When John Steinbeck visited Positano in 1953, he wrote that it was difficult to consider tourism an industry because “there are not enough [tourists].”
Alas, there are more than enough now, and the town’s vertical landscape with pastel-hued houses, drapes of bright pink bougainvillea, and sapphire-blue sea make it easy to understand why.
The most photographed fishing village in the world, this fabled locale is home to some 4,000 positanesi, who are joined daily by hordes arriving from Capri, Sorrento, and Amalfi. The town clings to the Monti Lattari with arcaded, cubist buildings, set in tiers up the mountainside, in shades of rose, peach, purple, and ivory.
A name now known worldwide, its origins could be a corruption of the Greek “Poseidon,” or derived from a man named Posides, who owned villas here during the time of Claudius; or even from Roman freedmen, called the Posdii. The most popular theory is that the name “Positano” comes from Pestano (or Pesitano), a 9th-century town by a Benedictine abbey near Montepertuso, built by refugees of Paestum to the south, whose homes had been ransacked by the Saracens.
Pisa sacked the area in 1268, but after an elaborate defensive system of watchtowers was put in place, Positano once again prospered, briefly rivaling Amalfi. As a fiefdom of Neapolitan families until the end of the 17th century, Positano produced silk and, later, canvas goods, but decline began again in the late 18th century.
With the coming of the steamship in the mid-19th century, some three-fourths of the town’s 8,000 citizens emigrated to America—mostly to New York—and it eventually regressed into a backwater fishing village. That is, until artists and intellectuals, and then travelers, rediscovered its prodigious charms in the 20th century. Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Olivier, Steinbeck, Klee—even Lenin—were just a few of this town’s talented fans. Lemons, grapes, olives, fish, resort gear, and, of course, tourism keep it going, but despite its shimmery sophistication and overwrought popularity, Positano’s chief export remains its most precious commodity: beauty.