first 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.
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
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." Well, not all wrong—maybe half. The original is marginally different:
"original," of course, 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. I have failed college students for
less than that.