It was like seeing them. Roger Peyrefitte sitting under the trees and writing. Ernest Hemingway sipping a drink on the terrace, Greta Garbo and Coco Chanel under the pergola, to preserve the complexion from the sun’s rays. And then Salvador Dalì, David Herbert Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, and many others, all the guests of Casa Cuseni, the first residence for artists and scholars in Europe, in the 1950s, in Taormina.
Visiting Casa Cuseni has been an extraordinarily engaging experience, because of the memory of these illustrious visitors, the fantastic history and richness of the house, and the beauty – and the secrets – of the garden. But also because of the overwhelming passion of my guide, the owner Francesco Spadaro. Who in 2011, together with his wife Mimma Cundari (who grew up in the villa, with Roald Dahl to read her fairy tales), did not hesitate for a moment to take on a considerable financial commitment in order to save the residence from an uncertain fate.
From England to Taormina
The history of Casa Cuseni begins in 1905 when it was built by the English painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson, whose business was locomotive engineering. Sir John, Robert’s father, obviously wanted him to take over the industry, but Robert was not quite of the same opinion. His sensitive and curious soul was very far from the entrepreneurial spirit of the family and so, after a reluctant attempt to take an interest in his father’s business, he jumped at the opportunity to leave England offered to him by his doctor. After two episodes of rheumatic fever, in fact, he “forced” him to spend the winter away from England. Young Robert immediately took the chance. The first destination of his travels, ça va sans dire, was Italy.
In Venice, Robert was at home and even had a gondolier at his personal service. He also often went to Naples and Ravello, but in 1899, when his father died and he was able to liquidate the English properties and activities, thus gaining a substantial patrimony, he decided that the place where he wanted to live was Taormina. The small Sicilian city was known in the best European circles ever since Wolfgang Goethe had published his Italian Journey at the beginning of the nineteenth century, dedicating an enchanted description to the place.
About fifty years later, another German, Otto Geleng, had started selling his paintings made in Taormina, attracting the first tourists to Sicily, fascinated by those landscapes. Indeed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a railway line was established linking London to Paris and then to Taormina! And then there was Wilhelm von Gloeden, a German photographer who portrayed young Sicilian shepherds in classic poses and settings (I wrote about him here).
In short, having found the right place, on a hillside in a wonderful panoramic position (a site already occupied by a Greek residence), Robert Kitson started the construction, involving his lifetime friends. Sir Alfred East, who was named president of the Royal Society of British Artists shortly thereafter; and Sir Frank Brangwyn, a talented painter and decorator, with an important collaboration with Louis Confort Tiffany.
The house on the hill
It takes much more than an article to describe the villa – and, as a matter of fact, Robert’s heir, Miss Daphne Phelps, wrote 200 pages in the volume A house in Sicily. Each stone here exudes a fascinating story worth telling. There is the dining room, entirely designed by Frank Brangwyn, with delicate paintings on the walls that illustrate the salient episodes of the relationship between Robert Kitson and the Taormina painter Carlo Siligato, including the adoption of little Francesco, orphaned by the earthquake of Messina in 1908. In Taormina the child found two loving fathers, and with them formed the first homogenitorial family of our country (in the room there is still the child’s tricycle, a futurist-style creation).
There are Robert’s watercolors, hundreds of sheets showing the villa, the views, the plants in the garden, a hat once owned by Coco Chanel, the seventeenth-century characters of a nativity scene kept in a chest of drawers. Here and there, you can see the archaeological finds that emerged from the earth during the construction work, and the souvenirs that Robert brought home from Africa, Spain, and the Middle East, where he traveled for many months a year.
There is the collection of paintings and antiquities which, during the war, was saved from the greed of the German invaders, who had occupied the house, by the inhabitants of Taormina who hid the objects in stables and wells, waiting for the return of Robert who had been forced to flee to England. An initiative that speaks volumes about the affection that surrounded Don Roberto, as this “crazy Englishman” soon was called by the headshaking locals, unable to understand why he would settle in an isolated place, far from the town and with very little water supply. At the same time they deeply respected him, as he treated people in Taormina as equals and also learned Italian and even Sicilian.
Francesco Spadaro has told me all this while quickly passing, with irrepressible, contagious enthusiasm, from one room to another. Through his words, I have met Miss Daphne, who came to Taormina in 1948 to sell the property of her uncle, who had died the previous year, and instead never went away, facing all sorts of difficulties to maintain the beautiful house up to her death in 2005.
I have learned of the illustrious guests, some of which Francesco has met in person, such as the historian Denis Mack Smith, author of a famous History of Sicily, who did not disdain to help out in the garden and in the kitchen. He has shown me the restoration workshop, where a team of young people is committed to restoring the precious heritage, and he has told me about his daughter Daphne (you can guess the reasons that led to the choice of her name) that, together with her brother Fabio Andrea, will carry on the love for this house in future generations.
A spiritual garden
Above all, Francesco Spadaro has told me about the garden. Loggias, terraces, stairways unwind vertically, covering an area of 12 thousand square meters full of flower beds spilling over with vegetation. Trees, flowers, and bushes are artfully arranged but, at the same time, they are left free to develop and make up a natural garden, where even weeds have their very respectable dignity. Both Robert Kitson and Daphne Phelps particularly loved spontaneous and wild plants, in the belief that “it is the climate that makes the flora”.
“But there is so much more!” Francesco Spadaro smiles, dragging me at a brisk pace up the flights of stairs towards the upper part of the property, kindly urging me when I stop spellbound in front of a patch of purple larkspur, a flowerbed full of tall poppies, the lush cascades of false jasmine and wisteria. One terrace after another he leads me upwards, to see the purification tanks, the “temple of Solomon”, the carefully studied perspectives, the poses of the statues.
All elements that, together with the documentary evidence that he has collected, testify that this garden was conceived as a place where it is possible to leave the physical space and devote oneself to meditation. A theosophical space where every level and every perspective are intended for the elevation of the mind towards an intense spiritual experience.
Well-known names of the art of the time were also involved in the decoration of the garden, such as Fortunato Depero – who created a Two-faced Janus, with its symbolism of death and rebirth – and Giacomo Balla, who stayed here in 1914, and, among other things, made a fountain/sundial and an image of the erupting Etna. The last level is that of the large basin for the collection of rainwater (from here, by gravity, the lower basins were fed), surrounded by a colonnade on which old jasmine bushes cling.
“When it is full, on clear days you can see Etna mirroring itself in the water” Francesco Spadaro informs me, then turning to embrace with a single glance the view of the volcano, the sea, and the house below, its dusty yellow color standing out among the green.
Living Casa Cuseni
With the new owners, the villa has kept the spirit that Daphne Phelps had given to it, transforming it into a residency for artists and scholars. You can book a stay within these old walls, and let yourself be pervaded by its incredible charm. Or just ask for a guided tour, and immerse yourself, for a few hours, in the history and beauty of Taormina in the past. A place that no longer exists. Or maybe it does? For info, click here.