Writers who have been inspired by Sorrento
During Val Culley’s talk, A Salute to Sorrento, on 18 April she spoke about how Sorrento had inspired her to write her second novel, The Shooting in Sorrento, a crime mystery set in the resort.
She also spoke about some of the other writers who have been inspired by visiting Sorrento:
Torquato Tasso 1544 to 1595
Torquato Tasso is regarded as the greatest Italian poet of the Renaissance. He was born in Sorrento in 1544.
Although Tasso travelled all over Italy during his life, Sorrento’s main square has been named after him.
Tasso’s most famous work was his epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) in which he gives an imaginative version of the battles between Christians and Muslims at the end of the first crusade during the siege of Jerusalem. His poetry was later to prove inspirational for other writers who followed him, in particular Spencer and Byron.
The house where Tasso was born on 11 March, 1544 is a few streets away from Piazza Tasso in Via Vittorio Veneto and now forms part of the Imperial Hotel Tramontano.
Tasso came back to Sorrento towards the end of his life to visit his beloved sister Cornelia, at a time when he was in deep trouble.
Cornelia’s house is tucked away in a narrow street, Vico San Nicolo. It is sometimes known as the Sersale house because Cornelia married Marzio Sersale in 1558.
Cornelia continued to live in the house with her sons, Antonino and Alessandro, after she became a widow.
The house can be identified by a pretty little balcony on the front, which is supported by decorative stonework.
In the 1570s Tasso had developed a type of persecution mania. He believed he was going to be denounced by the Inquisition and also dreaded being poisoned. While still enjoying the patronage of the Duke of Ferrara he entered a Franciscan convent for the benefit of his health but later escaped, disguised himself as a peasant and travelled to Sorrento.
It is said that Torquato arrived at Cornelia’s house in Via San Nicola and pretended to be a messenger who had come to inform her of her brother’s death.
Tasso is believed to have been trying to test Cornelia’s loyalty to him, but her shock and distress on receiving the news was enough to reassure him that she could be trusted.
Mary Shelley 1797 to 1851
Mary Shelley, the widow of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Sorrento in 1843. Although a lot has been written about her travels through Italy with Shelley and Byron in the 1820s, not so much is known about her return to Italy later in life with her one surviving child, Percy.
She had a difficult time after her husband’s death and struggled financially. But by 1843 things had improved enough for her to visit Sorrento and stay at the Hotel Cocumella at Sant’Agnello, which she wrote about in her book, Rambles in Germany and Italy.
She wrote that Sorrento was ‘beautiful beyond expression and the weather was one’s beau ideal, warm and no heat.’ She said she was dreading going back to dark, friendless, ungrateful England. After her return, her health deteriorated and she died a few years later.
Henrik Ibsen – 1828 to 1906
Because of its location in pretty gardens and overlooking the bay of Naples, it is not surprising that the Imperial Hotel Tramontano, Tasso’s birthplace, has provided inspiration for other famous writers who have stayed there.
The hotel is proud to have accommodated American writers James Fennimore Cooper and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
And the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is believed to have written his play Ghosts while enjoying a long stay at the Imperial Hotel Tramontano. There is a plaque on the wall in Via Marina Grande commemorating his stay there.
Marion Crawford – 1854 to 1909
Sorrento’s famous American resident, the writer Francis Marion Crawford, was born in 1854 in Bagni di Lucca in Tuscany.
A prolific novelist, Crawford became known for the vividness of his characterisations and the realism of his settings, many of which were places he had visited in Italy.
He chose to settle in later life in Sant’Agnello, just outside Sorrento, where he even had a street named after him, Corso Marion Crawford.
Crawford was the only son of the American sculptor, Thomas Crawford. He spent his childhood going backwards and forwards between Italy and America and studied at various American and European Universities.
He spent some time in India, where he found the inspiration for his first successful novel, Mr Isaacs, which was published in 1882.
In 1883 he returned to Italy to settle there permanently. He lived at the Hotel Cocumella in the village of Sant’Agnello just outside Sorrento to begin with. He then bought a farmhouse nearby, from which he developed the Villa Crawford, an impressive clifftop residence easily identifiable from the sea.
The villa, which was donated to a religious order by his descendants, has been recently refurbished as a guesthouse.
Crawford found inspiration for his writing while living in Sorrento and many of his later novels have Italian settings, such as Don Orsino, published in 1892, which is about the effects of social change on an Italian family.
His novels sold well in America and he would often travel there to deliver lectures on Italian history, about which he wrote several books.
Crawford died at the Villa Crawford in Sant’Agnello after suffering a heart attack in 1909.
The Corso Marion Crawford leads down to the sea from Corso Italia, the main road connecting Sant’Agnello with the resort of Sorrento.
The historic Hotel Cocumella, where Crawford stayed during the 1880s, is in Via Cocumella, just off Corso Marion Crawford.
Maxim Gorky – 1868 to 1936
The first place you encounter after leaving Sorrento along Via Capo in the direction of the Sorrentine peninsula is the small hamlet of Capo di Sorrento, which has grown up around the cape, or promontory of land, that protrudes into the sea known as Punta del Capo.
Via Capo climbs steeply after you leave Sorrento and the walk can be hard work in hot weather but there are regular buses running between Sorrento and Massa Lubrense that stop at Capo di Sorrento.
You will pass the crossroads where the Nastro Verde leads off to the left to the village of Sant’Agata su due Golfi. If you continue along Via Capo you will have glimpses of the sea behind the low stone wall before you come to the baroque villa known as Il Sorito, which was the residence of Russian writer Maxim Gorky during his time in Sorrento early in the 19th century.
The writer Isaac Babel visited Gorky at the villa in 1833 and wrote these words about Capo di Sorrento in a letter home:
“The earthly paradise, I suppose, must look like Capo di Sorrento. The emerald sea is spread out before the window, orange, olive and lemon groves grow right up to the door. It’s only now that I am recovering my senses after so much blissful beauty.”
Further along Via Capo you will see a sign to i ruderi romani, which directs you down Calata Punta Capo to the remains of the Villa Pollio and the beautiful Bagno della Regina Giovanna (Bath of Queen Joan).
Despite the many tourists who visit these attractions in the summer, you get the feeling that the pace of life has stayed the same for centuries for the residents, whose lives revolve around the church, two shops, a pizzeria, a bar and a post office.
Giambattista De Curtis 1860 to 1926
If the main square in Sorrento belongs to the poet Torquato Tasso, then the square outside the Circumvesuviana railway station is definitely the territory of Neapolitan poet and artist Giambattista de Curtis.
He is believed to have written the words for the song Torna a Surriento while on the terrace of the Imperial Hotel Tramontano in 1902 gazing out at the sea, whose beauty he was praising.
Giambattista lived for weeks at a time in the hotel and painted frescoes and canvases for the owner, Guglielmo Tramontano, who was also Mayor of Sorrento.
One theory is that he was asked to write the song to mark the stay at the hotel of Italian prime minister Guiseppe Zanardelli. But another school of thought is that he wrote the words to accompany the beautiful music his brother Ernesto had already written.
There is a bust of Giambattista in front of the railway station with the inscription: To G Battista de Curtis author of the song Torna a Surriento. Placed by the commune 15 September 1982.
Giambattista wrote the verses in Neapolitan dialect and the English version that is sometimes performed is not an accurate translation.
One of Italy’s most famous songs, Torna a Surriento has been performed and recorded by such greats as Di Stefano and Pavarotti.
Lucio Dalla 1943 to 2012
The singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla was born in 1943 in Bologna.
Dalla is most famous for composing the song, Caruso, in 1986, after staying in the suite the great tenor used to occupy overlooking the sea at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento.
The song has been sung by many other artists since, including Luciano Pavarotti.
In the book Caruso the Song - Lucio Dalla e Sorrento, Raffaele Lauro, a writer from Sorrento, recalls that Dalla booked the very suite at the Excelsior Vittoria that Caruso had occupied during the final weeks of his life in 1921. While staying there, Dalla composed the song, inspired by his love for Sorrento, his respect for the great tenor and his fondness for classic Neapolitan songs. The Fiorentino family, who owned the Excelsior Vittoria, were later to dedicate a suite to Dalla.
Dalla had started playing the clarinet when he was young and joined a band with the future film director, Pupi Avati.
Avati was later to say that his film Ma quando arrivano le ragazze? was inspired by his friendship with Dalla.
In the 1960s the band won first prize in the traditional jazz band category at a festival in Antibes. After hearing Dalla’s voice, singer-songwriter Gino Paoli suggested he try for a solo career as a soul singer, but his first single was a failure.
Dalla had a hit with 4 Marzo 1943, originally entitled Gesù Bambino, but the title was changed to the singer’s birth date so as not to cause offence.
In the 1970s Dalla started a collaboration with the Bolognese poet Roberto Roversi, who wrote the lyrics for three of his albums.
When the association ended, Dalla decided to write the lyrics for his songs himself and his subsequent album was a success in 1979.
The version of Caruso sung by Pavarotti sold more than nine million copies and Dalla was invited to sing Caruso in a duet with Pavarotti in a Pavarotti and friends concert.
Andrea Bocelli included his version of the song on his first international album, Romanza, which sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
Dalla was made a Commander and subsequently a Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bologna.
The singer songwriter died three days before his 69th birthday in 2012, after suffering a heart attack in a hotel in Montreux in Switzerland, where he had been performing the night before.
About 50,000 people attended his funeral in Bologna and his hit song, Caruso, entered the Italian singles chart after his death, peaking at number two for two consecutive weeks.
The Excelsior Vittoria is probably Sorrento’s most famous hotel and it has now achieved global recognition as part of the Leading Hotels of the World group. From the imposing wrought-iron entrance gates in Piazza Tasso, a long driveway lined with orange trees leads to the entrance and reception area. At the back of the hotel, the terrace has panoramic views over the bay of Naples and of Vesuvius across the water. Tenor Enrico Caruso was famously photographed in front of those views during his final stay in 1921. The Excelsior Vittoria was opened as a hotel by the Fiorentino family in 1834 and is still, to this day, run by their descendants.
Raffaele Lauro – Sorrento author and politician born in 1944
Italian Senator and writer Raffaele Lauro was born in 1944 in Sorrento.
A prolific author and song writer, Lauro has also been an important political figure for more than 30 years.
As a young man he worked as a receptionist at a number of hotels along the Sorrento peninsula.
After finishing school he went to the University of Naples where he was awarded degrees in Political Science, Law and Economics.
Lauro then won a scholarship from Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and studied at their diplomatic institute and then later in Paris.
Afterwards he studied for a degree in Journalism in Rome and became director of a scientific magazine. He became a commentator on new technology for Il Tempo in Rome and Il Mattino in Naples and studied Film Directing while living in Rome, also teaching Law of Mass Communications at Rome University.
His political career began when he was elected as a Councillor for Sorrento in 1980. He went on to become Deputy Mayor and, as Councillor for finance, personnel and culture opened the Public Library of Sorrento and established a theatre school. He moved to Rome in 1984 and has held a number of Government posts.
In the general election of 2008, Lauro was appointed a Senator for the People of Freedom Party representing Campania.
He was made a member of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into the Mafia and later became political advisor to the Minister of Economic Development, Claudio Scajola. In 2015 Lauro joined the Democratic Party of Lazio.
For more than 40 years, Lauro has worked as a freelance journalist, essayist, screenwriter, author and director. He has written about foreign affairs and politics, brought out works of fiction under the pseudonym Ralph Lorbeer and composed music.
In January 2017, at the age of 73, Lauro published a song dedicated to the songwriter Lucio Dalla, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his death. Lauro had previously written three books about Dalla.
For more information about Sorrento please visit Val’s website www.bestofsorrento.com
Or, visit www.italyonthisday.com for a daily dose of Italian history and culture with a new post each day about an event or festival, or a birth or death of a famous Italian. The website includes travel tips to guide people to places in Italy they can visit that are connected with the subject. The website has nearly 1000 posts showcasing Italy’s rich culture and featuring the artists, musicians, architects, designers, inventors and scientists who have made Italy the great country it is today.