Worth the Read -The Story of San Michele

by on March 1st, 2015
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Axel Munthe

(1857-1949)

E.P. Dutton & Co. New York

First edition 1929

my copy 1937, 121st printing

Nineteen thirty-seven, nine years after the first edition was published, the rear jacket panel on my copy reads, 121st printing. In reality that is all a review needs to say. The Story of San Michele is an autobiography, mingled with history, steeped in a romance, adorned with the Mediterranean sun. It is not only about a mans life, it is a guidepost for a life.

Dr. Axel Munthe was born and raised in Sweden, he studied medicine in France. Upon completion he opened a practice in Paris. In 1884 he found himself in Naples assisting with a cholera outbreak. In 1887, he managed to buy the ruins of the villa that became his San Michele, a place he visited in his youth, along the Phoenician steps near the village of Anacapri.

During his time in Naples he began writing letters home describing the epidemic and resulting poverty. Some of these letters were published under the heading “Letters from Napoli’, firmly establishing his writing career.

At the outset of World War One, he left his home in France and immigrated to England, Henry James was his sponsor. Guy de Maupassant was his friend. He lead his doctors life. He became a physician to Royalty and worked with the French Red Cross at hospitals in France and in London. His travels brought him through Monte Carlo as well as Russia.

Munthe writes with enthusiasm, with humor and irony, he is sometimes provocative. He unfolds life’s little pleasures and allows those who visit a chance to appreciate them. This masterpiece brings with it the sense of an archeological expedition. Unearthing the mosaic walks, trod by both noblemen and servants alike and now serving as cool pathways along marble columns, firey bougainvillea please the eyes, while the scent of lime comes from trees carefully tended. It is a story of a life, a project powered by devotion. A story of a mans garden tilled from the soil which yielded busts from Roman emperors and hidden frescos.

Dr. Munthe traveled widely, he collected art and antiquities. He healed, he failed to heal, and he cast his lot with the gods, amongst the ruins of Imperial Rome, his view – from the ancient site of Roman Emperor Tiberius’ villa, the Tyrrhenian Sea, in the sunlight of the Isle of Capri.


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