© Jeff Matthews entry May 2003
|"To live in such a place
as this, to die in such a place, if ever death
could conquer the everlasting joy of such a
life! What daring dream had made my heart
beat so violently a moment ago when Mastro
Vincenzo had told me that he was getting old and
tired, and that his son wanted him to sell his
house? What wild thoughts had flashed through my
boisterous brain when he had said that the
chapel belonged to nobody? Why not to me? Why
should I not buy Mastro Vincenzo's house and
join the chapel and the house with garlands of
vines and cypresses and columns supporting white
loggias, peopled with marbled statues of gods
and bronzes of emperors and...I closed my eyes,
lest the beautiful vision should vanish, and
gradually realities faded away into the twilight
- The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe, published in English by Grafton Books.
Even if we are lucky enough to one day find ourselves standing on a spot where we know, or rather feel, that there we could happily spend the rest of our days, it is likely that this dream will remain precisely that for the thousand and one reasons that dictate that we should live elsewhere.
That Axel Munthe wrested his vision out of the realm of dream and planted it solidly on the heights of Anacapri is a fact that is there for us all to go and verify. Villa San Michele, today a complex of villa, chapel, museum, gardens, ancient ruins, nature reserve, study centre and consulate, testifies to the dogged and patient determination with which Munthe pieced together the stones, marble fragments, loggias and columns which his dream had presented to him the day when as a young medical student convalescing in Sorrento he decided to cross the straits to explore the isle of Capri.
Years were to pass as the young Swede first completed his medical studies and went on to become not only highly respected by his colleagues but also greatly in demand as a physician to high society. But during this period he never lost sight of his vision and eventually withdrew to Capri to supervise the construction of Villas San Michele on the very site where years before the spirit of the place had told him that he could build his home if he were prepared to pay the price. The price was that of renouncing fame and riches in his career as a physician. Munthe surely knew, as we know now, that it was a small price to pay. All the more so given that the fame he gained as a healer of the poor, as a lover of animals, as a writer, as a man who showed us that with determination dreams can become concrete and can be passed on to future generations, far outweighed the trinkets of fame he would have gained as a healer of the frivolous ills of the Parisian upper-classes.
Munthe bequeathed his
dream to the Swedish State, placing it thereby into the
hands of the Swedish Institute for Classical Studies in
Rome. Under the careful management of the Axel Munthe
Foundation formed to supervise the valuable patrimony, the
legacy has grown both in size (now covering approximately
16 acres) and in cultural importance. Seat of the Swedish
Consulate, the Villa also offers rooms for visiting
scholars and every year plays host to almost 200,000
people, who flock to see the gardens, views and museum
pieces that the villa offers. Outside of the high-season,
the visitor can once again savour the peace and beauty of
this unique spot and understand, whilst still marvelling
at the man's sense of vision, why Munthe was prepared to
give so much to pass his days there.
[See also Axel Munthe & Letters from a Mourning