Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri

Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri

by Jamie James


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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

"Pagan Light is mesmerizing. Every detail is compelling. I felt I was reading a family history of a family far more interesting than mine." —Edmund White, author of Our Young Man

A rich, intimate embrace of Capri, which was a magnet for artistic renegades and a place of erotic refuge

Isolated and arrestingly beautiful, the island of Capri has been a refuge for renegade artists and writers fleeing the strictures of conventional society from the time of Augustus, who bought the island in 29 BC after defeating Antony and Cleopatra, to the early twentieth century, when the poet and novelist Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen was in exile there after being charged with corrupting minors, to the 1960s, when Truman Capote spent time on the island. We also meet the Marquis de Sade, Goethe, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Compton Mackenzie, Rilke, Lenin, and Gorky, among other astonishingly vivid characters.

Grounded in a deep intimacy with Capri and full of captivating anecdotes, Jamie James’s Pagan Light tells how a tiny island served as a wildly permissive haven for people—queer, criminal, sick, marginalized, and simply crazy—who had nowhere else to go.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374142766
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Jamie James is the author of several books of nonfiction, including The Glamour of Strangeness. He has contributed to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, among other publications, and he previously served as the American arts correspondent for The Times (London). He has lived in Indonesia since 1999 and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Grant.

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From the mainland, Capri looks tantalizingly near, peaking up from the sea like a perfect meringue, just out of reach, but it has always been a world apart. The island is just twenty-two nautical miles from Naples, yet until the twentieth century, getting there was an adventure. The Gulf of Naples is often crossed by storms, and high seas are common even in fine weather. The island is girdled by rocky cliffs, with two small coves: the Marina Grande, a ridiculous misnomer, which was barely large enough to accommodate seagoing ships until the Fascists modernized the port in the 1920s, and the Marina Piccola, little more than an anchorage, with no beach to make landfall. Even when steamships were making transatlantic travel routine, a cruise to Capri was scarcely less perilous than it was when Goethe attempted to visit there, in 1787. The poet breathed a sigh of relief when his ship turned away during a terrifying electrical storm, and "we left that dangerous rocky island behind us."

The main reason that Capri managed to remain aloof throughout most of its history was its poverty, extreme even by the standards of southern Italy. The island made a poor prize for invaders. Its stony, precipitous terrain was unsuitable for agriculture apart from lemons, which grew in prodigious plenty on the mainland, and grapes, but Capriote wine was notoriously bad. The island had little to offer except lovely views, admired by everyone who came to visit but worthless until the twentieth century, when the boom of mass tourism made the island rich.

On historical maps, Capri turns from pink to blue to purple, to represent it as a territory claimed by whatever empire was holding dominion over Naples, always the island's true liege. Greeks, then Romans, the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires, Napoleon and the Bourbons, swapped the island around like a bad banknote. By comparison with the architectural heritage of the mainland, Capri's imperial overlords left scanty remains, with the spectacular exception of the emperor Tiberius, who ruled the Roman Empire from Capri during the last years of his reign. He built a vast palace atop the island's highest cliff, but little of it has survived except brick arches and ramparts. The tiny municipal museum in Capri village just manages to fill two rooms, and the most interesting objects there are fossils. With the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, Capri became a part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy, but in name only. Setting aside the omnipresent Neapolitans, mainland Italians were only slightly less exotic in Capri than the foreign visitors.

Capri's most valuable asset is intangible: its robust life as a symbol. Like any good symbol, it can be taken in many ways, but the island most often serves as an emblem of freedom. Since antiquity, Capri has been a hedonistic dreamland, a place where the rules do not apply: a Mediterranean prototype of Las Vegas. Twenty-two miles proved to be just far enough to liberate the island from the canting religious morality of Europe and the stern laws that came with it. For many of the artists who sought refuge there, Capri was still under the imperishable influence of its first foreign occupants, the Greeks: a relic of archaic Hellas, before the rise of the polis, with its demands on the citizen, where the individual lived in harmony with nature, saturated in sunlight between sky and sea. The promise of personal freedom brought with it a fantasy of pleasure without limit. In plain words, like Las Vegas, Capri got a reputation as a place where easy sex of every variety was available in abundance and not unduly fraught with consequences.

Capri did not give rise to a culture of its own: Las Vegas was built by gangsters, and Capri's isolated situation made it a favorite haunt of pirates and smugglers, also not ordinarily known as patrons of the arts; the island never had a prince. The native population was too small, and paradoxically the island was too close to the mainland to nurture its own artistic traditions. There was never a Capriote style of pottery, no indigenous school of lyrical poetry. Foreign visitors brought their culture with them. In the nineteenth century, as the global economy transformed great swaths of northern Europe into industrial parks and poured smoke into urban skies, writers, artists, and other dreamers voyaged to distant island paradises described by early explorers and exploited in trashy fiction. Tahiti, Bali, and other tropical islands off the main trade routes promised a simple life, free from the material demands of the modern world. Capri radiated a similar primeval glamour and felt exotic, although it was near at hand. It was a place lost in time: even by the 1920s, telegrams and telephones were rare, and donkeys were the principal mode of transport.

The pursuit of freedom and pleasure that flourished in Capri was not entirely in service to the senses; it brought with it an alluring promise of unloosing creative powers. For an enchanted interlude that began in the Romantic era and lasted until the chaotic years after the Second World War, Capri was a haven for an international community of artists and writers, where anything was acceptable except the commonplace. The simplicity of life on the island made it dirt cheap, always an attraction for artists. German poets went there to write Greek poetry, American painters to paint French paintings, French writers to write English novels, and Russians to plot world revolution. The island's history as a global nexus of artistic creativity may not be apparent to the millions of contemporary tourists who come for the views and the shopping, but it is an integral part of the island's fabric. Even visitors who know nothing about Capri's cultural history can feel the genius of the place. It is in the air, waiting to be discovered.

Norman Douglas, the British novelist and travel writer resident in Capri throughout the first half of the twentieth century, captured the intoxicating atmosphere of freedom that emanates from Capri's pagan past, and its power to inspire the imagination, in his novel South Wind. Douglas's mouthpiece, an antiquarian swindler, attempts to lure a visiting Anglican bishop from the straitened paths of righteousness. As they bask in the glow of a summer sunset, sitting on a terrace high above the Gulf of Naples, he declares that in Capri "the sage surrenders his intelligence and grows young again. He recaptures the spirit of his boyish dreams. He peers into worlds unknown. See! Adventure and discovery are lurking on every side. These painted clouds with their floating banners and citadels, yonder mysterious headlands that creep into the landscape at this hour, those islets emerging, like flakes of bronze, out of the sunset-glow — all the wonder of The Odyssey is there!"

Notwithstanding its rhapsodic tone, Douglas's homage has a firm textual basis. The dream of Capri began in The Odyssey, with a myth about the perils of beauty. In book 12, Odysseus endures one of his most dangerous trials when he sails past the island of the Sirens, horrid bird-women whose surpassingly beautiful song lures mariners to ruin on the dangerous shores of their frightful lair. Homer describes it as a small island topped by a flowery meadow, bestrewn with the bleached bones of the Sirens' victims. Wily Odysseus, as everyone knows, was the first and only mortal to hear the Sirens sing and live to tell the tale. He ordered his crew to bind him fast to the mast and plug their own ears with wax. When the ship approached, the Sirens broke into their delicious, deceitful chant: "Come hither, renowned Odysseus, and hear our song, for never yet has anyone rowed past this isle in his black ship without stopping to hear our sweet voices and going away a happier and wiser man. We know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered at the hands of the gods in the wide plains of Troy, and all things that come to pass upon the all-nourishing earth."

The location of the Sirens' island is a perennial enigma, amusing to ponder because it is insoluble. A prime contender by tradition is Li Galli, a cluster of islets off the Amalfi Coast that formerly called themselves the Sirenuse, as if to endow their claim to ancient notoriety with preemptive clout. However, they are little more than big rocks, with no place that could have sheltered a flowery meadow, the only physical feature specified in Homer's poem. In 1924, the Russian dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine took possession of Gallo Lungo, the largest of the islets, and built a villa there, which Le Corbusier later renovated. After Massine's death, Rudolf Nureyev bought it and spent the last years of his life there in sybaritic seclusion.

Yet few would challenge Capri's claim, supported by centuries of cheap souvenirs, to be the Siren Island. Anyway, it can never be disproved; for the rhapsodes who chanted The Odyssey, the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea were remote, legendary places that only venturesome sailors had ever seen. A noncanonical Homeric myth adds corroboration to Capri's claim. After Odysseus eluded the Sirens' claws, one of them, named Parthenope, was so despondent that she drowned herself. Her body washed ashore on the little island of Megaride, just off the mainland across the bay, and the city of Naples was founded on the spot, now occupied by the Castel dell'Ovo. When French revolutionary forces liberated Naples from the tyranny of the Bourbons, in 1799, they renamed the city after the Siren from Capri. The Parthenopean Republic lasted only six months, but modern Neapolitans still call their city la città Partenopea.

Capri's first appearance in history, as opposed to myth, is also touched by magic. In 29 B.C., when Octavian (soon to take the title Augustus) was cruising home to Rome to celebrate his victory over Antony and Cleopatra and take possession of his empire, he stopped at Capri and fell in love with the place. In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius reports that when the young conqueror passed by a withered oak tree, its drooping branches miraculously recovered their vitality. Delighted by this propitious omen, he promptly bought the island from Naples and thereby set the paradigm for many future visitors who came to Capri on a holiday and found that they could not leave.

Augustus coined a Greek nickname for Capri, Apragopolis, which might be translated as the Land of Doing Nothing — a classical prototype of dolce far niente, "how sweet to do nothing," Italy's unofficial motto. He built the island's first holiday villa on a rugged strip of seashore at the foot of a cliff near the Marina Grande. Augustus despised excessive luxury, preferring modest palaces (a quintessentially Augustan paradox), which, according to Suetonius, "were adorned not so much with sculpture and painting as with colonnaded terraces and ornamental groves, and things that were curious either for their antiquity or rarity, such as, in Capri, the gigantic limbs of monsters and wild beasts, which were called the bones of giants, and the weapons of famous heroes." In modern times, Suetonius got a reputation as an unreliable historian, and his report of Augustus's cabinet of curiosities in Capri was cited as an example of his penchant for exaggeration.

Yet in 1906, when the foundations were being dug for an expansion of the Quisisana Hotel, in Capri village, Neolithic tools and the fossil remains of Pleistocene fauna such as the mastodon and pygmy elephants and hippopotamuses were unearthed, which gave Suetonius's claim a measure of credibility. Norman Douglas plausibly called the emperor's collection "the first paleontological museum in the world." The French archaeologist Salomon Reinach speculated that the weapons of famous heroes in Augustus's collection might be identified with the flint axes excavated at the Quisisana dig, but it is doubtful whether the emperor would have been impressed by such crude artifacts. It is just as reasonable to conjecture that unscrupulous dealers duped the emperor into buying bogus relics of the Trojan War.

When Augustus fell sick at Rome with a chill that would be the cause of his death (unless you believe the ancient gossip that his wife, Livia, smeared poison on the figs in his garden), he made a final visit to Capri for a four-day holiday cure, where he gave himself up to rest and relaxation. The emperor loved romping with the island's boys. On this visit, as usual, he spent hours watching them exercise and wrestle at the ephebeum, the gym for ephebes, the Greek word for adolescents at the threshold of manhood. He entertained the young athletes at a banquet, where he played games with them, tossing fruit and trinkets to the winners. He had cloaks made as party favors, in the Greek style for the Italians and Roman togas for the Greeks, and insisted that the Greeks speak Latin and the Romans speak Greek. On his fourth day in Capri, he took a turn for the worse and returned to Rome, where he summoned his stepson Tiberius, who would succeed him, for a long meeting behind closed doors. After that, Augustus took no further interest in affairs of state and died a few days later.

* * *

THE PALPITATING HEART of Capri village is the Piazzetta, at the junction of the road from the Marina Grande, the upper terminus of the funicular that rises from the shore, and the footpath to the island's northeastern tip, where Tiberius built his palace, Villa Jovis (House of Jove). Piazzetta is an appropriate diminutive of piazza. In the high season, when the tiny square's four competing cafés set out their outdoor tables, pedestrians must jostle one another to thread a path to the other side. No one complains: in southern Italy, jostling and being jostled is viewed as a stimulating pastime more than a nuisance. Overhead, strings of little white lights crisscross the square, twinkling in the briny air. On special nights when semiprofessional programs of opera arias and Neapolitan songs are performed, the Piazzetta achieves its destined metamorphosis into a stage set for a comic operetta, the metaphor employed by every writer who has undertaken to describe it.

On the south side of the Piazzetta, the island's parish church of Santo Stefano sits haughtily atop a flight of stone stairs, with its entrance at an oblique angle to the square. The church had the status of a cathedral until the Parthenopean Republic abolished the island's bishopric. The steps leading up to Santo Stefano are always crowded with footsore tourists sitting in front of signs asking them not to do so. The almost painfully picturesque bell tower that calls the faithful to the celebration of the Mass is detached from the church, located just opposite, at the main entrance to the square. A kiosk at its base sells soccer newspapers and toys. The priest of Santo Stefano, Don Vincenzo Simeoli, is one of the most popular personalities in the village. Strolling across the Piazzetta with him, one proceeds slowly as he stops to greet parishioners who call out his name respectfully when he passes by.

Almost nothing remains of Augustus's Palazzo a Mare, but if anyone has a claim to being its caretaker, that would be Don Vincenzo. When I met him in the sacristy of Santo Stefano, he told me that he had collected more than three thousand fragments of the emperor's Villa by the Sea in his garden and the fields surrounding the Marina Grande, the site of the island's earliest settlement. Most of them are tiny scraps of marble and mural painting or single mosaic tesserae. "I have a large family," he explained, "and all my life they have been bringing me pieces for my collection." When I asked him if I could see it, he solemnly shook his head. "No one knows where I keep it," he said. "I keep everything locked up. According to the law, whoever finds ancient relics owns them, but I am responsible for them. If someone stole them, I would go to jail." The prospect of Don Vincenzo being sent to jail seemed remote, but I didn't press the point. He gave me a tour of Santo Stefano, pointing out the brilliantly colored marble pavements that came from Villa Jovis. When I took my leave, Don Vincenzo invited me to take a tour of Augustus's Villa by the Sea. "I will meet you at San Costanzo tomorrow afternoon at four," he said, "unless someone dies and I have to perform a funeral."

Deo gratias the health of the parish remained sound, and Don Vincenzo turned up on time at the Basilica of San Costanzo, the oldest church in Capri. It was built in the fourth century on the site of a Mithraic temple. The cult of Mithras, a mystery religion of Persian origin, was established in Rome during the early empire and quickly found a passionate following, particularly with soldiers. Membership was men only. The cult, unencumbered by any sort of philosophy, put a strong emphasis on animal sacrifice, specifically bulls, in subterranean rites. The appeal was magical and therefore theatrical, with spooky rituals that drenched the celebrants in buckets of blood. Don Vincenzo points out a few columns in the basilica that survive from the original structure and then leads me to the crude brick annex that covers the site of the mithraeum, which is nothing more than a hole in the ground. Then we set off to see what there is to see of Augustus's palace.


Excerpted from "Pagan Light"
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Copyright © 2019 Jamie James.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Notes and Bibliography,
Illustration Credits,
Also By Jamie James,
A Note About the Author,

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