A Paradise for Megalomaniac Architects
Capri has recently become a paradise for megalomaniac architects: one multi-million
dollar villa after another has made inventive use of the island's deliriously steep
landscape. The most beautiful villa on the island is actually one of the oldest,
the Villa San Michele—a virtual Temple to Art built by a Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe,
in the early 1900s. One famous visitor, novelist Henry James, called it "a creation
of the most fantastic beauty, poetry, and inutility that I have ever seen clustered
together." Today, operated as a Swedish cultural center and including a bird sanctuary,
this lovely, eccentric property can be visited on private tours.
Dr. Munthe had survived bloody European wars and dreadful plagues in Naples before
he moved to Capri in 1887. He was instantly bewitched by the island and decided
to build his dream home on a cliffside in the village of Anacapri (Upper Capri).
At the time, this settlement could only be visited by climbing a rugged track that
had been carved by ancient Phoenician sailors. The building materials, along with
the artworks he had acquired over the years, had to be lugged up on mule-back.
By 1910, the mansion had taken shape in the form seen today, a magnificent structure
perched on the edge of a cliff. The lush, secluded garden is decorated with an astonishing
collection of stone Sphinxes, bronze nymphs, and gargoyles, and its balconies offer
the most incredible views on an island already famous for them. From its high parapets,
one can spend hours watching vessels carve long white wakes in the ocean, like delicate
paint strokes on cobalt blue.
In 1929, Munthe wrote a superb memoir about his experiences on Capri, The Story
of San Michele (a prototype of modern classics, like A Year in Provence and Under
the Tuscan Sun). To Munthe's astonishment, it became an instant bestseller. The
book has since been translated into 45 languages and has inspired millions of people
to visit Capri's seductive shores, which remain a yardstick for natural beauty the