The “discovery” of a natural wonder, the Grotta Azzurra, or Blue Grotto, only boosted the island’s popularity. In 1826, August Kopisch, a young German writer touring Italy, heard rumors of a sea cave feared by local fishermen. He persuaded some boatmen to take him there. After swimming through a small opening in the rocks at the base of a towering cliff, Kopisch found himself in a large cavern where the water glowed, he would write, “like the light of a blue flame.” It made him feel as if he were floating in an “unfathomable blue sky.” Further inspection revealed the source of the light: an underwater cavity that allows sunlight to filter in. Kopisch also found an ancient landing in the back of the grotto; islanders told him it had once been the entrance to a secret tunnel that led to one of Tiberius’ palaces, the Villa Damecuta, directly above. The grotto itself, they said, had been a nymphaeum.
Kopisch described his explorations in The Discovery of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri, which tapped into the Romantic era’s interest in the spiritual and healing powers of nature. Soon travelers were arriving from Germany, Russia, Sweden and Britain to revel in natural beauty and escape conventional society. At the time, Capri had fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, whose traditional rural life, punctuated by religious feasts and the grape harvest, added to the island’s allure. Affluent foreigners could rent dirt-cheap rooms, dine under vine-covered pergolas and discuss art over light Caprese wine. In the village cafés, one might spot Friedrich Nietzsche, André Gide, Joseph Conrad, Henry James or Ivan Turgenev, who raved about Capri in an 1871 letter as “a virtual temple of the goddess Nature, the incarnation of beauty.”
The German artist Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach wandered around the island in the early 1900s wearing a long white tunic and gave tormented sermons to passersby in the town piazza. Former Confederate colonel John Clay H. MacKowen, who went into self-imposed exile after the Civil War, filled an enormous red-walled villa in Anacapri (Upper Capri) with antiquities. (The villa, known as the Casa Rossa, is open to the public today.) In 1908, the exiled Russian author Maxim Gorky started the School of Revolutionary Technique at his villa. One guest was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a.k.a. Nikolai Lenin, on the run from Czarist police after the failed revolution of 1905 in Russia.
Among this illustrious parade was a Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe, who, like so many others, came to Capri for a brief visit, in 1875, and fell in love with it. A decade later he moved to the village of Anacapri and built the Villa San Michele on the crest of a hill with stunning views of the Mediterranean. He filled the villa’s lush, secluded gardens with Roman statues, a stone sphinx and a carved Medusa head, most of which had to be carried up the 800 or so steps from the main harbor by mule. The Story of San Michele (1929) was translated into 45 languages and carried the island’s charms to a new audience. Today the Villa San Michele is a Swedish cultural center and bird sanctuary, and remains, in Henry James’ words, “a creation of the most fantastic beauty, poetry and inutility that I have ever seen clustered together.”
Writer Graham Greene and the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda arrived later—in the 1940s and ‘50s, respectively. Although neither included Capri in his work, both of their sojourns were immortalized posthumously—Neruda’s in the fictionalized 1994 film Il Postino, and Greene’s in the 2000 biography Greene on Capri.
Not everyone saw the island as an Eden. In fact, a recurrent note of melancholy runs through many of the writings about Capri. Even Munthe, who had treated cholera patients during an epidemic in Naples, seems haunted by death and decay in his memoir. The modern Caprese author Raffaele La Capria insisted in his 1991 book Capri and No Longer Capri that morbid thoughts are inseparable from the island’s timeless beauty and rich history, which force “you [to] face with a shudder the ineluctable fact that you too will die.”
Somerset Maugham, who was a regular visitor, captured the dark side in his classic short story “The Lotus Eaters,” about a British bank manager who throws over his life in London to live in Capri and swears to commit suicide when his money runs out. But years of indolent island living sap his willpower, and he spends his last days in poverty and degradation. The character was based on Maugham’s friend and lover, John Ellingham Brooks, who came to Capri as part of an exodus of homosexuals from England in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s conviction, in 1895, for “acts of gross indecency.” Brooks, however, escaped the fate of Maugham’s character by marrying a Philadelphia heiress who, though she quickly divorced him, left Brooks an annuity that allowed him to spend out his days on Capri, playing the piano and walking his fox terrier.
After World War II, the island provided the setting for a string of movies, including the romantic comedy It Started in Naples (1960), starring Clark Gable and Sophia Loren, and the mildly risqué If This Be Sin (1949) and September Affair (1950). In the most enduring of the lot, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), a young bikini-clad Brigitte Bardot plunges into the crystal blue Mediterranean from the rocks beneath the breathtaking Villa Malaparte, built between 1938 and 1942 by proto-Fascist poet Curzio Malaparte.
Today the island is more popular than ever, as shown by its two million visitors annually. Residents are worried. “Once, visitors would rent a villa and stay for a month,” says bookshop owner Ausilia Veneruso. “Now they come for only two or three days, or even worse, come as i giornalieri, day-trippers. And Capri is a very delicate place.” The influx has led to overfishing and overdevelopment. “The sea is lost,” Raffaele La Capria writes in Capri and No Longer Capri, “more lost than Pompeii and Herculaneum,” while the island itself suffers “a kind of process of dry putrefaction.”
Still, peace and solitude can be found, even in summer. Most tourists cluster around the marinas and piazzas, leaving the miles of hiking trails along the island’s rugged west coast virtually empty, including a three-hour Route of the Forts, which links several medieval fortresses. And after the day-trippers leave in early evening, even Capri town appears much the same as it did when Gable watched Loren sing “You Wanna Be Americano” in a nightclub.