Thursday, 10 January 2013

Sepia Saturday 159: Greetings and kisses from the beautiful Sorrento

Sepia Saturday 159 from Alan Burnett

It seems that I have the travel bug, as this week's Sepia Saturday theme has me off to Europe again, where we pay a visit to the sunny Mediterranean with a German family on a warm morning during the summer of 1929.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This postcard photo shows two young girls with their mother, apparently about to take a plunge, although the presence of water splashed on the wooden boardwalk suggests that someone has already been swimming. After some deliberation I've decided that was more likely to be the other woman whose face we don't see, and who leans on the towel-festooned railing and gazes off at the view to the right. The would-be swimmers, whose perfectly groomed hair belies any prior frolicking in the water, have just emerged from one of the doors to the wooden changing rooms visible immediately to the left, presumably the one from which a tagged key still protrudes.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

I've deciphered the text on the reverse of the postcard as follows:
Viele innige Grüße und Küsse dem lieber guten dunkel Siegfried aus dem schöner Sorrente wo wir auf sommer frische sind
Sorrente 24/VII 1929

My effort at a translation (with assistance from Google Translate) reads thus:
Many heartfelt greetings and kisses to the dear good dark Siegfried from the beautiful Sorrente where we are on summer break.
... although I'd be happy to consider both alternative interpretations of the text and corrections to my translation. The gist of it, I think, is clear.

It's a pity that it hasn't been sent through the post, as an address, stamp and postmark would no doubt have provided more information about the family.

Image © and courtesy of GeoEye & Google Earth
0.5m resolution GeoEye satellite view of Sorrento, 2009
Image © and courtesy of GeoEye & Google Earth

The small town of Sorrento is a popular tourist destination on the southern shores of the Bay of Naples. The glimpses of water in the photograph struck me as looking more like a quiet freshwater lake than the Meditteranean so, not having had the pleasure of visiting Italy, I flew over to have a look courtesy of Google Earth, which I find invaluable for remote research from the Antipodes. The half metre-resolution of the GeoEye satellite imagery used by Google Earth (click on image above) is excellent for a two-dimensional overview.

Image © and courtesy of CNES/SPOT & Google Earth
Perspective view of Sorrento, looking south
Image © and courtesy of CNES/SPOT & Google Earth

Google Earth can also be used for a perspective three-dimensional view of the coastline, taken as if it were from a helicopter hovering out at sea. Google Earth uses GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software to drape the satellite image over a wireframe model of the topography (imagine laying a very floppy table cloth over a papier-mâché model), which can then be viewed from any user-defined point and angle.

Sunset across the Bay of Napoli from Sorrento in Naples
For a more detailed examination, however, I take advantage of the many user-submitted photographs, visible on satellite view as hundreds of small picture icons, provided via Panoramio and 360 Cities. The 360° panoramic photographs are denoted in the Google Earth image by red photo icons, and the one shown above was taken from the cliff edge on the Sorrento waterfront. It was the first photo view I looked at and once you have familiarised yourself with the controls - clicking the "Full Screen" view will make it easier - pan the image down and to the left and zoom in to see what I discovered at the base of the cliff. Panning to the right, by the way, will give you a view of Mount Vesuvius in the distance across the Bay of Naples.
Image © Richard Hart and courtesy of 360 Cities Changing huts at Marina San Francisco, Sorrento Image © Richard Hart & courtesy of 360 Cities
I was a little surprised to see that the wooden boardwalk and changing huts, or at least ones very much like those in the photo, are still there, albeit with a few more licks of paint.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress Sorrento by the sea, Naples, Italy, c.1890-1900 Photocrom print no. 1829, by Detroit Publishing Company Image courtesy of Library of Congress
One of the earliest photographic views that I've been able to find of the Sorrento waterfont is this Photochrom print from the 1890s, which reveals a vista remarkably free of tourist paraphernalia. Presumably the well-heeled late Victorian visitors preferred not to venture too far from unber the shady awnings of the hotel balconies at the top of the cliff.
Hotel Tramontano e Casa del Tasso, Sorrento, c.1900-1905 Colourised postcard published by E. Ragozino, Galleria Umberto-Napoli
Roughly ten years later, judging by this postcard published in Naples, the first "bathing houses," rather more grand than the ones which we see today, had appeared.
Sorrento - Spiaggia e Hotel Tramontano, c.1915-1925 Colourised postcard by unidentified publisher
In the next decade or two, swimming in the sea and promenading along the shore show considerable gains in popularity, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of piers and bathing huts in this postcard, which although undated I'm guessing is from the late 1910s or early 1920s.
Hotel Tramontano - Sorrento, dated 26 Feb 1929 Colourised postcard (painting) by unidentified publisher
The nationalistic fervour pervading 1929 Italy, then firmly in the grip of Mussolini's one-party Fascist state and not yet tempered by the onset of the Depression, is clearly displayed by the prominent Italian flags shown flying atop the Hotel Tramontana. His spending on a massive public works programme, together with treaties with the Roman Catholic Church, resulting in the creation of the Vatican State, had brought him to the height of his popularity. Mount Vesuvius, as if in agreement, issues a column of steam, smoke and ash in the background.
Sorrento - La spiaggia e Hotel Sirene, dated 1 June, PM 3 June 1950 B/W postcard, publ. Vincenzo Carcavello, Via S. Baldacchini 29 - Napoli
Although from more than two decades later the detail from this 1950 black-and-white postcard is probably very close to what the shoreline development looked in those heady pre-Depression, pre-War years. When our young German family - I assume German but they could well have been Austrian, for example - visited Sorrento in July 1929, the Weimar Republic was experiencing a period of political stability and economic recovery under the very able Foreign Minister Gustave Stresemann. After the Wall Street crash commonly known as Black Tuesday in October that year, US loans vital to the German economy were recalled and unemployment soared, ultimately contributing to the achievement of another totalitarian, one-party Fascist state by Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1932 (Wikipedia). I suspect that our family would not have returned to Sorrento the following year!
Image © Heike11 and courtesy of Panoramio "Sorrento - Strand 08.05.06" Image © Heike11 and courtesy of Panoramio
Image © bingram and courtesy of Panoramio "Beach in Sorrento" (Hotel Tramontano at top left) Image © bingram and courtesy of Panoramio
Image © Sugár and courtesy of Panoramio "Sorrento, beach" Image © Sugár and courtesy of Panoramio

These three images, all from Panoramio contributers, probably give one a good sense of the modern day tourist experience. Need I say more?


  1. Another wonderful post - a perfect example of using a photograph as a scaffold to build a story. In the original photograph, there is something so natural about the woman on the right looks out of the photograph. You could almost run this photograph as an entry for next week as well.

  2. Seeing the transformation of the hotel in Sorrento is like watching a little time-lapse film.

  3. The picture on its own is a treasure. But your research amazed me! It is always so sad to look at pictures taken before WW2. They smile at camera and they do not know what's coming. We know and it hurts regardless nationality of the people on the snapshot. Thank you for sharing!

  4. What a magnum opus! I though that it was bed linen rather than towels hanging over the rail in the photo. Nothing prepared me for the look at Sorrento that followed. Fascinating to see the changes.

  5. Believe the inhabitants of Sorrento should read your post! It's a lesson in city history. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Ah, 'take me back to Sorrento' - well actually I've never been but after your informative post I feel as though I have. Isn't it interetsing that the huts and boardwalk are still there?

  7. The concept of going somewhere like this for a long visit is pretty foreign to Americans, although I do wish we were more culturally interested in vacations to exotic locales. Oh sigh...

  8. Great post Brett and such detail and research!! Makes me want to visit there.

  9. I really enjoyed your post. The first image was wonderful on its own, and the rest was a bonus!

  10. Thanks for the interesting and informative tour.

  11. This post is so comprehensive and rich in historical details. The hotels are built right on that cliff! It looks like a very popular and crowded spot today; I sure wouldn't have wanted to visit there during the war.

    It is so neat that you were able to find all of these postcards.

    Thank you so much, this is the first time that I have even heard of this Sorrento (I know, I'm not the world traveler by any means!)

    Kathy M.

  12. this was just super, because I feel like I had an arm chair trip too!

  13. The first postcard is nice but those cliffs right behind the beach and the hotels build right into them are amazing.

  14. Amazing photos and postcards! Thanks for taking us on a virtual trip to Italy!

  15. Somehow I feel like I've been on holiday too! It's amazing how useful those vintage postcards can be in support of old photos. In a hundred years our descendants will be flipping through digital images, but it won't be the same fun.

  16. Well now I have a new place I want to visit which I will probably never see. Sorrento looks fascinating.

    But what the heck is the kid holding in the first photo. Looks like some sort of floaty steering wheel. I've never seen a water toy like that.

  17. The presence of the changing huts lends itself nicely to your theory about the woman leaning on the railings having been the source of the water on the deck.

    Terrific post, Brett!

  18. What a fun post. And wouldn't it be fun to go to Sorrento. I've always wanted to see those Italian cliff villages. Thanks for the virtual trip. Maybe someday I'll actually get there in person.

  19. Thanks to all the fellow Sepians who've visited and taken the time to comment.

    Alan - Yes, I felt the same way about that woman. I almost wanted to write about her instead, but somehow didn't feel it would be fair to take the family out of centre stage.

    Wendy - I have done a few of these "views through time" articles. It's getting easier and easier to find suitable images on the web to illustrate what you want.

    Crafty Kate - Yes, I felt that too. One assumes they had no idea what was just around the corner.

    Bob - Thanks. Yes, I thought perhaps linen too, but went with towels that were perhaps in a slightly different style to what we are used to.

    Peter - I'm afraid I got carried away with reading up on this topic, there's just so much history there. The whole Bay of Naples fascinates me and I'd love to visit one day. Pompeii is of course on the southern slopes of Vesuvius.

    Little Nell - Sounds like a great song title, "The Boardwalks of Sorrento."

    WhoWereThey - There are plenty of Americans travelling abroad, and not only in Europe, but I guess we all have a good percentage of our populations who never travel far afield.

    Rosie - Me too!

    Kathy - That's why I purchased that postcard, it is a captivating shot in its own way.

    Postcardy - Glad to have you along.

    Oregon Gifts, Karen S & Jana Last - I had heard of it, but pretty much all of what I wrote was learnt during my research. That's part of why I do these posts - if I can't travel there in real life, may as well do it virtually.

    Kristin - That amazed me too, and from what I can tell (there are engravings of these views going back much further) they have been there for a long time. Even the Romans appear to have used it as a resort town of sorts.

    Mike B & Barbara+Nancy - It does feel like I have been on holiday, but it has also ensured that if I ever do visit Italy, Sorrento will not be a place that I'll miss without putting up a good fight.

    T+L - I imagine that it is shaped that way to make it easier to hold on to, something intermediate between a bathing ring and a lilo, perhaps.

    Kat - It's always fun to speculate on what the conversations might have been immediately before (and after) the camera shutter went off.

  20. Love, love, love these postcards! I do so want to go to Sorrento now, a place I previously knew little about. They are all stunning but I particularly like the ones with the blue and white umbrellas. I am a very visual person. :-)

  21. Me too Teresa. I can quite easily visualise myself wandering the narrow streets and frequenting the clifftop restaurants.


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