Villa Lysis was a subversive and pagan place, testimony to the life of the golden years that Capri lived in the years between the 1800s and the 1900s up to the Grand Tour, when the island became the residence of exiles, disheveled, intellectuals, artists and dandies from several nations.
The story of the Villa is linked to Baron Jacques d’Adelsward Fersen (Paris 1879 – Capri 1923). The eccentric poet and writer reached the italian island in 1904, after being the protagonist of a scandal involving some students in France : this made him ungrateful in the Parisian salons and also compromised his marriage plans with the noblewoman Blanche Maupéou.
He was accused of indecent behavior with minors, served six months in prison, was fined fifty francs and lost his civil rights for five years.
D’Adelsward-Fersen’s fortune was that other celebrities in view of the Parisian high society also took part in these parties, which more or less put pressure on the judges to drop some of the charges, to reduce the impact of the scandal.
This was perhaps the moment when the baron remembered Capri, already visited at seventeen during a tour of Mediterranean Italy. It seemed to him, from memories, the right place to repair, an enchanted island full of promise of a life free from the rigid social constraints he was used to, a refuge far from everyone and the only one who could preserve his delicate intimacy , already put to shame.
He bought a large plot of twelve thousand square meters located on top of a hill near the place where, two millennia before, the Roman emperor Tiberius had built Villa Jovis and with the help of his scenographer friend Edouard Chimot began the construction of what will be destined to become a kind of temple dedicated “to youth and love”.
The dwelling, initially called Villa La Gloriette and later becoming Villa Lysis, named after Liside, a disciple of Socrates, turned out to be a three-storey building dominated by white, a color he loved to dress himself, with terraces overlooking the sea, enriched with marbles , stuccos, polychrome stained-glass windows, Corinthian columns decorated with gold tesserae, which supported an imposing lintel on which was the Latin inscription that Fersen wanted to welcome to his guests and that well represented the spirit with which the baron lived this place: Amori et dolori sacrum, (sacred place of love and pain).
While the Villa was under construction, Fersen left for Ceylon; on this remote island he was fascinated by the sense of oblivion given by opium.
The luxurious furnishings were purchased in Paris and in the East. In Hong Kong, Fersen acquired an incredible collection of three hundred opium pipes, in gold, silver, ivory and semi-precious stones that went to furnish what was the real heart of the house: the Chinese Chamber or Opiarium. In this room, among oriental screens and impalpable silks, vases containing the best qualities of the precious drug were placed on silver trays. Increasingly, Jacques took refuge in this place and indulged in the confused dreams of opium.
A precious testimony directed on Baron Jacques d’Adelsward-Fersen has come to us through the memories of Ada Negri, a Lombard poet of the late 1800s, who was her guest in this Capri residence.
So she wrote, in her memoirs: “So we went to Villa Lysis one evening in late May, nothing I knew then of the mysterious life of Jacques de Fersen. We were, if I remember correctly, nine, ten, between men and ladies. The evening was warm, but dark because the moon would rise very late: the road was long, narrow, rocky, dug into the mountain. Walking in the dark, under the stars, we found ourselves in an open space in front of a marble staircase, leading to the Roman portico of the villa; but the entrance door was hidden by a large gold and black curtain. On the stairs Turkish and Persian carpets; on the carpets, branches of roses; a profusion of roses; a torrent of roses. At the top of the stairs, two ancient bronze tripods held some braziers where incense grains burned. The aroma of incense combined with the scent of roses and we do not know which oriental essence permeated the air and gave me dizziness.
Opaque globes of light were cleverly placed between the green and inside the portico. Behind those globes I guessed the grandeur of the park, I breathed in spirit the innocence of the trees. We sat in a semi-circle, on armchairs prepared in the clearing. The illusion of the stage was festive and perfect. Baron Jacques de Fersen firmly believed in that staging, in front of which I did not know whether to laugh or cry. He offered on embossed gold plates jams that had the color and shape of rose petals and his secretary Nino Cesarini, next to him, uncorked and poured champagne “.
In addition to the villa, Fersen also built a large garden with a circular temple from which began a path that led to the sea: from there with a single glance you could embrace Marina Grande and the entire Gulf of Naples.
Once a vineyard, this land was turned into a sort of “pagan” garden with great bewilderment of the local farmers. Only a single laurel was left alive in honor of Apollo and all the plants were chosen as dedicated to one or the other deity: roses and myrtle for Aphrodite, white poplars for Hercules, pomegranates for Hera and ivy for Dionysus. In front of the stairway that extended towards the Gulf of Naples with its gold fluted Corinthian columns, cypresses were finally placed in honor of Hades, god of death and the underworld. A small balustrade bridge connected the two parts of the garden, suspended vertiginously in the void: from there you could see, below, the steep path that led to the cove.
Everywhere in the garden of Fersen statues of fauns and divinities, reminiscent of the ancient gods and on the entrance avenue a priestess of Herculaneum greeted the guests: when the wind blew, rattles scattered in the vegetation tinkled like seductive calls.
The myth lived everywhere recalled by statues and inscriptions: in the pergola closest to the sea, almost overlooking the cliff, there was the niche of a Bacchus boy crowned with ivy and vine leaves; on a terrace surrounded by large magnolias the statue of Pan intent on playing the syringe bore on its pedestal the inscription of D’Annunzio Laus vitae, laetitia terrae. Two thousand years before when Tiberius ruled the empire from his villa Jovis, just above the garden of Fersen, Thamus, an Egyptian pilot of a ship from Greece had brought him the news of Pan’s death. The emperor, hearing the impressive story, asked who he was and was told that he was the Greek god of pastoralism and sexuality, always hunting for nymphs, the voice of all natural creatures. The statue placed by Fersen was therefore a tribute to nature and sexuality as a thrill that animates every aspect of it. That sexuality that shook him and led him to exile in the company of the young Nino in which he saw the image of the ancient ephebes.
Met during a brief stay in Rome, Nino Cesarini was only fifteen years old; the baron was conquered by the beauty of that young mason with an immature and perfect body and noble features. Orphan and in economic hardship Fersen had no difficulty in taking him with him to Capri, promising him protection and education.
Until the outbreak of the First World War, Villa Lysis became a reference point for all the characters who spent long periods in Capri. The eccentric marquise Luisa Casati Stampa, for example, was a regular guest: as a great friend of Fersen, she used to smoke opium with him.
Despite this, with the departure of Nino for the front, Jacques became increasingly lonely and restless; he returned for a period to Paris and Nice, suffered a hospitalization in Naples due to a severe opium intoxication and finally returned to Capri where he fell more and more into drug addiction.
One November evening in 1923, during a furious storm, after smoking in the Chinese room, Jacques poured the entire contents of a small gold box into a glass of champagne: five grams of cocaine. He drank all at once, perhaps mindful of the words attributed to Wilde: “We must leave before the dream ends”. Agonizing he was transported to his room, where he died soon after in the flashes of lightning and the flickering light of the candles. Fersen, was recomposed in the funeral chamber, among pink candles and garlands of flowers.
His coffin, which no priest wanted to bless, was transported to Rome for cremation.
His ashes finally returned to Capri where they still rest in the non-Catholic cemetery.