The novelist Ali Smith feels her spirits lift as she explores the borderlands between fact and fantasy at the Villa San Michele on Capri

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011

Earlier this year I stood in the sculpture loggia at the Villa San Michele in Anacapri, and I didn’t just look a god in the eye, I poked a god in the eye. Even better: I cleaned out the eye of a god. I leaned forward under the green bronze head of a Mercury looking down at me, one wing spread open on the side of his head, and removed a small piece of cobweb from the hollow of one of his eyes.

Then I stepped back and wrote in my notebook, “maybe one of the few museums in the world still able to let you be human around its exhibits.” I wrote, and then I realised the table I was leaning on was an exhibit too, a table I’d actually read about, knew a story about. Its surface, a slab of beautiful inlaid fragments of multi-coloured marble, was the opposite side of a piece of rough stone used as a washboard for decades, maybe centuries, by Sicilian washerwomen. One day at the end of the 19th century Axel Munthe, the man who built and put this house together, saw the women doing their washing. The next time he passed them he brought a brand-new turn-of-the-20th-century washboard, jumped out of his carriage and offered it in exchange for the slab. The women were delighted.

Now, more than 100 years later, I was leaning on it, and nobody was running to tell me not to. Was the story about this table true? So many of Munthe’s stories about the history of the contents of his villa are, shall we say, a bit dubious. This head of Mercury, for instance, eyeing me now. A spider-eaten piece of worthless junk? Or something really truly old?

It didn’t matter—or rather, it wasn’t what mattered. I was high up on Capri, whose rearing rock bluffs rise out of the sea into a choreography of cloud and cliff, a never-ending shape-shift between mist and revelation. Now you see, and now you don’t. Capri has a way of letting you see differently. A “dreaming sphinx”, Munthe noted in his travel journal in 1885; that’s what the poets called Capri, an “antique sarcophagus”. A sarcophagus? All this light, all this greenness and air and life? The most beautiful place I’ve ever been, in a vast fall of sky and sea of a blue not even Giotto could equal: an old tomb?

Munthe was a doctor, a man who’d lost count of the mounting corpses of the poor in the Naples cholera epidemic. He first came to this bright island as a very young man, aged 19, in 1876, under the shadow of consumption. So Death isn’t just a concept, it’s a character with a capital D in Munthe’s “The Story of San Michele” (1929). This charming, irascible, rich, mad and funny memoir went on to be translated into about 40 languages and to sell 25m copies. It made Munthe and his villa world-famous, though it’s really more shaggy-dog than true, and more about his young life as a doctor and psychiatrist in Paris and Rome than it is about this place, the old house and ruined chapel on the site of a Tiberian villa, which he bought from the local carpenter in 1895 and transformed into the Villa San Michele. It sits on a cliff edge over which, according to legend, the Roman emperor Tiberius liked to tip the boys, girls, men and women he’d finished with and watch them fall. The view over the Bay of Naples, Sorrento and Vesuvius is a thing of near-shocking beauty.

Munthe wanted to make a home “open to sun and wind and the voice of the sea, like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere”. But he was a man with a lifelong eye problem; the brightness of Anacapri would be a kind of torture to him for the 40 years he lived here. So he had darker glasses made, bought a shady old tower for when San Michele would be too much, and set to work. “The whole garden was full of thousands and thousands of polished slabs…all now forming the pavement of the big loggia, the chapel and some of the terraces. A broken cup of agate of exquisite shape, several broken and unbroken Greek vases, innumerable fragments of Roman sculpture…came to light…While we were planting the cypresses bordering the little lane to the chapel, we came upon a tomb with the skeleton of a man, he had a Greek coin in his mouth, the bones are still there where we found them, the skull is lying on my writing table.”

His book is a cheeky, headlong mess of arrogance and modesty, a northern magic-realism transposed on the hot south, all dreams, tall stories, garrulous ghosts. Written between the world wars, picking its way across “the dangerous No Man’s Land between fact and fancy”, it opens with flowers and beautiful girls and ends with a paean to the songs and the wings of birds. From beginning to end it’s a revelation both of Munthe’s spirit and his tendency to make truth up as he went along. He built the villa by eye, he swears, without an architect (this isn’t true: the architect’s plans are in the house’s archives). He found the great granite statue of the sphinx, which gazes out to sea at the garden’s outermost point, by following a panpipe-playing shepherd in a dream (there’s a receipt for the sphinx in the house’s archives; it came from a Naples antiques dealer). As he says, near the start: “I do not ask for better than not to be believed.”

Unbelievable, larger than life, and a maker of life itself into something larger, he was the kind of man who’d buy a mountain just to stop the practice of bird-snaring on it. (Capri is a resting spot for the world’s migratory birds; thanks to the animal-loving, bird-revering Munthe the hill above Villa San Michele, for centuries a hub of quail hunt and bloodsport, is now an important bird sanctuary.) An expert in the manipulation of the lethargic rich, he was also a volunteer in the outbreaks of cholera and typhus among the poor. A foreigner taken to heart by the locals, he was more intimate than a doctor should really be with his most illustrious patient, Victoria, the crown princess, later queen, of Sweden. He made his name via the rich and famous, refused money from the impoverished, and was happy to be paid, as he once was, in the shape of a full-grown, alcohol-dependent baboon.

Over the years the villa, with its eccentric mix of “dug-up” or “found” Roman and Greek artefacts and its hotchpotch of royalty, locals, dogs, cats, hens, dipsomaniac monkeys and resident mongoose, became a place of fashionable pilgrimage. Henry James called it “a creation of the most fantastic beauty, poetry and inutility I have ever seen clustered together”. Oscar Wilde came, not long out of prison (Munthe was among the few across Europe to be kind to him). Rilke visited. The famously unsociable Garbo actually volunteered herself for a visit (“surprisingly nice”, Munthe noted). History itself visited in all its contemporary guises, with Stefan Zweig consulting Munthe on the best ways to commit suicide and Hermann Goering consulting him about buying the Villa (Munthe politely refused). On his death in 1949 he left the building, its gardens and the mountain behind to the Swedish state, and now as well as this glorious museum, bird sanctuary and a huge open-air concert space for Anacapri, it houses a near-paradisal colony of studios with fellowships for Swedish artists.