Arts & Culture » Books

Capriot dreams

by Roberto Friedman

The new book "Pagan Light — Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri" by Jamie James (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) appealed to Out There with its cover picture showing the dramatic shoreline of the Italian island. Out this month, the book does convey the natural splendor of Capri, but it turned out to be less a travelogue than a social history of the isle and its place in the Western imagination. James' catalog of famous Capriot residents goes back to Ancient Rome. Legendary orgies and scandals that followed the emperor Tiberius to his retirement there ensured that "Tiberius in Capri" became "universal shorthand for excessive, perverted sexual license and brutal cruelty." Later, Capri became a popular place of exile for Westerners escaping conformist Victorian society. No surprise, they included men and women who deviated from majority norms of sexual preference. James introduces us to many homosexuals and lesbians, not all of them celebrated. The early 20th century found more artistic rule-breakers making their holiday on Capri, including the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and dancers of the Ballet Russes, who arrived after performances in nearby Naples; and leaders of the Italian Futurist movement, who, despite their macho reputation, are revealed as sentimentalists in their embrace of the island's ethos. Finding themselves surrounded by open and flamboyant homosexuals, the Futurists treated them as "spoiled milksops, ridiculous in their obsession with grooming and wardrobe, not as dangerous enemies." There follows an extended mini-biography of lesbian portrait painter Romaine Brooks, who found her homosexual husband John Brooks on Capri, "a male chum with whom she could pursue traditionally masculine activities." When she matured, Brooks "confined her amours to her own sex" and "firmly identified as lesbian." Her great loves included the American poet Natalie Barney and the femme fatale Marchesa Luisa Casati. Later luminaries whose lives became entwined with the romantic isle off the Amalfi Coast include Joseph Conrad, whose short story "Il conde," set in Naples, has an undeniable homo subtext; D.H. Lawrence, Rainer Maria Rilke, Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Lenin himself. By mid-century, Fascism took its turn as houseguest in Capri. Then, after WWII, it became an important place for the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and by the 1950s, a fashionable playground for film stars. Capri pants became a thing. James' book is part serial biography of all these famous Capri residents, part retelling of the body of Capri-infused literature, part travel writing, part reverie. In addition to its beaches, piazzas and grottos, the reader is also transported, quite unexpectedly, to Swedish forests and the Warsaw ghetto, the better to fill out the lives of those who escaped there. It's an unusual history, of a place and the characters who gave flesh to its spirit.  "Pagan Light — Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri" author Jamie James. Photo: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
The new book "Pagan Light — Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri" by Jamie James (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) appealed to Out There with its cover picture showing the dramatic shoreline of the Italian island. Out this month, the book does convey the natural splendor of Capri, but it turned out to be less a travelogue than a social history of the isle and its place in the Western imagination. James' catalog of famous Capriot residents goes back to Ancient Rome. Legendary orgies and scandals that followed the emperor Tiberius to his retirement there ensured that "Tiberius in Capri" became "universal shorthand for excessive, perverted sexual license and brutal cruelty." Later, Capri became a popular place of exile for Westerners escaping conformist Victorian society. No surprise, they included men and women who deviated from majority norms of sexual preference. James introduces us to many homosexuals and lesbians, not all of them celebrated. The early 20th century found more artistic rule-breakers making their holiday on Capri, including the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and dancers of the Ballet Russes, who arrived after performances in nearby Naples; and leaders of the Italian Futurist movement, who, despite their macho reputation, are revealed as sentimentalists in their embrace of the island's ethos. Finding themselves surrounded by open and flamboyant homosexuals, the Futurists treated them as "spoiled milksops, ridiculous in their obsession with grooming and wardrobe, not as dangerous enemies." There follows an extended mini-biography of lesbian portrait painter Romaine Brooks, who found her homosexual husband John Brooks on Capri, "a male chum with whom she could pursue traditionally masculine activities." When she matured, Brooks "confined her amours to her own sex" and "firmly identified as lesbian." Her great loves included the American poet Natalie Barney and the femme fatale Marchesa Luisa Casati. Later luminaries whose lives became entwined with the romantic isle off the Amalfi Coast include Joseph Conrad, whose short story "Il conde," set in Naples, has an undeniable homo subtext; D.H. Lawrence, Rainer Maria Rilke, Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Lenin himself. By mid-century, Fascism took its turn as houseguest in Capri. Then, after WWII, it became an important place for the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and by the 1950s, a fashionable playground for film stars. Capri pants became a thing. James' book is part serial biography of all these famous Capri residents, part retelling of the body of Capri-infused literature, part travel writing, part reverie. In addition to its beaches, piazzas and grottos, the reader is also transported, quite unexpectedly, to Swedish forests and the Warsaw ghetto, the better to fill out the lives of those who escaped there. It's an unusual history, of a place and the characters who gave flesh to its spirit. "Pagan Light — Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri" author Jamie James. Photo: Farrar, Straus & Giroux  

The new book "Pagan Light — Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri" by Jamie James (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) appealed to Out There with its cover picture showing the dramatic shoreline of the Italian island. Out this month, the book does convey the natural splendor of Capri, but it turned out to be less a travelogue than a social history of the isle and its place in the Western imagination.

James' catalog of famous Capriot residents goes back to Ancient Rome. Legendary orgies and scandals that followed the emperor Tiberius to his retirement there ensured that "Tiberius in Capri" became "universal shorthand for excessive, perverted sexual license and brutal cruelty." Later, Capri became a popular place of exile for Westerners escaping conformist Victorian society. No surprise, they included men and women who deviated from majority norms of sexual preference. James introduces us to many homosexuals and lesbians, not all of them celebrated.

The early 20th century found more artistic rule-breakers making their holiday on Capri, including the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and dancers of the Ballet Russes, who arrived after performances in nearby Naples; and leaders of the Italian Futurist movement, who, despite their macho reputation, are revealed as sentimentalists in their embrace of the island's ethos. Finding themselves surrounded by open and flamboyant homosexuals, the Futurists treated them as "spoiled milksops, ridiculous in their obsession with grooming and wardrobe, not as dangerous enemies."

There follows an extended mini-biography of lesbian portrait painter Romaine Brooks, who found her homosexual husband John Brooks on Capri, "a male chum with whom she could pursue traditionally masculine activities." When she matured, Brooks "confined her amours to her own sex" and "firmly identified as lesbian." Her great loves included the American poet Natalie Barney and the femme fatale Marchesa Luisa Casati.

Later luminaries whose lives became entwined with the romantic isle off the Amalfi Coast include Joseph Conrad, whose short story "Il conde," set in Naples, has an undeniable homo subtext; D.H. Lawrence, Rainer Maria Rilke, Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Lenin himself. By mid-century, Fascism took its turn as houseguest in Capri. Then, after WWII, it became an important place for the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and by the 1950s, a fashionable playground for film stars. Capri pants became a thing.

James' book is part serial biography of all these famous Capri residents, part retelling of the body of Capri-infused literature, part travel writing, part reverie. In addition to its beaches, piazzas and grottos, the reader is also transported, quite unexpectedly, to Swedish forests and the Warsaw ghetto, the better to fill out the lives of those who escaped there. It's an unusual history, of a place and the characters who gave flesh to its spirit.

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