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Axel Munthe (Letters from a Mourning City)
"Through the eyes of..."
Sculpture of Munthe at his villa
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—