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Excerpt from Oscar Wilde in Italy
Wilde in Naples
by Luciano Mangiafico © 11/2019
Wilde in 1889. Photo: W. and D. Downey
Wilde thought that Douglas would come up with the money for the trip to Italy, while Douglas thought that Wilde would. In any case, they arrived in Naples on September 20, 1897 and checked into the luxury Hotel Royal on the seafront promenade right across from the ancient Castel dell’Ovo, running up a big bill since the hotel believed an English lord such as Douglas must have money. Luckily, Wilde was able to raise some funds on the promise that he would write an opera libretto. With that money they paid the hotel and leased a villa, Villa Giudice on Posilippo hill on Via Posillipo 37, moving there on October 1, 1897. The villa was splendid, it had a piano in the drawing room and beautiful views of the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius, and Capri. This heaven was a place where Wilde and Douglas hoped to spend the winter together. The lease was prepaid until the end of January 1898.
However, since the villa had rats, while it was being cleaned up of the vermin by a woman they hired, they decided to go to Capri for a few days, where Wilde wrote later he intended “to lay some flowers on the tomb of Tiberius”. [author's note: Emperor Tiberius, who had a palace in Capri and lived there for years, died in 37 A.D. in Miseno, north of Naples, and was not buried in Capri. He was cremated and his ashes placed in the Mausoleum of Emperor Caesar Augustus in Rome. LM] Douglas was familiar with Capri since the previous year, while Wilde was still in jail, he had decamped first to Sorrento and then to Capri, where he caroused for several months.
In Capri, Wilde and Douglas checked in at the premier Hotel Quisisana. However, while they were having dinner in the hotel, some English patrons recognized the “infamous duo” and told the management that either that pair had to leave or they, themselves, would leave. The hotel’s owner, Federico Serena, then asked Wilde and Douglas to leave. Another hotel also refused to have them as guests. While they were returning to the ferry dock to go back to Naples, they met Doctor Axel Munthe (1857-1949) to whom Wilde related the incident, adding: “They even denied us bread!”. Munthe, feeling sorry for the two invited them for dinner at his Capri Villa, San Michele, and they stayed as his guests for a few days. Wilde, who had some work to do, returned to Naples first, while Douglas remained in Capri a few extra days.
Wilde was painfully aware of his situation as a pariah and on November 25, 1987, wrote again to his friend Robbie Ross: “…What astonishes and interests me about my present position is that the moment the world’s forces begin to persecute anyone they never leave off. This seems to me a historical fact, as well as an interesting psychological problem. To leave off persecution is to admit that one has been wrong, and the world will never do that. Also, the world is angry because their punishment has had no effect. They wished to be able to say 'We have done a capital thing for Oscar Wilde: by putting him in prison we have put a stop to his friendship with Alfred Douglas and all that that implies.' But now they find that they have not had that effect, that they merely treated me barbarously, but did not influence me. They simply ruined me, so they are furious…” *1
Axel Munthe was a famous Swedish doctor who beginning in 1887 lived in Capri on and off and built a beautiful villa there, Villa San Michele. He wrote a book about his life and old Capri, The Story of San Michele (1929). Even though he was still using the name of Sebastian Melmoth in Naples, Wilde's stay in the city was soon news. On October 7 Matilde Serao (1856-1927), novelist and editor of the Naples daily newspaper Il Mattino, reported his presence in the city: “[He is] a scourge… a calamity…that unfortunate one is hidden among us, made famous in the world by his filthy errors…[British judges are to be praised] for their severe punishments of the odious perverts.” Yet, despite the journalistic hyperbole, Wilde and Serao apparently met in the in the social saloon of Don Michele Parlato.
Apart from the fact that Wilde was a figure known world-wide, two other factors made it impossible to keep his presence in the city a secret. First, he tried to work with Italians in getting his play Salomè translated into Italian and produced in Naples and trying to interest the actress Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) in starring in it. The other reason was that both he and Douglas continued to be a source of scandal with their sexual adventures, whether true or made up. In one instance, the hotel waiter is supposed to said that one evening Wilde had returned, followed by five soldiers: a sailor, a gunner, a grenadier, a bersagliere, and an army soldier, with whom he had spent the whole night. The waiter added, "I kept waking up asking myself, 'Who's on guard right now!'”
Of course, the negative publicity reached Wilde’s wife and after warning him to stop consorting with Douglas, she cut off the allowance she was still giving him. Douglas, who was occasionally receiving money from his mother, after a warning from her, was also cut off. Even a diplomat from the British Embassy in Rome was sent to Naples and, as Douglas wrote later, told him he should stop living with Wilde immediately since their conduct was creating problems and was considered disloyal toward the embassy itself.
Wilde once proclaimed: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” but when he and Douglas sat at the outside tables in the famous Caffè Gambrinus near the royal palace, the gawking from English tourists and Neapolitans got to be too much!
On November 16, Wilde wrote to his friend Robbie Ross: “My existence is a scandal. But I do not think I should be charged with creating a scandal by continuing to live, though I am conscious that I do so. I cannot live alone, and Bosie is the only one of my friends who is either able or willing to give me his companionship. If I were living with a Naples renter [a male prostitute] I would, I suppose, be all right. As I live with a young man, who is well bred and well born and who has been charged with no offence, I am deprived of all possibility of existence."*2
Without funds to live on, Douglas wrote an apology to his mother and toward the end of November or early December 1897, left Naples, travelling on to Rome and back to England, alone. The mother had paid their pending bills and had also promised Wilde, if the relationship was broken off for good, to send him £200.
Frank Harris, in Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, also wrote that in a December letter to Ross, Wilde described, how his latest tryst with Douglas had again turned sour: “The facts of Naples are very bad. Bosie for four months, by endless lies, offered me a home. He offered me love, affection, and care, and promised that I should never want for anything. After four months I accepted his offer, but when we met on our way to Naples, I found he had no money, no plans, and had forgotten all his promises. His one idea was that I should raise the money for us both; I did so to the extent of £120. On this Bosie lived quite happily. When it came to his having to pay his own share he became terribly unkind and penurious, except where his own pleasures were concerned, and when my allowance ceased, he left…I was expected to provide the money, and when I could no longer do so I was left to my own devices. It is the most bitter experience of a bitter life. It is a quite awful blow. It had to come, but I know it is better I should never see him again. I don’t want to. It fills me with horror.*3
Rather than saving the money Douglas’ mother had sent him to provide for a bleak future, Wilde instead decided to give himself a vacation by travelling to Taormina, Sicily. Taormina, on the east coast of Sicily, was and is a delightful place and at the time had a flourishing English resident colony. Still Bosie may have been gone but he was not forgotten, and Wilde still missed him and from Taormina kept writing to him, but his letters were not reciprocated: “…my arms without you, grasp a void…I’ve discovered a lover’s paradise where we will come to live together one day”. In Taormina, Wilde lodged at the Hotel Victoria, not far from the ancient open-air Roman theater. He occupied his time by relaxing and by visiting the studio of German photographer, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931). Von Gloeden, who was also a homosexual, had moved to Taormina in 1868 and become famous by photographing young nude Sicilian boys standing in front of the magnificent vistas seen from the heights of Taormina. Wilde assisted von Gloeden in preparing the boys for the photo shoots. Wilde bought, or was given, some of von Gloeden's photographs, and when he left Taormina about a month later, he gloated that he had many shots of those “marvelous boys.”
A sad surprise awaited Wilde in Naples: during his absence a servant at Villa Giudice had stolen his clothes and other personal items, including a copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the poem that he was still working on. Unable to continue paying the expenses for the villa, Wilde moved out and went to a cheap rooming house in the streets behind the Hotel Royal, where he and Douglas had stayed when they first arrived in Naples, at Palazzo Bambino in Via Santa Lucia 31.
Soon, he decided to return to Paris and left Naples on February 13, 1898. On February 18, five days later, from Paris, he wrote to Ross: “It is very unfair of people being horrid to me about Bosie and Naples. A patriot put in prison for loving his country loves his country, and a poet in prison for loving boys loves boys. To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble - more noble than other forms.”*4
In the end, he still had not changed his stripes.
*1, 2, 4 - these three citations are from The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland and Rupert-Hart Davis;
Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition, 2000. New York.
*3 - Harris , Frank. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions Volume II. Brentano's Reprint edition (1916).