Sorrento between history and legend
The history of Sorrento is full of myths and legends which contribute to improve that mythic atmosphere at the roots of its charm. Though, according to some historians, the town would lie in a region of which we have had testimonies since the Neolithic Age, the real origins, according to the historian Diodoro Siculo, go back to the italic population of the Ausones, and in particular, to the founder Liparo, son of the king Ausone and nephew of Ulysses and of the enchantress Circe.
Various are also the hypotheses linked to the name (Sorrentum, Syrentum) which is found in the writings of Ovid, Stradone, Seneca, Ennius, Galenus, Horace, Martial, Plinius and Stazio. According to the most famous legend, its etymon would be linked to the myth of Memaids, half women and half fish, who, from the waters of the sea of Sorrento, enchanted Ulysses whilst, according to another legend, the name would depend on Sirentum, the girl born by two peasants of the hilly area of Casarlano who, abducted by the Saracens, was claimed by the Sorrento people. Recent studies, instead, would make the name of the Greek verb surreo, which means contribute, flow together, or also flow into, referring to the morphology of the Sorrento ridge, characterized by the presence of two watercourses which flow into the sea distinctly. Some urban and archaeological elements make us think of a Greek presence between 474 and 420 B.C. when the town was conquered by the Sannites. In the 3rd century B.C. Sorrento was conquered by the Roman Empire, and took its destiny first as a colony and then as Municipality in the 1st century B.C.
In the Imperial age, between the age of Caesar and that of Hadrian, Sorrento, for its mild climate, was chosen as a stay by many emperors and aristocrats who commissioned residences and maritime villas, along the coast, as Villa Pollio Felice, at the Capo di Sorrento, and Villa Agrippa Postumo, under the present Syrene Hotel. In the Early Middle Ages Sorrento was occupied by the Goths, by the Longobards and the Byzantines (552) and under Sergio 1st raised the status of Dukedom. The Dukedom of Sorrento extended its boundaries all over the Peninsula, soon giving life to a blooming economy based on the building of naval equipments, on trade and the production of citruses and wine.
Later (1100), the Dukedom became a sort of Norman protectorate, thus giving up its political autonomy but receiving in exchange protection against incursions by pirates and Longobards. In the Angevin period, at the beginning of the 14th century, nobles divided themselves into two Seats, (or Squares) with the establishment of the Sedile Dominova in contrast with the original Sedile di Porta. The prestige of the Sorrento noble seats went beyond its regional narrowness, coming to contend in the Spanish period some privileges with the capital Naples itself. Very intense were maritime traffics between Sorrento and the ports of the Gulf of Naples and of Southern Italy, the products which were at the basis of its economy were fruit, wine, oil, meat and by-products of milk. The year 1544 represents an important date for Italian and European cultures: in that year the poet Torquato Tasso was born in Sorrento, the author of the famous Jerusalem Freed and of other poems.
In 1558 Sorrento was destroyed and sacked by the Turks, and this implied the fortification of walls and the building of coastal towers. In this period a strong economic standstill, due to impoverishment and to the Spanish fiscal pressure, an aspect which caused the rebellion of country people of the hamlets, who had wanted to be independent from the town patricians for a long time. In this context the revolt of the Genoese Giovanni Grillo (1648) takes its place, who, by exploiting the contrasts which for years had occurred with the local nobles, managed to unite people and farmers, causing a long state of siege. In the age of the Counter-Reformation, the artistic and social aspect of the patrician town declined and, with the building of various academies and monasteries, the town achieved a conventual aspect. In 1799 the town adhered to the Jacobin Republic, but people from Sorrento, faithful to the Bourbons, favoured their return by hindering some revolutionary ideas of freedom. In the first Bourbon period the maritime activity and the fishing of tuna developed, flourishing up to the beginning of the 20th century. In 1805, when Ferdinand IV of Bourbon was chased away by the French, Sorrento was governed by Giuseppe Bonaparte first, and then by Gioacchino Murat: it was then that the noble Seats were abolished.
With the defeat of Waterloo (1815) the Bourbons returned to Sorrento, with Ferdinand I, and the town found its balance again with the revival of commercial activities and the development of agriculture, shipbuilding industry, handicraft and tourism. After the Unity of Italy, S. Agnello became autonomous, and for Sorrento an urban renewal, which transformed its ancient Roman aspect, made of cards and decumani, with the building of a new road, the present Corso Italia (1866). At the end of ‘800, the electrical system was built and the new electrical tramway system which began in Castellammare and finished in Sorrento in Piazza Mercato, which would be abolished in 1948 after the building of the railway network. In the course of years, Sorrento became a privileged destination of renowned figures of the European culture, such as Lord Byron, Keats, Goethe, Dickens, Wagner, Ibsen and Nietzsche. Agriculture lived, in the early ‘900, a second youth thanks to the intensive cultivation of citruses which were exported all over the Peninsula and abroad. The latest periods, in particular since the ‘60s, have seen the progressive development of tourist business which, in a short time, has become the leading sector of Sorrento economy.