The Lure of Capri

What is it about this tiny, sun-drenched island off the coast of Naples that has made it so irresistible for so long?

"Capi has always existed as un mondo a parte, a world apart," says one resident. That sentiment is demonstrated in the Faraglioni pinnacles off southeastern Capri. (Francesco Lastrucci)
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In most of the world, scheduling a concert for 6 a.m. would be eccentric, to say the least. Add that the venue is a cliff-side grotto reachable only by a half-hour hike, and it sounds almost perverse. Not so on Capri, the idyllic island in Italy’s Gulf of Naples whose natural beauty has drawn gatherings since Roman times. As tuxedoed waiters closed down the last cafés at 5:30 a.m., I accompanied an elderly Italian couple dressed as if for the opera through dark, empty plazas in the island’s town center, also called Capri. We came to a cobbled footpath that led to the grotto, turned on our flashlights and made our way past moonlit lemon groves and gated villas. It was a velvety summer night, and my new companions, Franco and Mariella Pisa, told me they divided their time between Naples and Capri, much as their parents and grandparents had done before them. “Capri has changed on the surface,” Mariella said, “but its essence remains the same.”

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Finally, after negotiating a series of steep stone steps down the side of a cliff, we arrived at the candlelit Matermània Grotto, a cavern half open to the night sky, where traces of an ancient Roman shrine are still visible. In antiquity, this had been a nymphaeum, or shrine to water nymphs, decorated with marble statues and glass mosaics, artificial pools and seashells. Legend holds that the grotto was also a place for the worship of Cybele, the pagan goddess of the earth, known as Magna Mater, or Great Mother, who gave it its name. “The Romans loved natural energy,” Filippo Barattolo, director of Capri’s Ignazio Cerio Museum and Library, would tell me later. “They regarded the island’s grottoes as sacred places where they could commune with the divine.” Now, as candlelight danced on cavern walls, other immaculately dressed Italians—bronzed gents in white silk trousers, women in sequined dresses, some carrying tiny canines—took their seats on rocks around its entrance. The group swelled to about 100.

The starlit sky had just begun to lighten when the sound of bells tinkled through the grotto and a lone cellist launched into a discordant experimental piece. In the predawn light, I could see that the cave opened out upon the jagged eastern coastline, where sheer cliffs and spires plunge into the Mediterranean—“galloping rocks” that provide “exclusive balconies for elegant suicides,” the Italian futurist poet F. T. Marinetti wrote in the 1920s. No wonder the ancients regarded Capri as the domain of the sirens, those Homeric creatures who lured sailors to their demise with seductive songs. As the sun began to rise, the music shifted to a lyrical nocturne, and hundreds of birds began to chatter in the surrounding trees. The guests were then offered a suitably pagan repast of fresh green grapes, bread and milk.

In the early 1900s, expatriate bohemians gathered in the Matermània Grotto for faux-pagan celebrations of a more bacchanalian nature. One in particular has gone down in legend. In 1910, Baron Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, an opium-addicted French poet (whose neo-Classical villa attracts tourists today), staged a human sacrifice to the ancient Roman sun god Mithras. While a crowd of friends in Roman tunics held torches, burned incense and sang hymns, Fersen, dressed as Caesar, pretended to plunge a dagger into the chest of his naked lover, Nino Cesarini, cutting him slightly. A young shepherdess who witnessed the pageant told a local priest about it. In the ensuing scandal, Fersen was forced to leave the island—albeit briefly—one of the few cases on record of Capresi being outraged by anything.

For over 2,000 years, this speck in the Gulf of Naples, only four miles long and two miles wide, has been known for its dazzling beauty and extreme tolerance. Writers, artists and musicians have long been drawn to its shores. “Capri has always existed as un mondo a parte, a world apart,” said Ausilia Veneruso, the organizer of the Matermània Grotto event and, with her husband, Riccardo Esposito, owner of three bookshops and a publishing house that specializes in writings about Capri. “It is the hermaphrodite island, a collision of mountains and sea, where opposites thrive and every political ideology and sexual preference finds a place,” she told me. “By the 19th century, our little island was for artists like the center of the world: Europe had two arts capitals, Paris and Capri.”

Capri’s cosmopolitan past remains part of its allure. “For centuries, Capri was shaped by foreign travelers,” said Sara Oliviera, vice president of the Friends of the Certosa (monastery) of Capri. “The island was a crossroads of international culture. Now we want to revive those connections.”

The island’s first tourists were the Romans, who were attracted by its ravishing scenery and its aura of refinement as a former Greek colony. During the second century B.C., the entire Bay of Naples blossomed into a seaside resort. Roman aristocrats, including the emperor Augustus himself, would travel by horseback or wagon to Sorrento, then sail the three miles to Capri to escape the summer heat and to indulge in otium, or educated leisure—working out, swimming, dining and discussing philosophy. In this Hamptons of antiquity, Roman girls cavorted on the pebbly beach in prototype bikinis.

But the figure who most thoroughly shaped Capri’s fate was Augustus’ successor, the emperor Tiberius. In A.D. 27, at the age of 69, Tiberius moved to Capri to govern the enormous Roman empire from his dozen villas here. For more than a decade, according to his biographer, Suetonius, Tiberius wallowed in hedonism—decorating his mountaintop Villa Jovis, or Villa of Jupiter, with pornographic paintings and statues, staging orgies with young boys and girls and torturing his enemies. (The ruins of the villa still exist; its tunnels, arches and broken cisterns crown the island’s eastern cliffs, from which the emperor was said to have tossed those who displeased him to their deaths.) In recent years, historians have discounted Suetonius’ depiction, which was written some eight decades after Tiberius’ death. Some say the emperor was actually a recluse who preferred stargazing to pederasty. “The trouble with all Suetonius’ gossip about Tiberius is that it’s just that: gossip,” says Paul Cartledge, a professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University. “He could have been a shy, retiring student of astrology. But he was possibly also a sexual deviant. We’ll never know for sure.”

Yet the image of Tiberius’ indulgences became a fixture of Capri’s reputation, repeated as gospel and perpetuated in Robert Graves’ historical novel I, Claudius and in the lurid 1979 film Caligula, starring a haggard-looking Peter O’Toole as the imperious reprobate. But if Tiberius lent the island a dreadful notoriety, he also guaranteed its popularity. Its divine beauty would forever be inseparable from its reputation as a sensual playground, where the pursuit of pleasure could be indulged far from prying eyes.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476, Capri entered a lonely period. Throughout the Middle Ages, Arabs and corsairs routinely raided the island. Capri began to regain its popularity in the 1750s, when excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Roman towns buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, made Naples a key stop on the grand tour. Travelers, including the Marquis de Sade, in 1776, added Capri to their itineraries. (He set a part of his licentious novel Juliette at the Villa Jovis.)


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