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Sorrento and Capri: Everything's the same as when Gorky was there
Sergey Vinogradov 19.07.2021
Maxim Gorky in Italy. Photo credit: Rossiyskaya Gazeta
Maxim Gorky's Day has been established in Sorrento, Italy, where the writer lived for nine years. Gorky Day in the Italian coastal town is the day of the writer's death - June 18. During his life, Gorky was extremely popular in Italy; often he had to take a cab to hide from the crowd of fans. The Russian classic is not forgotten in the coastal south of Italy even today. There is no need to wonder what events are planned for Gorky Day, because for many years researchers and admirers of the Russian writer have held scientific conferences and artistic activities in Sorrento. And there is the Maxim Gorky Society in Naples. The Russkiy Mir asked Russian compatriots living in Sorrento, Capri, and Naples whether the Italians remembered Gorky (and would celebrate his Day), what Gorky places were preserved in the region and why Russians were willing to come to the the classic’s favorite places, but rarely settled there.
Mind is in Italy, while heart is in Russia
During his life, which lacked two years to reach seventieth anniversary, Maxim Gorky had his home/resided in three countries - tsarist Russia, Italy, and the Soviet Union. The Italian period of his life that had pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary parts was so important and long that his arrival to Moscow in 1932 was perceived as a great return home.
Gorky went to Italy eighteen months after the revolution of 1905. He was not motivated by political reasons, but rather by the tuberculosis that tormented him. He was not the one who chose Capri for staying - the authorities of Naples did it for him as he had come there first. It was due to the fact that the proletarian writer's visit to the city was considered to be the center of the labor movement in Italy. The local authorities politely asked him to move to Capri.
Maxim Gorky in Italy, 1907. Photo credit: svoboda.org
By the way, the writer did remember the Neapolitan leadership a few years later when he came up with Tales of Italy a series fairy tales where workers of Naples were desperately fighting for their rights. It is quite possible that the writer himself never saw Naples as a place of permanent residence, especially when faced with incredible popularity in Italy. He came there for treatment and work, but not to run away from fans.
"Gorky's popularity among the Neapolitans was so great, and their love was so expansive, that it was almost impossible to walk along the streets with him," wrote the artist Valentina Khodasevich who had visited the writer in Sorrento. “Many passers-by or those who saw him from the windows of shops rushed to the street, grabbed his hands, shook them, kissed, got on their knees in front of him… During one of the trips to Naples, we got into a cab to escape from all this, but the cab was immediately surrounded by people, someone had already unharnessed a horse, and several people grabbed the limbers and dragged the cab with a light jogtrot. Fans "guarding the peace of Signor Gorky" ran around and shouted loudly: "Viva Gorky! Saro! Carino! Che Cello!” (Long live Gorky! Dear! Dear! What a handsome man!).”
While on the island, the writer was visited by Lenin (twice), Dzerzhinsky, Plekhanov, Lunacharsky, and other heroes-to-be of the October Revolution. There were quite a lot of curiosity seekers that came up, and Gorky gave them his time as he received valuable information about life in Russia and Europe in return. For the same purpose, the writer subscribed to a huge number of newspapers. He liked to read them during lunch, which made doctors complain.
Lenin and Bogdanov play chess while visiting Gorky. Photo credit: thevision.com
Most of the hotels and villas where Maxim Gorky lived during that period have survived to this day. Some of them feature memorial plaques in Russian and Italian and exhibit artifacts related to the writer.
In 2018, the monument to Maxim Gorky was erected in Sorrento to mark the 150th anniversary of the writer’s birth. Its author Alexandr Rukavishnikov depicted a harried reflective face of the classic writer with a hat tilted to the side (apparently from the heat). Indeed, throughout his life in Italy, he could hardly be taken for a summer visitor or holidaymaker.
Monument to Gorky by A. Rukavishnikov in Sorrento. Photo credit: facebook.com/ambmosca
According to the people that were close to him, the writer had a rather harsh daily routine (he went to bed at 2 am and got up at 8 am). His days were filled with work on new writing. He read books on the widest range of topics and had huge correspondence and lots of meetings.
When it comes to writing, the Italian period (at least most of it) became like Boldino's autumn for Gorky. The works written in Capri include The Collected Short Stories of Maxim Gorky (The Life of Matthew Kozhemyakin, Confession, Summer, Okurov City, The Life of a Useless Man, The Birth of a Man, Tales of Italy, the play Vassa Zheleznova and many more.
As to the time in Sorrento, he wrote the novel The Artamonov Business, three volumes of The Life of Klim Samgin, Notes from the Diary, as well as a number of plays, many essays, and publicistic articles. In the vast majority of works, Gorky did not deviate from Russian themes and issues without being distracted by the surrounding reality.
Heaven on Earth
Olga Antropova has been working in Naples and its suburbs as a guide for almost a quarter of a century. By the way, she was the first Russian-speaking guide who received a professional license in the Campania region. Olga told the Russkiy Mir that Gorky places were included in the common sightseeing program to Sorrento and Capri, but the tourists’ reaction to them varies.
Some ask to make the story of Maxim Gorky as short as possible and focus on ancient Italian history. Others, on the other hand, ask a thousand questions about the writer's life in Italy and request to see the villas where he lived.
“There are two hotels in Capri where he stayed,” says Olga. “They have survived and still operate as hotels or apartments. There are memorial plaques. You can stay in these hotels and see things related to Gorky - the samovar from which he drank tea, and chess, which he played with friends. I also tell the guests about Lenin, who visited Gorky twice, and there is his memorial stele on Capri. A memorial plaque has been placed on the villa at Capo di Sorrento, but this villa is not opened for tourists and visits should be arranged. There is a monument to Gorky here, the annual Gorky Prize, and now Gorky Day has been established."
Memorial plaque to M. Gorky in Sorrento. Photo: ru.esosedi.org
The Gorky’s villa in Sorrento, Il Sorito, is closed to the public because it is privately owned and inhabited. The Moscow composer Vladimir Kamolikov, who had moved Italy 20 years ago, visited the house of his favorite writer. It turned out that he had friends in common with the owners of the villa.
"Of course, very little has survived inside. The current owner has redesigned a lot in a modern way," he said. “Nevertheless, the spirit of that time is still sensed in the villa. The villa seemed big and not very cozy to me. When you are inside, it seems as if you are in the castle, a bit gloomy feeling. In addition, the villa is located on a high shore and at a sufficient distance from the sea. Having had all the possibilities available, wasn’t Gorky able to rent a villa right by the sea?”
Villa on Capri (burgundy color), which was rented by Gorky in 1909-1911. Photo credit: Vladimir Shelyapin / ru.wikipedia.org
Why did Gorky live in Italy for so many years and kept returning to the same places? "Gorky wrote about Italy:" Both nature and life are fabulous," says Olga Antropova. And according to Vladimir Kamolikov, he perfectly understands Maxim Gorky's choice: for a creative person, these places are heaven on earth, it is easy to write and compose here. Here you can find the beauty of pristine nature, mild climate, warm sea most of the year.
"Compared to the times when Gorky lived here, everything is about the same, only there are more cars," Kamolikov says. “The roads have not widened, because there is no space to widen them here. They were without sidewalks adapted for horses, and have remained the same, just been resurfaced, that's all. And there is a car or a motorcycle in every clearing. There are almost no supermarkets, only small shops, and a lot of restaurants. Today, when everything around is mechanized, concreted, and glazed, these places are especially striking with their beauty and tranquility.” However, the composer notes, there are few Russians here, because the new residential property is almost not possible to build, and the old one is very expensive.
Both of our interlocutors admit that contemporary Italians know little about the writer, unlike their ancestors from whom Gorky hid on the cab. According to Vladimir Kamolikov, the Russian writer is well known among the intellectual society, but ordinary people show little interest in him.
"However, I have the impression that they hardly know Italian writers better," he says. “In general, they are good kind people, hospitable, and cheerful, very similar to us. Many of my Italian friends know and appreciate Russian culture, love to visit Russia, especially St. Petersburg. They always share their impressions with delight. And those who have not been to Russia, often ask me - where, how, and when it is better to go. When you sing them Neapolitan songs in Russian, they go crazy."