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  main index                 © Jeff Matthews                   entry Aug 2008             

"Through the eyes of..."


Axel Munthe  (Letters from a Mourning City)

Sculpture of Munthe at his villa
in Anacapri  

Axel Munthe (1857-1949), Swedish physician and psychiatrist, is best known as the author of The Story of San Michele, an autobiographical account of his work and life, and his villa (now a museum) in the town of Anacapri on the island of Capri, is one of the great tourist attractions on the island. The Story of San Michele was not his first book. He made his mark earlier as a journalist reporting from the cholera-stricken city of Naples with reports to the Swedish newspaper, the Stockholms Dagblad, in the autumn of 1884. Those reports were published in Swedish in book form the next year and then in 1887 in English as the book, Letters from a Mourning City: Naples, Autumn 1884, published by John Murray and Sons, London, who would publish The Story of San Michele 40 years later. Letters from a Mourning City is a heart-wrenching account of the cholera epidemic that was the proximate cause of the Italian government’s decision simply to tear down large sections of the filthy city of Naples and practically rebuild the city in a project known as the risanamento.

Munthe, many years later in The Story of San Michele, retells much of his experience during the cholera epidemic and speaks modestly of his early book:

…I was evidently rather pleased with myself for having rushed from Lapland to Naples at the moment when everyone else had left it. There is a good deal of swaggering as to how I went about night and day in the infected poor quarters, covered with lice, feeding on rotten fruit, sleeping in a filthy locanda. All this is quite true, I have nothing to retract, my description of Naples in cholera time is exact as I saw it with the eyes of an enthusiast.  But the description of myself is far less exact. I had the cheek to put in writing that I was not afraid of the cholera, not afraid of Death. I told a lie. I was horribly afraid from the first till the last...

The original Letters from a Mourning City, however, remains a worthwhile contribution to the literature about Naples from a very difficult time. The following is an extract from chapter 3 (approximately 4 pages out of 304 of the original edition):

I had lingered in Posillipo last Thursday evening, and it was already late as I sauntered home towards the town. In the Strada di Piedigrotta sat a boy singing La bella Sorrentina

Io te vidi a Piedigrotta
tutta gioia, tutta festa.

And a little further on I halted for a moment at Mergellina to let the sea-breeze blow over me, whilst I watched the fishing-smacks as one by one they sailed home from their day’s work out on the bay. From Villa Reale there were sounds of music and dancing, and the Chiaia was swarming with people as though it were a feast-day; and it was a feast-day in deed and truth, the cholera had ceased and it was the first day of that year on which they had been allowed to taste the new wine! E’ morto la cholera, evviva la gioia! [Cholera is dead, long live joy!]

But no—it was not dead. During the night the grim guest had gone his rounds again, and when Naples awoke next morning, several fresh cases of cholera were reported to have occurred the previous day, and the authorities were unable to conceal the fact that the epidemic had broken out again with renewed virulence. I see no reason for transcribing the official bulletins published in the newspapers; they have already been transmitted by telegraph, and their numbers have no other significance than that of announcing the increase or decrease of the epidemic. That the figures have always been kept too low is a well-known fact here, and no one has ever made a secret of it. That the figures of the dead are as untrustworthy as those of the sick, I was able to see for myself yesterday evening, when I was up at the cholera cemetery; I must have remained there a good hour, and during that time, alone, eighty-three bodies were left there (the official report of the day announcing fifty-seven deaths and no more).

The dead are laid in a row before they are buried. We bent over every one of them; it was impossible to make any mistake: they had all died that day. After they have been lowered into the grave, their names are written down in the register. The impression produced by the quantity of blank spaces in the book is singularly uncanny, nothing but a number to distinguish them, anonymous dead, homeless during their lifetime, one common cholera grave after their death!

Several hundred of the nameless dead lie sleeping there since the outbreak of the epidemic; ah yes! they also had a name of their own, which was about all that society had ever bestowed on them—but Death has grudged them even that. They certainly had a name of their own, which once upon a time was whispered lovingly over them in the most melodious language on earth, when they were infants sleeping on their mother’s knee; but perhaps the only one who knew it had preceded them to the grave, or perhaps the hungry little orphans who at this very moment are wandering about the filthy alleys of the poor quarter are the only ones who might be able to tell us something about them—no one knows anything about them up here, a number around each one’s neck in turn, no coffin, no shroud, nothing but a covering of quicklime. And so on to the next one.


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