The Architecture of Hedonism – Three Villas on The Island of Capri

The island of Capri has long held a unique place in the collective imagination. Blessed with the beauty of the Gulf of Naples, it has since Antiquity served as a retreat from everyday business and politics, as a site for hedonistic enjoyment, and as a harbor of individualism. Throughout history, Capri was a laboratory for libertine and alternative lifestyles. Our exhibition looks at three moments embodying this genius loci: the antique grandeur of the Villa Tiberius, the fin-de-siècle decadence of the Villa Lysis, and the surrealist dream of the Casa Malaparte. We focus on how these buildings have been represented in popular media and have thus stirred the collective imagination. The presentation features artistic contributions by Franceso Vezzoli and Nils Nova.

Capri was developed by Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius, both of whom erected luxurious villas to pursue their leisurely (and supposedly decadent) lifestyles, among them the celebrated Villa Jovis. This spirit was reanimated in the second half of the 19th century when Capri became a favorite resort for the European Bohème. Cultural—and eventually, mass—tourism was triggered by the German poet and painter August Kopisch’s 1838 publication Discovery of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri. Subsequently, celebrities from many lands arrived and erected homes for their escapist dreams. Out of reach of the prudish moral codes of Victorian society, Capri favored eccentric lifestyles. Exiled from the Paris salons after a pedophile scandal, Baron d’Adelswerd-Fersen’s Villa Lysis became an early center of European queer culture. Ever since, Capri has been a symbol of sexual exuberance and unfulfilled desires. It was immortalized in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic 1963 film Le Mépris starring Brigitte Bardot. Its secret hero is the Casa Malaparte, unsurpassed in its framing of the dramatic landscape.

The island of Capri has been both an outlet of suppressed bourgeois fantasies, and the site for conspicuous decadence. From the perspective of contemporary politics in Italy and elsewhere, islands produce specific spacialitities and determine structures of power and social order. It is these spatial orders that we seek to explore visually.

Martino Stierli