‘Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri’ by Jamie James
Author: Steve Susoyev
July 25, 2019
Just beneath a decorous surface, Jamie James has given us a 2000-year chronicle of depravity, joy, and anguish on a tiny limestone island. A bit deeper still, we find loosely connected, sometimes penetrating biographies that comprise a scholarly history. Readers who are led by the title to expect a pleasantly innocuous travel guide will be surprised, possibly even a bit shocked, by this multifaceted book, which includes the accounts of the likely suicides of two of Europe’s wealthiest men.
Barely a half hour by ferry from the Bay of Naples, with a legendary view of Mt. Vesuvius, Capri certainly lives up to its claims of beauty. Charming historic villas, their walls festooned with flowering vines, cover its steep hills, and noteworthy ruins attract admirers of ancient Rome. Generations of painters have cherished the island’s ambient light. And some of the most popular portrait models of the 19th and 20th centuries lived on Capri; personal beauty counts, too.
But here James spends much more time exploring the freedom than the beauty he cites in his book’s secondary title. Largely but not exclusively, he means the liberty to engage on this island in behavior that throughout history, in many places, has been punishable by death. Boring people tend not to exile themselves to rocky islands, but even among the intriguing personalities we encounter in Capri, some individuals prove more extravagantly memorable than others. Many of the characters in James’s account came to the island as literal fugitives, accused or convicted in their home countries of morals offenses. The author does his best to give equal time to people who over the centuries have sailed to Capri with no scandals trailing them, seeking only to be left alone to love whom they loved, and even a few who came simply for the sake of art.
Far ahead of other nations, Italy in 1889 repealed its laws against homosexual acts. But on the mainland, private behavior continued to be restrained by religion and custom. After Oscar Wilde’s humiliating downfall chilled the air throughout Europe for men who loved men, largely closeted celebrities like Somerset Maugham visited their friends’ villas in Capri. Many other high-profile individuals were considerably less closeted—including the German steel tycoon Friedrich Alfred “Fritz” Krupp, who in 1900 built a steep switchback path guarded by a locked gate, leading to a hidden grotto that he called the holy place of a secret fraternity. There he routinely presided over reenactments of the “Orgy of Tiberius.” Quantities of opium and cocaine arrived on the island through well-established networks.
A few pages in, the disciplined scholar steps up and clears his throat. Wearing the modest mantle of “freelance writer,” he serves as a historian of the most reliable sort: Acknowledging that many ancient puzzles, and more than a few modern ones, will never be solved, he examines various interpretations of the available records and doesn’t burden himself or his readers with claims of having unearthed absolute truth. After guiding us with sagacious wit through conflicting theories concerning who did what to whom, he states, “We’ll never know…” and moves on to further ambiguities and even to a few answerable questions.
Among the mysteries is what Fritz Krupp did after he was “asked to leave” the island. The industrialist’s rumored saturnalia involving local youth were too much even for permissive Capri. A different kind of writer would recount the orgies; James simply tells us “there is no evidence that he had sexual relations with minors.” But Krupp had made local enemies. After his return to Berlin, his wife received anonymous letters accompanied by Italian newspaper clippings alleging sexual atrocities. Krupp had not confined his escapades with men to Capri, and the German press began a campaign to expose his homosexuality. Under notorious Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, he could have been imprisoned for several years, in spite of his close friendship with Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser had Krupp’s wife confined in an insane asylum, presumably to keep her quiet, though James declines to speculate about the Kaiser’s motives. Most writers conclude that Krupp’s death soon thereafter was at his own hand. James reports only that Krupp was found dead, “apparently by suicide.”
After all this, the zigzagging trail to the secret grotto retains the name “Via Krupp,” and a popular women’s fragrance currently marketed in Europe is called “Via Krupp Capri.”
The straight-washing of history throughout the centuries has caused young LGBTQ people of successive generations to suffer under the misconception that “I’m the first person who ever had these kinds of thoughts and feelings.” John Boswell, in his groundbreaking 1980 masterwork Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, was among the first historians to begin neutralizing this ancient curse. Since Boswell, some LGBTQ writers have been accused of amending history to claim as one of us any individual whose vivid personality stood out in the herd. James acknowledges this concern, and allays any apprehension that he might be negligently painting historical figures with a lavender brush. “A soupçon of homosexuality was fashionable in the salons of turn of the century Paris,” he writes, “rather as it was for rock stars in the 1970s, endowing the male with an exciting dash of danger.” James is content to treat anyone in Capri as heterosexual when the individual’s own journals and letters, or any off-island court convictions, don’t confirm homosexual relationships, even if the individual in question, like Mick Jagger or David Bowie in the 1970s, was imbued with the soupçon.
Despite some titillation, Pagan Light is valuable to scholars, providing resources that direct academic readers toward in-depth study. We read snatches of poetry and excerpts from letters, diaries, novels, and chronicles produced over two millennia. Most of the translation—from Latin, Greek, Italian, French, German—is James’s own. The authors of some of his cited source materials created exhaustive histories of Capri during various periods. From my own limited study, their work, although thorough, appears to lack the vibrancy of his.
In Pagan Light and elsewhere, James pursues a particular interest in the experience of men accused of their home countries’ versions of contributing to the delinquency of minors, and he conducts a comparative analysis of their fates under different legal systems. On Capri, barely a mile wide and not quite four miles long, where we can’t imagine anyone has ever enjoyed much privacy, people appear to have been left more or less alone to pursue love and pleasure in their own ways—with the stark exception of Fritz Krupp.
Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, exiled his daughter Julia in 2 BC to an island even smaller than Capri, where he had a palace, as punishment for her licentious adulteries. His stepson and eventual successor, Tiberius, happened to be Julia’s cuckolded husband, and was either the world’s most savagely depraved despot or the victim of history’s foulest slander campaign. Tiberius ruled Rome in absentia from the island for 10 years. “Tiberius in Capri,” James notes, “was universal shorthand for excessive, perverted sexual license and brutal cruelty.” In succeeding centuries, travelers from every continent found their way to the island, captivated by the work of writers who promoted Capri’s reputation as Europe’s epicenter of immorality. By 1897, when Oscar Wilde dropped in with his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas, visitors had adopted a “blame it on Capri” excuse for their worst behavior.
James cites the rather chaste portrayal of Tiberius in the BBC series I, Claudius, and the novel on which it was based, which in turn was derived from the anything-but-chaste representations produced by the ancient writers. His conclusion: “Readers in 1934 and television viewers in 1976 were not as receptive to scenes of raunchy sex as were the readers of imperial annals in the second century.”
The distinguished personages who retreated to Capri to live in freedom are beyond counting. Readers will find many personalities with whom to identify or at least to empathize, including the man who gave “Pagan Light” its name. Norman Douglas, a Scottish lord, was dismissed from diplomatic service in St. Petersburg when a sexual scandal offended his Russian hosts. Later, during World War I, he abruptly sailed to Capri after he provoked a fresh scandal in Britain by skipping bail on a charge of “indecent assault” on a 16-year-old boy. On and off until his death in 1952, he lived in Capri, where he wrote a best-selling novel, South Wind, whose characters refer to the island’s “pagan light.”
With his measured tone and bemused skepticism about the lurid claims of certain writers, James confirms that he is not drawing us into a tangle of rumors. Suetonius for 18 centuries was generally discredited by his successor historians for a fabulist narrative: Augustus collected the bones of monsters! The more sober Tacitus has been considered the reliable reporter: the New York Times historian of record contrasted with Suetonius, the Roman National Enquirer.
James enjoys reminding us that nothing is as simple as it appears. Reliable Tacitus wrote that Tiberius built twelve palaces in Capri, but archaeologists have verified the remnants of only two. Meanwhile, Augustus’s palace grounds turn out to hold Pleistocene tools and the bones of mastodons and pygmy elephants, in what amounts to the first emperor’s personal natural history museum, confirming Suetonius’s “monsters” narrative.
Against this background, James tempts us to believe just about anything we want to believe, then shows us that people have succumbed to this seduction throughout Capri’s history. We will never know if Tiberius in fact forced condemned prisoners to jump into the Tyrrhenian Sea from a towering cliff. But the Salto di Tiberio, “Tiberius’s Leap,” is a popular tourist destination and the story is just too juicy to die. Did the emperor feign affection for political rivals, get them drunk on copious amounts of wine, then order his guards to bind them and tie off their penises with cord, causing them to fear their bladders would burst? Again, we’ll never know, but the legend will live on. In a gruesome case of life imitating speculative history, the serial killer Gille de Rais, a 15th-century French knight who confessed to sodomizing, torturing, and murdering over 140 children, declared that he was inspired by Suetonius’s biography of Tiberius.
James endeavors at some length to conceptualize the life of one particular refugee in Capri, the writer Baron Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen. Fersen moved to the island in 1904 at age 24, after his conviction in France of “inciting minors to debauchery.” James writes, “Like many another exile in Capri, Fersen had fled to the island to escape obloquy in his native land on account of his erotic fixation with adolescent boys.” At the end of his five-month jail term, Fersen’s family suggested he move to Sweden. His Swedish relatives demurred, recommending America or Australia. “He chose Capri,” James tells us simply, with no need to embellish. In Capri, accompanied by his lover Antonio “Nino” Cesarini, whom he hired as his secretary in Rome when Nino was 14, Fersen built an elaborate villa and wrote extensively for 20 years, inspiring artists and writers throughout the early 20th century despite his deepening dependence on opium and cocaine.
Nino modeled for visiting sculptors, photographers, and painters, including Paul Hoecker, a founder of the influential Munich Secession who visited Capri between scandals of his own in Germany. Eight of the book’s 30 stunning photographs feature Fersen, Nino Cesarini, or the grounds of Fersen’s Villa Lysis.
James admires aspects of Fersen’s writing, and his special attention to the baron emphasizes our ongoing debate concerning whether society should “separate the art from the artist”: “There is scant leeway,” James writes, “for artists of the past who failed to adhere to the prevalent moral standards of the present day.” Fersen’s “private behavior was controversial in his lifetime and repellent by contemporary mores.” Fersen’s suspected suicide, from an overdose of cocaine dissolved in champagne, assures a modern judgment of his moral inferiority.
Acknowledging that “It is more difficult to sympathize with those whose suffering is self-inflicted,” James argues that Fersen’s work deserves new consideration not least because “he displays a certain boldness, even bravery, by portraying love between men… openly” while Henry James, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence were “writing in code.” Thanks to their coded language, those writers remain famous a hundred years after their time, while Fersen and his work are known almost exclusively to students of scandal. The only English translation of his best-known work, the 1905 satirical novel Black Masses: Lord Lyllian, was published in a limited centennial edition of 500. Elysium Press in Vermont, dedicated to preserving the work of “gay authors of the last century whose work has been neglected or overlooked by the commercial trade,” carries a catalogue of 17 of Fersen’s books in French. Elysium’s owner, David Deiss, thought Black Masses was important enough that he took on the English translation himself, though, as he explained to me in an email, “translation was a challenge as Fersen was heavily into opium when he wrote the book and it was challenging to make sense of a ‘non-linear’ narrative written in a cloud.”
Two American contemporaries of Oscar Wilde who are universally admired today, Thomas Spencer Jerome and Charles L. Freer, shared a villa on Capri for 15 years and were widely thought to be a couple. Jerome, a Detroit lawyer, amassed hundreds of volumes and devoted himself to reconsidering the legacy of Tiberius. Freer, an American railroad magnate who retired at 47, collected over 1,000 paintings by James McNeill Whistler and made Whistler a household name. The Charles L. Freer gallery at the Smithsonian, which showcases Freer’s distinguished collection of Asian art, also exhibits many of the photographs that Freer took in Capri during his years with Jerome. In his distinctive “we’ll never know…” manner, James comments, “a recent Italian biographer has argued” that Jerome and Freer had a sexual affair, “but because the issue cannot be settled, it need not detain us.”
James has befriended the island’s parish priest, Don Vincenzo Simeoli, from whom we learn a good deal about Capri’s archaeology and literature, its ancient and modern politics, outside the realm of sexual disgrace. Many of the expatriates who settled in Capri over the centuries, celebrating the liberty at last to be themselves, created marvelous bodies of artistic work. Among these was the American painter John Singer Sargent, who arrived on the island in 1877, during his early twenties, shortly after his phenomenal success at the Paris Salon. In Capri he met Rosina Ferrara, a local girl who became his muse and model as he perfected his skills as a portraitist.
Another American painter, Romaine Brooks, also found freedom and inspiration in Capri, and met and married a slacker—a financially dependent gay man whose presence in her life released her from her overbearing family. Her husband John Brooks’s great accomplishment on the island involved his long-standing affair with Somerset Maugham. Eventually leaving John with an allowance that allowed him to lounge in Capri, Romaine bolted to London and pursued her career as an artist. A 2000 exhibit of her paintings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts was curated with a focus on how her “identity as a woman and a lesbian impacted her work.” The only woman whom James includes at any length in his profiles, Brooks stands out for her independence and boldness. “Romaine,” he writes, “after her experiences as the only female student in her life-drawing classes, had long since given up any interest in satisfying the expectation of proper behavior for ladies in Edwardian society.” She found love in a number of anything-but-discreet romances with powerful, interesting women, including the heiress of the Singer sewing machine fortune. This lover, conveniently, also had married a gay man who expected little from her other than an allowance that underwrote his musical career.
James does briefly profile other residents and visitors to Capri whose lives were relatively scandal-free—including Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Pablo Neruda, D. H. Lawrence and Maxim Gorky. Gorky lived in Capri for seven years, and hosted Lenin there for marathon chess games; with the freedom he enjoyed on the island, his writings condemned the repressive regime into which his beloved Bolshevik revolution had devolved, and he engaged in an acerbic literary debate with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
A background character in Pagan Light is the much-lamented death of Capri’s romantic past. The island is so overrun by tourists that Capri’s mayor proposed in 2017 to limit the number of daily ferry trips to and from the mainland. But, in his optimistic tone, James points out that Capri’s roads and paths are well maintained and the food is reliably good.
James has referred to his 2016 book The Glamour of Strangeness as a global survey of artists and writers who “roam the world in search of the home they never had in the place that made them.” This search is among the phenomena that seem to intrigue him most. Capri, of all the places in which people have sought freedom to be themselves, has attracted more than its share of misfits, sexual outlaws, and geniuses.
In 1995, James traveled to Jakarta to profile Indonesia’s most admired novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, for The New Yorker. He fell in love both with the place and with a man named Rendy, and they have shared a life these 24 years. When they met, James couldn’t sponsor Rendy for U.S. residency because of then-existing restrictions on immigration for same-sex couples, further complicated by Rendy’s Muslim heritage. The world may not need a Capri when two men can marry in Houston, but James, born in Texas, is now comfortably established near Bali, and his and Rendy’s restaurant businesses are thriving. Although marriage equality has become the law in the U.S., James seems happy to visit us only on book tours.
Pagan Light: Dreams of Freedom and Beauty in Capri
By Jamie James
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374142766, 336 pp.