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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Dec. 2003
The Villa Fersen on Capri
Only the ambidextrous, such as myself, can parry the charge of being so unabashedly gauche ("left," as the French say) as to sit in the fine restaurant of a 4-star hotel overlooking the sea on the Isle of Capri while reading Mark Twain's Roughing It.
Guilty as charged. It's not that you can't find roughness on Capri. On the contrary, you can indeed take rough hikes and get tired and lost, or take rough swims and get tired and dead. One of the roughest, cruelest stories I know about Capri goes back only a few years: a leaky tub captained by one of those human vermin who traffic in desperate refugees from Asia and Africa sailed up along the imposing cliffs on the southern flank of Capri. Captain Scum then got his huddled masses up out of the hold where they had been stowed. "Look," he told them. "There they are—the White Cliffs of Dover. England! I have kept my promise. All you have to do is swim ashore from here and you're home free." They weren't, of course, as they found out after straggling up onto the beach and starting to enquire of local fishermen about train connections to London.
All that, of course, is of little concern to the average Capri-goer in this age of mass tourism, addicted as we are to the galaxy of starred hotels (both four and ill) that now abound on the island. However, tourism in a more gracious age—say, the early 1900s—gave those graced with enough money the liberty of indulging other addictions and lifestyles: cocaine, bizarre Romanesque orgies, and 15-year-old boys, all of which held in thrall the life of Jacque d'Adelsward Fersen (1880-1923) the gentleman for whom the strangest house on the island is named, the Villa Fersen.
Fersen, according to some sources, was the great–grandson of one Hans Alex de Fersen, a Swedish officer who was Marie Antoinette's lover. In any event, Jacque was born in Paris and by the time he was 22 had inherited great wealth, served in the French army and published poetry. He travelled widely in Europe, including a number of trips to Capri. In 1903, on the eve of his engagement in France to a young woman named Blanche, he was arrested for "corrupting the morals of minors." The charge was based on an accusation by a servant whom Fersen had discharged and who testified that Fersen had presided, in the company of the underaged, over orgies and black masses. Fersen was sentenced to six months in jail.
The scandal destroyed Fersen's engagement and the diplomatic career that had awaited him. He left France for good and moved to Capri, where he decided to build his retreat, a pseudo-Classical pleasure palace on a speck of land just below the eastern height and the sprawling ruins of the villa Tiberius, a pleasure palace in its own right, two thousand years earlier.
Approaching Capri from Naples, the Villa Fersen is a white speck clinging implausibly, magically, to the side of the cliff hundreds of feet above the sea at the far eastern end of the island. It is set—certainly because Fersen was looking for seclusion—at one of the remotest spots on the island.
The villa was finished in July of 1905 and officially named "Villa Lysis" for a disciple of Socrates mentioned in one of Plato's dialogues. Fersen had many of the extravagant furnishings brought from Paris, had the phrase Amori et dolorum sacrum ("Sacred to love and pain") inscribed over the entrance, and in general cleared the decks for full-scale debauchery quite in keeping with the climate of the times on Capri (see this entry on Krupp and Capri). Most bizarrely, Fersen ordered that the construction materials for his new house be carried into place only by women. (He'd show old Blanche What's-Her-Name!) In spite of the official name, everyone knows the building as "Villa Fersen" and even sign posts use that name as they point you along your way.
Fersen continued to write poetry and novels and to keep younger male companions. In 1910, the police broke in on some particularly weird goings-on at Villa Fersen and Jacque had to leave the island for a while. He spent much of the Great War in a hospital in Naples trying to recover from cocaine and opium addiction. He returned to his villa after the war and a few years later intentionally administered himself a lethal overdose of cocaine. His intelligence, wealth, poetic gifts, life-style, vices and ultimate tragedy invite comparison, in the minds of some, to the life of his English contemporary, Oscar Wilde.
The villa went to Fersen's sister, Germaine, and stayed in her and her descendants' possession until the mid-1950s, becoming somewhat of a watering hole for Italian intellectuals such as Alberto Moravia and Else Morante. The villa was then bought by the owner of the famous Hotel Quisisana, whose plans to develop the premises as an exclusive hotel came to naught. Eventually, in the 1980s, a "Lysis Association" was founded to protect the villa, and the Ministry of Culture then acquired the property and set about restoring the premises as an historical monument. The villa was, however, sold once again to a wealthy and elderly Italian-American, Armando Campione who died almost immediately thereafter. In 2001, Villa Fersen was acquired by the City Council of Capri and restoration as a cultural center is still going on.
[I am indebted to Delfina Capece Minutolo di Bugnano, a granddaughter of Fersen's sister, Germaine, for some of the information in the preceding paragraph.]
At present (2004) the premises are open, and the villa has been structurally restored and is sound. As yet, there are no furnishings, but the interior is painted, cleaned, and is primed to receive whatever the city council decides. It is a spacious two-story mansion with panoramic terrace balconies at both levels; there are at least a dozen large rooms, including those in the large basement. It is all set in abundant greenery and overlooks the bay of Naples as if sharing watch over the eastern approaches to the bay with the old tower on Punto Campanella at the tip of the Sorrentine peninsula just across the narrow straits. A plaque put in place near the entrance to the villa pays homage to French writer Roger Peyrefitte (1907–2000), author of The Exile of Capri, a biography of Fersen.
villa Fersen update 2009: The place is now for sale. It is described as "size 450 sqm [about 4800 sq. feet]; rooms 15; bedrooms 7; bathrooms 7..." The villa is on 1.2 hectares [about 3 acres] of land, which is a garden (that is a large garden, folks). The ad also says "access: good." Well, if you really like to hike. You can't drive. If you don't walk, you can catch an electric mini-cart, I suppose. It also says that the nearest town is Sorrento (across the straits by boat); actually, the nearest town is Capri, on the island itself. But I quibble. I do really want this place. There is a small problem of price...wait for it...drum roll...seven million euros! Oh, no. I'll have to sell my Lamborghini and Lear Jet.
As I recall (from having snuck into the grounds once upon a time —and anyone who school-marmishly says "sneaked" is not the kind of person who would ever sneak into a place) the premises include access to a foot-path down to the water. It's a good hike down and back, but you have a secluded beach. With your leftover money, you can fix it up into a small port for your yacht.
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