The garden in San Michele is on a plateau about 300 meters above sea level, with a view over the Gulf of Naples, the Sorrento Peninsula, with the volcano Mount Vesuvius in the distance. On a clear day you can see the island Ischia to the north.
The garden is not large, but it is abundant with plants of many colours and on several levels. A spectrum of flowers in strong shades provides life and colour in contrast to the unobtrusive vegetation of cypresses, arborvitae, ivy, boxwood, and moss.
The most remarkable thing about the garden is the lovely open loggia with white columns that follows the edge of the cliff with a wonderful view over sea and sky.
From Axel Munthe’s Venetian salon the doors open to the garden and to the sculpture loggia where the bronze statue of the Messenger of the Gods” Hermes catches the eye. The floor of the loggia is richly decorated in patterns of marble and stone in different shades. On the right there is an open patio with a dwarf palm and a little pond. Behind the statue of Hermes (the original is in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples) the open loggia begins to follow the edge of the garden towards the cliff to the north. On the other side rises Monte Barbarossa, also part of Munthe’s property. The open loggia with its columns is covered by a wooden trellis where a flourishing Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) spreads out its scraggy branches. The wisteria’s violet catkin of flowers usually blossoms in May. This is a month later than on the southern side of the island of Capri, which says something about the micro-climate in the garden. The flowers hang through the trellis, casting a dreamy atmosphere over the loggia.
Along the walk of irregular limestone tiles there are low terracotta pots filled with the season’s annuals, as well as bulbs such as hyacinths and tulips. The plants in the pots are changed several times during the season, and often have strong colours. On the right side of the walk grow hydrangeas, Hydrangea aspera strigosa, H. macrophylla, with lovely blossom clusters whose shades are determined by the minerals in the soil. The flowers vary in shades of blue or pink. Behind them can be glimpsed a large Leopard Plant bush Farfugium.
Farther along, on the right side luxuriant clumps of shiny spear-shaped leaves hang over the edge. This is the African Lily Agapanthus africanus, which when it blooms has large blue balls on tall stalks. If you continue to walk though the loggia it opens to a fantastic view framed by two columns covered with Lady Banks' Rose Rosa banksiae.
A few steps lead up to the chapel on the upper level. From there you come to the garden’s best viewpoint, where the sphinx of Egyptian granite looks out into the blue. The view is indescribable. If the eye can no longer take the strong sunlight, you can look downwards, towards the ferry berth and the village of Grande Marina. The wooden trellises protecting the cultivation below look like a square meshing when seen from above.
The current gardener Raffaele Scarpato took over responsibility for the garden from his Uncle Antonio. Raffaele gets up early in the morning, two hours before the first visitors arrive, to rake, weed and water.
There is an automatic underground irrigation system but some areas need to be watered by hand. The water comes from a cistern filled with rainwater and it is rich in calcium. The part of the garden Raffaele is most proud of is the area around the little twisting brook. Several kinds of palms, camellias, and giant yuccas Yucca elephantipes grow here. The ground is covered by Angel’s Tears Soleirolia soleirolii. On the wall behind, ivy Hedera helix creeps, but the Pittosporum Pittosporum tobira with its shiny and well-formed leaves also enjoys the warmth retained in the stones.
In the spring tulips, daffodils, anemones, hyacinths, freesia, violets, petunias and irises bloom in the garden. In the summer Raffaele plants marigolds, begonias, slipperwort and veronica. In the winter cyclamen and primulas among the evergreen trees and bushes. Like red exclamation marks the canna Canna generalis stand up with their dark patterned leaves and elegant tall flowers. The red flowers of the year old plants also light up the dark patches of the garden where only scattered sunlight breaks through the covering branches.
Despite the restricted space there are many trees in San Michele’s garden, of which many are common in the Mediterranean area, such as the pines with their umbrella shaped crowns Pinus halepensis, p. pinaster, p. pinea. Cedar of Lebanon Cedrus libani, (långblads) acacia Akacia longifolia, cypresses Cupressus sempervirens and c. arizonica fastigiata, Bay Laurels Laurus nobilis and olive trees Olea europaea. But there are also pomegranates Punica granatum with orange-red knobby fruit and the Asian magnolia Magnolia soulangeana, which is the world’s oldest blooming tree. The magnolia unfolds its flowers from a soft “hairy” covering in the spring, long before the tree sprouts its leaves.
A narrow path lined by pillar-like cypresses Cupressus var. sempervirens slopes down towards the house. In the adjacent greenery stand antiquities from Munthe’s collection. Here can be found rubber trees Ficus elastica, oleanders Nerium oleander, Adam's needle Yucca filamentosa, Sago Palms Cycas revoluta, and several varieties of camellias Camellia japonica.
Two birches Betula pendula, common in Scandinavian, were a gift to San Michele under the previous manager Josef Oliv. One of the birches has survived and is planted in the middle of the garden. It shades a bust (designed by the Swede Karl-Gustav Ekberg) representing Royal Physician Axel Munthe, which stands on a column.
The survival of the birch, so far from “home” is something of a miracle. The birch requires plentiful water, and the two trees spent their first three winters in the freezer at San Michele and were planted outside in the summers, following advice from a botanist.
The birch that has survived sprouts its green serrated leaves every year around March 19 (Josef’s saint’s day in the Swedish calendar). The birch is in the distinguished company of a palm and a camellia bush.
On the way out of the garden I pass a little area with a few orange trees and a pistachio tree standing in soft moss together with one of the antiquities. It is a completely wonderful still life.
Journalist and author