History of the island

History of the island
History of the island
History of the island
History of the island
History of the island

Capri is part of the Western edge of a wide Bahamian-type Mesozoic carbonate platform known as the Campania-Lucania platform which extends from the Lepini Mountains in the Lazio region of Italy, to the Massif of the Calabrian Pollino Nature Reserve. The position of the exposed earth has changed considerably with the passing of time and it is thought that the present conformation was established approximately 40-50 million years ago during the Eocene.

According to the theory of continental drift, all islands were originally part of a single block with much of the land now visible once being under the level of the water. Carbonate platforms would have been present at the level of the surface of the water, including the Campania-Lucania which was involved in the formation of the island of Capri. Between the Langhian and the upper Pliocene, the region was involved in a series of tectonic phases and a subsequent relaxing phase with Capri joined to the Sorrentine Peninsula by a thin strip of land.

This connection allowed large Pleistocene mammals to reach the island. Subsequently there was a phase when Capri was submerged, a phase which can be verified by the numerous tunnels of mollusks present in Anacapri. The rocks which form the island date back to the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras, from 65 to 190 million years ago. The oldest areas are Cala Ventroso, Grotta delle Felci and the Migliera. Capri is now formed by two rocky massifs: the Capo to the East and the Solaro to the West divided by a deep depression on which the urban area is built.

Prehistoric Capri

On the Island of Capri, in the early nineteen hundreds, during digging work for the enlargement of the Hotel Quisisana, a layer of red clay mixed with mud, weapons, equipment and bones from the Paleolithic Era was exposed five meters below ground level. These findings had been covered in ashes and lapillus of volcanic origin, and have therefore been dated prior to the eruptions of the Flegree area. The presence of numerous bones of pre-historic animals would indicate a difference in climate and geological characteristics, supporting the hypothesis that the Island of Capri was once attached to the mainland. In addition, under Punta Campanella, the presence of an isthmus has been found with evident signs of periods of immersion.

Bones of large mammals found on the island include those of the mammoth, cave bear, hippopotamus, deer, pig, rhinoceros, and dog. Traces of these species, representative of varying climates, leads to the belief that either the animals co-existed, or, that deposits or diverse origin had mixed together in the layer of clay. The weapons, made from chips of quartzite and flint stone - materials not found on the Island of Capri - originate from the Quaternary, mankind's hunter-gatherer era. These findings further support the hypothesis that Capri was once was part of a larger complex, characterized by water flows and woodlands. The exhibits are held in the Centro Caprense Ignazio Cerio, in the Anthropological department of Naples and the Prehistoric Museum of Rome.


The fragmentary and vague historical sources at our disposal do not permit us to reconstruct with precision the Greek period on Capri. Traces of the presence of Greeks on the Island of Capri are the Greek walls, a polygonal work close to the Piazzetta, the Phoenician Steps, a long flight of steps carved in to the rock face, which connects Marina Grande with Anacapri and various Epigraphs in the stone. Much of the literary documentation would seems to be based on traditions of a mythical character. Some citations mention a settlement of the ancient pre-Hellenic Teleboi population, and the presence of two towns, difficult to identify.

Capri started occupying an important role in the political and military matters of the Roman Empire when Ottaviano, not yet Augustus, landed here in 29 BC and, struck by the incredible beauty of the island, took it from Naples, in exchange for Ischia. After Ottaviano, the Emperor Tiberius resided on the island for a decade and it was from Capri that he managed the interests of the Empire. The presence of the two emperors on Capri notably influenced the island architecture and the development of the urban area. The advanced engineering and building capabilities of the Romans, resulted in the construction of the port, sophisticated drainage and water storage systems, farms, habitations, and the twelve Imperial villas listed in the nineteenth century by the native historian, Rosario Mangoni. Fine examples of the Roman period are Villa Jovis, Villa Palazzo a Mare and Villa Damecuta.

Middle ages

In the Middle Ages the Island of Capri underwent a number of invasions by the Saracens, who habitually pillaged the towns of Southern Italy and deported the inhabitants as slaves. The fear of the invaders led the population of Capri to elect San Costanzo as guardian of the Island, and, indeed, the saint is almost always depicted in the act of turning away the pirates. During the invasions, the indigenous population used to hide in the caves, the largest of which was the Grotta del Monte Castiglione. Only towards the close of the twelfth century were the first walled fortresses were built to defend the population.

Early modern period

Until 1860 Capri came under the rule of Naples. It had been traded on various occasions up until 1445 when it was granted the Right of Inalienability, meaning that it could no longer be handed over "in feudo". With the Angevins Capri obtained certain benefits such as the right to fish along the Gaeta and Salerno coasts without having to pay the custom duties to the court, the possibility to elect its own administrative representatives and to import goods from Naples which were not available on the island, such as wheat. Towards 1300, with the foundation of the Charterhouse of St. Giacomo, the Carthusian monks, using the powers conferred on them by Pope Gregory XI, introduced a series of heavy tax duties which caused great malcontent in the population and consequent rioting.

In 1535, following an extremely violent attack, Khair-ad-din, alias Barba Rossa or Red Beard, conquered Capri and set fire to the Castle, from that time onwards known as Barbarossa Castle. A similar fait awaited the Charterhouse, assaulted by the troops of the Admiral Dragut in 1553. Not until 1571, with the battle of Lepanto, did the united navies of the Christian States manage to defeat the Ottoman Forces. The first written documents regarding the Island of Capri date back to the 1500s, example of which Fabio Giordano's manuscript of 1570. In the 17th Century Capri was hit by the plague which rampaged through the whole of Italy in that period.

In the eighteen hundreds the name "Capri" began to become known in the rest of the world. Initially it owed its fame to its strategic position for the control of Southern Italy and as the territory of bitter fighting between the French of Napoleon's Empire, who had succeeded the Bourbons, and the British. It was in this period that numerous Forts along the Island perimeters were built, seriously compromising the Roman ruins which had managed to survived until that time. Some years later, Capri's fame increased with the growing interest in travel, which brought to the island the first of a long stream of foreign visitors.

Contemporary period

During the nineteenth century guests included artists from all over the world, predominantly Germans belonging to the moneyless Bohemian movement of the time. Only towards the end of the century, with the opening of the Quisisana, did a tourism comprised of members of the various royal families, aristocrats, politicians and industrialists arrive on the island on Capri. The fortune of the Island of Capri's hospitality industry has been in it's ability to welcome, with the same care and discretion, guests of every social extraction. Among those to have stayed on the Island of Capri we find the Russian exile Massimo Gorkij, the German artist Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Miradois - the monk who lived in the Cave of Matromania, Count Jacques Fersen, the writer Norman Douglas. Axel Munthe, the famous Swedish Physician, also moved to the Island and built his Villa San Michele here. He highly praised Capri in his novel "The History of San Michele".

From the nineteen fifties onwards Capri became the world capital of the Cafè Society: this is when the season of fashionable parties, gala dinners in fine evening wear and ostentatious luxury began. Today Capri remains a much desired and dreamt of destination, visited by tourists from all over the world. Tourists come to the island just for the day or stay much longer, sitting in the Piazzetta in the hope of escaping anonymity. In the solitary lanes, one can still come across the occasional artist painting, writing or simply absorbing the energy of the island so as to transform it into their next book, album or film.