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La Dolce Vita: Celebrity on the Amalfi Coast

“The charm of what has been will remain and will not fade” 

Like birds migrating towards a pastel summer, the stars of the Dolce Vita began to move in the 1950s from Roman sultriness to coastal calm. In this way, the celebrity spotlight was turned from Rome to the Amalfi Coast–a location suitable for reconciling the restless rhythms of the jet-set with the slow and relaxed rhythms of the waves, for bringing together the beauty of the divas and that of the natural wonders, and for combining worldliness with the need for privacy in hidden villas. Wherever the celebrities moved, paparazzi, photographers and a swarm of Vespas of curious young people followed, traveling up and down the long coastline overlooking the sea. Down below, in the gardens with salt water pools, on the beaches, or in the middle of the sea, the stars spent their days of rest. 

Between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, this sun-kissed part of Italy went from the cradle of fishermen to the “Costa Diva” (a pun on the song “Casta Diva” from the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini). The first incursions of the artistic world, however, date back much earlier. In the beginning, the splendid villas along the coast were a refuge and inspiration for artists such as Goethe (in the late 1700s), Richard Wagner, and Oscar Wilde (in the 1880s). Then in the 20th century, Virginia Woolf, Michail Semenov, Ernest Hemingway, Maurits Cornelis Escher, and many others came. Later, along with the boom of cinema, the coast became a glamorous location. Whenever I’m here, I inevitably get to thinking about what life was like in that golden age of black and white photos, with a flavor of glamor even more intense than the current one. To do so, I effortlessly immerse myself in the local lifestyle and go in search of the iconic sites of La Dolce Vita.

Director Franco Zeffirelli was one of the first to choose the Coast and Positano: he first came here at a young age in 1941, when there were no tourists, least of all foreigners. In 1947, he came again and met the Duchess of Villarosa, who wanted to sell her Villa Tre Ville complex above the bay of Arienzo with stupendous views of the Perla della Costiera. Zeffirelli had two of his American friends purchase the villas, which were later left to him in the 1960s. Villa Tre Ville became one of the nerve centers of Positano’s high society and the location of exclusive events attended by the likes of Gregory Peck, Anthony Burgess, Glenn Close, Lawrence Olivier and the composer Leonard Bernstein. Tennessee Williams, but also Pier Paolo Pasolini and Maria Callas with Greek and Monegasque friends in tow. Today, it’s a luxury hotel. As I enjoy lunch on the marvelous terrace, I try to imagine when Villa Tre Ville flowed at the rhythm of the stars’ whims. The only iron rule was that pictures were forbidden. Today, there are few testimonies of those elegant but often wild evenings, of which only legend has been handed down: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the middle of a stormy crisis, or a fistfight between Zeffirelli and Rudolf Nurejev. Even the Russian ballet dancer was fascinated by the wonders of the Coast and decided to buy Li Galli island, in front of Positano and perfectly visible even in bad weather. His illustrious guests included Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy, who had already fallen in love with the area during her first visit to Ravello in 1962. 


Here, as first lady, Kennedy learned to love the friendliness of the inhabitants and what she called the best ice creams and puddings in the world, but also the fun: she went wildly dancing into the night in a club in Atrani with the company of the lawyer Gianni Agnelli, a regular visitor to the Coast. The place was forbidden to journalists, trying to immortalize those moments of fun, despite their offers of substantial amounts of money. Jackie Kennedy also loved Capri and local fashion, especially linen clothes in pastel colors. The photograph that shows her walking barefoot, as per local custom, with Valentino Garavani is iconic. An unmistakable style was being born that would become one of the symbols of the Amalfi Coast and influence international fashion for both women and men. In boutiques such as La Parisienne in Capri or Pepito’s in Positano, there are still newspaper clippings from the time.

The whole world was discovering the Amalfi Coast, not only as a summer destination, but also as a movie set. In 1946, director Roberto Rossellini shot some sequences of Paisà and Il miracolo there, written by Federico Fellini and starred in by Anna Magnani. All three spent weeks filming in Atrani, Furore and Maiori, and fell in love with these places, so much so that the Roman actress immediately bought a small house overlooking the sea. Yet those days sanctioned the end of the story between Rossellini and Magnani, who, in her favorite restaurant Hostaria di Bacco in Furore in front of the whole crew, found a telegram from Ingrid Bergman intended for the director. (This telegram was the first sign of the scandalous affair between Bergman and Rossellini and led to a big, jealous fight between Magnani and Rossellini.) The filmmaker continued to shoot films–such as La macchina ammazzacattivi and Viaggio in Italia–on the Amalfi Coast, particularly in Maiori. Then, American cinema arrived with Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones and Romi Schneider. Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall chose the kitchen of Ravello’s Mamma Agata, whose cake the actor was crazy for. 

It doesn’t matter where the celebrities come from or what role they play: every star who has come into contact with the Amalfi Coast has been fascinated by it–a phenomenon that continues to this day. Even the neorealist director and actor Vittorio De Sica fell in love with the “Costa Divina” (a pun on Dante’s masterpiece “Divina Commedia”), in particular with Positano, so much so that the luxurious Villa Viola has a commemorative plaque for the director’s love of this land. The American screenwriter Gore Vidal settled down until the early 2000s in the villa La Rondinaia in Ravello, where legends are still told about his unspeakable parties which were often attended by Princess Margaret of England.

When talking about the Dolce Vita on the Amalfi Coast, one cannot help but mention Sophia Loren. Together with her husband Carlo Ponti, she chose the beautiful villa Conca dei Marini in Capo di Vettica, a few kilometers from Amalfi. Today, still only visible from the sea, the villa is notable for the controversial heliport built in recent years. It is here that the diva and the producer spend their summers in the company of illustrious friends. And it is here that Roman Polanski shot What?, a surreal film with Sydney Rome and Marcello Mastroianni, produced by Ponti. The villa offered the film locations, but the lodging for actors and crew was Il San Pietro di Positano, a hotel on the bay of Laurito. Here, it’s still possible to hear testimonies of when Mastroianni, accompanied by Catherine Deneuve, wanted a room for three months at any cost, despite the hotel being full. He was satisfied with a more or less improvised suite, which is now dedicated to him with the name “Otto e mezzo”. 

Every place here has something to tell. From Pansa to Amalfi to Arienzo to Positano up to the fishermen of Cetara, it is wonderful to discover places and anecdotes that become increasingly fascinating legends as the patina of time makes them more distant. There is talk of lunches with Fellini and Ingrid Bergman wandering around the stores. There are autographs here and there, hanging in the restaurants where the stars ate, and there are yellowed photos like those of Brigitte Bardot walking barefoot through the streets of Positano and Capri. Today, everything seems so changed and so much the same, yet the merry-go-round continues to spin with new stars and new gigantic yachts. But the charm of what has been will remain and will not fade. All that is left for us is to seek our own personal Dolce Vita in these wonderful places.