Friday, October 4, 2013

Villa Rufolo

A tragic site?
A tragedy in 1283

At the end of June in the year 1283, things were not going well for a certain rich family from Ravello. Lorenzo Rufolo was beheaded at the Castel dell-Ovo in Naples, on the order of the Angevin prince Charles II. His father Matteo Rufolo was  in prison, the family riches were confiscated, and several other members of the family sentenced to death. The charges against them - some say trumped up, and never proven - included extortion, treason, exporting wheat to the detriment of the king, and extending favours to the Aragonese in the  war of the Sicilian vespers.

In truth, the problem for the Rufolo family was that it was very rich and powerful, and had backed the loser in the battle at Benevento that saw Charles d’Anjou, ally of Pope Martin IV, defeat and kill Manfred, son of the popular Norman-Swabian ruler Frederico II, in 1266.

Villa Rufolo: a hidden corner.
In the following years the Rufolo family tried their best to switch sides to the victor. They swore allegiance to the new king, and altered their coat-of-arms to add three lilies, the symbol of the Anjous. But the matriarch of the family, Sigilgaida, was of Norman descent - she was from the equally powerful della Marra family. She married Nicòla Rufolo - they were the parents of Matteo and the grandparents of the unfortunate Lorenzo. 

The della Marra family had followed the Norman kings south, settling in 1076 in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. By this time, the strength of the Amalfi Maritime Republic was beginning to wane. The Norman family built a stronghold high on the ridge in Ravello, part fortress to keep an eye on the Amalfitani, part noblemen’s home. The della Marras also spread to Puglia, to the towns of Barletta and Trani, where the Swabian kings held sway. 

Between them, the Rufolo and della Marra families controlled customs and castles, and had real power, both economic and military. They were responsible for the accountancy of the kingdom as well as for strongholds in Ravello, Maranon, Puglia and Calabria. At one point, in 1275, Matteo Rufolo, along with seven other Ravello families who had loaned money to king Charles I d’Anjou, was entrusted with the Royal Crown as a pledge for the debt. They were, it seems, too powerful to last.

Torre Maggiore

Villa Rufolo

One of the pieces of property that fell from the grasp of the Rufolo family when their dynasty was struck down was the enigmatic Villa Rufolo in Ravello. It was to the east of the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace in Ravello, and the della Marra fortress stood to the south west. 

Villa Rufolo continues to stand today, almost one thousand years old, changed, rebuilt and adapted through the many hands which have held it since Lorenzo’s day. The original building was a synthesis of Arabic, Sicilian and Norman architecture. In the 18th century cloisters were added, in the 19th century Romantic gardens that charmed Richard Wagner. Today it’s the home of the famous Ravello Music Festival and of the Centro Universitario Europeo per i Beni Culturali.

Art and architecture

Villa Rufolo is probably the last example of secular Norman Islamic architecture in Southern Italy. It’s covered with Islamic artistic symbols, decorated with arabesques. It bears many resemblances to the Norman churches in Palermo in Sicily. A local historian, Alessio Amato, points out that Sigilgaida Rufolo’s Norman heritage lived on through the years of Angevin rule through subtle architectural and artistic displays in Ravello, despite the Rufolo pledge of allegiance to the new kings. 

Il Chiostro in Villa Rufolo.
Not only is there the Norman Islamic architecture of the Villa. In 1272 Nicòla and Sigilgaida donated a pulpit to the Ravello Cathedral - it’s still there. It’s a fusion of Byzantine and Islamic techniques, Puglian and Campanian artistry, tastes deriving from the Norman-Swabian king Frederico II. The artist employed by the Rufolos to make the pulpit was Nicola da Foggia, an artist of the Frederican school with ties through his father to Frederico II. 

Also installed in the Cathedral was a sculpted bust of Sigilgaida herself, crowned with a royal diadem, which (until a 1973 restoration moved it) used to be positioned over the door leading to the pulpit - so the bishop had to pass under this vision of Sigilgaida before reading the Scriptures. As Allession Amato says in his small booklet “Secrets of Villa Rufolo”:

“Art has always expressed thought and, above all, in antiquity, in periods of great battles, of political, economic and social upheavals, certainly was depicted in tangible artifacts. Families would demonstrate their identity and political allegiances through art and decorations.”

Shadows of the past. Villa Rufolo.
A tour of the Villa

Today, you might choose to visit Villa Rufolo for a concert on the outdoor belvedere in the summer; or to walk through the 19th century Romantic-style gardens established by the Scotsman Neville Reid who rescued the Villa in the 19th century.

You would begin by walking from the piazza in front of the Ravello Cathedral through the Torre d’Ingresso, a crumbling stone structure that dominates the east side of the piazza. It has always been purely decorative, with a ribbed dome and arabesques in polychrome stones and terracotta. 

A stroll down a long avenue of cyprus and lime trees brings you to il Chiostro, the cloister, self-evidently Moorish in style -- twin columns, pointed arches, friezes and arabesques. Turning into the courtyard on your left you’ll find it dominated by the Torre Maggiore, three stories high and the oldest extant part of the Villa. 

19th century gardens.
Beyond the tower the 19th century gardens begin, studied informality, flower beds, pergolas, walks and hidden seats, fountains and vines. Here, Richard Wagner (visiting in May 1880) is said to have found the inspiration to complete the second act of his last opera, ‘Parsifal’, exclaiming that he’d found ‘the magical garden of Klingsor.’ This has to be the most-repeated off-hand comment in history. The whole of the Ravello Music Festival has, since the 1950s, been based on this moment of inspiration - the Festival is dedicated to Wagner and always features a concert of his music.

In the corner of the garden is one of my favourite structure on the site - the so-called Sala dei Cavalieri, or Hall of the Knights. It’s a round pavilion, walls decorated in arabesques, and its roof long since collapsed. No-one has any idea what it was really used for - the name was bestowed much later.

Beyond the gardens is the famous Ravello panorama - difficult to beat. The concert platform, the belvedere, juts out into space over the terraces of Ravello falling away to the sea and the distant mountains. It’s put up each summer, and taken down for the winter. Under the belvedere, you may explore some very ancient parts of the Villa, including an Arabic Bathhouse - a hammam of sorts - the Bagno Turco; the cellars; and a space known as the Sala da Pranza, or dining room, with a cross-vaulted roof and columns supported by odd groups of pillars. 

La Sala dei Cavalieri.
It's dome long since gone...

Richard Wagner was not the first artist to be inspired by the Villa Rufolo. In 1327 Giovanni Boccaccio was a guest of the Angevins in Naples and apparently heard the story of Lorenzo Rufolo. The fourth of his famous set of ten stories, ‘The Decameron’, concerns a character named Landolfo Rufolo, and is thought to be loosely based on the real-life tragedy. 

La Sala da Pranza.
In March 1713 an earthquake caused much damage to the Villa, and it probably would be no longer standing in any form if it were not discovered and rescued by Francis Neville Reid, a Scotsman living in Naples in 1851. He was a botanist, a Freemason and a scholar, and is responsible for much of what we see today at Villa Rufolo - along with the master-builder he employed to revive the buildings: Michele Ruggiero, chief foreman of the excavations at Pompeii. Ruggiero also later restored the pulpit in the Ravello Cathedral. 

Since Wagner’s day, the Villa has been visited by the likes of D H Lawrence, Jacqueline Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Gore Vidal (who lived in Ravello for many years). 

And me. I can recommend it. As you’re strolling in the cloister or the Sala Dei Cavaliere, don’t forget to spare a thought for Lorenzo Rufolo and his fate in 1283.

And then you can stop for refreshments at 'Bar Klingsor' on the piazza. 


Acknowledgement: Much of this information comes from Alessio Amato's small booklet, "Secrets of Villa Rufolo"

No comments:

Post a Comment