After many blissful days exploring the passionate streets of Naples and the ruins of Pompeii, and moving onto the tranquil haven of Ischia and its many paradise gardens and seafront villages, we arrived at last in Capri. We have been to Capri before, albeit only on a day trip from Positano. But so enamoured were we by those few hours on the legendary island that we vowed to return. 5 years later, we rolled our suitcases off the Ischia ferry onto the famous docks of Capri’s Marina Grande.
We were back in those scenes from It Started in Naples again, since the port really hasn’t changed all that much since Clark Gable disembarked from a ferry on the very same dock in the 1960 movie. He was there to track down Sophia Loren in her home in the Villa Palazzo Reale. However, as we ventured forth in Capri for the second time, we had a different villa in mind. The Villa San Michele.
The Villa San Michele has been in my mind for some time this year. It all began when I read an enticing book, The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell, in the early weeks of 2019. That book introduced me to the flamboyant Marchesa Luisa Casati whose eccentric homes hosted infamous parties included one villa on the island of Capri. A few months later, coincidence took me to the book, The Story of the Villa San Michele by Axel Munthe, which I picked up purely because of the picture of Capri on its cover. However, once I started reading, I realised that the Villa described was one and the same as the Capri house of Luisa Casati, and a broader picture began to form in my mind. Hooked, I read on, and knew that once in Capri, I would have to make a beeline for the place.
Axel Munthe is a complex character, who can essentially be described as Swedish doctor and psychiatrist, collector of antiquities, animal lover and aesthete. His famous novel does far more than tell the story of his villa. It also tells of his long and complex medical career, treating some of Europe’s most notable aristocrats, and providing medical care to the victims of some of recent history’s most disastrous epidemics. Yet it is the pages when Munthe describes his discovery of the land around San Michele, and his gradual construction of the Villa, which are the most enticing.
The land once hosted one of several villas owned by Emperor Tiberius. Munthe’s discovery of multiple pieces of antiquity both inspired the villa which resulted and became part of its construction. However the land is also unique for having unparalleled views not only over the Bay of Naples but also over towards Capri Town and the Marina Grande.
Having squeezed into a tiny local bus in order to climb the hair-pin bends of the main road up to Anacapri, we arrived at the Villa San Michele and found it to be every bit the paradise Munthe describes in his novel. Among the relics is a ravishing cafe set upon a rooftop and enjoying those same stunning Vesuvius views. The original little chapel, after which the main Villa is named, features the magnificent and mysterious ancient granite sphinx, whose acquisition Munthe describes in an almost dream-like state. And best of all things, the gardens offer visitors a lush Elysium of cypress trees and flowering fauna, covered porticoes and citrus-lined avenues.
We were lucky. We not only got to enjoy the Villa San Michele in the full worship of the day’s sunshine, but also at night. There, as part of the Villa’s annual programme of classical music events, we sat down to watch a performance of the Naples Teatro San Carlo string quartet, as all around us the sun set over a silhouette of Ischia to the West, and Vesuvius just south of it. At that moment, all the year’s reflections on this legendary villa seemed to settle into a wholly satisfactory conclusion. I felt somehow rounded and complete, as though one of the main objectives of 2019 had been satisfied. What a way to commence our return to the exquisite island of Capri.
© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.