The 3200-year-old Sphinx is positioned in such a way that its face can only be seen by the birds in the Bay of Naples. Recently a skein of netting – something between surgical mask and mourning veil – has been fastened to protect whatever might be left of its expression. It is only this most recent of its 32 centuries, spent staring into salt winds and the operatic Caprese weather, that has eroded its features. Collie-sized, of Egyptian red granite, it hunkers at the end of a parapet of the Villa San Michele in Anacapri, looking out towards the distant, miniaturised chaos of Marina Grande, where thousands of day-trippers flood in and out by ferry each day.
From the teeming, fairground feel of the port, a funicular whisks passengers up to the central piazza of Capri, to high-end shopping and flotillas of Aperol spritz.
The same fare will get you onto one of the stubby buses that navigate the island’s narrow, jackknifing roads, up the slopes of Mont Solaro to Anacapri.
The prefix ana- in this instance means “up”, or “above”, the smaller commune of Anacapri being at higher elevation. But it just as readily translates to “apart”, and while Anacapri is only 15 minutes’ drive from the island’s eponymous town, the difference is better understood by ascending on foot via Le Scala Fenicia – the thousand-odd Phoenician Steps, hewn from the mountainside and maintained into their third millennia, once the only route between the rival settlements.
Anacapri’s comparatively sleepy town centre might also tout ceramic donkeys, racks of breezy blue and white linen, menus that spruik English more loudly than Italian. But one’s own lonely footsteps echoing across a deserted piazza at 9 o’clock on a Friday night are enough to impress that the Anacaprese lifestyle attracts a different type of visitor.
One might stay in a modest flat on a property shared by several generations. One might wake to the bleating of sheep. And so we do.
It’s in Anacapri that writer Graham Greene chose to sequester himself, shortly after World War II, purchasing a house and wintering here for most of his later years. Claiming to achieve in four weeks “the work of six months elsewhere”, Greene finished several books on the island, although it was never a source of inspiration in any other sense than the relative solitude and focus it afforded, a constructed isolation enhanced by Greene’s wilful obliviousness to both the Italian language and local affairs.
Nearly a decade after Greene’s death, beyond his likely objections, Shirley Hazzard wrote Greene on Capri, a memoir of the choppy, episodic friendship that played out between the two writers during yearly intersections on Capri. Their acquaintance began – as does the book – in Capri’s beloved Gran Caffè, on a rainy December morning in the late 1960s. Hazzard recalls it as a scene from “a real novel, a good novel, an old novel” in which the eavesdropping author supplies Greene with the last lines of a Robert Browning poem he is struggling to recite for a friend.
Unflinching in her depictions of the notoriously antagonistic Englishman, Hazzard sustains a respect complicated by familiarity, placing him in the ranks of Capri’s “sacred monsters” alongside Tiberius, Norman Douglas and other formidable personalities “ultimately drawn into its fabled strangeness, making part of the myth”.
As with all good memoir, Hazzard frequently looks over her subject’s shoulder to conjure the natural world, rendering it with the same exactitude as she does Greene, and to this end Greene on Capri serves as nearest and best to a guidebook; perhaps a few decades out of date, but free of consumption-oriented agenda and prefab itineraries.
The “grand and ultimate indifference of nature”, as Hazzard writes it, prevails, especially on this less-developed side of the island. A three-hour walk on a perfect afternoon between the mediaeval ruins of the Sentiero dei Fortini – Path of Forts – calls for a total of three buonaseras exchanged with other hikers. The comparative quietude is owed partly to the scarcity of beaches on the island’s craggy western edge, access to the water gained by a rocky clamber or a plummet from sheer limestone cliffs.
Arriving on foot at the Grotta Azzurra after tour-boat hours, our plans of illicitly swimming inside are dashed by high-tide waves smashing the rocks, wrenching at the rusted chain used by boatmen to guide vessels through the barely visible opening. The neighbouring snack bar, shuttered up for the day, evokes the weird, anachronistic pathos of an outer-suburban milk bar on a Sunday afternoon.
Parallel to Capri’s ongoing reputation as a hedonistic utopia, there has always been that of sanctuary, way station, homing point. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it harboured an illustrious litany of writers, artists, intellectuals and political exiles that included the likes of Rilke, Gorky and Lenin. Contemporary to such grande personaggi was Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician, animal sympathiser and notorious self-mythologiser, who purportedly built Villa San Michele following the floor plan of a desiccated Tiberian villa. In the 1920s, Munthe acquired Barbarossa Mountain in a bid to provide sanctuary for the island’s migratory birds, negotiating their protection through and beyond the Mussolini years.
The island provides first landfall for many species migrating between Scandinavia and tropical North Africa. Given their periodic density on the small green fleck of island, they were once caught in great numbers and sold as exotic fare, landing on plates across mainland Italy and France.
The Capri Bird Observatory still operates from the ruins of 11th-century Castello Barbarossa, renamed after the 16th-century pirate Redbeard took a shine to it. Since the 1950s, ornithologists have timed their yearly visits to coincide with the migratory high season, scratching out their own rugged lodgings amid the ruins. From mid April to mid May, they unfurl mist nets to gently snare passing orioles and other warblers, briefly waylaying the tiny trans-Mediterraneans for banding and data-gathering before sending them on their way.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, augurs would be called upon to interpret the future from the behaviours of birds, reading divine will in flight and feeding patterns, songs, species or numbers alone. The founding of Rome is said to have hinged on a standoff of competitive augury: Remus saw six vultures; Romulus 12.
While ornithology is generally less concerned with the capriciousness of gods, its inferences are often no less pertinent to the rise and fall of empires.
Birds are among the most visible of environmental indicators, and for the veteran ornithologists of Capri, decades of patient observation from this majestic opera box amount to a bleak prospect – the effects of climate change are gravely apparent. Migratory numbers have dwindled critically in recent years, and each season sees fewer birds making it as far as Capri. By the end of this particular afternoon, the onsite ornithologists have only caught two.
Together with a pair of British swift conservationists and an intrepidly outfitted party of senior German women, we make the short steep hike towards the ruins to meet Dario Piacentini, an Italian ringer/ornithologist who has been journeying to Capri from his home in Bologna for nearly three decades. From a small white cotton bag he produces a delicate subalpine warbler with fiery red-ringed eyes. Piacentini describes, in gently emotive Italian, the passage of the these tiny birds across vast stretches of ocean, at various elemental mercies.
“Catastrofico!” he concludes, of cruel vectors complicated by steeply declining food sources.
“…some of them don’t make it,” substitutes the translator.
Piacentini has delayed his data-gathering for our benefit. The bird is cupped cosily in his mason’s paw, cohabitant to a pen that it is intermittently (and dexterously) exchanged for; its tiny head and delicate legs poking out between Dario’s fingers as he marks figures into a ledger.
The warbler seems mostly resigned to these indignities, giving an occasional peck or consternated flap when opportunity allows, rousing the cries of concerned Germans.
There’s a collective yelp of horror as the bird is banded, from those not close enough to see the pliers are particular to the task – with graduated holes for different leg widths – and so perhaps think it a torturous experience.
Piacentini, seemingly unfazed by such dramatic commentary, completes the task he has been performing for decades, puffing gently to ruffle the downy belly feathers. “Like one of the earliest gods breathing life into a prototype,” reflects my partner, who has been listing into such Homeric musings since sheering around the Amalfi coast road in a freshly scratched rental, an inch or two from pitching into the wine-dark sea.
Piacentini’s disarmingly tender action is to gauge the bird’s fat stores, its fuel reserves for the second leg of the journey.
After being weighed inside a rolled-up cone of graph paper, then theatrically shaken free, the warbler flies away to a smattering of relieved applause, and on to Scandinavia.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "A world apart". Subscribe here.