The origin of the City of Salerno
Salerno was founded as a Roman colony (Salernum) in 194 BC. In 197 BC, the Roman Senate proclaimed the constitution of five new coastal colonies, four in Campania (Volturnum, Liternum, Puteoli, Salernum) and one in Lucania (Buxentum), probably to defense and control the coast and routes. Three years later, after the preparatory operations, a group of 300 Roman citizens, with their families, set up in Salernum, in the area corresponding to the present old city center, made up of a rather small space with natural terraces, which were crossed by short streams and overlooked the sea, on the slopes of a rather arduous hill.
The decision of Rome to found a settlement in the northern sector of the Sele plain (Ager Picentinus) formed part of the new structure delineated for the region at the end of the war with Taranto (280-272 BC), which marked the passage of Southern Italy under the Roman control. In fact, since 273 BC, a colony of Latin citizens, who set up in the Greek Poseidonia, by then occupied by the Lucani, was conducted to Paestum, in the southern part of the Sele plain.
In the centuries preceding the constitution of Salernum, in the Ager Picentinus, two centers of Etruscan origin developed, then occupied by the Samnites, near current Fratte and Pontecagnano. The first suffered a crisis in the early 3rd century BC and there, in 268 BC, Romans deported a group of inhabitants from the Piceno, who will be called Picentini, founding the town of Picentia. In Hannibal’s military campaigns in Southern Italy, during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), the Picentini rose up and came over to the Carthaginian. For this reason, at the end of the conflict, the Romans forced them to live scattered on the territory. The abandonment of the settlement of Fratte is set around the middle of the 3rd century BC, followed by the birth of Salernum after about half a century.
According to the historian Livy, the constitution of this new colony took place “ad castrum Salerni”, that is, in an earlier fortified center (castrum), so far not identified by the archaeological research, risen, as the same Salernum, to control the territory of the rebel Picentini, according to the geographer Strabo.
Salerno during the Roman age
The events of Salernum during the Roman age are little known. The literary sources report scarce news, while some more data come from the epigraphic documentation.
During the war between Rome and the Italic allies (socii), the so-called “Social War” (91-88 BC), the rebel army, led by Papius Mutilus, conquered Salernum and enlisted slaves and prisoners.
At the beginning of the Imperial era, Horace mentioned the city consulting his friend Numonio Vala, perhaps a citizen of Salerno, about the convenience, as an alternative to Baia, of staying in Salernum or in Velia for his treatments, and he asked about the weather conditions, the population, the wine and the food. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that behind this news there was the reference to the existence of a sort of “medical school” already during the Roman era, even if stated.
The earthquake in 79 AD damaged also Salernum. The restoration works to public buildings, thanks to emperor Titus’ intervention, are linked to this circumstance and there is also a reference to them in an inscription found in 1948 in the necropolis of Vittorio Emanuele Avenue.
Compared to the silence of the literary sources, interesting information about the city during the Imperial era comes from the epigraphic documentation, especially about its institutional and administrative structure, its population and society.
An important period in the life of Salernum seems to be the age of Constantine (306-337 AD). Two statue bases have been found in Largo Abate Conforti, perhaps corresponding to the tribunal area, one related to a statue dedicated by the city senate to emperor Constantine, the other put in honor of his mother Elena by Alpinio The Great, governor (corrector) of the province of Lucania and Bruzio (modern Calabria). Very likely, in this period Salernum was no more part of Regio I (Latium et Campania) but it was annexed to Regio III (Lucania et Bruttium), perhaps also residence of the governors.
Between the end of the 4th century and the early 5th century AD, a calamity shocked Salernum. A flood caused by a stream that passed through the urban area made the situation so difficult that many people chose to leave the city. The intervention of the patron Arrius Maecius Gracchus was providential. He, as written on the inscription on the base of a statue dedicated to him by the local senate, took care of the restoring of the devastated areas giving again confidence to the citizens, preventing the depopulation of the city.
THE MIDDLE AGES
Salerno during the Early Middle ages
An epigraph, dated between the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th, celebrates Arrius Maecius Gracchus for the important works achieved in Salerno, at that time a Roman colony, after the damages caused by a strong flood. After a few decades, at the turn of the 5th century, a bath complex of Imperial era became a place of worship and cemetery for people of high rank, becoming the foundations of the later complex of S. Pietro a Corte.
Therefore, a catastrophic event and a gradual reconstruction characterized the last decades of Salerno during Late Antiquity. About that, however, the sources tell us very little, so that a long period of silence surrounded its events until the 8th century when it emerged from the oblivion of the written history and was defined opulentissima (exceedingly wealthy) by the historian of the Lombards, Paul the Deacon. In any case, also Salerno had lived as other cities the long period of readjustment following the fall of the Western Roman Empire and, before the Lombards of Benevento conquered it, around 640, it had gravitated towards the Byzantine orbit, under the Duke of Naples. Moreover, it had been directly involved in the long war between Goths and Byzantines (535-553) and assimilated in the Byzantine defensive system with the erection of a turris on the mount Bonadies, to control the valley below and the routes that led to the north.
The first evidences of the diocese date back to a few decades before when the bishop Gaudentius took part in the 1st general synod announced by Pope Simmaco in 499, followed by a number of prelates whose list remains strongly uncertain, at least until the entire Early Middle Ages.
Also the first times of the Lombard domination remain little known until the conquest of Pavia (774), the capital of the Lombard kingdom, by Charles the Great, when Arechis II, duke and prince of Benevento, moved to Salerno to better defend himself from the advance of the Franks. Thanks to the building works by Arechis, the real history of medieval Salerno began and the city became the protagonist of a continuous development that brought it, in the 11th century, to assume the title of opulenta, impressed on the coins of the last Lombard princes. Here Arechis, in addition to the fortification works, built a palatium using part of the structures of the Roman baths, which, celebrated by Paul the Deacon, will become the ultimate symbol of the power of the prince and later the symbol of the city in the Early Middle Ages.
In 787, he was buried in the city cathedral, as declared in an epitaph by Paul the Deacon who celebrates him as the founder of the city, and this is the first news of the Maior Ecclesia of the Lombards. Its origin should be placed at least in the 5th century, but we do not know the exact location even though it is likely that it was placed to the east of the archiepiscopio (archbishop’s building), according to a much later documentation.
The fortification interventions continued with his son Grimoald who erected a rampart (the “muricino”) to the south of the old maritime city walls, so the area between the two curtains of walls was called inter murum et muricinum, and then became an urban district. The following history of the city was marked by a gradual urban development and the birth of some quarters, such as the Jewish one called Giudaica, mentioned in the sources starting from the late 10th century.
Essentially, the Lombardic events of Salerno followed those of the Duchy of Benevento at least until when, between 848 and 849, it became independent Principality with Prince Siconulf, turning into the center of a vast area with several districts (the gastalds). The emancipation from Benevento increased progressively its political role which found its highest outcome with the Principality of Guaimar IV († 1052), when Salerno succeeded in controlling directly or indirectly a large area of Southern Italy. Meanwhile, his diocese was promoted to metropolis, around 983, so the archbishop of Salerno exercised his jurisdiction over an area that exceeded the boundaries of the same Principality. Nevertheless, after Guaimar’s death, with his son Gisulf II, the Principality ended and, after a long siege during the winter between 1075 and 1076, Salerno fell into the hands of the Normans of Robert Guiscard. Even though under the power of the new rulers, it remained the most important center of the Duchy of Apulia and Calabria, entrusted by Pope Nicholas II to Guiscard with the treaty of Melfi in 1059.
Salerno during the Norman-Swabian domination
The political role of Salerno explains why exactly here Guiscard, with the help of the archbishop Alfanus (1058-1085), built a great Romanesque cathedral consecrated to S. Matthew. The new building would have become one of the everlasting symbols of Salerno, also thanks to the fact that there, the relics attributed to the Apostle, brought into the city from 954, were conserved.
Even with the creation of the Kingdom by Roger II (1130), Salerno did not lose its political centrality in the continental South, as clear by the fact that in these years the archbishop of the city is Romuald Guarna, linked to the Court of Palermo. He was an intellectual and doctor but also a leading figure in the complex dynamics of the conflict among Frederick I Barbarossa, the Papacy and the Municipalities. Moreover, it is no coincidence that in the same period the largest southern Jewish community was recorded here or that the Schola Medica Salernitana reached its maximum institutional development.
Obviously, the future events followed those of the Kingdom, even when it passed, not entirely peacefully, under the Swabian domination, the Germanic emperors, after the Norman King William II’s death.
In the difficult array of forces that was created in this situation, the citizens of Salerno sustained the Normans, attracting the hostility of Henry VI who, as husband of Constance of Hauteville, Roger II’s daughter, was the legitimate heir of the Kingdom. Even during the Swabian domination, the history of Salerno did not differ from that of other southern cities, reflecting the conflict between Frederick II and the Papacy, broken out at the end of the Thirties of the 13th century.
Salerno under the Angevin domination
By then, Salerno and the South had to open up to a new dynasty, the Angevins, and also in this case, as for other southern cities, the people of Salerno divided into the supporters of the Swabians and those of the Angevins, among which the most representative was the Archbishop Matteo della Porta. With the Angevins, the city became the center of the new political entity, the Citra Principality, created at the end of 1200 and it kept an economic, social and political supremacy on this territory for a long time. However, his political role, which was substantially maintained during the Norman-Swabian era, was permanently decreasing, to give progressively way to Naples, which just with the Angevins would have become the real heart of the South, relegating the other cities – even the ones with an illustrious history as Salerno – to the rank of suburbs of the Kingdom.
THE MODERN AGE
From the kingdom of Aragon to the Spanish viceroyalty
After the Swabian period, when it was a state town, in 1439, Salerno was subjected to the Orsini and then, in 1463, to the Sanseverino, keeping in this condition a role of capital of an independent State and of connection between Naples and the provinces of the Principality. With the Spaniards’ arrival, especially for the progressive attractive power of Naples, capital and large city, Salerno underwent a process of provincialization that prevented it from emerging towards the smaller towns.
After the conspiracy of the latest prince of Salerno, Ferrante Sanseverino, against the Spanish viceroy Toledo (1557), the city was taken away to the Sanseverino and made state town before being sold, in 1578, to the merchant Nicholas Grimaldi, Duke of Eboli. Finally, in 1590, with a payment of 90,000 ducats, it managed to become state town again.
In the 16th century, Salerno lived a difficult transition from being center of a great feudal “government” to a modest urban reality in the new Spanish state organization. For that, in this period its hamlets had an independent economic activity and a much wider population than the city center, so that it was defined “absent city”.
After repeated attempts to convert it again from domain to state town, a new idea of freedom and a more resolute process of creation of a local identity started to emerge. This process focused on some past symbols, places strictly connected to the power: the Arechis Castle, the church of San Pietro a Corte, the Schola Medica Salernitana, the Cathedral, the port, the fair, not surprisingly solemnly inaugurated by the Master just in the Cathedral.
From the point of view of the administration, a characteristic of the system of Salerno was the presence of typical elements of the ancient jure Longobardorum as the figure of the Strategoto, a royal representative. He, together with the judge and the notary, examined the decisions of the citizenship in civil and criminal matters. Generally, we know that the representative bodies of the classes and of the power management in Salerno were the seats, three noble and one of the people. The city benefited of the prerogative of “closed piazza”, which meant that the aggregated families had the jealously guarded privilege to sit in the seats and to check out the new aggregations when needed. The council was made up of seven elected, in addition to the mayor, three noble (chosen by the seats of Portanova, Portarotese and Campo) and three of the people, designated by the community. Alternately, aristocrats and people elected the mayor, designated one year by the noble and one by the community. Debtors or people in dispute with the town council could not hold these roles, renewed every year from September 1 and by honor. At the end of the mandate, the administration, run by the elected people, had to be closely examined by the rational masters (auditors) chosen by the public parliament.
Salerno between 1700 and 1800
Demographically exceeded by its own hamlets, Salerno failed to drive the economy of the provincial context, having already lost importance in the trades, even if preserving its prestige, mainly thanks to the medical school. Even the reconstructions after the earthquakes of the late 17th century took place in a provincial environment with a town center confined in the city walls delineated during the previous centuries.
In the 18th century again, Giuseppe Maria Galanti highlighted the absence of a center capable of becoming a reference point for the entire civilized life of the Principality. This condition limited the development of a vast and rich in natural resources province due to the parasitic life of the privileged and professional classes and the inability of the city to become an element of coordination and organization of the economic activity of the Citra Principality.
Between the 18th and the early 19th century, the distribution channels for the products coming from the province were still relatively autonomous and used production and commercialization pathways that were often outside the city of Salerno. The old medical school was abolished in 1810, during the French decade, in favor of the centrality of the University of Naples. This represented a very harsh blow to the millennial tradition of the school.
During the contemporary age, the history of Salerno summarizes the main features of the transformation and modernization of Southern Italy (Mezzogiorno). The city and its province have been an important place to test political, cultural and social factors that have characterized its development until today. At the beginning of the contemporary age, after the great Atlantic revolutions, also Salerno was involved in the political and cultural debates of the Age of Enlightenment. Some of the main Neapolitan Enlightenment thinkers came from its social environment. During the frantic days of the revolution and the civil war of 1799, Salerno – as almost the whole province – was the scene of bloody conflicts between republicans and realists, French and English. During the French decade, after abolishing feudalism and overtaking the ancient regime structures and its legacy of the past (such as the Schola Medica Salernitana), the city became the institutional center of a vast province, whose political features and geographical boundaries have been preserved until today.
In the first half of the 19th century, gradually Salerno retook a role lost during the Modern age thanks to its proximity to the capital Naples, the development of the first industrial segments of the kingdom in its district and the demographic size of the province. The politicization of important areas of the society combined these elements with an ideological struggle, which experienced difficult and intense, often dramatic and bloody stages. In the constitutional revolution of 1820, Salerno was the main center of the liberal mobilization. In the decades of the absolutism, it recorded a complex and alternating political struggle between the defenders of the Bourbon regime and the supporters of the liberalism, whose main lines continued in the revolution of 1848 and until the fall of the Bourbon regime. In 1857, for example, it hosted one of the first big trials of the century, followed by the international press, held to the survivors of Carlo Pisacane’s expedition, defeated in the Vallo di Diano by the Bourbon security forces. For these reasons, Salerno was chosen as a strategic target of Garibaldi’s march in 1860 and became one of the symbolic places of the national unitary revolution in the old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The capital and the several towns of the province, where there was an important national liberal elite, were among the first to vote for the acceptance of the nascent Italian nation.
Salerno changed during the Liberal age (1861-1922). Firstly, because it became one of the most important railway and commercial hub of Southern Italy. Secondly, because it was one of the strongholds of the Historic Left and consequently one of the most active centers of southern politics until the Giolittian era. The testimonies of that period are visible in the urban transformation, which definitely expanded the town circle outside the ancient city walls and changed many spaces in the place names and in the physical representations, such as the statues of the City Park and the Verdi Theatre, which celebrated the final integration in the new Italian nation. The massive participation of the population of the province to the Great War contributed to change the social and economic context that accompanied the crisis of the liberal state. Salerno lived episodes of struggle as consequence of the contrast between fascists and antifascists, until the final replacement of the liberal administration, linked to Giovanni Amendola, with a city government under Mussolini’s regime. Fascism in Salerno continued the expansion of the city during its twenty years of dictatorship, celebrating its victory with the buildings that still mark important aspects of the local identity (the Town Hall and the Prefecture). During the years of the regime, a significant transformation of the relationship between the city and the surrounding areas began: first of all, the Sele plain and the region of the Agro Nocerino Sarnese, where new businesses, related to tobacco, construction and mechanics, started to form a different economic and social profile of Salerno.
In 1943, Salerno became the crossroads of the crisis of fascism and of the old Italian state, and one of the hot areas of the borders of Nazi Europe. The first great Allied invasion on the continent and the harsh battle between the Anglo-Americans and Hitler’s army took place in the plain. A few months later, the Italian Government, reformed after the collapse of the armistice, moved to Salerno, where the executive branch tried to rebuild the legitimacy and the institutional continuity of the state, while old and new parties started a path that led to the founding of the Republic (Svolta di Salerno, 1944) a few years later. In the city, this transition process will end only in the Fifties, with the disappearance of the monarchists and the final affirmation of mass parties. In the first part of the history of the Republic, between the Fifties and the Seventies, the city recorded the biggest transformation in its history. The progressive marginalization of the rural and agricultural context, with the simultaneous acceleration of urbanization and the economic growth, intensified during the years of the Miracle, radically changed the aspect of Salerno. The population growth, the creation of important infrastructures such as the port, and the location of public and private enterprises in the newly created industrial zone defined the main lines of the current urban structure. In addition, the presence of the big republican political forces contributed to insert the province, often successfully, in the new season of the Italian history, marked by the absolute leadership of the parties and the labor unions, firstly the Christian Democracy and secondly the Socialist and Communist Left.
At the end of the Seventies, the city began a different phase, lasting until today but similar to that of other Italian and European cities, marked by the progressive secularization and mobilization of the society, the resulting disappearance of the last traditions linked to the rural society and the spread of modern cultural patterns and high levels of education. The growth of the University, until its transformation into a great athenaeum, in the Nineties, was one of the most evident steps, even symbolic, of this historical season. The crisis of the parties between 1992 and 1994 marked the end of the great mass parties and the formation of models based on a highlighted personalization of the politics and of the decision processes. At the same time, the city changed its social and economic characterization. Large companies disappeared, substituted for small and medium-sized enterprises, mainly distributed in the adjacent areas or on the Apennines. The development of the metropolitan area brought to the city commercial growth and the building expansion lived vacillating moments. Included the tourism has had a great development in the latest years thanks to the growing number of travelers to the Cilento and Amalfi coasts and the success in the recovery of physical and architectural spaces of the old town center.
Contemporary Art and Architecture city
Between the Sixties and Seventies of the last century, Salerno lived a culturally vibrant season. It was marked by the presence of important scholars and intellectuals linked to the new University, where Edoardo Sanguineti and Tullio De Mauro, Filiberto Menna and Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, Achille Mango and Mario Perniola met. However, it was also characterized by a widespread fervor expressed by the creation of art galleries, libraries and cultural clubs and by the organization of important film and theatre festivals, exhibitions and important conventions in an enthusiastic and engaging mood. Here, just some examples of the events that marked an essential phase of the cultural growth of Salerno, which has collected only a part of the very rich legacy of these years. The exhibition promoted by Marcello Rumma, collector and special publisher, one of the architects of the international affirmation of the Arte Povera. The three unforgotten editions of the New Trends Theatre Festival, which, led by Filiberto Menna and Giuseppe Bartolocci, proposed in Salerno the best of the theatre avant-garde. The activity of the galleries, with the one of Il Catalogo standing out, a still active space founded in 1968 thanks to the poet Alfonso Gatto. Finally, in the second half of the Seventies, the creation of the Teatro Gruppo where folk traditions, music, theater and also photograph experiences grew up.
In the last decades of the 20th century, some experiences were institutionalized. In 1989, thanks to his family, the Filiberto Menna Foundation was created. The Contemporary Art Study Centre, which opened for the city the library of the historian and art critic of Salerno, still promotes, on the basis of the analytical lesson of the scholar, the reflection on the language and the theory of the arts through meetings, conferences, artist’s dialogues, workshops and research exhibitions. Later, the Alfonso Gatto Foundation was established and, after various happenings, now it works more firmly on the promotion of the literary and artistic production of the poet. The Contemporary Salerno Foundation is much younger and particularly aimed at the proposal of theatre experiences and researches. In the Nineties, Linea D’Ombra-Young Culture Festival was born, a showcase for the languages and the creativity of the new generations, paying attention to the cinema, the video art, the performance, the graphics and the music, which has an important tradition in Salerno, especially for the jazz.
Together with the exhibitions promoted by Menna Foundation, the art galleries – including that of Paola Verrengia, characterized by continuity – and by some associations, in the first years of the new century, local governments supported, with events, the contemporary art in Salerno. In the spaces found inside the Monumental Complex of Saint Sophie, the town council proposed exhibitions of great acclaim that presented also works by Picasso, Mirò, Warhol and projects by Pier Luigi Nervi. On the other hand, St. Augustine Palace, seat of the Province, hosted mainly linked to the territory artists, who now are also in the spaces of the Provincial Art Gallery. Between 2011 and 2012, the Superintendence BSAE of Salerno and Avellino promoted the Door-to-door exhibition, site-specific interventions of contemporary art in the Old Town Center of Salerno, where you can still see some of those works. Then, the Fontana Felice (Happy Fountain) by Ugo Marano, made up of blue ceramic, in Corso Garibaldi and the Fountain of the Dolphins by Riccardo Dalisi in Piazza Flavio Gioia enriched the architectural heritage of the city. For some years now, the city center has been hosting during the winter months the ephemeral bright architectures that draws the colored path of Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights), an event that always gets a wide success.
The attention to literature shows itself with the activity of the House of Poetry started in 1996, which over the years has brought to Salerno some of the protagonists of the international poetry and, more recently, also with the Salerno Literature Festival. Thanks to the decisive contribution of the University, for a few days it occupies the city, its streets and squares, with the words and voices of contemporary literature.
In the latest decades, the interest in the architecture has grown considerably, thanks to the urban policy of the City. Salerno, whose urban landscape is also marked by some interesting architectures of the early 20th century, welcomes today a number of projects, mostly still under construction, signed by some of the great contemporary starchitects. Among these, for example, the Cittadella Giudiziaria (the Courthouse) designed by David Chipperfield, the Marine Station by Zaha Hadid and the less central Sports Center by Tobia Scarpa in the eastern area. These building sites, together with the discussed monumental Crescent, by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, give the image of a city in continuous transformation.