Sorrento is renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship and rich cultural heritage.

Among its many treasures, one art form stands out as an emblem of its artistic excellence—the tradition of inlaid wood.

For centuries, the skilled artisans of Sorrento have been crafting intricate designs using various types of wood, creating breathtaking pieces that captivate art enthusiasts and collectors worldwide.

Today, fewer and fewer goods are made the old-fashioned way, by hand.

However, Sorrento artisans are preserving this old-school style through in-laid wood working (intarsio in Italian). 

Origins and Historical Significance

The art of inlaid wood in Sorrento dates back to the 14th century.

Inspired by the intricate marquetry work from the East, local artisans developed their unique style, blending Neapolitan and Oriental influences.

The craft flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries when Sorrento became a popular destination for European travelers on the “Grand Tour”.

A snapshot of this history is preserved at Museo Bottega della Tarsia Lignea, a museum that is nestled on Via S. Nicola, here in Sorrento.

Here, ancient and modern pieces of in-laid woodwork are preserved and displayed for visitors.

Learning about the history from Museo Bottega della Tarsia Lignea is a fantastic way to appreciate this tradition, but you can also find striking pieces and rich history throughout the city.

Intarsio legno About Sorrento

Tecniques and Designs

Inlaid wood works are made by delicately cutting designs into wood pieces and then laying similarly shaped pieces into those spaces, hence the name ‘in-lay.’

This technique is somewhat compared to putting together a puzzle because each piece needs to have a perfect fit.  

Music boxes are some of the most popular in-laid items sold, but the “canvas” for this style of art can be anything wooden: furniture, small boxes, picture frames, and much more. 

With this art technique, the design possibilities are endless.

Many designs are reminiscent of mosaics, adding gorgeous patterns to simple wood pieces.

Intricate designs are more of the older style.

Modern designs are recognizable instead from their bright colors and abstract shapes.

Some artisans create painting-esque works using in-laid wood, creating entire images out of wood.

It is common to find pieces on display that feature the natural beauty of Sorrento, such as the cliff sides and ocean views.

The craftsmanship required to create these pieces takes years to develop and many more years to perfect the craft.

This is why most in-laid wood workshops you may find are generational; the craft is passed down and carried on from one generation to the next.

While walking through the many alleys and hidden streets of Sorrento, I’ve glimpsed into many in-laid wood workshops along the way.

You can find in-laid wood works amongst other things in souvenir shops, but the true gems are found within the quaint, slightly hidden workshops sprinkled throughout Sorrento

These workshops are nothing less than charming.

I walked into a few workshops myself, looking for the perfect gift for my family back home.

In some shops, I would be greeted by a vast array of colors and designs, and in others, I could hear the sounds of a craftsman at work in the back.

On the quieter street of Via Fuoro, I wandered into Augusto & Luca, a workshop that dates back to 1897.

While browsing through their many music boxes and other works of art, Augusto introduced himself (who is a third generation in-laid wood craftsman) and his son, Luca (who is a fourth generation in-laid wood craftsman).   

While talking with Augusto, I could clearly see his skill and knowledge in the little details.

When inquiring about a certain piece, he shared the background of the piece completely from memory.

Just by looking at the piece, he knew what materials the individual box was crafted with, when it was made, and how it was different from other pieces.

It was truly impressive to see his talent and passion first hand.

A part of Sorrento's Architecture

If you are not in the market for an in-laid souvenir, there is still plenty to see.

In-laid wood work is not only a product made here, but also a part of the city’s architecture.

If you take a quick stroll down Corso Italia  take a closer look at the front and side entrances of Sorrento Cathedral (which is dedicated to Saints Phillip and James).

Yes, you guessed it! The doors are in-laid wood work. 

This magnificent work was added to the Cathedral in the 1990s after it was thoughtfully and carefully crafted by local artisans.

The designs on the door were inspired by Pope John Paul II’s visit to Sorrento and Capri.

Most of the scenes found in the inlaid wood designs are based on locations in Sorrento Pope John Paul II visited. 

Seeing it for myself, I recognized a scene of an Easter celebration and procession in Sorrento.

It was fascinating to see local details such as this spread throughout the work.

The inlaid decor in the Cathedral does not stop there.

While looking around the church, I noticed the plaques marking the Stations of the Cross around the church were all in-laid wood work and the panels surrounding the altar were in-laid wood portraits of holy figures and scenes.

Basilica of Sant’Antonino and Museo Correale di Terranova are a few other hotspots for in-laid wood details and displays.

Museo Correale di Terranova has a beautiful garden with a stunning seaside outlook point, so after seeing its in-laid wood collection, I would highly recommend spending some peaceful time in the garden.    

There is much to learn about Sorrento’s in-laid wood work, and I have developed an appreciation for the time and passion artisans put into this craft.

Now when I walk down Corso Italia, I no longer only see colorful, wooden souvenirs in shop windows, instead I also recognize the significance of Sorrento’s in-laid wood tradition!