December 29, 2014

My Bucket List: Villa San Michele

“I want my house open to sun and wind and the voice of the sea,
like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere!”
– Axel Munthe, The Story of San Michele

Villa San Michele, Anacapri

While researching my trip to the island of Capri, I came across photos of a white stucco building perched on the steep hillside of Anacapri. It had a shady terraced garden and a mysterious sphinx, with magnificent views of the sea far below. This was a magical place I longed to experience for myself. This was Villa San Michele.

From Anacapri’s central square, Piazza Vittoria, the villa is a five-minute walk. There are plenty of signs to point the way so you can’t miss it, even if you get distracted by the hand-made sandals or lemon scented soaps in the shops along Via Capodimonte.

Lemon Soaps

Villa San Michele

Villa San Michele Entrance

Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician and author, established this unpretentious dwelling on the site of Villa Capodimonte, one of several imperial villas built by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The museum contains art and antiquities (Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian), some unearthed on the property but most collected by Munthe.  A visit to Villa San Michele begins with a tour through the rooms of the villa.

Munthe's Collection of Antiquities

The Dining Room

The Kitchen

The Atrium, or Interior Courtyard

The Bedroom

In the centre of the sculpture loggia sits the figure of Hermes. The bronze statue was a gift to Munthe from the city of Naples in appreciation for his work during a cholera epidemic in 1884. It’s a copy of Seated Hermes, recovered from the excavations at Herculaneum in 1758 and now displayed at the National Archeological Museum of Naples.

Sculpture Loggia

Copy of Seated Hermes

Beyond Hermes stretches a pergola covered in Chinese wisteria vines with glimpses of the sea between its white supporting columns. In a planting of African lilies stands a bust of Axel Munthe.


Bust of Axel Munthe

Loggia Columns

View from the Loggia

The Tyrrhenian Sea

Lovely as this terrace was, a sign pointed the way to La Sfinge, the Sphinx, and I knew there was a better vantage point ahead. I climbed the stairs to the chapel loggia on the next level.

Stairway to the Chapel Loggia

Ancient Columns and Capitals in the Garden

There are actually two sphinxes on the chapel terrace, the first a marble Etruscan Sphinx.

Etruscan Sphinx, Villa San Michele

Nearby on a parapet looking east over Marina Grande is the sphinx I'd really come to see, the famous Egyptian Sphinx. She gazes off into the distance at the rugged Sorrentine coast, the great port city of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. The red granite figure depicting a woman's head on a lion's body dates from the time of Ramses II but no one is sure of its exact origins. Legend says that if you make a wish while placing your left hand on the sphinx, your wish will be granted. My wish had already been fulfilled.

Egyptian Sphinx, Villa San Michele

St. Michael the Archangel

Eventually I tore myself away from the beautiful views and moved on to the terraced gardens, so shady, cool and peaceful. Birds twittered and fountains trickled, inviting me to stroll among the scented pines, palms and cypress trees. A small pavilion houses the Olivetum, a bird and nature museum, where visitors can learn about the local flora and fauna.

Gardens of Villa San Michele

The Olivetum

Garden Walkway

Hydrangeas in Bloom

Orange Trees

Exit from the Garden

If You Go:

Villa San Michele is open daily year round (check the web site for hours as they vary by season) and admission is €7. To learn more about the villa and the fascinating man who built it, read The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe. The memoir was first published in 1929 and became a bestseller in several languages.

Next:  Great Art Museums of Florence

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