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.
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 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).
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: