The new paladin of Villa San Michele

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text Marilena D’Ambro

He is the former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs during Monti’s government, special envoy for ONU in Iraq. In forty-two years of diplomatic career, he worked in nineteen conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and former Jugoslavia.
201409-14After having travelled the world, Staffan de Mistura was nominated honorary consul of Sweden and director of Villa San Michele in Anacapri. During the bombardments in Baghdad and the siege of Sarajevo, he was sure of one thing: the return to home. A home called Capri and Villa San Michele. The birds’ singing welcomes me in Villa San Michele, the Swedish doctor Axel Munthe’s house, who first arrived in Capri in 1885. He rushed to Naples the year before to cure cholera. On the piece of land at the end of Anacapri, there were the ruins of an old chapel dedicated to San Michele. There the young Munthe build his place, nowadays museum that tells tourists about the essential facts of his life, it hosts statues, sarcophaguses and columns, surrounded by one of the most beautiful gardens of Italy. While walking to the “Cafè Casa Oliv” I notice the Egyptian Sphinx in the chapel that looks upon the island, it looks almost alive when the sunrise lights up its stony eyes. The legend says you get good luck by touching it. Millions of hands have been made its granitic body smooth. I drink my coffee listening to a retro background music. The furniture from the 50s takes me back in time, to a Capri I have only heard of. An Axel Munthe’s portrait on the wall from the beginning of 1900 looks at me. It is natural for me to think about Oscar Wilde, one the many famous guests who found hospitality here after he and his lover Alfred Douglas had been expelled from the Quisisana between 16 and 18 October. After they scandalized everybody for their homosexual relationship. The stream of my thoughts is stopped by a gentle and safe voice. It is the consul Staffan de Mistura who leads me to the sunny terrace of the cafeteria. We sit at one of the little wooden tables. The singing cicadas and the smelling flowers make the environment even cozier. The consul is sitting gently and he looks like he loves the peaceful feeling surrounding these timeless places. He is sophisticatedly elegant. His blue blazer reminds of the sea of Capri, the buttons in mother-of-pearl reflect colours and shades, maybe they are souvenirs from one of his many travels. He has a pin on his collar that is framed in gold strings and it is a miniature of the Italian and the Swedish flags, symbol of the bond of his origins. He was born is Stockholm in 1947 and son of a Swedish mother and an Italian father, he first arrived in Capri when he was four-yearsold. “It was 1951. My parents took few sabbatical years in Capri because they read Axel Munthe’s book “The Story of San Michele” and they fell in love with it. We lived in Villa Genoveffa in Tiberio. Seven years of happiness. My mother, marchioness Brigit de Mistura, was loved my local people. At the bar Alberto there is still a commemorative tile for her memory. My father was nicknamed “the crazy marquise of the water” because he thought there was a spring on Monte Solaro”. He travels in time. “I went to elementary school in the former convent of Santa Teresa and I remember with affection all my classmates. I love gather with them for a reunion, among them there is Peppino Di Stefano, Costanzo Canfora and Carlo Talamona, my deskmate”. While he is talking, his eyes shine and they look like his eyes when he was young, someone who saw Capri as a green land and a mysterious territory to explore. I ask him which his most significant memory about Capri is, he answers with three of them. “The first one is the most intense one and it is about the first time I swam at the Scoglio delle Sirene, where all kids used to go. The second is the games of that time like marbles in the courtyard next to the school. The third one is about my little dog Gioia who used come to pick me up when class was over and we used to go back home happily taking the uphill walk of Tiberio without feeling tired”. Staffan de Mistura spent his youth away from Capri, then he started his diplomatic career which brought him in many dangerous zones where the sound of weapons was louder. In these moments of death and pain, he realizes that Capri is his safe haven in his soul, his anchor in a world that seems rough sea, but he also figures out a more important aspect that many people look for without finding it: the true value of life. “I chose to be an international fireman wherever there were difficulties and tensions. In the darkest moments, there have been many of them, from the Mogadishu’s days to the attacks in Kabul, I had reasons not to give up. One of them was the strength, the courage and the determination of the local population who always showed me how to look at the best in the worst; the other reason was the nostalgia, the dream and the hope to go back to Capri and make up my eyes and my soul, and above all to have the peace I needed to write my memories. These two things gave me strength and they still do to face the difficulties of a fireman seeing too much fire, too many burned houses, hoping he could save at least one of them”. His voice is far, his mind goes back to those places made of sand and ash. He crosses his arms like he tries to embrace himself and the traits of his face look like they found harmony again. I think that between Staffan de Mistura and Axel Munthe, the most famous doctor of Sweden, there is more than just one thing in common: a life spent to help people in trouble, the love for animals, Sweden in the blood and Capri in the heart. “What would you tell Axel, if he were still alive? ”. I see him smiling. “I would say thank you for nursing for free those in need in Capri and in Naples and thank you for being one of the firsts who protected nature at all costs. Today the mountain hosting Barbarossa’s castle, in some of the room, there’s a little ornithological station, allowing birds from Africa to pass by this magic “airport”, stop and fly towards North, filling the rest of Europe with their singings after having rested on the island”. He touches his rebel hair. “My commitment is to make Villa San Michele a reference point where young guys, especially from Capri, can get inspiration from, but also a meeting point for people coming from every corner of the world through international conventions, symposiums and concerts at sunset. The Foundation Axel Munthe and I want to give a precious contribute to the island and to the world”. The consul is aware of being the keeper of the heritage of the important Swedish doctor and writer. “I feel a great responsibility and pride knowing that Axel Munthe, who loved Capri, succeeded in creating such a small paradise which I am sure it will stay intact thanks to the cooperation among the Foundation, the town of Anacapri and all the inhabitants of Capri. I have a feeling that whenever local people come here, they remember Capri as it was, its houses, his gardens and how it could return to be”. A gentle breeze brings the smell of the evergreen garden that preserves refined flowers and rare species. In fact Capri is not only a delight for the eyes but all five senses can enjoy it. “The smell of the brooms – says the consul – is a very delicate scent, but it is unmistakable, linked to something that cannot be planted or transplanted, just like Capri that is not plantable, transplantable, duplicated, just like the great hospitality of the island. It is unique in its own way and it make you feel important because, living here, you feel part of something exclusive”. Staffan de Mistura did not come to Capri by himself. There is also his wife, Genevieve, a very elegant woman and his life partner. “We met in Italy. She is an internal designer and she is touched by everything beautiful both inside and outside the house. Moreover she is a patient and brave woman, or else she would have never followed me all around the world in dangerous and impossible places. She is captivated by Capri and San Michele. She is a supporter of whatever is biological. Here she is growing many biological products”. While shaking the consul’s hand, his personality comes out, the one of a man who lived unique stories, testimony of history, a man who lived his life fully and decided to donate his knowledge and his experience to the community, with humility and serenity of someone who overcame complicated moments.

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