Axel Munthe : biography
Axel Martin Fredrik Munthe The Story of San Michele
Axel Munthe had a multinational character and spoke several languages (Swedish, English, French, Italian fluently, and German at least passably), growing up in Sweden, attending medical school and opening his first practice in France. He was married to an English aristocrat, and spent most of his adult life in Italy. Munthe had a philanthropic nature, often treating the poor without charge, and risking his life on several occasions to offer medical help in times of war, disaster, or plague. He was a tireless advocate of animal rights, purchasing land to create a bird sanctuary near his home in Italy, advocating bans on painful traps, and keeping pets as diverse as an owl and a baboon, as well as many different types of dog. His writing is light-hearted, being primarily memoirs drawn from his real-life experiences, but often tinged with sadness or tragedy, and often using dramatic license. He primarily wrote about people and their idiosyncrasies, portraying the foibles of both the rich and the poor, but also about animals.
Queen Victoria of Sweden
In 1892, Axel munthe was appointed physician to the Swedish royal family. In particular, he served as personal physician of the Crown Princess, Victoria of Baden, continuing to do so when she became Queen consort, and until the time of her death in 1930, although this did not mean that he was in constant attendance.
Victoria suffered from severe bronchitis and possibly also tuberculosis. Munthe recommended that she spend her winters on Capri for her health. While initially hesitant, in the autumn of 1910 she travelled to Capri, and from then onwards, except during the First World War and for a few years towards the end of her life, she spent several months each year there.
While in residence the Queen often visited the Villa San Michele to join Munthe for morning walks around the island. Munthe and the Queen also arranged evening concerts at San Michele, at which the Queen played the piano. The Queen shared Munthe’s love of animals, owning a pet dog herself, and helped support his efforts to purchase Mount Barbarossa to establish it as a bird sanctuary. Perhaps inevitably, given the small local population and their close friendship, it was rumoured that Munthe and the Queen were lovers, but this has never been substantiated.
Other indication of his passionate nature concerns an affair he is believed to have had with the English socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell, beginning when they first met in July or August 1898. Ottoline was then an unmarried 25-year old member of the privileged London social scene, while being at the same time slightly contemptuous of it. Her intellectual and spiritual interests drew her to more mature men, such as Herbert Asquith, particularly if they had a reputation for iconoclasm. She and Axel Munthe and were drawn to each other, and managed to spend significant private time together on Capri.Sandra Jobson Darroch, Ottoline: The life of Lady Ottoline Morrell (1975), chapter 2
Axel Munthe was born in Oskarshamn, Sweden, his family’s home. His family was originally of Flemish descent, and settled in Sweden during the 16th century.
Munthe began college in 1874 at Uppsala University.
While travelling in Italy in 1875, Munthe sailed in a small boat from Sorrento to the island of Capri. Climbing the Phoenician stairs to the village of Anacapri, he came upon a peasant’s house and the adjacent ruin of a chapel dedicated to San Michele, and was immediately captivated by the idea of rebuilding the ruin and turning it into a home.
Munthe studied medicine in Uppsala, Montpellier and Paris (where he was a student of Charcot), and graduated as M.D. in 1880 at the age of 23. Though his thesis was on the subjects of gynecology and obstetrics, Munthe was deeply impressed by Professor Jean-Martin Charcot’s pioneering work in neurology, having attended his lectures at the Salpêtrière hospital. He later had a falling out with Charcot, and left the Salpetriere denouncing his former teacher’s work on hypnotism as fraudulent and scientifically unsound.