Case come noi

“On the island of Capri there lived three narcissists who each built a house on the edge of a cliff. They were Axel Munthe, Baron Jacques Adelsward-Fersen and Curzio Malaparte. All three were writers of the self-dramatising variety. All had a strong dose of Nordic sensibility. And all sought to expand their personalities in architecture. Their houses were thus acts of self-love - ‘dream houses’ where they hoped to live, love, and work wonders of creation, but which, despite idyllic settings, were infected by a morbid atmosphere akin to that of Böcklin’s Island of the Dead.”

Capri is an island in the Gulf of Naples, with a size of ten square kilometres. A 590-metre-high mountain, Monte Solaro, divides it into two parts with two towns: in the east, beneath the steep slope, lies Capri, situated by the sea and including two harbours, Marina Grande in the north and Marina Piccola in the south. In the west, Anacapri is located on the mountain and has no direct access to the sea. Under Greek colonisation in the 5th century BC, steep steps were already carved into the rock, known as as the Scala Fenicia, to connect Anacapri to the Marina Grande. A road was built in 1877.

The first person to fall in love with the island’s rough beauty was Emperor Tiberius. Even before him, his stepfather, Emperor Augustus, had been fond of the island and ordered the construction of a Palazzo al Mare near the Marina Grande. Tiberius, however, spent eleven years there from 27 AD, remaining until his death. He had no fewer than twelve villas built there, one for each month in the year, each named after an Olympian deity. Dedicated to Jupiter, the father of the gods, the Villa JovisA is situated on the eastern tip of the island, closest to the mainland, on a 300-metre precipice. It was excavated in the 1930s and remains the best preserved of the twelve buildings, guarded by the bronze figure of the Madonna del Seccorso.

In the second half of the 19th century, the seclusion of Capri that Tiberius so appreciated became highly attractive again, no longer for individuals, but for numerous artists, philosophers and tourists, and was preferred by people who found the conventions and laws on the mainland too limiting and restrictive. Two of the three writers that lived on the island of Capri and were described by Bruce Chatwin as narcissists, Axel Munthe and Jacques Adelswärd-Fersen, built their houses around 1900. Munthe’s house is a bricolage. What had already existed was continually developed, supplemented, moulded and integrated, with added spolia from every century. Fersen’s villa is eclectic and illustrious. It is enthroned on the slope above its garden, an attempt at neoclassicism that ended in kitsch.

The last of the three writers Bruce Chatwin described as narcissists, Curzio Malaparte, built his house a few decades later, in the 1930s. Malaparte is not only the outstanding writer among them, but also achieved something entirely new with his house, which continues to be extremely admired to this day.

If we believe Chatwin and assume the architecture of the three buildings is the development and expression of their builders’ respective characters, then Munthe, Fersen and Malaparte are three very different souls. The houses are self-presentations, “self-dramatisations” and as a result, no architect designed any of them. No artist would allow another artist to conceive the staging strategy for their own ego, at least not on Capri. The buildings express how Munthe, Fersen and Malaparte grasped their artistic creativity and social roles, how they placed themselves in a cultural context – and how they located themselves in the landscape of Capri.

Axel Munthe (1857-1949),

born in Sweden, came to Capri for the first time at the age of almost 20, returning regularly from then on. He worked as a doctor in Stockholm, Paris, London, Rome and Naples, treating aristocrats with nervous conditions and dozens of cholera patients. Munthe married, the matrimony failed (as did a subsequent marriage), he ran a practice at a prime location in Rome and became the personal physician to the Swedish-Norwegian Crown Princess Victoria, the later Queen of Sweden – maintaining a close relationship with her until her death in 1930. In 1895, while still practising in Rome, he purchased an old house in Anacapri on the Capodimonte, with a wonderful view of the Gulf of Naples.

The two-storey building with a workshop, a simple volume shaped like a brick, had belonged to the master carpenter Vincenzo Alberino. It stood on a terraced slope cultivated with vineyards and fruit trees, about 50 metres west of a powder magazine built on the remains of a chapel once dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Munthe initially considered rebuilding San Michele chapel and living there; he was convinced that it had originally been a temple for the goddess Isis, part of Tiberius’s villa grounds. However, he subsequently decided to focus on the carpenter’s house, which was in much better condition. The first extension was completed after a period of two years, a section extending towards the northeast.B The ground floor with a kitchen and dining room has a direct entrance from the descending hillside in the north, where the road was built at a later date and initially ran straight through the property. On the ascending slope side in the south, another entrance is accessed via a sunken forecourt. The upper level accommodates Munthe’s bedroom and study, while an open sculpture gallery with arcades leads northeast. A terrace with a pergola is situated to the southwest. It was concluded in the next building stage, whereby the already long volume was extended to a length of over 38 metres to include a new wing. By the time it was fully completed, both the proportions and the silhouette of the building had changed, while the central axis had been heightened with a roughly central superstructure to accommodate guest rooms. Naturally, the spatial structure is not a great achievement, since such continuous building on the existing structures led to a somewhat labyrinthine result. Its arched ceilings are typically Caprese, however. The façades retained their original expression at all stages of the conversion; the proportion of apertures in the white-plastered walls is low. There are two very slim door openings on the ground floor and a few square windows. The upper level has regular arched openings in the area of the gallery and small twin windows in the walls elsewhere. The attics of the flat roofs have white battlements in the form of cornice arches. Despite the radiant white colour, the overall impression is of a fortress from the time of the Saracen raids.

Towards the northeast, the semi-open gallery on the upper level is connected to a pergola with powerful, white columns and wooden beams. It runs above the embankment wall of the slightly curved terrain contour and the property boundary. Contrary to Munthe, who once wrote that there were over a hundred columns there, the number is just over thirty, yet they ultimately lead beneath the San Michele chapel that gives everything its name, as well as above the Scala Fenicia, ending in a semicircular terrace with an incomparable view. Munthe rebuilt the chapel in an unusual asymmetrical manner, with an L-shaped loggia facing northeast and southeast, affording a shielded view towards the gulf, Capri and the Marina Grande. Both façades feature high triple apertures with stilted arches and slender knotted columns, framed in blind arches presenting the face of San Michele. The sphinx in the corner on the parapet wall, initially a winged, Etruscan example sitting upright, later and to this day a lying, Egyptian variety, looks down with androgynous mystique and is silent, since no words can describe the beauty of the landscape. Munthe used the chapel interior as a library and music room.

Munthe later wrote: “I knew absolutely nothing about architecture nor did any of my fellow workers, nobody who could read or write ever had anything to do with the work, no architect was ever consulted, no proper drawing or plan was ever made, no exact measurements were ever taken. It was all done all’ occhio, as Mastro Nicola called it.”1 It is possible that the painter Giulio Aristide Sartorio, whom Munthe had met in Rome and occasionally came to Capri, provided assistance with such “drawing by eye”. Munthe employed local masons and builders for the project, who ensured the Caprese tradition in the house and garden.2

Munthe successively bought properties surrounding the house all the way up to the Castello Barbarossa on the ascending hillside in the south. In 1901, he closed his practice in Rome and remained in Capri all year round. A year later, he bought the Torre di Materita, a 14th-century fortified tower, two kilometres south of San Michele, which had indeed been erected to defend against Saracen raids and is situated in a shady, dark location. Munthe’s sense of sight suffered greatly in the bright Capri sunshine and the architecture of his house. He later described it as resembling a Greek temple, open, white and bright, like a “sanctuary to the Sun”. For a few years, he moved back and forth between residences, before renting out San Michele and living in the tower permanently. It was there, much later, that he wrote The Story of San Michele, which was published in 1929 and became a great success. Munthe, who always shared his house and garden with guests, patients and many animals, even exotic ones, eventually bequeathed his property to the Swedish state. Since the 1950s, it has been a publicly accessible museum

Axel Munthe was neither an exceptional writer, nor an outstanding amateur architect. In both disciplines, he combined the truth with insincere inventions. The house, garden and small-scale architecture are the result of a bricolage process using existing structures, traditional and locally typical craftsmanship, and elements he had seen, appropriated and dreamt up somewhere along the way. The many figures of gods and emperors, as well as the elements and spolia that are built in and positioned there, originate from ancient villas, the bottom of the sea or Neapolitan antique dealers. However, as a bricoleur, Munthe was no doubt talented and inventive, managing to arrange and combine the elements in a way that made them communicate with each other, form a unity and become significant through the greater order of this large and complex house and garden grounds. The result is an obstinate cosmos with much originality and considerable attraction.

Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen (1880-1923),

born in Paris as Jacques d’Adelswärd, came to Capri at the age of 24, having just inherited his grandfather’s fortune. He had known the island since his youth. Yet his move from Paris was not entirely voluntary. The reason for his legal difficulties in France was not his homosexuality, but his preference for underage boys. He was accused of hosting orgiastic parties in his house, where the recitation of poetry – d’Adelswärd was himself a writer and poet – and the performance of mythological narratives with half-naked boys were certainly not the only activities. Indeed it was claimed that these boys were also treated inappropriately. D’Adelswärd was sentenced to prison and lost his citizen’s rights for five years, which motivated him to leave for Capri the same year. He bought a large countryside property with a size of 20,000 square metres in the northeast of the island, near the ruins of the Villa Jovis, and had a house built there.

The location is very promising: high up on a cliff, with a fantastic view of the Gulf of Naples, Capri and the Marina Grande, with the village in the distance and Tiberius’s villa as the only reference, the visual effect in every direction is enormous. D’Adelswärd did not constantly supervise the construction process lasting around a year, instead travelling to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, where he discovered a penchant for smoking opium. Passing through Rome on his return journey to Capri, he met Antonio Cesarini (1890-1943), who was ten years younger than him, fourteen years old at the time, and took him to the island and his new home. Initially, he gave the house the typologically motivated name of Gloriette, before renaming it Villa Lysis,C after a work of the same name by Plato. It describes a fictitious dialogue between Plato’s teacher Socrates and the two boys Lysis and Menexenos, discussing erotic friendship, desire and love. D’Adelswärd continued the self-dramatisation achieved through the building’s name by calling himself Count Fersen from then on, claiming the title and name from a distant relative.

The villa, which Fersen subsequently used as a stage for his own eccentricity, is an attempt to make a grand gesture through architecture or at least through the addition and alienation of well-known architectural elements. A broad outdoor stairway dominates, leading to the main floor that is raised up from the garden. The villa’s floor plan has two parts, the stairs only serving the southern spatial axis and ending in a portico supported by four columns. The columns stand on very high plinths, have channelled shafts with gold-leaf grooves on their lower sections and Ionic capitals of unusual opulence. The intercolumniation of the central axis is twice as wide as its outer counterpart and an inscription has been engraved on the architrave, which is actually a balcony balustrade: “Amori et Dolori Sacrum”,3 making the house a shrine to love and sorrow. Such dramatisation at least raises expectations.

There follows a two-storey entrance hall with a triple-flighted marble staircase and gallery, which is inserted like a piece of furniture. The hall is followed by a narrow corridor with a kitchen, sideboard and a small stair leading down to the basement floor. The second spatial axis is occupied by a lavishly proportioned salon, a space with a rectangular floor plan and an exedra on its eastern narrow side, with vaulted ceilings and a structure dictated by four Corinthian columns. The space is surrounded on three sides by a narrow terrace. This spatial axis includes a lower floor on the steeply descending terrain, which is lower and darker, situated behind a surrounding loggia with shallow arches. Among other elements, Fersen furnished his so-called Chinese room there, accommodating his large collection of opium pipes that he had purchased in China and regularly used. The upper floor housed the bedrooms, the bathroom and auxiliary rooms; the space’s basilica floor plan is shortened there towards the west to make space for a terrace.

The lack of an organic floor plan leads to an equal lack of unity among the villa’s exterior elements. The volumes of both building sections are placed against each other in a way that breaks down the building into two parts, the terraces remaining mutually detached. The balustrades and roof ridges are heavily profiled, while the windows have all manner of forms, with semicircular arches, basket arches and straight or round conclusions. Numerous stucco garlands have been applied to the white plaster walls.

World War I separated Fersen from his partner Antonio, also known as Nino, for a number of years, the younger man serving in the army. They subsequently continued to live and party in their Elysium. In 1923 they went on a trip to Naples. On returning to Capri, Fersen retired to the underworld of his house, clad in his preferred colour pink, to consume champagne and cocaine – which killed him. Fersen’s sister inherited the villa, with Nino receiving usufruct rights. He subsequently sold his rights and moved back to Rome. The building changed hands without anyone really using it, leading to its decay. In the 1990s, by then belonging to the Italian state, it was restored and is now publicly accessible, the property of the municipality of Capri.

There can only be speculation on the participation of an architect in the design of the villa.4 Delving so deeply in architectural history allows one to presume a certain degree of art-historical knowledge, but the concrete design also reflects an equal lack of skill in handling it. As well as hubris and vanity. Villa Lysis is designed for external effect, prestigious, backward-looking, alien and fantastical. Despite all of its design efforts and the obvious attempt to be “classical”, it remains disparate and kitsch, both outdoors and inside, where it apparently only functioned for the specific pleasures of its residents.Standing in the gold-leafed portico at the head end of the large open-air stairway, looking down on the garden terrace with a water basin and the figure of a youth, the backdrop of the steep hillside behind it, Jacques d’Adelswärd could enjoy a panorama of indescribable beauty. Had he been attracted to men of an older age, and if Axel Munthe had sat at the same time in the loggia of his San Michele chapel, with better eye sight, they could have observed each other in their respective retreats.

Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957 ),

born in Tuscany as Curt Erich Suckert, a journalist and writer, visited Capri for the first time in 1937, already aged almost 40. By then, his antifascist activities had not only led to imprisonment, but also several years’ exile. In 1925, he had replaced his German name with the pseudonym Malaparte, having already used the first name Curzio for some time. Two acquaintances introduced him to the island: Gian Galleazzo Ciano, at the time Propaganda and Foreign Minister under Benito Mussolini (although also a later co-conspirator to overthrow Mussolini, for which he was executed) and Guglielmo Rulli, a diplomat. In January 1938, Malaparte bought a large property where building was actually prohibited, with no road access, in the outermost southeastern part of the island, beneath Via Tragara. On the advice of a friend, he contracted the architect Adalberto Libera (1903-1963) to design a house for him.5

Unlike Axel Munthe and Jacques d’Adelswärd, Curzio Malaparte therefore initially engaged an architect, without whose experience and reputation, he would no doubt never have gained planning permission at that protected location. This was necessary because a recent change in building regulations; from 1925, new building and conversion projects on Capri were examined by the authorities and ministries in Naples and had to be approved there..

Libera designed a building with a rectangular ground plan for the property’s exposed ledge, with a length of 28 metres and a width of 6.5 metres. Towards the open sea, the house had two storeys. Towards the steep hillside, it had one floor and a rooftop terrace. The natural stone base level accommodated bedrooms and service rooms arranged on one side along a long corridor. A broad living room was designed to cover the entire width of the upper level, with a locally typical shallow vaulted ceiling and a balcony at the head end facing the sea to the southeast. A little later, Libera revised his design, conceiving a considerably larger building with dimensions of 38 x 9 metres, placing his client’s apartment with two bedrooms on the exposed southeastern end of the base level, while removing the balcony for the upper-level salon and replacing it with larger and, on the whole, less systematically positioned windows.

Even the design’s first draft was immediately approved, but was not what Malaparte had hoped for. Nor was the second design: he regarded it as too rational, too unradical, not new enough and not sufficiently reflective of his own image. Thus Malaparte decisively changed the building’s design. By the time construction work began, his collaboration with Libera had ended.D With support from the local master builder Adolfo Amitrano, Malaparte built a house with a form and inner structure that he developed using sketches and montage; while the process was somewhat clumsy, the expression was clear.

The theme and the all-dominating element of the building is a stairway over 20 metres long, or to be more precise, the stepped building itself, resembling the steps of a pyramid. It is narrow to begin with, before continuously widening to cover the almost ten-metre width of the building, merging at the top with the approximately 300-square-metre roof area. The house ends behind it, behind which lies the end of the Punta del Massullo, which itself marks the end of the island of Capri. Beyond lies only the Tyrrhenian Sea and, somewhere far away, Paestum on the Italian mainland. The steps are made of red stone, the roof is also made of red stone, there is no balustrade, not even a railing. Only a white curved wall that provides a little protection from the rear.

The stairway or the massive pile of steps defined the form of the building and also its interior organisation. The upper floor became the main level with the salon and apartment. Beneath it, albeit only covering half the length of the house, lies the entrance floor with guest and auxiliary rooms. The width of the house allows an axial arrangement of rooms with a central corridor on both levels. The entrance itself is almost hidden and tersely positioned on the long southwest flank, leading to a space with modest dimensions and a double-flighted staircase up to the living room and bedroom level. This organisation is based on the idea of cutting the entrance axially into the exterior stairs at the height of the main floor. In the summer of 1940, Malaparte corrected the already implemented design, which undermined the building’s desired clarity, stringency and hardness, thus closing the incision again. The house was finished by the end of the year – a long, narrow, precisely contoured volume, in red plaster, resembling a perfectly crafted sculpture hewn from a craggy rock spur. The arrangement of more than a dozen different window sizes on both exterior walls follows no rule or façade order and is far more orientated towards the size and function of the interior spaces.

The central room is the salon; it occupies the entire width of the house, with dimensions of 130 square metres, and has an almost symmetrical structure owing to the four large windows, two on each side, opposite each other. They are differently sized, but are all cased in dark wood like picture frames. Along the lengthy wall to the southwest, a broad fireplace stands in the centre, with a window behind it. An extensive wooden sculpture stands opposite the fireplace. The floor of the room is covered with broken stone slabs in a polygonal arrangement. Malaparte introduced a low horizon to the already rather low-ceilinged room by adding his self-designed furniture: the wooden board of the fireplace, unusually long tabletops and bench-seating supported by column stumps, the sofas – all of these elements are strongly horizontal roughly at parapet height. However, the windows have bottom edges a hand’s width above the stone floor. One relatively small wooden door is situated at each of the room’s head ends, one of which casually leads from the stairs at the side, while the other leads axially out of the other end. The private rooms are situated behind two further doors. Malaparte’s sleeping quarters were situated to the right, while the left side was used by his currently preferred female partner. Malaparte’s study was situated at the very end of this spatial sequence, again occupying the entire width and with a window placed at the centre of the head end. It was only accessible from his own bedroom.

Curzio Malaparte lived in the building all year round until his death. During World War II, he worked as a journalist and diplomat. He later wrote about his experiences and observations in two novels, which were controversial in Italy for a long time, but eventually became very successful: Kaputt was published in 1944 and La pelle in 1949. On a journey to China, Malaparte became sick and died in 1957. The building on Capri remained empty for some years. In the 1960s, it was used as a filming location for the motion picture Le Mépris.E Today, the building belongs to a foundation managed by the author’s family.

From a disdainful, functional perspective, Casa Malaparte is a disaster. Despite its heroic stance on the Punta del Massullo, it is equally vulnerable. Storm, saltwater and the sun have regularly caused considerable damage. There is no garden and no drive. It can only be accessed on foot, either from the water below or from the mountain side. It is always necessary to climb many steps and there is no protection from accidental falls, nor shielded exterior spaces. Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of these aspects – the Casa Malaparte is the most exceptional and impressive private residential building of the 20th century. Its idea is radical and the building’s architecture is extremely personal, full of idiosyncratic inventions and impossible to imitate; without obvious influences, without inspiration from preceding architectural history and without reference to local or in any way typical housing forms. The Casa Malaparte transforms the Punta del Massullo into a new place, with which it is inextricably linked. For as long as it has existed, no other building has been conceivable there

As Bruce Chatwin wrote: “On the island of Capri there lived three narcissists who each built a house on the edge of a cliff. […] ‘dream houses’ [...] which, despite idyllic settings, were infected by a morbid atmosphere akin to that of Böcklin’s Island of the Dead.” Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) painted the Island of the Dead five times between 1880 and 1886, always with slight amendments, a wealth of allusion, symbolism and autobiographical significance. Had there been a real role model for the Island of the DeadF, it would have existed in the Gulf of Naples. And yet, contrary to Chatwin’s claim, morbidity it not present in any of the buildings. Instead, there is a quiet sadness. And yearning.

Case come noi

3/29/2023

Claudia Kromrei, Translation: Benjamin Liebelt

Munthe, Fersen and Malaparte on Capri

“On the island of Capri there lived three narcissists who each built a house on the edge of a cliff. They were Axel Munthe, Baron Jacques Adelsward-Fersen and Curzio Malaparte. All three were writers of the self-dramatising variety. All had a strong dose of Nordic sensibility. And all sought to expand their personalities in architecture. Their houses were thus acts of self-love - ‘dream houses’ where they hoped to live, love, and work wonders of creation, but which, despite idyllic settings, were infected by a morbid atmosphere akin to that of Böcklin’s Island of the Dead.”

Bruce Chatwin: Anatomy of Restlessness, London 1997.

Capri is an island in the Gulf of Naples, with a size of ten square kilometres. A 590-metre-high mountain, Monte Solaro, divides it into two parts with two towns: in the east, beneath the steep slope, lies Capri, situated by the sea and including two harbours, Marina Grande in the north and Marina Piccola in the south. In the west, Anacapri is located on the mountain and has no direct access to the sea. Under Greek colonisation in the 5th century BC, steep steps were already carved into the rock, known as as the Scala Fenicia, to connect Anacapri to the Marina Grande. A road was built in 1877.

The first person to fall in love with the island’s rough beauty was Emperor Tiberius. Even before him, his stepfather, Emperor Augustus, had been fond of the island and ordered the construction of a Palazzo al Mare near the Marina Grande. Tiberius, however, spent eleven years there from 27 AD, remaining until his death. He had no fewer than twelve villas built there, one for each month in the year, each named after an Olympian deity. Dedicated to Jupiter, the father of the gods, the Villa Jovisis situated on the eastern tip of the island, closest to the mainland, on a 300-metre precipice. It was excavated in the 1930s and remains the best preserved of the twelve buildings, guarded by the bronze figure of the Madonna del Seccorso.

In the second half of the 19th century, the seclusion of Capri that Tiberius so appreciated became highly attractive again, no longer for individuals, but for numerous artists, philosophers and tourists, and was preferred by people who found the conventions and laws on the mainland too limiting and restrictive. Two of the three writers that lived on the island of Capri and were described by Bruce Chatwin as narcissists, Axel Munthe and Jacques Adelswärd-Fersen, built their houses around 1900. Munthe’s house is a bricolage. What had already existed was continually developed, supplemented, moulded and integrated, with added spolia from every century. Fersen’s villa is eclectic and illustrious. It is enthroned on the slope above its garden, an attempt at neoclassicism that ended in kitsch.

The last of the three writers Bruce Chatwin described as narcissists, Curzio Malaparte, built his house a few decades later, in the 1930s. Malaparte is not only the outstanding writer among them, but also achieved something entirely new with his house, which continues to be extremely admired to this day.

If we believe Chatwin and assume the architecture of the three buildings is the development and expression of their builders’ respective characters, then Munthe, Fersen and Malaparte are three very different souls. The houses are self-presentations, “self-dramatisations” and as a result, no architect designed any of them. No artist would allow another artist to conceive the staging strategy for their own ego, at least not on Capri. The buildings express how Munthe, Fersen and Malaparte grasped their artistic creativity and social roles, how they placed themselves in a cultural context – and how they located themselves in the landscape of Capri.

Axel Munthe (1857-1949),

born in Sweden, came to Capri for the first time at the age of almost 20, returning regularly from then on. He worked as a doctor in Stockholm, Paris, London, Rome and Naples, treating aristocrats with nervous conditions and dozens of cholera patients. Munthe married, the matrimony failed (as did a subsequent marriage), he ran a practice at a prime location in Rome and became the personal physician to the Swedish-Norwegian Crown Princess Victoria, the later Queen of Sweden – maintaining a close relationship with her until her death in 1930. In 1895, while still practising in Rome, he purchased an old house in Anacapri on the Capodimonte, with a wonderful view of the Gulf of Naples.

The two-storey building with a workshop, a simple volume shaped like a brick, had belonged to the master carpenter Vincenzo Alberino. It stood on a terraced slope cultivated with vineyards and fruit trees, about 50 metres west of a powder magazine built on the remains of a chapel once dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Munthe initially considered rebuilding San Michele chapel and living there; he was convinced that it had originally been a temple for the goddess Isis, part of Tiberius’s villa grounds. However, he subsequently decided to focus on the carpenter’s house, which was in much better condition. The first extension was completed after a period of two years, a section extending towards the northeast. The ground floor with a kitchen and dining room has a direct entrance from the descending hillside in the north, where the road was built at a later date and initially ran straight through the property. On the ascending slope side in the south, another entrance is accessed via a sunken forecourt. The upper level accommodates Munthe’s bedroom and study, while an open sculpture gallery with arcades leads northeast. A terrace with a pergola is situated to the southwest. It was concluded in the next building stage, whereby the already long volume was extended to a length of over 38 metres to include a new wing. By the time it was fully completed, both the proportions and the silhouette of the building had changed, while the central axis had been heightened with a roughly central superstructure to accommodate guest rooms. Naturally, the spatial structure is not a great achievement, since such continuous building on the existing structures led to a somewhat labyrinthine result. Its arched ceilings are typically Caprese, however. The façades retained their original expression at all stages of the conversion; the proportion of apertures in the white-plastered walls is low. There are two very slim door openings on the ground floor and a few square windows. The upper level has regular arched openings in the area of the gallery and small twin windows in the walls elsewhere. The attics of the flat roofs have white battlements in the form of cornice arches. Despite the radiant white colour, the overall impression is of a fortress from the time of the Saracen raids.

Towards the northeast, the semi-open gallery on the upper level is connected to a pergola with powerful, white columns and wooden beams. It runs above the embankment wall of the slightly curved terrain contour and the property boundary. Contrary to Munthe, who once wrote that there were over a hundred columns there, the number is just over thirty, yet they ultimately lead beneath the San Michele chapel that gives everything its name, as well as above the Scala Fenicia, ending in a semicircular terrace with an incomparable view. Munthe rebuilt the chapel in an unusual asymmetrical manner, with an L-shaped loggia facing northeast and southeast, affording a shielded view towards the gulf, Capri and the Marina Grande. Both façades feature high triple apertures with stilted arches and slender knotted columns, framed in blind arches presenting the face of San Michele. The sphinx in the corner on the parapet wall, initially a winged, Etruscan example sitting upright, later and to this day a lying, Egyptian variety, looks down with androgynous mystique and is silent, since no words can describe the beauty of the landscape. Munthe used the chapel interior as a library and music room.

Reclining sphinx with view of the Gulf of Naples – Foto: Axel Munthe
The chapel of Villa San Michele – Foto: Axel Munthe
View from the chapel of the villa over Capri – Foto: Drottning Viktoria
Axel Munthe (front) with company in the pergola – Foto: Drottning Viktoria
Sculpture gallery in the main wing – Foto: Axel Munthe
01 | 06
Reclining sphinx with view of the Gulf of Naples – Foto: Axel Munthe

1 Axel Munthe: The Story of San Michele, Dutton, New York 1929.

2 In Hans Vollmer (Ed.): Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, Leipzig 1935, Sartorio (1860-1932) is named as the house’s architect. However, he was an artist, not an architect.

3 Amori et Dolori Sacrum. La mort de Venise is the title of a travel account by the French author Maurice Barrès. The text was published in Paris in 1903.

Villa Lysis

Munthe later wrote: “I knew absolutely nothing about architecture nor did any of my fellow workers, nobody who could read or write ever had anything to do with the work, no architect was ever consulted, no proper drawing or plan was ever made, no exact measurements were ever taken. It was all done all’ occhio, as Mastro Nicola called it.”1 It is possible that the painter Giulio Aristide Sartorio, whom Munthe had met in Rome and occasionally came to Capri, provided assistance with such “drawing by eye”. Munthe employed local masons and builders for the project, who ensured the Caprese tradition in the house and garden.2

Munthe successively bought properties surrounding the house all the way up to the Castello Barbarossa on the ascending hillside in the south. In 1901, he closed his practice in Rome and remained in Capri all year round. A year later, he bought the Torre di Materita, a 14th-century fortified tower, two kilometres south of San Michele, which had indeed been erected to defend against Saracen raids and is situated in a shady, dark location. Munthe’s sense of sight suffered greatly in the bright Capri sunshine and the architecture of his house. He later described it as resembling a Greek temple, open, white and bright, like a “sanctuary to the Sun”. For a few years, he moved back and forth between residences, before renting out San Michele and living in the tower permanently. It was there, much later, that he wrote The Story of San Michele, which was published in 1929 and became a great success. Munthe, who always shared his house and garden with guests, patients and many animals, even exotic ones, eventually bequeathed his property to the Swedish state. Since the 1950s, it has been a publicly accessible museum

Axel Munthe was neither an exceptional writer, nor an outstanding amateur architect. In both disciplines, he combined the truth with insincere inventions. The house, garden and small-scale architecture are the result of a bricolage process using existing structures, traditional and locally typical craftsmanship, and elements he had seen, appropriated and dreamt up somewhere along the way. The many figures of gods and emperors, as well as the elements and spolia that are built in and positioned there, originate from ancient villas, the bottom of the sea or Neapolitan antique dealers. However, as a bricoleur, Munthe was no doubt talented and inventive, managing to arrange and combine the elements in a way that made them communicate with each other, form a unity and become significant through the greater order of this large and complex house and garden grounds. The result is an obstinate cosmos with much originality and considerable attraction.

Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen (1880-1923),

born in Paris as Jacques d’Adelswärd, came to Capri at the age of 24, having just inherited his grandfather’s fortune. He had known the island since his youth. Yet his move from Paris was not entirely voluntary. The reason for his legal difficulties in France was not his homosexuality, but his preference for underage boys. He was accused of hosting orgiastic parties in his house, where the recitation of poetry – d’Adelswärd was himself a writer and poet – and the performance of mythological narratives with half-naked boys were certainly not the only activities. Indeed it was claimed that these boys were also treated inappropriately. D’Adelswärd was sentenced to prison and lost his citizen’s rights for five years, which motivated him to leave for Capri the same year. He bought a large countryside property with a size of 20,000 square metres in the northeast of the island, near the ruins of the Villa Jovis, and had a house built there.

The location is very promising: high up on a cliff, with a fantastic view of the Gulf of Naples, Capri and the Marina Grande, with the village in the distance and Tiberius’s villa as the only reference, the visual effect in every direction is enormous. D’Adelswärd did not constantly supervise the construction process lasting around a year, instead travelling to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, where he discovered a penchant for smoking opium. Passing through Rome on his return journey to Capri, he met Antonio Cesarini (1890-1943), who was ten years younger than him, fourteen years old at the time, and took him to the island and his new home. Initially, he gave the house the typologically motivated name of Gloriette, before renaming it Villa Lysis, after a work of the same name by Plato. It describes a fictitious dialogue between Plato’s teacher Socrates and the two boys Lysis and Menexenos, discussing erotic friendship, desire and love. D’Adelswärd continued the self-dramatisation achieved through the building’s name by calling himself Count Fersen from then on, claiming the title and name from a distant relative.

The villa, which Fersen subsequently used as a stage for his own eccentricity, is an attempt to make a grand gesture through architecture or at least through the addition and alienation of well-known architectural elements. A broad outdoor stairway dominates, leading to the main floor that is raised up from the garden. The villa’s floor plan has two parts, the stairs only serving the southern spatial axis and ending in a portico supported by four columns. The columns stand on very high plinths, have channelled shafts with gold-leaf grooves on their lower sections and Ionic capitals of unusual opulence. The intercolumniation of the central axis is twice as wide as its outer counterpart and an inscription has been engraved on the architrave, which is actually a balcony balustrade: “Amori et Dolori Sacrum”,3 making the house a shrine to love and sorrow. Such dramatisation at least raises expectations.

There follows a two-storey entrance hall with a triple-flighted marble staircase and gallery, which is inserted like a piece of furniture. The hall is followed by a narrow corridor with a kitchen, sideboard and a small stair leading down to the basement floor. The second spatial axis is occupied by a lavishly proportioned salon, a space with a rectangular floor plan and an exedra on its eastern narrow side, with vaulted ceilings and a structure dictated by four Corinthian columns. The space is surrounded on three sides by a narrow terrace. This spatial axis includes a lower floor on the steeply descending terrain, which is lower and darker, situated behind a surrounding loggia with shallow arches. Among other elements, Fersen furnished his so-called Chinese room there, accommodating his large collection of opium pipes that he had purchased in China and regularly used. The upper floor housed the bedrooms, the bathroom and auxiliary rooms; the space’s basilica floor plan is shortened there towards the west to make space for a terrace.

Private room of Villa Lysis with nude and skull – Foto: Wilhelm Plüschow
"Amori et Dolori Sacrum" (Dedicated to Love and Suffering), steps leading to the vestibule. – © Umberto D'Aniello
Nino Cesarini stands model for the sculptor Irace – Foto: Wilhelm Plüschow
Forecourt of the villa with Iraces statue by Nino Cesarini – Foto: Wilhelm Plüschow
Jaques Fersen with Nino Cesarini and a servant boy in the garden of Villa Lysis – Foto: Wilhelm Plüschow
Upper terrace with view towards Naples – © Umberto D'Aniello
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Private room of Villa Lysis with nude and skull – Foto: Wilhelm Plüschow

4 It is presumed that the French painter Maler Edouard Chimot (1880-1959) participated in its design. Chimot was on the island of Capri at the turn of the century and corresponded with Fersen for a number of years.

5 Although Libera was a member of the Movimento Italiano di Architettura Razionale,he also avowed to Fascism. The architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers (1909-1969) later described such beliefs as a philosophical misunderstanding: since the Rationalist movement regarded Fascism as a revolution and the architecture of Modernism to be revolutionary, it was logical to regard Rationalism as the architecture of Fascism.

Casa Malaparte

The lack of an organic floor plan leads to an equal lack of unity among the villa’s exterior elements. The volumes of both building sections are placed against each other in a way that breaks down the building into two parts, the terraces remaining mutually detached. The balustrades and roof ridges are heavily profiled, while the windows have all manner of forms, with semicircular arches, basket arches and straight or round conclusions. Numerous stucco garlands have been applied to the white plaster walls.

World War I separated Fersen from his partner Antonio, also known as Nino, for a number of years, the younger man serving in the army. They subsequently continued to live and party in their Elysium. In 1923 they went on a trip to Naples. On returning to Capri, Fersen retired to the underworld of his house, clad in his preferred colour pink, to consume champagne and cocaine – which killed him. Fersen’s sister inherited the villa, with Nino receiving usufruct rights. He subsequently sold his rights and moved back to Rome. The building changed hands without anyone really using it, leading to its decay. In the 1990s, by then belonging to the Italian state, it was restored and is now publicly accessible, the property of the municipality of Capri.

There can only be speculation on the participation of an architect in the design of the villa.4 Delving so deeply in architectural history allows one to presume a certain degree of art-historical knowledge, but the concrete design also reflects an equal lack of skill in handling it. As well as hubris and vanity. Villa Lysis is designed for external effect, prestigious, backward-looking, alien and fantastical. Despite all of its design efforts and the obvious attempt to be “classical”, it remains disparate and kitsch, both outdoors and inside, where it apparently only functioned for the specific pleasures of its residents.Standing in the gold-leafed portico at the head end of the large open-air stairway, looking down on the garden terrace with a water basin and the figure of a youth, the backdrop of the steep hillside behind it, Jacques d’Adelswärd could enjoy a panorama of indescribable beauty. Had he been attracted to men of an older age, and if Axel Munthe had sat at the same time in the loggia of his San Michele chapel, with better eye sight, they could have observed each other in their respective retreats.

Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957 ),

born in Tuscany as Curt Erich Suckert, a journalist and writer, visited Capri for the first time in 1937, already aged almost 40. By then, his antifascist activities had not only led to imprisonment, but also several years’ exile. In 1925, he had replaced his German name with the pseudonym Malaparte, having already used the first name Curzio for some time. Two acquaintances introduced him to the island: Gian Galleazzo Ciano, at the time Propaganda and Foreign Minister under Benito Mussolini (although also a later co-conspirator to overthrow Mussolini, for which he was executed) and Guglielmo Rulli, a diplomat. In January 1938, Malaparte bought a large property where building was actually prohibited, with no road access, in the outermost southeastern part of the island, beneath Via Tragara. On the advice of a friend, he contracted the architect Adalberto Libera (1903-1963) to design a house for him.5

Unlike Axel Munthe and Jacques d’Adelswärd, Curzio Malaparte therefore initially engaged an architect, without whose experience and reputation, he would no doubt never have gained planning permission at that protected location. This was necessary because a recent change in building regulations; from 1925, new building and conversion projects on Capri were examined by the authorities and ministries in Naples and had to be approved there..

Libera designed a building with a rectangular ground plan for the property’s exposed ledge, with a length of 28 metres and a width of 6.5 metres. Towards the open sea, the house had two storeys. Towards the steep hillside, it had one floor and a rooftop terrace. The natural stone base level accommodated bedrooms and service rooms arranged on one side along a long corridor. A broad living room was designed to cover the entire width of the upper level, with a locally typical shallow vaulted ceiling and a balcony at the head end facing the sea to the southeast. A little later, Libera revised his design, conceiving a considerably larger building with dimensions of 38 x 9 metres, placing his client’s apartment with two bedrooms on the exposed southeastern end of the base level, while removing the balcony for the upper-level salon and replacing it with larger and, on the whole, less systematically positioned windows.

Even the design’s first draft was immediately approved, but was not what Malaparte had hoped for. Nor was the second design: he regarded it as too rational, too unradical, not new enough and not sufficiently reflective of his own image. Thus Malaparte decisively changed the building’s design. By the time construction work began, his collaboration with Libera had ended. With support from the local master builder Adolfo Amitrano, Malaparte built a house with a form and inner structure that he developed using sketches and montage; while the process was somewhat clumsy, the expression was clear.

The theme and the all-dominating element of the building is a stairway over 20 metres long, or to be more precise, the stepped building itself, resembling the steps of a pyramid. It is narrow to begin with, before continuously widening to cover the almost ten-metre width of the building, merging at the top with the approximately 300-square-metre roof area. The house ends behind it, behind which lies the end of the Punta del Massullo, which itself marks the end of the island of Capri. Beyond lies only the Tyrrhenian Sea and, somewhere far away, Paestum on the Italian mainland. The steps are made of red stone, the roof is also made of red stone, there is no balustrade, not even a railing. Only a white curved wall that provides a little protection from the rear.

Casa Malaparte on the Punta del Massullo – © Archivio Gabriele Basilico
Staircase to the roof terrace – © Archivio Gabriele Basilico
View from the salon into the Tyrrhenian Sea – © Nikolai Makarov
Curzio Malaparte in his living room – © free
Salon with fireplace and tables on column stumps – © Archivio Gabriele Basilico
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Casa Malaparte on the Punta del Massullo – © Archivio Gabriele Basilico

The stairway or the massive pile of steps defined the form of the building and also its interior organisation. The upper floor became the main level with the salon and apartment. Beneath it, albeit only covering half the length of the house, lies the entrance floor with guest and auxiliary rooms. The width of the house allows an axial arrangement of rooms with a central corridor on both levels. The entrance itself is almost hidden and tersely positioned on the long southwest flank, leading to a space with modest dimensions and a double-flighted staircase up to the living room and bedroom level. This organisation is based on the idea of cutting the entrance axially into the exterior stairs at the height of the main floor. In the summer of 1940, Malaparte corrected the already implemented design, which undermined the building’s desired clarity, stringency and hardness, thus closing the incision again. The house was finished by the end of the year – a long, narrow, precisely contoured volume, in red plaster, resembling a perfectly crafted sculpture hewn from a craggy rock spur. The arrangement of more than a dozen different window sizes on both exterior walls follows no rule or façade order and is far more orientated towards the size and function of the interior spaces.

The central room is the salon; it occupies the entire width of the house, with dimensions of 130 square metres, and has an almost symmetrical structure owing to the four large windows, two on each side, opposite each other. They are differently sized, but are all cased in dark wood like picture frames. Along the lengthy wall to the southwest, a broad fireplace stands in the centre, with a window behind it. An extensive wooden sculpture stands opposite the fireplace. The floor of the room is covered with broken stone slabs in a polygonal arrangement. Malaparte introduced a low horizon to the already rather low-ceilinged room by adding his self-designed furniture: the wooden board of the fireplace, unusually long tabletops and bench-seating supported by column stumps, the sofas – all of these elements are strongly horizontal roughly at parapet height. However, the windows have bottom edges a hand’s width above the stone floor. One relatively small wooden door is situated at each of the room’s head ends, one of which casually leads from the stairs at the side, while the other leads axially out of the other end. The private rooms are situated behind two further doors. Malaparte’s sleeping quarters were situated to the right, while the left side was used by his currently preferred female partner. Malaparte’s study was situated at the very end of this spatial sequence, again occupying the entire width and with a window placed at the centre of the head end. It was only accessible from his own bedroom.

Curzio Malaparte lived in the building all year round until his death. During World War II, he worked as a journalist and diplomat. He later wrote about his experiences and observations in two novels, which were controversial in Italy for a long time, but eventually became very successful: Kaputt was published in 1944 and La pelle in 1949. On a journey to China, Malaparte became sick and died in 1957. The building on Capri remained empty for some years. In the 1960s, it was used as a filming location for the motion picture Le Mépris. Today, the building belongs to a foundation managed by the author’s family.

From a disdainful, functional perspective, Casa Malaparte is a disaster. Despite its heroic stance on the Punta del Massullo, it is equally vulnerable. Storm, saltwater and the sun have regularly caused considerable damage. There is no garden and no drive. It can only be accessed on foot, either from the water below or from the mountain side. It is always necessary to climb many steps and there is no protection from accidental falls, nor shielded exterior spaces. Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of these aspects – the Casa Malaparte is the most exceptional and impressive private residential building of the 20th century. Its idea is radical and the building’s architecture is extremely personal, full of idiosyncratic inventions and impossible to imitate; without obvious influences, without inspiration from preceding architectural history and without reference to local or in any way typical housing forms. The Casa Malaparte transforms the Punta del Massullo into a new place, with which it is inextricably linked. For as long as it has existed, no other building has been conceivable there

As Bruce Chatwin wrote: “On the island of Capri there lived three narcissists who each built a house on the edge of a cliff. […] ‘dream houses’ [...] which, despite idyllic settings, were infected by a morbid atmosphere akin to that of Böcklin’s Island of the Dead.” Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) painted the Island of the Dead five times between 1880 and 1886, always with slight amendments, a wealth of allusion, symbolism and autobiographical significance. Had there been a real role model for the Island of the Dead, it would have existed in the Gulf of Naples. And yet, contrary to Chatwin’s claim, morbidity it not present in any of the buildings. Instead, there is a quiet sadness. And yearning.

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