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Positano’s secret treasure

The Amalfi coast is breath-taking even on a day of torrential rain. Driving waves slam against the Sirens’ islands, Li Galli, crowning them in a fine mist. And so you round the corniche and unexpectedly into Positano, clinging onto the cliff. Four thousand citizens, all huddled around a narrow road that winds down to a miraculous beach and still more views towards Amalfi. The spectacle as the storm drives the breakers in towards us on a November day is almost celestial.

Positano beach with the Li Galli islets beyond

We are not alone! Besides American professors escaping Study Abroad students, there are hosts of Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, all frolicking in the surf, drawn to this iconic beach. But we are alone when we stray from the bucket list, selfie spots….

Passing beside the church, cantilevered over the lowest terrace above the beach, is an archaeological museum. It is the Museo Archeologico Romano, Santa Maria Assunta. I was surprised at the price – 15 euros, but paid anyway for the half-hour tour.

Once inside the door, we are confronted by a slightly musty smell and the later baroque crypt of Santa Maria Assunta. Here, ranged in moulded armchairs of stone with deliberate perforations, the corpses of deceased monks were propped up to putrify. This Neapolitan tradition never ceases to be astonishing and I was puzzled that the museum did not market its grotesque and grim story. There was a reason….

Crushed in AD 79

Roman finds were ranged in corners vacated by the necropolis: cauldrons, serving plates and the like crushed by the Vesuvian eruption which encased the Roman villa here just as it did at Herculaneum and Pompeii. But nothing prepared me for the climax, the regal household’s painted triclinium which once stood proud on this terrace until it perished in AD 79. Recent excavations show that the maritime villa was undergoing repairs after the AD 62 earthquake, when the cataclysmic disaster struck.

Santa Maria Assunta overlooking Positano beach

The tiers of brightly lit frescoed panelling emitted an astonishing radiance. Not only, the painters were aided by sculptors adding relief figures to the uppermost panels. This artistry was for a patron of great stature, someone who recognized the wonders of Positano and its tentative connection to Odysseus’s travels, by way of the offshore islets. Was this the property of one of Tiberius’s family members as he whiled away his time on Capri after AD 26. Other academics attribute it to Posides Claudi Caesaris, a man freed by the Emperor Claudius, who might just have lent his name to this resort.

One thing is certain, this is a treasure. More excavations are promised, and soon. With time these will come to compete with Positano’s beach.

The painted triclinium destroyed in AD 79

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