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Axel Munthe on Capri 1888-1889


Axel Munthe was born in Oskarshamn in 1857 and died in the Royal Palace of Stockholm in 1949. He had by then lived outside Sweden for 67 years and had had such a singular a career that he could have made his own the last words uttered by Charles XIV John: ”No one has followed a path like mine.”

Munthe was a man of paradoxes.
Having qualified as a doctor of medicine at the Sorbonne aged 22 (the youngest on record in France), he soon became one of the most successful doctors of his time, with a reputation as a worker of miracles. Among his patients were members of the upper classes and aristocracy of both Europe and America, but he also worked amongst the poor in Paris, Rome and Naples.

The newspaper report he wrote about his work in cholera-stricken Naples in the autumn of 1884 made him famous at a stroke. However, he was not a professional writer, and his real success only followed 45 years later. The Story of San Michele was published in 1929 and became one of the most successful books of the 20th century. It was written in English, has been translated into a large number of other languages and new editions are still being printed.

Munthe was not an architect, but on Capri he caused to be built one of the most famous villas of Europe: Villa San Michele, which has been described by experts as a work of architectural genius.
He was a fervent anglophile, but his favorite philosopher was Schopenhauer, his favorite poet Heine, his favorite composers were Schubert, Wagner, Schumann and Hugo Wolf. And despite his republican outlook on life, his most important patient was not only royal and German born, but also strongly German-orientated.
Munthe’s relationship with Crown Princess Victoria, from 1907 Queen of Sweden, plays a central part in his biography. He was not only her personal physician, but also her closest friend and confidant. Munthe’s importance to both her physical and moral well-being cannot be sufficiently underlined. His contribution to Victoria’s health was due to psychological insights which, however, were not present in his personal relationships. He was married twice, first to Ultima Hornberg, then to Hilda Pennington Mellor who bore him two sons. The first marriage ended in divorce, the second with marital separation.

The continuing great interest in Munthe is explained by the abundance of his talents and the contradictory nature of his character. ”The man from Ultima Thule is an incurable idealist, a vague dreamer, a mute poet whose heart holds an unwritten paean to the Sun”. Thus wrote Axel Munthe in the preface to the Italian edition of The Story of San Michele and he continued with a paradox: ”The Southerner is a realist, the blood that courses in his veins is hotter, but his head is cooler than that of people of the North. He is passionate, even violent in love and hatred, but he is no enthusiast.”
But that was Axel Munthe.

- Bengt Jangfeldt, biographer of Axel Munthe