Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Villa San Michele

Axel Munthe’s Villa San Michele - Axel Munthe was a very successful Swedish physician and psychologist, well known for his philanthropic work. He saw the practice of medicine as a holy vocation; Munthe treated the people of Capri without charge and risked his life offering medical help in disasters and wartime. He was a strong advocate of animal rights, as well; he kept not only dogs, but an owl, a tortoise, a mongoose, and a baboon as pets. Distressed by the indiscriminate capture of birds that flocked to the island, for dispatch to the dinner tables of Rome, he bought Villa San Michele at least in part to make it into a bird sanctuary. At his initiative, in 1932 the Italian government forbade fowling anywhere on Capri.

Physician to the Swedish royal family, he was personal physician to Crown Princess Victoria until her death; she suffered from respiratory problems and Munthe recommended she spend her winters in Capri, which she did from 1910 onward. As well, Munthe hosted such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Rainer Maria Rilke at Villa San Michele.

Munthe bought the Villa San Michele in 1887 and began restoring it, doing a lot of the work himself. It was built on the ruins of an ancient Roman villa of the Emperor Tiberius; Munthe preserved some of the ruins, which are still to be seen in the garden. When funds for the restoration ran low, he opened a medical practice in Rome, on the Spanish Steps, catering to foreign dignitaries. Ironically, he later developed an eye condition which made it impossible for him to tolerate the bright light of Capri, so he returned to Sweden and wrote “The Story of San Michele,” published in 1929 to great acclaim. Later an operation saved his sight and he spent several more years in Capri.

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