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main index © Jeff Matthews entry May 2003
The House that Axel Built
© by David Taylor
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