles and adds softly, “When I talk to people here like this, they think I’m crazy.”

Carlo Rispoli, guardian of Positano’s cemetery.

The truth is, however, that it is slightly crazy to have a similar ethos ruling one of the highest points in the village – the Positano cemetery. Its caretaker Carlo Rispoli may only be 55, but he communicates on a similar wavelength as his colleague in spirit down at sea level. His father was the cemetery caretaker before him and he too grew up in the cemetery, so to speak, and he helped his dad out from an early age.

What does it teach you about life being surrounded by the dead? “Ah,” he says, smiling delighted, “I could talk about that for hours.” But first he emphasizes upfront that he is “not a philosopher in the classical sense” but “someone who applies philosophical ideas to life.” That differentiation is in itself remarkable – – not only because it comes from a cemetery caretaker.

Strong, with dark curls and warm eyes, Rispoli also prefers to stand in the sun in front of the cemetery chapel instead of sitting down while he talks. “This place influences every aspect of my life and it has taught me that you have to be happy in life. I am happy. And I like myself in a healthy way. There is nothing for me to complain about.” The important thing, he says, is to know who you are and to be comfortable with that.

The cemetery in Positano is a place that everyone in town can agree on. What’s more, people are very proud of it. Which is probably a good thing, because sooner or later it’s where everyone who lives here will eventually end up. It is situated on a hill with a view that estate agents would probably kill for. Huddled together, gravestones and small mausoleums crowd the place. Because of its location against the cliffs, the cemetery cannot expand and so, as a rule, the remains of the dead are dug up after seven years and buried under the chapel to make room for newcomers. The cemetery caretaker’s official task is to maintain the entire grounds, but unofficially Rispoli is also active as a grief counsellor: “The more I listen, the more I can help,” is his motto.


Essad Bey’s grave in Positano. Bey (1905-1942), was an important writer and orientalist during the Weimar Republic and published his work under numerous pseudonyms

A special place in the cemetery and the village mythology is occupied by the grave of Essad Bey, “the Muslim”, who died in 1942. He landed in Positano during the turmoil of the Second World War. “The Muslim” is also famous because Paolo Sersale of “Le Sirenuse” had him posthumously excavated and moved his grave to face Mecca: “He had been buried 28 degrees off course,” Steinbeck writes. “This was outrageous to a seafaring town.”

What Steinbeck overlooked, however, and what not many people know, is that “the Muslim” Essad Bey alias Kurban Said, born Lev Abramovich Nussimbaum, was one of the most important orientalists, publicists and writers of the Weimar Republic. He wrote a much-acclaimed biography of the Prophet Mohammed and in 1937 – after he had already been banned from publishing in Germany – the best-selling romantic novel “Ali and Nino”. Born in Baku in 1905 and actually of Jewish Russian descent, he is one of the most enigmatic intellectuals of this era. In Berlin, where he lived for 12 years, he is commemorated by a plaque in Charlottenburg’s Fasanenstraße. In 2005, the US historian Tom Reiss published a biography tracing Beyd’s dizzying travels and escapes across almost every continent. Here in Positano, his grave cements a rather truncated myth of the Muslim, as the biographer sourly noted.

At what point do myths become so fixed that any kind of movement is difficult? Or to put it another way: how can you shape the future of a town whose self-image is defined so much by the past and the present? There is one aspect in which Positano is quite ordinary, or rather, it has the same problems as many other popular tourist destinations in Italy. Mass tourism seasonally makes the town burst at the seams and fuels an economy that is almost entirely dependent on the money generated by it. Even the people who earn their money from the tourists complain openly about it; they object to the buses causing chaos on the narrow streets and crowds creating a similar effect in the lower alleyways around the harbour. The flip side of all this is the complete standstill of public life between November and April, when, after the last guests have left, almost all restaurants and shops close up and quite a few residents leave the city altogether.

So, in the face of such forces, who actually has the power to make a difference? In Steinbeck’s day, it was the mayor of Positano. “Marquis Paolo Sersale”, the hotelier from Le Sirenuse, “a strong, handsome man of about 50, who dresses like a beachcomber and works hard at his job as mayor.” And as if you hadn’t already guessed, Sersale was “an archaeologist, philosopher and administrator.” He was also – at least for a short time – a member of the Communist Party whose best friend, as in the film series of Don Camillo and Peppone, was a Catholic priest.

Historic impressions of Positano and “Le Sirenuse”. The international jet set were quick to adopt the town as a destination, with visits from VIPs including Jackie Kennedy and her son John

As mayor of this era, he was able to shape it from the ground up. And Paolo Sersale did just that. He made sure that Positano had a functioning infrastructure with roads and sewage systems. “My father was a visionary,” says his daughter Marina. “He saw the potential of the place and did all he could so that things worked well here and that it became known to the world.” He invited an influential mix of guests, from the famous French politician Pierre Mendès France to British starlets. And just like that, he put Positano on the bucket list of the post-war jet set. Everyone came, from Jackie Kennedy to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as Princess Gracia of Monaco and her husband Prince Rainier. He also did something that hardly anyone else thought of in this era of social and economic awakening: he passed a development plan which stated that new buildings could only be erected in strict harmony with the aesthetic specifications of the historic buildings and thus preventing overdevelopment – unlike in some other towns along the Amalfi Coast.

Nevertheless, even Paolo Sersale could not have foreseen the popularity of the place today. And certainly not the problems that regularly accompany it. The Sersales are still an influential family, but no longer active in politics. But when they decided to close “Le Sirenuse” for the winter season in 2005, all the other hoteliers who had been brave until then followed suit. Their relationship to what is happening around them is now rather pragmatic: “We cannot change globalised travel, so we better stop complaining, adapt to it and also see the good in it. For example, that there is not a bad restaurant in the whole of Positano,” says Carla Sersale. Her strategy against the common side effects of tourism has always been, “Hospitality and meaningful culture.”  When asked who can make things happen in town, Antonio replies, “The people with the biggest families.” There are three or four of them. He is not the only one who explains to me that families here usually present a unified front to the outside world. Even in elections, for example, some people vote collectively for a candidate. A large family can make a big difference in a place that has only 3,000 inhabitants.

Like many of Italy’s romantic destinations, parts of the Amalfi Coast and Positano are heavily visited by tourists during high season

Indirectly, all this probably also means that nowadays the mayor’s influence is reaching its limits. But of course he is still an authority figure in town. On this evening, Carla and Antonio will meet the current incumbent for the first time at their hotel restaurant La Sponda for dinner. Giuseppe Guida, as he is known, was only elected to the post in September 2020. He is 42 and rather removed from Paolo Sersale’s beachcomber look – more the perfect son-in-law: nice haircut, bright eyes, a freshly ironed shirt and a boyish face.

The day before, I met him at the Positano town hall where he sat at his massive desk, Christ on the cross and a photo of Italian President Sergio Mattarella behind him, to the left the Italian and European flags, to the right an open floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the bay. Guida grew up in Positano, studied at the Bocconi University of Economics in Milan and began to get involved in politics ten years ago: “I became a politician because I love my city,” he says. Followed by a phrase that pops up in almost every conversation here: “It’s my calling.” Yet another one following his vocation, but he at least doesn’t claim to be a philosopher.

Being the mayor of a popular tourist destination during a pandemic is probably not always a dream job and it shifts priorities. The issues in the town hall at the moment are not about there being too much of anything, but rather too little. What is important now is to “smooth out the economic impact” left behind by the pandemic or to take care of seasonal workers. And that is why, for Guida, there is only one direction. The most important characteristic of the people of Positano, he explains, is hospitality and an entrepreneurial spirit. “They always look ahead.” What might the future bring? “Culture is important,” he says and presses a programme brochure into my hand like a farewell gift. Like many here, he would like to bring visitors to the village in the winter season as well. And like for many here, too, it seems to be more of a wish than a plan.

Giuseppe Guida (left) is the acting mayor of Positano; the picture next to him on the right depicts Paolo Sersale, the acting mayor during the time of Steinbeck’s visit

If tourism management in Positano turns out to be slippery, one way out may be to shift the focus. I meet Gabriella Guida for coffee at the “Li Galli” street cafe – and despite her name she is not related to the mayor: “He’s a nice guy, but he has nothing to do with me personally,” she says, her open and friendly face beaming in competition with the early summer’s day. The 38-year-old is a minor sensation here. She studied in Bologna and Venice and worked as a curator. Now she is the third generation to run the Hotel Pupetto on Fornillo Bay. She also has two small children and was a single mum for a while. In 2020, she founded a party with the super name “Super Positano” together with a handful of young people and then ran against her namesake out of nowhere in last year’s mayoral election – the first woman in the town’s history to do so. She lost by only 100 votes: “People were a bit afraid of the revolution,” she says and laughs. But she even managed to partially break down the encrusted family structures in terms of voting behaviour, she says. Would she run again? “Of course!”


Gabriella Guida (no relation to the mayor) campaigns for women’s rights in Positano politics

Talking to Gabriella Guida is different from talking to the others here. The picture she paints is less ethereal and ultimately also sketches the picture of traditionally conservative structures that are deeply rooted in the south of Italy. But, they are no longer set in stone. Here, too, globalisation and social media have done a thorough job. Women are an important topic for Gabriella: “They are largely invisible in public,” she says. They are responsible for all areas of private life, they call the shots in the family, even when it comes to business, but this is always used as an argument that they shouldn’t be involved in shaping public life “as well”: “It’s a big excuse” she says, “and nobody talks about it”.

But now she is. As a member of the opposition in the town hall she doesn’t mince her words. “We do have a few young women in politics. But I have never heard their voices at council meetings.” The list of issues that mainly affect women and children that are not discussed is, in her opinion, endless: there is only one tiny kindergarten, no designated parking space for the mobile paediatrician and it seems impossible to install a proper sunshade for the square in front of the school where mothers wait for their children. Meanwhile, Positano’s teenagers have “nothing to do” in the winter months. Too many also leave school too early. And finding a flat in town is next to impossible. The most important thing, however, is the lack of representation of women – and laws have not been very helpful so far. Some of them are already in place, though. For example, 40 per cent of all councillors should actually be women, although no one adheres to that. “We need women who are in charge and call many others to action,” she says. Gabriella Guida is sure that other things would then be set in motion, like more sustainable tourism concepts.

Roberto Pontecorvo and Imma Tralli initiate cultural projects throughout the region

In the neighbouring town of Praiano, Roberto Pontecorvo and his partner Imma Tralli are setting an example. In 2017, 31-year-old Roberto was one of two selected representatives from Italy at the “Obama Foundation Summit”, initiated by the Obama Foundation in Chicago, which at the time invited visionary young people from all over the world to this event. Imma, an art historian from Matera, and Roberto, who studied international relations, met during their training in Brussels, but the pull to return to the Amalfi Coast afterwards was too strong: “It’s magical and unique here,” says Roberto. And now that they are here, “we just create the environment we like ourselves.”

Roberto is co-founder of “Naturarte Praiano”, a non-profit organisation which supports art projects in public spaces, and together with his partner he recently founded the “Marea Art Project”, which starts this winter. The art project involves homeowners in Praiano and Positano offering rooms free of charge to creative people from all fields during the winter months – visual artists, architects, musicians, fashion designers – so that they can work here. “There needs to be an exchange with the community. The Amalfi Coast is sold like a postcard – and in a way it is, but that’s not all there is. We want to open up a new perspective on it,” says Roberto. And Imma adds:

“We are in fragile territory. Slowness needs to be respected again. We don’t have the right infrastructure here for this rush. We need more travellers and fewer tourists.”

A boat cruise along the coast with Frank Carpegna, who has a story to tell about everyone and everything here

The traveller with the highest status is the expat, an English term for an immigrant that implies choice and cosmopolitanism. Also sitting in the “Li Galli” street café in the morning is Frank Carpegna. A native New Yorker, there is still a vague trace of his origins lingering in his accent. Frank, or Francesco as some people call him here, has been living in Positano for 30 years and, according to him, was the first American to settle here permanently. We quickly strike up a conversation, because the 69-year-old is wearing a pink sweatshirt, which I simply have to compliment. Five minutes later, we are sharing a table and the next day we have lunch in a small glittering bay at the beach restaurant Da Adolfo – a place that makes you forget that there just might be another reality out there somewhere.

One reason foreigners move to Positano, Steinbeck writes, is because nothing about the place is out to disturb your thoughts, “provided you have a thought”. With Frank’s stories and thoughts, you might be surprised as to how they all fit into one head, or even life, at all. They range from his childhood in the East Village (“I lived the West Side story”) to his time as a successful investor on the Upper East Side, where he was involved in patenting the magnetic resonance therapy process, to one of his favourite philosophical topics, “the concept of fear” and how to overcome it to live a more fulfilling life. He also loves to sing, preferably until everyone else joins in.

Why did he come to Positano? “Because I love beauty and I love to be where it is beautiful.” The long answer includes remarks about the “energy fields” that intersect in this area and that the Romans already knew about, “a spiritual essence that permeates the entire bay of Salerno.” It also includes countless stories like the one about the woman Frank and his circle of friends picked up on a road one evening because she was standing there looking lost. They invited her to dinner. It transpired that she was an opera singer, lovesick and that it was her birthday, too. She sang such sad songs on the balcony that the next day the neighbourhood was still in turmoil and many believed it had been an apparition.

Frank Carpegna: a New York ex-pat in Positano for 30 years

Perhaps it is also this: Positano is a place where the harmony of the landscape provides the framework for inwardly soaring and outgrowing yourself. Where life stories are turned upside down. Where unexpected and sometimes unheard-of constellations and gatherings become possible. Artistically and socially.

Setting the tone here is the Sirenuse environment, where Paolo Sersale began an affair with Anne Mary Dent-Brocklehurst, the aristocratic wife of a British officer, during her holiday in the 1950s. It went on for several summers until “la bellissima Annemarie”, as one gossip magazine called her, simply stayed there, divorced her husband and caused a considerable social scandal.

The onset of tourism after the Second World War set things in motion economically as well as in terms of lifestyle. The artist Paolo Sandulli, who has his studio in a lighthouse in Praiano where he paints, draws and makes clay busts that he calls “queens of the sea”, remembers when the first Scandinavian women arrived: “It was a different cultural idea. You had to bring flowers to our girls and woo them. These female tourists were much more approachable. You could relate to them, you could be close to them,” says the 72-year-old. “It opened up the horizon.”

The artist Paolo Sandulli works in his atelier in the neighbouring town of Praiano

Right up to the present day there has been a kind of international social mobility. The fisherman O’Fratillo, for example, who speaks fluent English, was first married to an English woman he met on the beach: “When you mix languages and cultures, life sometimes becomes difficult,” he says. “You have to give something up, but in return you gain something new.” O’Fratillo’s wife died young and now lies with Carlo Rispoli in the cemetery. Rispoli is also married to an Englishwoman. Another coup de foudre. She had been visiting Positano for years and yet one day he showed up at her door with his suitcase: he was hers. From that day to this – now since two decades.

However, before the Northern Europeans start packing their bags, these scripts don’t just write themselves. Many of them end up as a narrative flop after just one summer. And the movement also goes in the other direction. Italian men, in particular, take the opportunity to move with their new international partners to different countries to get away from a place where there are few professional opportunities besides tourism. But the fact that in this place the traditional lives side by side with the unconventional and the courageous creates a certain tension. “Beauty and desire” simply belong together here, says the artist Santulli.

Steinbeck managed to encapsulate this observation as an emotional foschia: “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” Whether it’s about the people or the place, there is still no better description to capture the essence of passion for people and places – even seventy years on.

A view of the Santa Maria Assunta church’s roof from “Le Sirenuse”

Heike Blümner
Claudia Eberlein
Roberto Salomone