Villa San Michele in Anacapri, Italy


In his bestselling memoir, The Story of San Michele, Axel Munthe describes his first time visiting the Isle of Capri, in 1875. After sailing from nearby Sorrento, Munthe climbed the Phoenician Steps, 777 in all, up to the village of Anacapri (literally, “Above Capri”). Upon reaching the top, he became enchanted by the ruins of a medieval chapel dedicated to San Michele and the panoramic views it commanded. In the decades that followed, he built a house there. 

Born in Sweden in 1857, Munthe enjoyed a decorated career as a physicist. After working in Paris, he traveled to Naples in 1884 to treat the victims of a cholera epidemic. He moved to Capri in 1887 to begin constructing the house, opened a practice in Rome in 1890, and from then on split his time between the two.

Munthe enlisted the painter Aristide Sartorio to help him with the architectural drawings, and hired local builders and bricklayers to build the property. Eventually it consisted of a main house, designed with both Roman and Caprese influences, an extensive garden, and a chapel.  

An animal lover, Munthe kept dogs and a monkey on the property and cared for the local population of birds. Numerous notable guests stayed at the villa, including Victoria Baden, the Crown Princess and later Queen of Sweden (Munthe was her personal physician). He furnished his home with sculptures, engravings, mosaics, and sarcophagi from ancient times.

Of all of these treasures, the most famous is an Egyptian sphynx dating back to 1200 B.C., which sits in the chapel overlooking the town of Capri. The sphynx likely comes from the Italian mainland, but beyond this, its origins are unknown. In The Story of San Michele, Munthe claims that he saw the sphynx in a dream, and then rushed over to the countryside to dig it up himself. “It is all too weird and fantastic to be translated into written words,” wrote Munthe in The Story of San Michele. “I hardly know myself where the dream ended and where reality began.”





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