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From a historical perspective, the Amalfi Coast has largely taken a backseat to events that have surrounded its immediate region (the destruction of nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum being a primary example). The Roman settlement of Amalfi emerged from under the Duchy of Naples (originally Neapolis and founded by Greek traders and adventurers from the island of Euboea) in 839 A.D. At this time, the state of Amalfi was a force to be reckoned with: The strength of their naval fleet ranked them among other maritime powerhouses such as Venice, Pisa, and Genoa. Trade thrived, and Amalfi grew wealthy.
In 1073, however, Amalfi was conquered by the Normans, and in 1131 became part of the Kingdom of Sicily. The Middle Ages saw hard times hit the region--the population dwindled as Amalfi's trade was limited to only parts of Southern Italy, and in an outbreak of plague in 1638 lost nearly a third of its population.
Sorrento (which also started life as a Roman settlement) did not fare much better during this time. While briefly independent as a duchy of its own, Sorrento sought protection from the Normans from the invading Lombards and from frequent attacks by pirates. But in 1558, Sorrento was invaded by the Turks and the town suffered great losses. (However, one bright spot during this troubled time was the birth of Sorrento's favorite son, the Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso.)
Both towns--along with Positano and Ravello--saw a gradual shift of fortunes over time, though. Sorrento kept itself going by establishing a reputation as a center for woodworking (even today, a plethora of woodworking shops exist in the town) and for developing a leading crop of their economy: lemons, particularly the manufacture of the alcoholic drink limoncello. By the eigthteenth century, Sorrento had emerged as a tourist attraction, and a stop on "the Grand Tour" for many Anglo and American tourists. Amalfi's emergence as a tourist attraction came a little later, in the 19th century, as it drew the attention of artists and writers throughout Europe.