A story about three men and three houses



I think that I will always return to Capri. When I first set foot on the island I was young and in love. During that late autumn the air was fragrant with jasmine. The flowers were like colourful spots dotting the rocky shores, jutting deeply into the azure Tyrrhenian Sea. A lot of time has passed since then. Life has been good to me, allowing me to return to this happy place more than once over the years. And every time I ask myself the same question: what is it about this island that has bewitched so many people throughout the ages? I don’t know the answer, but I continue to roam.


The Story of Emperor Tiberius and Villa Jovis

Although mentioned by the ancient Greeks, Capri became truly part of history during the rule of Octavian (the later Emperor Augustus), who was delighted to acquire it from the Neapolitans in exchange for the neighbouring island of Ischia. His fascination was passed on to his stepson Tiberius, who spend the last eleven years of his life in voluntary exile on Capri right up to his death in 37 AD. He, like many others, saved the island from witnessing his death the way a loved one is spared: Tiberius died in the villa of Lucullus at Misenum during one of his sudden trips along the Italian coast. The stories of Tacitus and Suetonius about the Roman Emperor’s depraved way of life on the island have disturbed the sleep of many an innocent soul down through the ages. On the hill in the northern part, fittingly called Tiberius’s hill, the Villa Jovis (Villa of Jupiter), one of 12 similar villas built by the Emperor on Capri, still rises as a monument to Roman architecture from the first century AD.

You experience a feeling of superiority and satisfaction, as if you had achieved a minor feat, looking down at the thinning line of tourists trying to climb the 334 m (1000 ft) cliff. Putting one foot before the other under the scorching sun, you cannot but wonder how on earth the 70-year-old Tiberius managed to move along these crags. And how scared he must have been in order to retire with a handful of loyal priests, astronomers and soothsayers to this place so far away from Rome, the centre of the civilised world at the time. The long ascent is repaid with a stunning feast for the eyes.

A set of steps lead a bit further down to reveal a dazzling panorama of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, where, from east to west, as though defying gravity, a platform extends – an Ambulatio with a length of 92 m, or exactly one-sixteenth of the Roman mile, on which Tiberius exercised to the extent his strength would allow and according to the rules of Roman hygiene at the time.

This is probably where he gazed to the east, raising his eyes from the letters of Pontius Pilate, in which he described to him the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ and the supernatural signs interpreted by the priests as a threat to the world from the new heresy that was gaining momentum in Judea. In this he was partly right, for the decline of civilisation, as they knew it, followed not long afterwards. The truth of what really happened on Capri during that time will continue to preoccupy scholars. But compared to the feeling of eternity, which the island inspires, the importance of this question seems to fade increasingly into the background.

The next centuries can be discerned on the island by the ruins of structures, built and destroyed in turn by Saracen pirates, Norman tribes and Moors. The kings of Anjou and Aragon, the Spanish court and scores of others laid claims to Capri. At the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, in 1535, the Ottoman admiral Khayr ad-Dīn, known throughout Europe as Barbarossa, captured the island and built a castle bearing his name – the Castello Barbarossa – which survives to this day. In just three years he subjugated the Venetian Republic after crushing its fleet, which was under the command of the Genoese Andrea Doria. But that’s another sea and another story.


The story of Axel Munthe and Villa San Michele

It was probably his romantic notion of Italy that caused the young Swede Axel Munthe to visit Capri in 1876. Despite a remarkable career as a physician in Paris and Rome, he lost his heart to Capri, to which he returned as often as he possibly could. His dream of owning his own home on the island came true in 1896 when he built the Villa San Michele where he lived happily, dividing his time between excavations and supporting the local population, which repaid him with love and respect. Axel Munthe lived on the island for forty years and contributed most to its fame in recent history. He described his relationship with the Mediterranean pearl in his book _The Story of San Michele[ital] which has been translated into many languages, including Bulgarian, and published in millions of copies.

Axel Munthe built San Michele without an architect, but with the help of a local builder – Mastro Nicola. And since this sounds unbelievable today, I shall leave the arguments to the author himself with a brief excerpt from his book: _“I told Mastro Nicola that the proper way to build one's house was to knock everything down never mind how many times and begin again until your eye told you that everything was right. The eye knew much more about architecture than did the books. The eye was infallible, as long as you relied on your own eye and not on the eye of other people.”[ital]

The truth of these words is felt everywhere in the museum into which Munthe’s house has been converted today. Walking past the antique statues, frescoes and objects aesthetically arranged in the vaulted rooms, loggias and galleries, and then below the pergola of one of the most beautiful gardens created by a mere mortal, it is easy to accept his philosophy. In the autumn of 1897 Oscar Wilde, fresh out of prison, relaxed under the trellised vine in the company of his friend Lord Douglas. To be part of their company required a lot of courage, but Axel Munthe did not share the stuffy morals of his contemporaries. For the crème de la crème of European aristocracy it was a must to pass through the villa during their Italian travels, visiting Princess Victoria, the future queen of Sweden, who was also in love with the island. It is claimed that her relationship with her personal physician, Dr Munthe, went beyond the bounds of the Hippocratic oath. Not far from there, but much lower down the Marina Piccola, Maxim Gorky lived from 1906 to 1913, surrounded by a host of merry revolutionaries and followers. Lenin himself visited them on two occasions, probably with all sorts of instructions as was his custom. During the 1960s the residents of Capri, perhaps grateful that he refrained from inciting them to rebellion as well, erected a marble monument to him right next to the villa of the steel magnate Alfred Krupp, the manufacturer of the famous guns that helped to start the First World War which put an end to the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian empires, colonialism and the dreams of a Great Bulgaria. The hardships of travelling for the already ill Munthe kept him from returning to the island at the time. The physician died at the age of 92 in Stockholm with a ticket to Capri in his pocket. According to his will, the Villa San Michele became the property of the Swedish state, with the purpose of fostering cultural relations with Italy. For the same purpose, 10 years later – in 1957 – Curzio Malaparte, dying of cancer in a Rome hospital, would bequeath his house to the Chinese people and its artists. Any similarity is coincidental, right?


The story of Curzio Malaparte and his Villa at Cape Massullo

The story of Curzio Malaparte – a writer, soldier, politician, dramatist and actor, seems to be a personification of Italian history with its upsurges, aspirations and sufferings in the difficult years of the first half of the 20th century. With his free spirit he embraced a multitude of political, literary and social philosophies, and stirred both admiration and hatred during his short life. In the 1950s, gravely ill, he found a warm welcome in China, which explains his seemingly odd testament.

Casa Malaparte is arguably one of the most striking houses in the world. It was built by the genius of a troubled spirit amid the solitary island cliffs. In 1922, the Italian Parliament passed a Law on the Conservation of Natural Scenery, followed by special norms for Capri. So that in 1938, when Malaparte bought some three hectares of land, including Cape Massullo, the construction of new buildings on the island was almost impossible. But the writer’s fame and his contacts in the fascist party came to his rescue, helping him to obtain a building permit. Malaparte entrusted the well-known architect Adalberto Libera with the design. The result, visible four years later, after a shortage of money and the constant lack of building materials, had almost nothing in common with Libera’s initial idea. Malaparte build his own mausoleum on Capri – that of a solitary, romantic and rebellious intellect.

In his book La Pelle[ital] (_The Skin[ital]), Malaparte describes the visit of Field Marshal Rommel to the house just before the battle of El Alamein. Rommel asked him whether he was the builder, to which the writer replied that he had bought the cape together with the house, after which, pointing with a dramatic gesture to the Sorrentine peninsula, the azure Amalfi coast in the distance and the nearby cliffs, he added: “I created the landscape”. Years later, the men who defeated Rommel – Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower – would hold one of their numerous war meetings near the Casa Malaparte in another remarkable building on the island, designed by the amazing Le Corbusier.

One frequent visitor to the house was the writer Alberto Moravia, on whose book the screen version of the most important film to be shot on the island is based. In 1963 Jean-Luc Goddard used the Casa Malaparte for one of the key scenes in his film _Contempt[ital] which starred the then young and beautiful Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli. Many artists have sought inspiration on the isle of Capri, including the celebrated opera singer Feodor Chaliapin and the romantic composer Claude Debussy.

So, when you approach Capri one fine day, think of the story of the two mountains and the saddle between them, marked by the presence of so many people – amongst them three men of their time and their houses, a part of the history of the most enchanting of all islands.