When Axel Munthe spent the night in a little cabin after visiting his friends in Lappland, in the morning his host Anders is warily looking at the tracks in the snow outside Munthe’s window.
During the night a wolf and a bear have been there. An owl hooted all night and a loon kept calling from a mountain lake.
I don’t understand this at all, ordinarily the forest is as quiet as the grave after dark,’ says Uncle Anders.
It wasn’t just animals that mysteriously and inexplicably were drawn to Dr. Axel Munthe, he also had a powerful attraction on Man.
Whether he sets up practice in Rome or Paris, his waiting room is filled with an never-ending stream of high society patients from the entire world. Munthe becomes the fashionable doctor.
What was this power that he exuded that healed and gave relief, usually for neurological disorders? What was his mysterious secret?
The youngest of three children, he spent his first ten years in Småland. He was born on October 31, 1857 and his father was a pharmacist. Both of his parents were artistic, a gift inherited by all three children. Axel demonstrates this later in life when he begins to write, including his bestseller ”The Story of San Michele” which was first published in 1929 followed by many later editions. The portrayal is captivating.
You’re drawn into his sometimes strenuous desire to realize his dream of beauty –building San Michele, and you suffer with him in the shifting destinies he so warmly brings to life.
He is also a skilled guitarist and pianist and entertains his friends with both songs and improvisation.
His cousin, Sofia Lund, describes him as obstinate, full of pranks, and having a strong interest in animals. Munthe’s father was very strict and their family life was strongly religious - an impression whose questions of life and death follow him through-out his life, and permeate his writing.
One distinctive feature of his childhood was that his wet-nurse was a very special person named Lena.
She was the only person he felt emotionally bound to, and who provided him with small animals like hedgehogs and rats to play with. Believing that it held magical power, she hung a wolf tooth around Axel’s neck, cut the throat of a raven, and sprinkled its blood into Axel’s milk. It isn’t strange that against this background, Munthe regarded trolls, elves and phantoms as just as possible on Earth as humans.
After moving to Stockholm at the age of ten, there followed several years of school during which he failed to distinguish himself.
Until he makes a bet with his father - that he can skip his final year of secondary school and graduate that year - he finishes his studies according to the agreement and graduates with passing grades.
He is then accepted to the School of Medicine at Uppsala University.
There are stories from his student days that he had a warm and generous nature. For example he made speeches that touched his friends’ hearts. He plans to finish his studies and receive his medical degree from Uppsala but is sopped by his poor health. He is sent to the south of France to recuperate, and continues his medical studies there.
Interest in Man and Science lead him to like-minded friends across national borders. The world opens and he takes his first steps into a cosmopolitan life.
This is a challenge that suits his temperament and his interest in the unknown, both cultures and people. This awareness of Europe will affect his entire life. Europe now becomes his home.
At the University of Menton Munthe comes into contact with prominent French doctors like the professor of gynecology Courty, who Munthe studies under in Montpellier. After several years in Montpellier he moves on to Paris to finish his studies at the School of Medicine at the Sorbonne. He interns at the famous La Salpêtrière hopsital where he follows the research of the renowned neurologist Jean Martin Charcot, including his work with hypnosis on mentally instable women. Studies with the well-known surgeon Tillaux at the Hôtel-Dieux clinic contributed to Munthe’s professional education. After short but intensive studies he presents his dissertation in the summer of 1880 and becomes France’s youngest ever medical doctor.
The reason that Munthe finished his studies in record time was a visit to Capri that changed his life forever.
After a long and strenuous hike all the way up to the highest part on the island, he discovers on a cliff a crumbled the chapel of San Michele, and is captivated by the boundless view of the Gulf of Naples.
He falls in love with the place and decides to find the money to make the chapel and the surrounding property his.
There he intends to build his future home. With his life-long love for Italy, Capri and its inhabitants, Munthe’s San Michele is finished twenty years later, and becomes his second home. This truly beautiful place today welcomes visitors from all over the world.
In this way Munthe’s spirit lives on, like a breeze sweeping through the columns of the white villa high up on the cliff ni Anacapri.
Back in Paris he opens a practice and builds up a circle of patients that slowly increases. Every time he is free he returns to Capri and eventually lays the foundation for San Michele. Under the little chapel his finds remnants of the villa of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The ground is filled with these treasures, which will form the nucleus of the collection of antique art that graces San Michele today.
He enjoys this hard physical work. Several of the people of Capri work with him, simple and poor folk who will become Munthe’s friends.
In return he treats the islanders for free. He sees his profession as a sacred calling, and absolutely refuses to ask for payment for his services. His efforts and his charity bring him closer and closer to the people of Capri, who highly value his presence on the island. But it’s not just the people of Capri. His thoughtfulness for others stretches far beyond the shores of the island.
Wherever an epidemic rampages, he is there to offer his medical services, often at a risk to his own life.
His interest and concern for living creatures helps him gain deep insights into human nature and human circumstances. He is also often generous and charitable to the needy, animal or human. It seems as if at times he prefers the company of the poor and the sick, above all through his practice, treating his ordinary patients.
At the cabin in Lappland he sees an article about the cholera epidemic raging through Naples.
He packs immediately and takes the first train to the suffering city, without a thought about any risks to his own health.
His efforts result in acclaim and official citations. Later he writes about his experiences in Naples in a series of articles that are published in ”Stockholms Dagblad” and these are a big success at home.
Munthe debuts as an author, which leads to great international fame, which opens the doors to the literary circles of Paris.
His new circle of acquaintances also extends to members of the Swedish royal family, including Prince Eugen, who is studying painting in Paris.
Munthe becomes the prince’s doctor and they remain good friends. Munthe is appreciated by the aristocrats, both as a companion and as a professional, and soon he is regarded as the greatest doctor in Paris, whose clientele includes both Swedish and foreign aristocracy.
His compassion and his growing psychological insights open doors to everyone’s homes and everyone’s hearts.
He becomes a world citizen with the borderless assignment as Humanity’s closest friend and benefactor, both personally and professionally.
It is his view of man as his equal that invites confidence, not just from people but from every living creature. Dogs and birds can count on having their needs for attention satisfied in the company of Axel Munthe.
His longing for southern climes eventually grows so strong that he decides to move his practice, after a stay on Capri, to Rome. He sets up there in 1890 in a house near the Spanish Steps, where the poet Keats once lived.
With him are his beloved dogs, and a small entourage from Capri consisting of an elderly woman and two young sisters who take care of the household. After opening his practice he soon makes contact with the foreign colony in Rome, including the British diplomatic corps, and Ambassador Lord Dufferin, who becomes his personal friend.
Through Dufferin, Munthe also soon makes contact with the most prominent Roman families, and he is also introduced to the Italian royal family. They too highly value Munthe and as previously in Paris, he successfully installs himself in Rome.
By this time he is regarded as a true cosmopolitan, and his circle of acquaintances stretches across all borders in Europe, both socially and geographically. Axel Munthe is the European personified.
His ability to focus on humanity’s universal dilemmas, his experience in the ways of the world, and his fascination for art and life as a sacrament, a holy act, exerts a powerful attraction on people.
His acquaintance with Prince Eugen leads to the confidence of the Swedish royal family, and he begins to treat Crown Princess Victoria, whose health is unstable. This responsibility would transform the rest of his life.
The acquaintanceship between Munthe and Crown Princess Victoria grows over the years into an intimate friendship. They share common interests, including photography and travel.
When Victoria becomes queen, he becomes her personal physician. The cosmopolitan begins to once again look to the northern latitudes where he started as a young man.
Munthe’s health eventually declines. His eyesight worsens and he can no longer tolerate the strong sunlight of Capri. Despite this he continues to devote himself to his calling. Nearly sixty years old and almost blind, he helps out at the front as a Red Cross doctor during the First World War. He works alongside both French and British soldiers, as if they were his own countrymen.
As the permanent personal physician to Queen Victoria during his later life Axel Munthe spends more of his time in Sweden, and at the Stockholm palace. He has a small apartment at the palace in which he spends the final years of his life. The world citizen has finally come home.
Department of Literature, Stockholm University