Dreaming Anacapri by
John Hanson Mitchell
I first read Axel Munthe's "The Story of San Michele" at my parents' house when I was about ten or twelve years old. I believe I was home from school with a fever at the time. I read it again about 30 years later when I was once again sick with a fever, and then once more a year ago, when I was also indisposed. And so I think it was only fitting that when I finally made it to Anacapri, where the story takes place, I should also have had a fever.
A little sickness improves perceptions. Colors on the island
of Capri, where Anacapri is located are notoriously high-keyed
anyway, but they seemed intensified when I was there. I could
smell salt water, oranges, diesel fuel, coffee. The chatter of
birds was amplified, and the narrow, twisting road that ascends
to Anacapri seemed abnormally vertiginous. At one point, I believe,
the bus actually launched itself into that unique, blue-green
Capri space before returning to the road. Somewhere along the
way, a thousand feet up, I saw a fishing boat in a garden. It
did not seem out of place.
Axel Munthe was a turn of the century Swedish doctor who studied in Paris with Charcot at La Salpetriere, moved to Rome, and somehow worked his way in with the luminaries and aristocrats of his time. If you can believe his book, he was friends with nearly everybody, the king of Sweden, Capressi peasants, Henry James, despicable Neapolitan bandits, and beautiful aristocrats with hothouse temperaments. Like a true Northerner, Munthe was obsessed with light and used to spend time on Capri seeking the sun. One afternoon, among the Roman ruins on the heights of Anacapri, he was visited by a dark figure from an indeterminate period of history who said in so many words upon this rock build your villa.
Munthe spent the rest of his life restoring a Roman villa that once stood on the heights. He was an excellent, if somewhat eccentric doctor who did not charge the poor, who rescued stray dogs and injured birds, who was given to taking constitutionals with his entire menagerie dogs, birds, and his favorite bete noir, Billy, a recovered alcoholic monkey Munthe had saved from a cruel, drunken master. Munthe had a way of ending up in the worst places at the worst times Naples during the cholera plague Messina during the 1908 earthquake. He died in 1948 at the age of 92, a beloved expatriate, an egalitarian humanist,an animal lover, and early conservationist.
His memoir, "The Story of San Michele," was first published in 1929 and by the 1930s was a best-seller and had been translated into 40 languages. Now it is all but forgotten, and having discovered it among a thousand other old books in my parents' home, I had no idea whether it was still read or whether the good doctor Munthe was even known in Anacapri. Not only was he known, it turned out he had evolved into a veritable local saint.
I expected Anacapri to have changed for the worse most
places have, after all. But in comparison to some of the old photos
taken by Munthe and associates, Anacapri has improved. The bare,
goat-tormented hills have grown in; thanks to Munthe, the locals
have ceased slaughtering the great migrations of quail that come
there every year, and on the unconstricted slopes below the village,
the "macchia," the thickets of holly oak, and the olives
and myrtles are lush and bird loud. Every spring great flights
of golden orioles, redstarts, flycatchers, and wheatears swing
in from Africa. The villa itself, sun-drenched, wine-soaked, and
permanently under constant construction in Munthe's time, has
been maintained as a museum, a sort of memorial shrine to the
I was there in early spring, before the migrants returned, but the wisteria was in bloom, mixed with tulips and hyacinths, and no one was at the villa, save a sleepy concierge. The place had a dreamy, idle quality: stone walkways, white-washed walls, polished floors, the elegant, albeit eclectic, statuary collected by Munthe, and the ammoniacal tang of cats. I was still weak and had to sit down often, and at one point, I fell asleep in the sun. The fever had returned, I could tell.
In my dazed sleep, I heard the chirps of birds in the gardens, a cricket called; below on the slopes, someone began shouting in Neapolitan and then in the next breath broke into bel canto singing, and, a thousand feet below, a one-lung fishing boat chugged out to sea. Someone close at hand coughed and I woke up with a start. There before me on the parapet, in front of his Sphinx, I saw the good dottore himself tall, bespectacled, dressed in summer whites, his stiff white collar loosening. He had a small white dog and a clipped poodle at his heels, and at the far end of a long leash, a straining monkey with a curling tail was busy in the flower beds.
I was not surprised, Munthe himself had visions in this place,
but I took it as a sign that I needed a doctor and returned to