A New World of Delights: Capri

After an hour in Naples, I had dreams of returning to rent an apartment for a month. After a morning in Capri, I had dreams of buying a villa and staying forever.

I’m not the first visitor to feel that way. Virginia and Mamie Pepworth-Norton, the elderly American lesbian heroines of Vestal Fire, Compton Mackenzie’s 1927 roman à clef about Capri, “no sooner put foot on the island than they recognized that they were at home.” As for me, I no sooner had spent an afternoon on the island then I recognized a new historical obsession.

Island of Capri, from Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
Island of Capri. Twain, Innocents Abroad.

I knew nothing about Capri before our trip there (just the pants and the fake juice-drink). My friend in Paris who had recommended Naples as our February break destination listed this little island off the southern tip of the Bay of Naples as one of the sights that could be taken in during our trip, so when I made our travel plans I booked two nights there at an inexpensive pensione. I stress “inexpensive” because, as I only realized afterwards, Capri is primarily known as a holiday destination for the fabulously wealthy, and during the summer season hotel rooms start at $500 a night, or so I hear. What I also heard, a lot, before we left is that the island is insufferably touristy. Ah well, I thought, it’s only two nights.

Those reports obviously came from people who had visited during the summer season, because in February, it turns out, the island is gloriously SHUT DOWN. Yes, there are a couple streets lined with ultra-luxury-brand storefronts, but all the stores are closed in winter. You could not buy a diamond-studded, platinum-banded, phoenix-feather-powered watch if you wanted one. The $500/night hotels are closed. Almost all the restaurants are closed. And with the exception of the numerous guided-tours of Chinese daytrippers racing through the Piazza Umberto and Krupp gardens, there is hardly anyone around but the citizens of Capri. Only two other rooms in our pensione were booked during our stay. Once we left the piazza to explore the island’s winding alleyways and mountain trails, we had the place almost to ourselves.

So what does Capri have to offer when the luxury accommodations and boutiques are shut? Capri is perhaps most famous for the grotta azzurra, or Blue Lagoon. In Innocents Abroad, Twain’s account of his visit to the island is limited to a description of this famous subterranean lake of “the brightest, loveliest blue that can be imagined” (such a bland description from Twain, it seems the water’s beauty strained even his powers of description). I’m sure the grotta azzurra is lovely, at least it looked so from the outside, but since the row boats that guide you through were put away for the winter season I wouldn’t know. 

The Blue Lagoon, from Innocents Abroad. The real deal is a lot smaller.
The Blue Lagoon, from Innocents Abroad. The real deal is a lot smaller.

Missing the boat tour through the lagoon did little to impair our moods however, after the beauty of the hike we took to reach it. What Capri has to offer during its off-season is miles of stunning scenery and beautiful streets, paths, and trails to access those views. Most of the island is inaccessible by car because the stone roads are too narrow to permit a full-sized vehicle to pass. (There are tiny three-wheeled vehicles that can be used for hauling, but almost all the traffic I saw was pedestrian.) The island is ideal for ramblers, and the weather – balmy and mostly sunny – was perfectly suited to spend each day rambling.

During our brief stay we hiked to three of the four corners of the island. Maya and I tackled the northeast corner just the two of us, ascending through narrow streets past romantic villas and fragrant lemon-tree groves until we reached the magnificent ruins of Emperor Tiberius, who ruled Rome from his self-imposed island exile during the final decade of his life. The ruins were closed, natch, but we jumped the fence in order to take in one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever beheld, straight down a thousand-foot cliff to the vivid blue Mediterranean below. Tiberius is reputed to have thrown people he didn’t like off that cliff; certainly I can understand the temptation. Coming down from Villa Jovis we also took a peak into Villa Lysis, the former home of “Count” Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, the notorious pederast and opium-fiend, self-proclaimed descendant of Marie-Antoinette’s reputed Swedish lover, and model for Count Marsac, the tragicomic antihero of Vestal Fire. Later Tim and I took a walk just the two of us along the island’s southeastern corner, past the arco naturaland the grotta matermania (where Fersen and his friends are reputed to have enjoyed a little ritual flogging), before following a cliffside trail to take in stunning views of the scenic faraglioni rocks which jut up from the sea along Capri’s southern shore. Finally the whole family joined together to visit the Blue Grotto, taking a cliffside trail that winds past the remains of the island’s old fortification system, and spying a wild goat perched below us on the vertiginous rocks.

Path leading down from Krupp's garden
Looking down on Via Krupp: a sense of the island’s sheer cliff views.

All my ambitious exploring still left countless sights unseen. I could have spent many more afternoons happily hiking the island’s trails. But the marvellous scenery alone does not explain my new obsession with the island’s history nor my desire to have some fabulously wealthy benefactor buy me a villa there. (Volunteers: feel free to get in touch.)

So back to Count Fersen. Actually: back to Emperor Tiberius. According to the Roman author Suetonius, once Tiberius retreated to Capri (a site he chose for the protection from assassination afforded by its sheer cliffs), “he at last gave free rein at once to all the vices which he had for a long time ill concealed.” Thoughtfully, Suetonius lays out these vices for readers “from the beginning.” He starts with the minor stuff. Tiberius overindulged in alcohol (some called him Biberius, as in: he imbibed too much). He was given to elaborate feasts and liked nude serving girls. He created a new appointment: “Master of the Imperial Pleasures.”

Next Suetonius moves on to the carnal appetites. Tiberius was so given to vice that he had “a room devised by him dedicated to the most arcane lusts. Here he had assembled from all quarters girls and perverts, whom he called Spintriae, who invented monstrous feats of lubricity, and defiled one another before him, interlaced in series of threes, in order to inflame his feeble appetite.” In case anyone should lack knowledge of how to arrange their body parts to accomplish Tiberius’s fantasies, he kept on hand a book by Elephantis, a renowned courtesan, author of a Roman kama sutra that instructed users in numerous sexual positions (sadly no copies are remaining). He also had special rooms painted with “scenes of lascivious character” to stimulate the appetites. (Roman artifacts of this type, if not those belonging to Tiberius, can be viewed in the “secret cabinet” of the archaeology museum in Naples, just in case you needed another reason to visit.)

Fresco in the "Secret Cabinet" of the Naples Museum of Archaeology
Fresco in the “Secret Cabinet” of the Naples Museum of Archaeology

If these tales of venery don’t shock you, Suetonius’s account of Tiberius’s wanton abuse of children probably will. The old emperor, according to this chronicler, had children play between his legs during his bath time, and employed strapping toddlers who had not yet been weaned to give him fellatio. When a couple of young brothers the emperor had abused reproached each other for their degradation, Tiberius had their legs broken. By the time Suetonius gets around to recounting all of Tiberius’s other acts of cruelty, torture, and murder, who has any horror remaining to expend on the old tyrant?

This two-thousand year old reputation for vice, in part, helped to draw self-exiles like d’Adelswärd-Fersen to Capri in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Fersen built his Villa Lysis, named for the beloved boy in Plato’s dialogue, as close to Tiberius’s Villa Jovis as he could.) Twain makes no mention of the growing foreign “colony” in Capri from his 1867 visit, but by the 1870s the island was home to a diverse range of European and American expatriates. Some were painters, some were writers, some took after Tiberius, like the Confederate veteran John Clay MacKowen who, supposedly irreconcilable to the loss of his slave estate, walked around Capri with his whip in hand, lashing out at those who displeased him (and later sending gifts of atonement).

Over the next seven decades or so before the outbreak of World War II, a boisterous “foreign colony” made their home on Capri, attracting political exiles like Maxim Gorky, lesbian artists like Romaine Brooks, literary lions like Somerset Maugham, men of adventure like the Swedish doctor Axel Munthe, wealthy pedophiles like the industrialist Friedrich Krupp, and countless runaway wives, interracial couples, gay men, lustful older women, artists, singers, dancers and even historians.

The best known account of the “queer types” who made up the foreign colony in Capri at the turn of the century is Norman Douglas’s famous 1917 novel South Wind, another roman à clef. Once the most popular book in the Modern Library, now mostly forgotten, South Wind is a shaggy dog of a novel filled with dialogs among the numerous eccentric characters on the meaning of life, which mostly boils down to: don’t be constrained by Judeo-Christian morality. Douglas, a brilliant and charming man, had a primary erotic attachment to young boys that got him repeatedly thrown out from country after country until Capri was the only place that would have him. There he remained celebrated to the end of his days,  an honorary citizen. As recently as 2010, the island put up a plaque in his name.

Norman Douglas plaque

While the infamous tales of Caprese pederasty have proved popular in breezy accounts of the island’s history, what most fascinates me about the history of the island’s foreign colony is its surprisingly inclusive nature. Books like Douglas’s South Wind and Compton Mackenzie’s Vestal Fire suggest that unlike now, when we draw sharp divisions between pedophiles and other sexual rule-breakers, when we separate aesthetic, gustatory, and erotic pleasure-seekers each into their own discrete camps, the historical foreign colony of Capri combined all these pursuits under a single canopy, embracing a common boisterous queer pleasure ethic that never stood in the way of vicious back-stabbing, jealousy, gossip and even murderous rivalry among them.

Imagine my delight, when researching Norman Douglas to discover not only that the author’s final book was a cookbook, Venus in the Kitchen (a guide to aphrodisiacs, of course, including recipes for sparrows’  brains and crane), but also that the famous doyenne of British cuisine Elizabeth David considered Douglas her mentor!

Venus in the Kitchen

Douglas filled South Wind  with accounts of the gustatory pleasures enjoyed on “Nepenthe”, known equally for its beautiful girls and its delicious lobsters. When Thomas Heard, a young clergyman recently returned from a posting in Africa, comes under the influence of the island’s south wind, he awakens to a previously unrecognized world of sensuality. Invited to a party at Mr. Keith’s (the closest stand-in for Douglas himself), Heard buoyantly remarks, “this aspic could not be better. It seems to open up a new world of delights. Dear me. I fear I am becoming a gourmand.” This new world of delights involves all manners of pleasures of the flesh that Heard has previously foreclosed, under the English logic that “because a thing seems good, there must be some bad in it.” He soon becomes an attentive student of Mr. Keith, whose embrace of sexual liberalism extends so far that he claims not to “see any objection, on principle, to incest,” and who has such a “remarkable chef” that other residents gladly forgive his moral deviations in return for an invitation to lunch.

So too, the lesbian ladies at the heart of Mackenzie’s Vestal Fire are renowned for the extravagance of the Sunday teas they offer each week at their “Villa Amibile,” the social heart of the foreign colony at the outset of the events recounted in the novel. One might imagine that a regular Sunday tea offered by a couple of elderly women would end by supper time, but Virginia and Mamie Pepworth-Norton are so devoted to making their guests happy that each week after filling their visitors with eclairs, cream cakes, praliné ice, and sponge cake, they ply them with creme de menthe frappés and whiskeys and soda throughout the night, disappointed if the party breaks up before 4:00 a.m.

Creme de Menthe Frappe

Visiting Capri, in person and on the page, has opened a new world of delights for me as well. Not only has it led me to discover a new set of historical characters, strangers to me only a month ago, it has led me to an exciting reconceptualization of where my research may be going. For months I’ve noticed that my blog has been morphing. What began, ostensibly, as a research journal about the history of Americans learning to cook in Paris – with glimpses of my own adventures in the city’s markets and restaurants – has become increasingly colonized by observations of the intersection between culinary pleasures and erotic pleasures in the lives and writings of my research subjects – with glimpses of my own culinary adventures in between (the autobiographical part of that equation will not be expanding). Having just completed a book in the history of sexuality, I thought perhaps this overlap between sex and food was just an after-shadow, my lingering curiosity about those earlier research questions.

But researching Capri has led me to wonder, what if our own contemporaneous delineation between the “history of food” and the “history of sexuality” – or at least between a history of culinary enjoyment and a history of erotic enjoyment – imposes an anachronistic distinction on an alternative historical organization of bodily pleasure? Is it drawing an artificial distinction to place M. F. K. Fisher in the camp “food writer” and Norman Douglas in the camp “sexual deviant” when Fisher made a life of chasing after lovers, and Douglas’s final text was a cookbook? What might a queer history of pleasure look like that wasn’t confined by modern definitions of sexuality? Could one write a queer history that expanded the realm of bodily pleasures to include sociability, erotics, drinking, and eating?

And is it possible to accurately portray how bodily pleasures considered anodyne today – such as the devotion to good eating – existed on a plane with those so anathema today (pedophilia) that few wise writers are willing to discuss the subject? Norman Douglas writes in South Wind that “history deals with situations and figures not imaginary but real. It demands therefore a combination of qualities unnecessary to the poet or writer of romance – glacial judgment coupled with fervent sympathy. The poet may be an uninspired illiterate, the romance-writer an uninspired hack. Under no circumstances can either of them be accused of wrongdoing or deceiving the public, however incongruous their efforts. They write well or badly, and there the matter ends. The historian, who fails in his duty, deceives the reader and wrongs the dead.” Well let glacial judgment and fervent sympathy guide my future efforts, since I’ve decided to take the plunge and expand the scope of my research, bringing the sexuality back in and moving beyond the confines of Americans in France, to write a more inclusive history of expatriate communities and bodily pleasures.

In honour of this shift in focus, I hereby rename this blog “The Not So Innocents Abroad.”

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

4 thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s