By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
From Roman emperors such as Tiberius or Augustus to romantic 19th century travellers like Oscar Wild or Rainer Maria Rilke and 20th century jetsetters, Capri has attracted many beauty lovers. Axel Munthe was one of them and is today mostly remembered for building the unique Villa San Michele. When in Capri escape touristic Anacapri to discover this spectacular site.
A beautiful mind
Axel Munthe was born in Sweden in 1857. He first went to Capri when only 19, fell in love with this magical island and promised him-self to come back and build the house of his dreams. He died at 92 after living a very singular life. He studied medicine in Paris and qualified as a doctor at the very young age of 22 (the youngest doctor ever in Europe). He soon became one of the best and most successful doctors of the time gaining a reputation of a “worker of miracles”! He not only took care of patients from upper classes and aristocracy of both Europe and America, he also worked among the poor in Paris, Rome or Naples. He often put his life in danger caring for patients during the 1883 cholera outbreak in Naples or treating the wounded on the front during WWI or during the 1908 Messina earthquake.
But his skills were not limited to medicine. He was not a writer but wrote one of the most successful books of the first half of the 20th century. “The Story of San Michele” is his autobiography and has been translated into at least 45 different languages and new editions are still being published today. He was not an architect but he built “Villa San Michele” one of the most famous villas in Europe described by experts as a work of architectural genius. He was not an art historian but nevertheless created an extraordinary art collection. Ecologist ahead of his time he bought acres of land around his villa to create a bird sanctuary. He also was able to make friend with all kinds of people including Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden or literary figures such as Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Curzio Malaparte… But he also was able to build friendship with mere local people.
Villa San Michele, a life time project
Axel Munthe’s first visit to Capri in 1876 was a life changing experience. In his “Story of San Michele” he tells us about this particular day when he climbed up the 777 steps of the so-called Phoenician stairway that led to San Michele Roman chapel. When he reached the top of the mountain he knew at once he had found the place where he wanted to build a house where he would spend the rest of his life. He had to wait until 1895 after making a fortune to fulfil his dream. He knew exactly what he wanted and as he wrote in his book “I want my house open to the sun and wind and the voices of the sea, like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere”.
With the help of renowned Italian painter Aristide Sartorio and of skilled Caprese builders and bricklayers he created a modern version of an antic Roman estate. The house is a successful mix of local architecture, neoclassicism and symbolism. The villa is surrounded by Mediterranean gardens and offers amazing views over the Bay of Naples. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th Capri Island hid many remains of Roman villas. Marble statues and columns as well as antic day-to-day objects were buried just underneath the top layer of soil. At that time Axel Munthe already had started collecting Roman, Etruscan or Egyptian artefacts and while building the house local people got used to give their antic finds to Axel Munthe.
The collection still is on display in the house and you will actually see Munthe’s beloved objects. Among them you will see many masterpieces such as a head of Medusa, a marble bust of Emperor Tiberius, Roman frescoes and statues and an Egyptian sphinx standing a never ending watch over the bay. There are also later works like an incredible marble table adorned with Cosmatesque (medieval) mosaics, sacred medieval art, Tuscan furnishing from the 18th century… They all are placed where Axel Munthe placed them perfectly harmonised with the villa architecture and its settings.
The villa is surrounded by lush Mediterranean gardens planted with camellias, hydrangeas, rose bushes, tree peonies, vines and citrus trees, African lilies, pomegranates, Italian pines, Australian myrtle and even a Swedish birch tree… They once were said to be the most beautiful gardens in Italy. Don’t miss the wisteria pergola where Alex Munthe used to welcome his guests for delicious summer dinners… and imagine what it must have been feeling like to be among them high above the noise and bustle of the island.
Axel Munthe died in Stockholm in 1949 far from his beloved villa. He donated Villa San Michele to the Swedish State and a Foundation was created to manage the estate. Today the villa is not only a museum it is also a home for visiting Swedish artists, scientists, composers, authors, students… Just as in the days of Munthe, musical and dance events are organised every summer. The villa can also be privatised for special events.
More at https://villasanmichele.eu/index.phphttps://villasanmichele.eu/index.php
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny