Friday, March 27, 2009

The Story of San Michele

Anyone who keeps track of my reading list at the right knows that I recently finished "The Story of San Michele," by Axel Munthe. I had an ulterior motive for reading it; it was recommended for all who plan to visit the Isle of Capri, which I plan to do in a few days.

Axel Munthe was a Swedish physician who, in his youth, traveled on holiday to Capri (say that with the accent on the first syllable) and fell in love with it. His book, The Story of San Michele, defies definition. Loosely, it is an autobiography, very loosely. It might be called a memoir if it did not cling so dearly to the dream of Dr. Munthe's to dwell in and restore San Michele.

The book's copyright is 1929, and Axel Munthe wrote it in his elderly years, but having been to Italy once before, I know that the charm and vibrancy of his descriptions are accurate for the modern nation, and I can't wait to see Capri for myself.

"I sprang from the Sorrento sailing-boat on to the little beach. Swarms of boys were playing about among the upturned boats or bathing their shining bronze bodies in the surf, and old fishermen in red Phrygian caps sat mending their nets outside their boat-houses. Opposite the landing-place stood half-a-dozen donkeys with saddles on their backs and bunches of flowers in their bridles, and around them chattered and sang as many girls with the silver spadella stuck through their black tresses and a red handkerchief tied across their shoulders. The little donkey who was to take me up to Capri was called Rosina, and the name of the girl was Gioia. Her black lustrous eyes sparkled with fiery youth, her lips were red like the string of corals round her neck, her strong white teeth glistened like a row of pearls in her merry laughter. She said she was fifteen and I said that I was younger than I had ever been. But Rosina was old, "é antica," said Gioia. So I slipped off the saddle and climbed leisurely up the winding path to the village. In front of me danced Gioia on naked feet, a wreath of flowers round her head, like a young Bacchante, and behind me staggered old Rosina in her dainty black shoes, with bent head and drooping ears, deep in thought. I had no time to think, my head was full of rapturous wonder, my heart full of the joy of life, the world was beautiful and I was eighteen. We wound our way through bushes of ginestra and myrtle in full bloom, and here and there among the sweet-scented grass many small flowers I had never seen before in the land of Linnaeus, lifted their graceful heads to look at us as we passed.

"What is the name of this flower?" said I to Gioia. She took the flower from my hand, looked at it lovingly and said: "Fiore!"

"And what is the name of this one?" She looked at it with the same tender attention and said: "Fiore!"

"And how do you call this one?"

"Fiore! Bello! Bello!"

She picked a bunch of fragrant myrtle, but would not give it to me. She said the flowers were for S. Costanzo, the patron saint of Capri who was all of silver and had done so many miracles, S. Costanzo, bello! bello!

A long file of girls with tufa stones on their heads slowly advanced towards us in a stately procession like the caryatides from the Erechtheum. One of the girls gave me a friendly smile and put an orange into my hand. She was a sister of Gioia's and even more beautiful, thought I. Yes, they were eight sisters and brothers at home, and two were in Paradise. Their father was away coral-fishing in "Barbaria," look at the beautiful string of corals he had just sent her, "che bella collana! Bella! Bella!"

"And you also are bella, Gioia, bella, bella!"

"Yes," said she.

My foot stumbled against a broken column of marble, "Roba di Timberio!" explained Gioia. "Timberio cattivo, Timberio Mal'occhio, Timberio camorrista!" and she spat on the marble.

"Yes," said I, my memory fresh from Tacitus and Suetonius, "Tiberio Cattivo!"

We emerged on the high road and reached the Piazza with a couple of sailors standing by the parapet overlooking the Marina, a few drowsy Capriotes seated in front of Don Antonio's osteria, and half-a-dozen priests on the steps leading to the church, gesticulating wildly in animated conversation: "Moneta! Moneta! Molta moneta; Niente moneta!" Gioia ran up to kiss the hand of Don Giacinto who was her father confessor and un vero santo, though he did not look like one. She went to confession twice a month, how often did I go to confession?

Not at all!

Cattivo! Cattivo!

Would she tell Don Giacinto that I had kissed her cheek under the lemon-trees?

Of course not."

--from the opening chapter of "The Story of San Michele" © renewed 1957

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