By Carrie Gress
There are few places on earth that have been designated a "resort" for centuries, but the tiny island of Capri can boast that it has been a place for R&R for over two millennia.
Dazzlingly beautiful, the gem of an island of Capri was first popularized by Caesar Augustus in 29 BC, who found the 4 square mile island so enchanting that he bought it. Tiberius was the next Roman ruler to be captivated by the island's aquatic beauty. He built 12 villas on the craggy island, the ruins of which still remain.
With only roughly 7000 year-round residents, the island's population soars in the summer months. Accessible via boats from Naples or Sorrento, it is a popular day-trip destination for tourists. Visiting has echoes of Greece, with rustic simplicity, lots of white washed walls, dotted with small terraced cafes, and shopping for the well-heeled.
Capri has two towns: Capri and Anacapri, or 'upper Capri.' Squeezed onto a giant rocky landscape, there isn't much room for anything resembling a bustling town; there aren't freeways, or even many cars. Walking, boats, and the finicular are the main modes of transportation.
While much attention goes to the pleasure-seekers and celebrities that are able to make Capri a home away from home, the island has a rich and varied history. In many ways, Capri is a microcosm for what has happened in the Mediterranean, although more intensely because of its vulnerable place in the sea. It has seen parades of pirates, plenty of plunders, storms, plagues, and tyrants. Each of these followed by rebirth, and rebuilding.
Despite its resort status, Capri has had a significant religious presence that can still be witnessed today. One tourist site boasts that Capri has 12 churches, others count 7 (Pinning down an exact number is difficult since some are not still in use).
Even though it is in close proximity to Naples, Capri used to be its own diocese, with the Cathedral, St. Stefan, situated in Capri. Around 150 years ago, the diocese was folded into the Archdiocese of Sorrento, which is why it hails a Cathedral despite there not being a sitting bishop on the Island. It has also been home to Franciscans and Dominicans, as well as Theresian nuns.
Most tourists who visit Capri go to experience the Blue Grotto, a hidden cave featuring dazzling blue water, or the Villa of St. Michel, once owned by the enigmatic author and medical doctor, Axel Munthe, who wrote The Story of St. Michel. But there are also plenty of surprises in store for those visiting its churches. These are the six, must-see, favorites to really get a sense of Capri's remarkable Catholic history.
Cathedral of St. Stefan, Capri
The Cathedral of St. Stefan (Santo Stefano) was built on an illustrious site. It was first home to one of Tiberius' 12 villas, Villa Jovis, then later a 6th century Benedictine monastery. The only remaining evidence of the original monastery is the square's clock tower. Architecturally, the white-washed St. Stefan's is a flamboyant baroque style, featuring vaulted ceilings, cupolas, and molded chapels, which were in vogue in the 17th century. Sections of the marble pavement actually hail back to the marble used in the ancient Roman Villa Jovis.
Church of Saint Costanzo or Maria of Deliverance, Capri
Although San Costanzo is the patron saint of the Island of Capri, this church is also dedicated to Mary of Deliverance (Maria della Libera). It is the oldest church on the island, dating back to the 5th century also built on the site of an ancient Roman basilica.
Costanzo was the Patriarch of Constantinople, and while at sea, was lost during a tempest. Miraculously, the future saint found refuge on the island. He saw it as a sign to evangelize the locals. St. Costanzo is still honored today on his feast day, May 14, with a procession through town. His unique little church is near the old fishing district, Marina Grande. It has a decidedly Byzantine style to it, including a Greek Cross floor plan and vaulted domes. Additions were made in the 14th century, and restoration completed in the 1990s, restoring the ancient Roman pavement back to its earlier splendor.
Church of St. Michael the Archangel, Anacapri
The most famous of all of Capri's churches, St. Michael's has exquisite mosaic floors featuring the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden -- perhaps a subtle message to those who partake in Capri's more illicit carnal pleasures? Built in an octagon in the baroque style, the simple exterior hides well the captivating art work on the church's floor. Carpets are used to cover the masterpiece during Mass, while special walkways are used by tourists to walk around the church without damaging the painted floor.
The Church of St. Sophia, Anacapri
In the historic center of Anacapri is the Church of St. Sophia (Chiesa di Santa Sofia), just off the town's main square. The splendid baroque church, painted in a soft yellow, was adapted from two older churches, and still shows signs of its ancient architecture in the old bell towers (one visible in the photo below).
Church of Santa Maria a Cetrella, Anacapri
The Church of St. Mary at Cetrella in Anacapri sits high up on cliffs above the sea. The site of breath taking views, this little chapel started off as a simple hermitage for Franciscan and Dominican monks.
The island's sailors and the coral fisherman of old have had a particular devotion to the image of Mary in the church, relying upon her for safety and success at sea.