the “literary fauna” on capri and naples

a nostalgia for “one of the most beautiful places on earth” (d.h. lawrence) emerges in the modern age with the discovery of the blue grotto by the painter august kopisch. in august 1826, the young man from breslau wandered adventurously across the island, which had hardly been considered by foreigners since antiquity, and let a notary resident on capri inspire him to visit a grotto that was accessible only from the sea. naturally, at the time, the locals already knew of the existence of this limestone grotto, carved out by the seawater. however, they feared this grotto as a place of the devil, as the island’s clergymen had for centuries interpreted the spectacles of light that glittered up from the seafloor in this natural water basin as an apparition of evil spirits. kopisch, who courageously explored the grotto by swimming around with a burning pitch-pan, immediately uncovered the secret of the waves which glowed in a phosphorescent blue: diagonally descending daylight enters the grotto from above through a broad underwater opening in the outer rock-wall, mirroring itself on the white, sandy seabed and reflecting upwards in a miraculous blue.

seeing as kopisch was, at the time, making his living in campania as a cicerone or travel guide for wealthy german travellers, he immediately made the unique grotto into a highlight of his tours around the gulf of naples. at the same time, he also raved about the magical blue in the german artists’ colony in rome. his friends there included numerous writers, who, as was customary in the romantic period, fulfilled their longing for the south, with its mild climate and the special zest for life of its inhabitants, with a long-term stay in italy.

at first, the writer friends of kopisch, including august graf von platen and wilhelm waiblinger, inebriated themselves on the deep blue of the grotto. their poems and stories attracted further german authors, who in turn let capri inspire them. and so, in the nineteenth century, a wave of enthusiasm developed for this enchanting island, onto which the german soul’s yearning for sun, sea and palm trees could be wonderfully projected, then as today.

the myth of capri is therefore first and foremost a german invention. only towards the end of the nineteenth century did writers from france, england and russia travel to the island, and in the twentieth century those from other parts of italy. many of them, roger peyrefitte, graham greene, alberto moravia and elsa morante, for example, came back again and again. others, such as norman douglas, francis brett young or curzio malaparte, built their own houses here and lived on capri for a longer period of time. after all, “the island entails the danger that, once there, it becomes impossible to pull yourself away”, as the literary critic and philosopher walter benjamin expressed, after having repeatedly postponed his departure in the summer of 1924.

an equally dense “literary fauna” also appeared in the course of the centuries in the port city of naples. however, women and men writers mostly had a different reason for visiting this city: while they became immersed in a unique micro-cosmos on capri, conquering a small paradise for themselves, they predominantly moved through the city of naples as voyeurs. In particular, the sight of “the miserable, dirty, starving, rag-clad … popular masses” (curzio malaparte) captivated them in the alleyways of the old city. they also experienced the soundscape of the city as a typical phenomenon which has characterized naples since the nineteenth century. the “unbearable street noise” (fanny mendelssohn).

many made use of the city as a stopover on their journey to capri, sicily or the amalfi coast. since the late eighteenth century, a further attraction of naples has been its location as the starting point for day trips to the ancient city of pompeii or to the top of the vesuvius, whose spectacular eruptions continued to impress tourists until 1944.

the focus of the following seven walks are women and men authors, whose journeys to capri and naples left numerous traces on-site and in their work. in addition, the individual portraits of male and female composers and painters are also presented. wherever an itinerary leads past significant sights, these too are named. seeing as guests often changed their place of residence on capri, it is advisable, not only to follow the walks step by step, but also to elaborate on the individual biographies by following the cross references.

the walks on capri have been designed as roundtrips. they begin and end on the popular piazza or piazzetta, as the umberto I square is called, and last from two to three hours. with the exception of the fifth walk, they lead largely along traffic-free streets and pathways. all are characterized by the – often unexpected – views over the island and onto the sea. it is worth keeping one’s eyes open while walking and, while doing so, to look to the left and right into the well-kept gardens and often charmingly designed villa entrances. typical of the arts and crafts of capri are the pretty majolica tiles everywhere with their hand-painted inscriptions, which show the way around.

the first walk on capri, which initially takes us to the popular belvedere tragara and then on through the historical centre of the municipality of capri, leads, among other things, to the oldest hotel of the island, in which most of the writers lived in the nineteenth century.

the second walk is dedicated above all to secluded villas which, like the casa malaparte, can be found outside of the municipality of capri in an awe-inspiring mediterranean coastal landscape. from the higher-lying district of matermania, numerous steps lead downhill to the grotto of the same name.

the third walk takes us uphill to the remains of the ancient villa jovis. again we pass numerous hotels and villas in which women and men writers once lived. we can also visit the inside of the spectacular villa lysis of the aristocratic poet jacques d’adelswaerd fersen.

the fourth walk leads down many steps to the picturesque marina piccola. following a detour to the interesting villas on the castiglione hill, the fifth walk takes us to the port of marina grande. with a boat we are then able to reach the blue grotto.

in anacapri, the sixth walk leads initially to axel munthe’s well-known dream house, the swedish museum villa san michele, before we finally get to experience the historical centre of the so-called upper town via a comfortable roundtrip to the homes of other important people.

on our seventh and last walk, we get to know the noble chiaia quarter of naples and the historical centre of the city. seeing as these two quarters stretch along the coast of naples, our final walk to key palaces and houses is not completed as a roundtrip. however, we can always find public means of transport at the start and end-points.

for the research on this book, which took almost five years in all, I was able to rely on the numerous contacts which I have established through my work on-site as a journalist who has lived on capri and in naples since 1994. as a result, it was possible to gain access not only to public libraries on capri, such as the centro caprense ignazio cerio (my thanks go above all to the librarian carmelina fiorentino) and the centro archivistico e documentale (without the extensive knowledge of enzo de tuccio and giuseppe aprea, important details on the history of the island would be missing), but also to as yet unknown private archives, as for example, the undoubtedly biggest library on the topic of capri, which the art historian dr. peter tigler set up in the course of three decades. the archive of the writer claretta cerio in ambra in tuscany is also unique. her memories of her daily life in capri among writers and artists in the middle of the twentieth century and her photographs were also a unique source for my research. giovanni schettino, one of the island’s untiring scholars, also supported my work with extensive information and, above all, with his wide-ranging photographic collections. my sincere thanks go to each and everyone.

stefanie sonnentag