The Cosmat TableThe mosaic top on the large table in the sculpture loggia, dated 12th or 13th century, is one of the most famous objects in the San Michele collection. It is called ‘cosmatic’ after the Roman stone setter family Cosma, whose mosaic patterns and color combinations were very highly regarded and were leading examples of their trade during the Middle Ages.
Axel Munthe relates how during a journey through Sicily, he saw some women doing their washing in a stream with a mosaic table top as their wash-board. Munthe asked if he could have it, and in return he would give them a brand new modern wash-board from Palermo. The deal was done, and Munthe brought his find home to Villa San Michele.
Roman Woman with ChildTo the left of the door to the chapel stands a work of art, which is one of the most written about at Villa San Michele. The woman and child are thought to be part of a larger memorial relief, presumably of a family of three. The clothes and hairstyles help date the object to between 13 BC to 5 AD. The relief comes from Rome.
SphinxThe sphinx at Villa San Michele is approximately 3200 years old. It comes from Egypt and is carved in red granite. A sphinx is a mythological creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. In The Story of San Michele Munthe relates how he saw the sphinx in a dream, set sail and went to find it. Where it actually came from and how it was transported up to Villa San Michele, is Munthe's well kept secret.
Horus FalconIn the chapel of Villa San Michele, there is, surprisingly an Egyptian Horus falcon, carved in grey-black diorite and roughly dated to 1000 BC. Like the sphinx, Horus is a mythological creature, the son of the goddess Isis. Symbolizing heaven, he took the shape of a falcon. The Eye of Horus is an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power and good health.
Well headThe well head in Villa San Michele is made of white marble and is from early imperial time. The decoration is typical of the period, thick garlands of leaves and fruits held together with ox heads. Axel Munthe was given the well head by ”The Living Buried”, a very strict order of nuns in Naples, for his efforts during the 1884-85 cholera epidemic in the city.
PriapusPriapus was the god of sexual prowess, fertility and well being. In Villa San Michele his bust stands almost immediately to the left when you exit the loggia of Hermes, the most beautiful part of the villa. The original was found during excavations in Herculaneum and is now in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.
OdysseusIn a niche in the Hermes loggia, there is a sculpted head of Odysseus. It is one of the three portrait busts in Villa San Michele and is dated 1st century AD. Homer’s hero is represented in art as a middle-aged man with a beard and a so called Phrygian cap. The Villa San Michele Odysseus is damaged in a way that would indicate that it has lain at the bottom of the sea.
HermesWhere the sculpture loggia ends and the long pergola begins stands a bronze statue that somehow marks the transition between indoors and out of doors. It represents the messenger of the gods, Hermes, sitting at rest. The small wings on the sides of his feet are folded. The sculpture is a turn of the 19th century copy of an antique original which was excavated in Herculaneum and now stands in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. This work of art was a gift to Munthe from the City of Naples in recognition of his relief work during the cholera epidemic 1884-85.
Head of MedusaIn Munthe’s study you will find a head of Medusa in white marble which possibly originates from the temple of Venus and Roma in Rome. It has been dated 307 AD and is a Roman copy of a Greek original.
In the Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the three Gorgons, and whoever met her gaze was turned to stone. In the Freudian view of Medusa, she symbolizes castration, and feminists see her as the image of female wrath.
HypnosHypnos is the god of sleep and is here presented with a wing by one of his ears. He had an important symbolic meaning for Munthe. Partly because, during his medical studies in Paris, he had learned to use hypnosis to cure hysteria and partly because he himself had problems with sleep. It is perhaps also significant that Hypnos, in the Greek mythology, was the brother of Thanatos, the god of death, Munthe's life long obsession.
TiberiusOpposite Priapus in the sculpture loggia, stands a copy of a bust of Tiberius, the emperor who governed the entire Roman Empire from Capri, 26-37 DC. The original which is portrayed here, was executed in finely veined marble about 2000 years ago. It is one of the most valuable pieces in the art collection of Axel Munthe.
The head highlights the dual personality of Tiberius, a man made vulnerable by his internal struggles, while at the same time feared by the people surrounding him.
The bust was stolen from Villa San Michele in 1991. Twenty-two years later, it was returned to the Villa, thanks to the Italian archeological police. During 2020 it will be returned to its pedestal.