On the coast of what is now San Marco, there was an ancient Roman maritime settlement called ERCULA, whose inhabitants were forced to retreat to the nearby promontory in the fifth century, to defend themselves against Vandal incursions from North Africa.
In the sixth century, during the Graeco-Gothic wars (535–553 AD), the Byzantines needed a safe and defensible port south of Salerno, so they chose this site to build their fortifications.
Towards the end of the century, with the Lombard invasions, the Bishop of Paestum was forced to seek refuge in Agropoli, which thus became the episcopal see and the primary refuge for survivors fleeing the Byzantine territories of Tyrrhenian Lucania.
Agropoli stayed in Byzantine hands until 882 AD, when it fell to the Saracens and was converted to a fortified base from which raids were launched against the nearby populations. In 915 AD, the Saracens were defeated and Agropoli returned to the rule of the bishops who, in the meantime, had established their see at Capaccio.
Agropoli subsequently fell under the power of Normans, Swabians, Angevins, and Aragonese. Between 1660 and 1806, the fief of Agropoli belonged to the Sanfelice, an aristocratic Neapolitan family that merged with the Delli Monti. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, due to consecutive invasions, its population fell to barely a few hundred.
During the Napoleonic period, Agropoli became the centre of bloody raids against bands of brigands in the surrounding areas.
Culture plays a prominent role in the life of Agropoli, thanks also to its many monuments, which testify not only to past glories, but in some cases also serve as prestigious cultural venues.
It was not until the nineteenth century that Agropoli began to expand beyond its medieval walls, and the old town, along with an extensive tract of the old walls remain intact to this day, as does the seventeenth-century gate with the town’s emblem in the form of the coat-of-arms of the Delli Monti Sanfelice, dukes of Laureana and barons of Agropoli.
An important cultural attraction is the Angevin-Aragonese Castle which towers above the promontory and the ancient town. The original structure was built by the Byzantines in the sixth century. The Normans (1077–1189) made the first substantial improvements by constructing the fortifications that guard the town to the south. The wall maintains its Norman-Swabian features, but the castle has been modified over time to keep pace with developments in the art of war. During the fifteenth century, the Sanseverinos, counts of Marsico and a powerful feudal family in the Kingdom of Naples, undertook extensive restoration which gave the castle its current form. In 1806, by order of Napoleon, the castle was occupied by the engineer corps and once again became the heart of coastal defence for the Principality of Citra.
Agropoli Castle is linked to numerous figures.
Luisa Sanfelice, born in Naples in 1764 and married to Andrea Sanfelice, resided at the castle on several occasions. She was condemned to death by beheading for her role in revealing the Baccher brothers’ plot against the Republic.
Marguerite Yourcenar, French writer, whose fascination with the place led her to use it as a setting for her novel, Anna, Soror.
Giuseppe Ungaretti, who visited Cilento in the early 1930s, gave a magnificent description of Agropoli in Viaggio nel Mezzogiorno.
The castle is currently a venue for important cultural events, and may be visited free of charge all year round.
Palazzo Cirota in Via Pisacane is currently the location of the Palazzo Civico delle Arti of the municipality of Agropoli. Built in 1892 as the summer residence of the Cirota family, an affluent Cilento family, it was put to a range of uses over the years, until 2011, when it became the Palazzo Civico delle Arti, an exhibition centre dedicated to art and archaeology.
The Palazzo Civico delle Arti houses the archaeological museum on the ground floor, which may be visited free of charge all year round, with a rich archaeological section whose display begins in the first room. Visitors learn about the history of colonization, evolution, and trade of the populations that have inhabited the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The artefacts on display cover the history of the territory of Agropoli. For example, the section dedicated to fourth-century BCE Lucanian tomb goods has a collection of items that may be ascribed to the workshop of the renowned Paestum ceramist, Assteas, as testified by the Krater and the Lebes Gamikos, found in the famous frescoed double-burial tomb for man and woman in Agropoli’s Contrada Vecchia.
The last room, with artefacts from the necropolis in San Marco di Agropoli, documents the latter phase in the ancient history of this territory. Particularly worthy of note is the marble sarcophagus of Italic origins dating to the third century AD, decorated with a fine bas-relief depicting scenes from the cult of Dionysius, and the epigraph on a tombstone dating to the fifth century AD, the earliest evidence of the Christian cult developing in the area.
The first floor of the Palazzo Civico delle Arti is home to an exhibition area dedicated to art : with exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography featured at regular intervals throughout the year, and the floor also used for conferences and socio-cultural events.
The “Fornace” was the brainchild of the engineer, Vincenzo del Mercato, and was built in 1890, inaugurated the following year. It is an example of the process of industrialization and transformation of the urban landscape and economy. The red bridges in the Frascinelle district, as well as the white houses of Lustra and Omignano Scalo, were built using bricks manufactured at the Fornace, as were the Palace of Justice in Rome, and other important buildings in Florence and Venice. The works featured six state-of-the-art kilns with 51-metre chimneys. Materials were transported mostly by sea, and a long passageway was constructed on the River Testene to move carts loaded with bricks from the factory to the ships. The Fornace was finally closed in the 1970s.
Work is currently underway to transform it into a cultural hub.
Numerous watchtowers in strategic locations, typically at one-mile intervals, may be sighted along the Agropoli coast from the sea. The Torre di San Marco provides a link between the Castle and the tower at Paestum, whereas the Torre di San Francesco stands alongside the redeveloped remains of the convent of the same name. Dating back to 1230, the rectangular convent has an internal cloister.
The Church of Madonna delle Grazie is in the centre of town. The year of its construction is unknown, but it probably dates back to the 1600s. Originally a small, isolated chapel in a field, it was dedicated to Santa Maria del Pozzo or Saint Mary of the Well, owing to its position close to a water source. In 1951 work was undertaken to extend it and in 1954 the new parish of Santa Maria delle Grazie was established.
From its vantage point on the promontory, the Church of Madonna di Costantinopoli overlooks the town and the marina. It is thought to have been founded in 1583, when documents point to the existence of a confraternity. The pediment bears the inscription “Ave Stella Maris”, a reference to the ancient Gregorian chant that formed part of the Liturgy of the Hours. In Western tradition, the name “Maria” is translated as “Star of the Sea”. This aisleless building has an adjacent bell-tower. The statue of the Virgin Mary stands out from all others thanks to a unique characteristic: complying with the conventions of Byzantine iconography, and therefore aligned with the Eastern origins of the cult, the Madonna supports the Child on Her left arm. On a wall of the adjacent building a most important ancient epigraph was reused, bearing the words EP(iscopu)S † [L]EONARDUS D(ominus) N(oster) (Bishop Leonardo our Lord), indicating that Leonardo, Bishop of Paestum, was probably buried here.
The Church of SS Pietro e Paolo may be reliably dated to Late Antiquity, and is connected to the traditions which indicate that Saint Paul landed in the vicinity of Agropoli, and Saint Peter was a fisherman like many of the inhabitants of this ancient hamlet. Restoration work in recent years has uncovered Graeco-Roman and Medieval columns and other artefacts, now on view to the public. An aisleless building with choir, pulpit, and confessionals, its central location and its closeness to the castle suggest a pivotal role in the religious life of the town.
The Church of Santa Maria della Pietà or dell’Addolorata dates back to 1583, and as the home of the Sette Dolori Confraternity it was also known as the “Addolorata”.