Written by Mariella Gardella
Photography by Gonzalo de Alvear
An island has its own laws, from those of the continent, perhaps owing to the ascetic and anarchic spirit intrinsic to the very idea of island. For years Capri gave hospitality to Tiberius, because the divinities had prophesied that his life would be safe only if he never the island. Many other legends speak of him as well. In the times of Roman Emperor Tiberius an invitation up to Villa Jovis or down to a grotto for a bacchanal must have been an unforgettable experience, if the cookbook of Apicius or the roguish chronicles of Tacitus and Svetonius are any indication. Svetonius relates that for the emperor, Capri had become a sedes arcanarum libidinum or place of secret depravation. It is said that the emperor forced young people of both sexes to make love in his presence. He had special places built, reserved for every sort of vice. Medals were made for the distribution that bore a room number on the side and the type of depravity practiced there on the other. The great pagan myth surrounding Capri thus begins with Tiberius.
Capri was not all that different in the early decades of the last century until the 1930s, owing to the arrival of the first wave of eccentric foreigners. Only parties and scandals involving celebrities punctuated the dolce far niente atmosphere. Even in the post-war era and up to the 1970s, party going and party giving were the major occupations on the island. Nowadays, the fondness for entertaining persists, whenever possible with a hint of folly, a bit of snobbery and humour … and boundless zest.
Since that time Capri has been a favourite destination of eccentrics of the international set, a mythical island, a marvelous place removed from the world of everyday mortals and morals, where everything is allowed.
The story of Capri cannot be told without bearing in mind the role played in the early twentieth century by certain personalities belonging to the local dynasties, such as members of the Pagano and Cerio families, who between the two world wars transformed what was largely a primitive island into a cosmopolitan centre.
Guiseppe Pagano, a notary, opened his famous La Palma in 1825. The handsome hotel near the Church of Santo Stefano became a magnet, drawing all the important visitors to Capri in search of lodgings, including German and English artists who painted the magnificent landscape of Monte Solaro from the terraces. Late in the afternoon the guests would gather in the smoke-filled rooms of nearby Zum Kater Hiddigeigei (a name suggesting life without care), the legendary café run by Donna Lucia Morgano, a great patroness of intellectuals between World Wars I and II. Here fishermen and muleteers found themselves rubbing elbows with German princes and even the benefactor of the island, arms merchant Friedrich Krupp, the wealthiest and most powerful man in Germany.
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas were among the unwelcome guests of the hotel Quisisana. At the time, Wilde was attempting to leave behind the notoriety that dogged him in England.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the island gave hospitality to persons of culture, including writer Norman Douglas, author of South Wind, the Capri novel par excellence that inspired an entire generation. Other figures include D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Compton Mackenzie, author of Vestals of Fire and Dangerous Women, two key novels regarding Capri that with their brilliance and vivacity capture the island’s exotic habitués at the beginning of the last century. But perhaps the most important figure was Russia’s Maxim Gorky. At that time, Capri was the location of the first school of political propaganda, founded by the Russian Social Democratic Party, which was active right in the middle of the stormiest period in the life of the party that gave rise to the Bolsheviks, from 1908 to 1911. Those were also the years when the Futurists – Marinetti, Casavola, Cangiullo, Virgilio Marchi and others – discovered the island, and it became their favourite location for staging exhibitions and special events.
The myth of Capri continued throughout the last century; despite the terrible events afflicting much of Europe, the island was both a refuge and adopted home for many intellectuals, artists and writers. They included Longanesi, Monicelli, Soldati, Malaparte, Moravia and Greene and, more recently, Raggaele La Capria and Shirley Hazzard.
Artists, cultivated Grand Tour travellers, members of the most aristocratic families and the founders of industrial dynasties were the discoverers of modern Capri. They are the ones who made it a myth. Thus it came about, from one century to the next, that certain Capri families in turn founded real dynasties under the banner of the cult of receiving visitors. Over time, the cult has developed into an art – the art of sublime hospitality.
Published by IDEA BOOKS
The book Capri Style by Mariella Gardella is available via www.ideabooks.com or on sale in Libreria Hoepli - Milan, Libreria L'Arabesque - Milan, Libreria La Conchiglia - Capri, Bookshop Louis Vuitton - Venice, Art Data - London and Idea Books - Amsterdam.