A small story of Capri through events that have distinguished the blue island, from the rich Roman who in their villas found serenity and rest, to the love story between Axel Munthe and Queen Victoria of Sweden in the scenery of Villa San Michele.
The ruins of ancient walls in the town of Capri and the Scala Fenicia, which connects Marina Grande with Anacapri, reveal the presence of a Greek colony on the island. This colony, with Neapolis and other settlements on the Sorrento Peninsula, belonged to the south side of Magna Grecia in Campania, where the siren cult was practiced. Instead, on the north side, the populations of Cuma and Pithecusa were followers of Apollo’s cult. The construction of the Fenicia Scala dates back to the early Greek settlements. The “Phoenician” propagation was a consequence of the false beliefs of the Phoenician presence on the island of XVII century Historians. The staircase, with its 921 steps, connects Marina Grande to the village of Anacapri. It starts at Cala Grande beach, to end up at Villa San Michele, with the “Porta della Differenza”, which marked the border between the towns of Capri and Anacapri. Until 1877, when the roadway that connects Marina Grande with Anacapri was built, the staircase was the only access road to the resort.
The Greek poet Homer cites the island in the Odyssey talking of mythical sirens. He tells how Ulysses, to listen to their melodious song and to resist their deadly calls, was tied to the tree of the his ship and he imposed to his sailors to cover their ears. Homer did not invent anything. The legend of the sirens was one of the many stories that the sailors of the time told each other. They were real stories even though mythical. They were not half women and half fish, but were a group of prostitutes who, with their songs and showing herself naked on the Rock of Sirens at Marina Piccola attracted sailors, wishing for women after long and grueling days of sailing. For this reason the sailors, who, by their misfortune, were crossing the sea arm between Punta Ventroso and Faraglioni, entered with their boats in the little harbor of Marina Piccola where they were welcomed and refined by the fairy girls. Often, after having satisfied them in their desires, these sirens poisoned occasional lovers with drinks and syrups to plunder their boats. Finally, the bodies of the victims were thrown into the sea.
After the Greeks, the Romans discovered the beauty of the island and remained enchanted. The ruins of the princely residences of Villa Jovis, Villa a Mare and Villa Damecuta, testimonies of 12 Roman villas on the island, show us how the Roman elite appreciated the Capri Islands. Emperor Cesare Ottaviano Augusto discovered its on his return journey from Egypt, where he defeated Antonio and Cleopatra, assigning Egypt to the empire. August, happy for the victory, was well received by the Greek colonists who lived on the island. He assigned the island to the direct administration of Rome, taking it off to Naples. He built his villa whose remains today are known as “Palazzo (or Villa) a Mare”, where the emperor stayed for long periods.
Tiberius, the adoptive son of Augusto, lived on the island for over a decade, preferring the beauty of Capri at the comfort of the imperial residence of Rome. He built a port on the large marina, at Palazzo a Mare, to facilitate connections with Rome and with Miseno, the base of the Roman fleet. He also built the Torre del Faro, at Villa Jovis, to allow communications through the light of the fires, with the Sorrentine peninsula and the sea base of Miseno. Even Giulio Cesare Germanico, called Caligola because he was wearing a military shoes called “calighe” by a child, often was attending the island, a guest of Tiberius, whose he was nephew as his maternal grandmother was Augusto’s daughter. His successor Nero, between a fire and another, loved to rest in the imperial villas of Capri.
In the Roman period, the island was affected by considerable urban work needed for the population increase resulting from the presence of high-ranking personalities. A water network was also built with a large number of rainwater storage tanks. A few ruins remain of the 12 villas built by Augusto and Tiberius. Currently, the remains of three Roman villas are visible: Villa Jovis, in the highest part of the town of Capri; Villa Damecuta, located in the town of Anacapri, upstream of the Blue Grotto; Palazzo a Mare, in Marina Grande, near the beach of Tiberius. Villa San Michele, home of Swedish doctor Axel Munthe, was built on the remains of an imperial villa.
The most suffered period of Capri was certainly the Middle Ages because of the continued raids by Saracen pirates. Around the 9th century began raids of pirates from Tunisia and Algeria. Inhabitants of Capri built two castles to face the attacks. The first one was built in the year 998 in Anacapri, was nicknamed Barbarossa Castle following the conquest by the Khir al-Din pirate known as Barbarossa in 1534. The second, Castiglione, was erected in Capri in 1003. When the Saracen ships were sighted, the inhabitants of the island retreated safely in the walls of the two castles or hid themselves in the numerous caves on the island.
In the 16th century there were the terrible Saracen raids of Barbarossa and Dragut pirates. The 85 galleys of Khir al-Din, after having put on fire several locations in Southern Italy, landed on the island. Years later the same made the Dragut ships. The Saracens took death and terror to the island. They plundered houses and churches and conquered the castle of Anacapri. A vast number of its inhabitants became slaves in Tunis and Algiers.
After the pirates came the plague. In 1656 the great European epidemic hit the island. Half of the people died because of the plague. Only 400 islanders survived.
The tourism season started for the island of Capri with the first Bourbon King of Naples. Charles III loved stays on the island. He had at Capri a hunting lodge he used for hiking on the island. Important excavations were carried out with his incentive that brought to light some of the Roman villas. This activity continued with his son Ferdinand IV. Monuments and columns brought to light, however, were mostly used as embellishments of the royal palaces of Naples and Capodimonte. The floor of Villa Jovis became the splendid floor of the church of Santo Stefano situated in the square of Capri.
In 1806 the French occupied the Kingdom of Naples. Shortly after they landed at Capri. The British who opposed the French on all the seas, attacked the island and conquered it by defeating the small garrison present. They transformed the same in their base in the Tyrrhenian Sea, doing extensive work of fortification covering many of the ruins of the Roman villas that had so far been brought to light.
Retaking of the island by Joachim Murat
Two years later Joachim Murat was appointed King of Naples. Murat was a valiant soldier and he did not tolerate the presence of the hated British in Capri, in front of his capital and his royal palace from which, with a good binoculars, he could watch British soldiers walking on the island. Two British regiments with 2000 men were garrisoning Capri, Royal Malta and Royal Corsican, commanded by Colonel Lowe, who became famous as Napoleon’s jailer on the island of Sant’Elena. The Parthenopean island was heavily fortified, so much that it had been nicknamed Little Gibraltar. His reconquest was extremely difficult.
On October 3, 1808 Pietro Colletta, a young genius officer, sailed around the island with a fishing boat to find an alternative landing point to Marina Grande and Marina Piccola, which was heavily guarded by the British. The landing site was located on the western coast of the island, in the municipality of Anacapri. The following day, military operations began. 60 boats with 2,000 French soldiers, 200 Neapolitan carabiniers and 100 grenaders of the Kingdom of Italy headed for the island. Joachim Murat moved to Massa Lubrense, in a villa that offered the view of Capri, to observe the course of the battle.
The plan was simple but effective. The boats were divided into three groups. Two groups headed for Marina Grande and Marina Piccola, while the third group headed to the place identified by Colletta, which was particularly steep and therefore not guarded by British soldiers. The landing took place a few meters away from the Blue Grotto. The soldiers, with the help of long stairs, managed to climb the high shore. When 500 men were already on the plateau, they were discovered and attacked by the British. The coming of the night allowed the French to consolidate their positions and being full moon, they subjected the English to continuous shooting of rifts. The following day, the French and Neapolitan troops attacked Anacapri’s fort, making prisoners a large number of British. The Royal Malta Regiment was out of combat.
Colonel Lowe and the surviving regiment of the Royal Corsican took refuge in the walls of Castiglione by resisting hard. But Capri’s fortress did not resist the attacks brought by the French, which in the meantime had received reinforcements, in spite assistance came by sea to the British from Ponza and Sicily. On the 17th of October the Englishmen surrendered and the island returned under Neapolitan control.
Capri’s famous Blue Grotto was well-known in early Roman times. Its name derived from the blue reflections of the sea on the walls of the cavity. It was used as a nympho, that is a temple devoted to a nymph, of the Augustusian villa of Gradola. At that time, there were several statues representing the sea creatures and Poseidon. The statues, recovered from the bottom of the cave, are currently visible in the Casa Rossa Museum, in the center of Anacapri.
In the Middle Ages, the memory of the cave was lost. Legends survived telling of a mysterious cave haunted by the devils, of which the fishermen knew the location. They turned off, with their boats, from the small entrance of the cave for fear of the curses they were telling.
In 1826, the German poet August Kopisch was staying for a vacation in Capri. The existence of this mysterious cave, invaded by evil spirits, came out in the conversations with his hotelier Giuseppe Pagano, a good education person who also performed the profession of notary. Kopisch, taken by curiosity, wanted to visit the cave.
On August 17 Kopisch, accompanied by his friend, the painter Ernst Fries, the hotelier Giuseppe Pagano, the sailor Angelo Ferraro and the donkey driver Michele Federico, went to the cave on board a small boat. Favored by the calm sea, they managed to pass the boat through the small entrance of the cave, favored by the calm sea. They had torches on. Inside the cave was much larger. A wonderful light invested them. The blue of the sea was reflected on the rocks of the cave in an enveloping blue atmosphere. Kopisch proposed to call it the “Blue Cave (Grotta Azzurra)”.
The German poet, so enchanted by such beauty, wrote the book “Discovering the Blue Grotto“, which had a great success among the Germans. In the following years Capri had an increase in tourists from Germany who wished to visit the cave. Capri became one of the destinations of the Grand Tour, along with Venice, Florence and Rome.
Friedrich Alfred Krupp had inherited from his father the most important German steel mills, which he managed with competence, building new factories. Under his leadership, the Krupp group became synonymous with German industrial power. In 1899 he came to Capri with his yacht “Puritan“, devoting himself to the study of biological sciences, focusing his interest on the Mediterranean “Plancton”. When he was on the island, he was the guest of Hotel Quisisana, the most luxurious hotel in Capri. He bought a dirt lot, with view of the Faraglioni, which he changed in garden and named “Giardini di Augusto”. He also bought a cave, located on the southern slope of the island below the “Giardini di Augusto”, called Fra Felice Cave. It had been the shelter of a friar who had lived for 20 years in the cave in the mid 16th century. Inside, he had a small two-story home built where the German industrialist loved to receive the island’s friends. He also had the famous Via Krupp dug in the northern side of the island at his expense, which connected the “Giardini di Augusto” with Marina Piccola.
Krupp embarrassed himself in the local politics, clinging to the clerical party. For this reason, he was subjected to retaliation by some Neapolitan newspapers, which disclosed the homosexuality of Krupp. The Neapolitan writer and journalist Matilde Serao distinguished himself in this press campaign. The journalist attacked daily Krupp from the columns of “Mattino” owned by her husband Eduardo Scarfoglio, accusing him heavily of homosexuality and corruption of some boys of Capri. The scandal was such that the authorities ordered the expulsion of Krupp from Italy in 1902.
Serao’s accusations were resumed by the German Socialist newspaper “Vorwarts“. The newspaper also highlighted the friendship of the businessman with Emperor William II. Homosexuality was considered a crime punished with imprisonment in Germany. A few days later, on November 22, 1902, Friedrich Krupp was found dead in his home. The medical report referred to cerebral hemorrhage as a cause of death. Perhaps Krupp committed suicide because of the accusations that had been charged to him, which could jeopardize the emperor’s honor.
Villa San Michele
Axel Munthe was born in Sweden in 1857. He was a young man when visited Capri. He enchanted by the beauty of the island. The views of that place wondered him so much he intended that one day he would return to the island to live there. When he returned to Sweden, he made medical studies specializing himself in psychiatry. His idea of a doctor was the romantic one to bring help to patients and not to cure profits. As a consequence of this conviction, he did not hesitate to go to Naples in 1884 to help the people affected by cholera. He told his Neapolitan experience in the book “Letters from a Mourning City”. In 1903 he became the official doctor of the reals of Sweden. It was on that occasion that he became acquainted with Victoria of Baden, Gustavo’s consort, heir to the throne of Sweden, who was suffering from chronic bronchitis and a suspected tuberculosis. In 1908 he went to Messina, helping the wounded by the terrible earthquake that struck the city of Strait. Soon he retired from the profession and moved definitively to the Capri.
In 1895 Munthe, walking to Capri, discovered an ancient chapel dedicated to San Michele at the top of the Fenicia Scala, on the border between Capri and Anacapri. Although the chapel was just over a ruin, of which few bricks were standing, Axel liked it and wanted to buy it at all costs. After a short time he found that on the land he owned, surrounding the chapel, insisted also the ruins of an ancient Roman villa. Axel Munthe built his home there designing it personally. He traced the simple architecture on a wall. The “Amateurist” architectural style of the Munthe villa followed the precise idea of reusing the materials found in the remains of the Roman building, making a hause that would allow a life in contact with nature and let its inhabitants enjoy the wonderful panorama. The Munthe lodge building was long and laborious because of the rugged place where it was located.
Axel Munthe who, during his stay in Stockholm, had fallen in love with Victoria of Baden, advised her for long vacations in Capri for the sake of his ill-health. Vittoria bought Villa Caprile in Anacapri, a few dozen meters away from Villa San Michele, where she settled her residence on the island. Vittoria, since 1907 Queen wife of Gustavo V, was unofficially separated from her husband. The queen began a loving relationship with the Swedish doctor. The two lovers met each morning to make long walks along the narrow streets of Capri and Anacapri. Afternoons spent them listening to and playing good music, Vittoria was a great pianist, and met friends of Capri. The two engaged in the purchase of Monte Barbarossa, adjacent to Villa San Michele, to make it a natural reserve where the birds could fly freely without the danger of hunters. The love story between Axel and Victoria lasted for 20 years, with the only intercession of the First World War, during which the doctor used to cure the wounded soldiers of Allied armies, while Vittoria, a princess of German origin, fled openly to Germany. The story ended with the queen’s death that took place in 1930 in Rome.
Axel Munthe had to return to Sweden after a few years due to a serious eye disease. He died in Stockholm in 1949. Villa San Michele was donated by Munthe to the Swedish state. Today it is the property of a foundation of that country.
(Top Photo: Capri, Marina Grande, Sean William 2007)
Amedeo Maiuri, Capri – Storia e monumenti, Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Roma 1956
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storia dell’isola di Capri
Roberto Ciuni, La conquista di Capri, Sellerio, 1990
Arne Melberg, Enel Melberg Twas on the Isle of Capri: Guide to Literary, Capri, Books Google
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich Alfred Krupp
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vittoria di Baden
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa San Michele (Capri)