became acquainted with the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello through the unlikely
vehicle of a 1955 Austrian film called Sissi,
based on the life of the empress Elisabeth
Amalie Eugenie (1837-1898), wife of Franz Joseph I. In
the course of the film, she is in seclusion on the
beautiful island of Madeira to recover her health. My
wife looked at the bucolic scene and said, “That’s in
Ravello. Villa Cimbrone.” Indeed the filmmakers had gone
on location to this part of Italy for the scene, a villa
that is, indeed, fit for a queen.
The history of the villa parallels that of
Ravello and of the entire Amalfi
coast, which is to say that sumptuous villas, including
the villa Cimbrone, started cropping up on the coast a
thousand years ago. The
villa belonged to a noble family called Accongiogioco
and then to Fusco, a wealthy and influential family
related to the royal Angevin
family of Naples. Around the seventeenth century, the
history gets shaky, but at some point it became an
integral part of a nearby monastery of Santa Chiara. In
1904, Ernest William Beckett, an English gentleman later
known as Lord Grimthorpe, fell in love with the villa
while on the “Grand Tour” and
bought it. He renovated it into what one sees today.
Villa Cimbrone became a luxury
hotel hosting some of the juiciest love-affairs and most
famous personalities of the 20th century, including
E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, the Duke and
Duchess of Kent and Winston Churchill. It was the setting
for the famous elopement of actress Greta Garbo and
conductor Leopold Stokowsky.
The brochure you can buy that is supposed to explain all this has it all wrong:
"Until recently it was attributed to D.H. Lawrence, but now we know it is the work of the Persian astronomer and mathematician Omar Khayyam...His writings were appreciated particularly during the 18th century in England."
all wrong—maybe half. The original is marginally
That "original" is the English "translation" by Edward Fitzgerald 1809-83 ("translation" in quotes because it was really a paraphrase and not a translation) of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which didn't appear until 1859 and which was totally unknown to English audiences before that. (So much for the 18th century.) What probably happened is that D.H. Lawrence changed the line to suit himself, had it engraved on the tablet and just never told anyone where he got it.