Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen on the Isle of Capri

I have already written two posts about men who sought sexual freedom on Capri, but this rocky speck of an island at the edge of Italy’s Tyrrhenian Sea has hosted so many gay and bisexual men that I dedicate this post to the entire island. The fact that I am sick of winter and wistfully recall warm August days on the island might have something to do with it. So here goes.

From the late 19th century to just prior to the First World War, Capri (pronounced KAH-pree, accent on the first syllable), was especially popular with wealthy gay men. Located about a 30-minute hydrofoil ride from Sorrento across the Gulf of Naples, the island, long a refuge for artists and writers, was a relatively tolerant, safe place for bisexuals and homosexuals to lead a more open life, one of undisturbed lasciviousness.

Then during the 1920s, especially, the island became populated by high profile lesbians in exile, such as artist Romaine Brooks. There was something about the island’s attitude and atmosphere that allowed wealthy expats to unleash their pent-up desire for larger than life extravagance. Thus the Marquesa Casati, an eccentric, bisexual femme fatale, traversed Capri while walking a pair of tame leashed cheetahs, often wearing live boa constrictors as necklaces.

Around the turn of the twentieth century such bisexual notables as Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria and German industrialist Friedrich Krupp played out their same sex desires by hosting orgies that included local young males, who were generously rewarded for their “companionship” (see separate blog entries for both Friedrich Krupp and Ferdinand in the side bar). Later gay and bisexual men of importance who took up residence on Capri include British novelist Norman Douglas and American writer Gore Vidal. Stay tuned for future blog posts about those two.

Among the island’s more notorious homosexuals was wealthy industrialist, artist and writer Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen, an aristocrat who moved there in self-imposed exile from France after a 1903 sex scandal involving very young Parisian schoolboys and all manner of debauchery. At age 22 he inherited a vast fortune from his industrialist father.

One of Capri's more colorful characters, his best-known novel, Lord Lyllian, is a decadent satire inspired by his own scandalous downfall, but he was in fact better known as a character in books by others, especially Roger Peyrefitte’s gossipy L'Exilé de Capri, a fictionalized biography about Fersen. As well, he was one of many eccentric expatriate residents to inspire Scottish novelist Compton Mackenzie's tale of Capri, Vestal Fire.

In 1905 Baron Fersen built Villa Lysis (named for Plato’s dialogue on the nature of male love), one of the island’s more notorious monuments to sin and decadence that often played host to the aforementioned Marchesa Casatti. Perched precipitously atop an enormous outcropping of granite on the eastern tip of the island,  with stupendous views of Mt. Vesuvius, the villa seems to teeter on the brink of a freefall into the sea (see photo above). Fersen’s young lover-in-residence,  Nino Cesarini, was an inspiration for Bohemian artists.

The lad posed nude for portraits by German painter Paul Hoecker (painting of Cesarini at right) and Italian artist Umberto Brunelleschi, and for photographer Wilhelm von Plüschow. From 1909-1910, while in residence on Capri,  Fersen  published a monthly literary magazine promoting pederastic love. Their colorful life on Capri had a dark ending, however. A lethal cocktail of champagne and cocaine was ingested by Baron Fersen in 1923 (allegedly a suicide) in a room he built specifically for smoking opium. No kidding. The villa is open to the public, and the photo below shows the exotic gold mosaic embellishments in the column fluting.

The island was immortalized by the song Isle Of Capri (1934), made famous by British actress and music hall singer Gracie Fields, who was another island resident. By the time Frank Sinatra recorded this song for his 1957 album, Come Fly With Me, Capri was already popular with the international jet set, including the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Greta Garbo, and Noël Coward (see separate post).

Capri is still somewhat of a gay men's haven, but most come as day trippers to raid the luxury boutiques that litter the narrow alleys of Capri town. Men and women alike seek out historic perfumer Carthusia, who was granted permission from the Pope to use old formulas discovered by Carthusian monks to create fragrances like Aria Di Capri, whose evocative scent is inspired by Capri's sea breezes, warm sun, and blue skies.

Let it be said that your blogger is not a shopper, but even I have been known to sully the portals of a half dozen of Capri town’s boutiques (see photo at right) – more as a respite from the blazing sun, however, than from any interest in commercial goods. Most of the island is a pedestrian zone, so any visit will be a welcome vacation from motor traffic. Taxis with horizontal shade cloths (see photo below) and a funicular are popular ways to ascend from the marina up to Capri town, the island’s main village.

A few years ago I walked from the Piazzetta, the commercial and social center of Capri town, all the way to the ruins of the villa of Roman emperor Tiberius (twice actually, because of a dead camera battery), a 40-minute jaunt (all uphill, all the time), without once seeing even so much as a service vehicle – in August, the peak of high season. Tiberius ruled Rome from Capri during the last ten years of his reign, but no one can say exactly why he abandoned Rome for this rocky perch. Ancient writings describe pan-sexual Tiberius lazing in his pool while his adolescent male “fishes” nibbled at his nether regions underwater. It was good to be emperor.

Tiny buses traverse hairpin turns (on roads not wide enough for buses) to reach Anacapri, the other main town. This lofty village is situated near the top of the island and has a more tranquil atmosphere. The church of St. Michele Archangelo boasts a floor of painted majolica tiles depicting Adam and Eve and fantastical beasts. Villa San Michele (see photo above), the fantastical villa built by Swedish physician Axel Munthe in 1885, hosted Oscar Wilde after his release from imprisonment. The villa is open to the public and is one of the top travel experiences of my life. Go there. From Anacapri you can ride a chairlift to Monte Solaro, the island's highest point, for a breathtaking vista. No matter how or when you leave the island, it will be with wistful regret. Mental images of the island will remain with you for years.

Photographs of Capri by Adalberto Tiburzi, whose hometown is Rome.
I use these photographs under the terms found on his excellent web site:

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