Capri’s hypnotizing beauty is no better captured than in ‘The Story of San Michele,’ a book that became a publishing phenomenon almost a century ago, and the picturesque rocky island off the Italian coast has kept the dramatic tale alive and fresh all these years later.
Written by Axel Munthe, a Swedish-born doctor, the 1929 best-selling biography – it went through 92 printings in its first three years – tells the tale of his colorful life and his enduring love for the island that led him to build an intriguing cliff-top home that he shared with a menagerie of animals including a mongoose and a monkey.
Today, visitors to the island can take a bus or taxi from the harbor town of the same name to Anacapri and within a half-hour be standing outside Munthe’s home, a Norman arched doorway bordered by a marble frieze and mosaic atop the ruins of one of 12 villas built by Roman Emperor Tiberius on a ledge above what’s termed the Phoenician Steps.
Recently, my companion and I had the pleasure of a guided tour of the extensive house comprising loggias, colonnades and pergolas and the eclectic array of artefacts that adorn it, both in its many rooms and outside on various terraces.
Munthe was an avid collector and among his esteemed bric-a-brac are 2,000-year-old pottery remnants he found on his land, Renaissance and Baroque furniture, Christian iconography, 17th-century copper saucepans, fragments of sarcophaguses, busts, Roman paving stones, and even a 15th-century wrought-iron Sicilian bed. Pride of place goes to a speckled red granite Etruscan sphinx from 450 BC perched on a parapet on the very edge of the cliff gazing mysteriously out to sea.
A narrow path winds around a multi-tiered garden of cedar, cypress pine and a spectrum of brightly-colored plants including wisteria winding their way around wooden trellis, amellias, azaleas, hydrangeas, roses, acanthus, myrtle, agapanthus, Busy Lizzie and scores of others worldwide.
Munthe had a love for animals and birds, thus his fellow denizens, the mongoose and the money, a rather mischievous baboon called Billy, as well as comradely band of dogs and cats that wandered around freely. Munthe’s concern for migratory birds on the island, which were being killed in disastrous numbers, led him to buy Barbarossa Mountain behind his villa and create a sanctuary there.
A multi-faceted individual, Munthe not only worked under French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, and French biologist, Louis Pasteur, but treated wealthy patients, some of them hypochondriacs, in his practice beside Rome’s Spanish Steps, including the Queen Victoria of Sweden and the son of the Tsar of Russia. Neither, however, did he shy away from medical hardship cases, treating prostitutes and poverty-stricken people in Paris and Rome and others injured by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Messina and cholera epidemics in Naples.
With the exception of a few sporadic absences, Munthe lived on Capri for more than 56 years before ending his days back in Stockholm in 1949.
The success of Munthe’s book was that it appealed to those people who had taken the ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ in the early 20th century and also armchair travelers who dreamed of visiting Italy and indulging in its Renaissance charms.
His love of the island coincided with the growing popularity of Capri.
To fully savor Villa Munthe, after your visit head for the museum’s Café Casa Oliv to ponder what the doctor-author accomplished through sheer perseverance and vision. Choose the outdoor seating option and enjoy a panoramic view over the Mediterranean from the spacious terrace. You also might be in luck insofar as your visit could coincide with one of the cultural events, including concerts, exhibitions and theater performances, that take place there regularly from May to September.