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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Axel Martin Fredrik Munthe (1857-1949) - used the pen name Puck Munthe


Swedish physician, psychiatrist, and writer whose best-known work is the autobiography The Story of San Michele (1929, Boken om San Michele). It is an account of Munthe's experience as a doctor in Paris and Rome, and in semi-retirement at the villa of San Michele on the island of Capri (Italy). Both realistic and mystical, the book achieved an immense popularity and has been translated into a number of languages.

"En berömd engelsk författare har kallat Boken om San Michele "Boken om Döden". Kanske är det så, ty döden är sällan borta från mina tankar. "Non nasce in me pensier che non vi sia dentro scolpita la morte", skrev Michelangelo till Vasari. Jag har brottas så länge med min dystre kollega, ständigt besegrad har jag sett honom slå till marken den ene efter den andre av dem jag sökt försvara. Jag har haft några av dessa människor i tankarna medan jag satt och skrev denna bok, så som jag såg dem leva, så som jag såg dem lida, så som jag såg dem lägga sig ned att dö." (in Boken om San Michele)

Axel Munthe was born in Oskarshamn. His family originally were Flemish in origin and had settled in Sweden during the 16th century. Munthe's father was a pharmacist, who opened his own chemist shop in 1850 Döderhuitsvik, later renamed Oscarshams. After marrying Aurora Ugarph, the daughter of an attorney, he moved to Vimmerby with his family and then to Stockholm. The atmosphere of Munthe's childhood home was strictly religious, but his father had also musical talents and the family's manor house in Beateberg outside Stockholm was a meeting place for many prominent musicians.

Munthe studied medicine at the University of Uppsala (1874-80) and in France at Montpellier, Paris (1880), becoming the youngest M.D. created at Montpellier. While living in Paris, Munthe met his first wife, Ultima Hornberg, the daughter of a chemist; they divorced in 1888 and Munthe left Paris. In 1907 Munthe married Hilda Pennington-Mellor; they had two sons, Malcolm Crane Munthe and Peter Munthe. Both marriages were unhappy. 

The French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (1825-93) and his study Maladies du système nerveux influenced Munthe deeply. He attended Charcot's lectures at Salpêtrière Hospital and used hypnosis on his patients in treatments for physical and psychological disorders. However, Munthe rejected Charcot's view that a hypnotized state was very similar to a bout of hysteria.

At the age of eighteen Munthe visited Capri and decided that some day he would build a house on the island. Its loggias would be full of light, and there would be a small chapel, a vineyard, and old statues in the garden. After practising in Paris and Italy, Munthe was appointed in 1892 the physician to the Crown Princess of Sweden and Norway, Victoria (1862-1930), who was married to Crown Prince Gustaf of Sweden. Victoria spent on the island long periods for health reasons. It was rumored that she and Munthe were lovers, but the true nature of their relationship has never been clear. Gustaf became in 1907 the new King as Gustaf V. Though interested Italy's archeological sites, he lacked cultural interest in general and eventually wanted to stop Victoria from visiting Capri. Queen Victoria died in the Villa Svezia in Rome, where Munthe remained by her side until her death.

Munthe's Letters from a Mourning City, (1885) described his experiences during the 1884 cholera epidemic in Naples. The letters first appeared in the Svenska Dagblad. Munthe wandered around the slums with a donkey, named Rosina, and the dog Puck. "No doubt help has come from every part of the country, from every part of the world," Munthe wrote, "but even here, as is so often the case, it is the poor who have exercised the greatest charity, the silent self-sacrificing devotion has come from those who have next to nothing themselves." Vagaries (1898) was an account of his work in Paris and Italy, where he lived for a time in Keats's house in Rome. Both these book were published under the name Puck Munthe. In 1903 he returned to Sweden, and spent many years as the Physician-in-Ordinary to the Queen. After saving enough money, Munthe built his own villa on the highest point of the island of Capri, on the site of the villa of the emperor Tiberius. He named his house San Michele. One of the very first visitors was Oscar Wilde, who went to Capri with his friend Lord Alfred Douglas. "A wonderful personality," said Wilde. He had just been released from prison, where he had served a two-year sentence for "homosexual immorality".

In The Story of San Michele, which was written in English, Munthe depicted his life, his love for nature, and the colorful people he had met, among them Guy de Maupassant and Louis Pasteur. At that time Maupassant was writing Le Horla, visions of death haunted him, and he was interested in poisons. Munthe later met the author at the private asylum of Dr. Esprit Blanche at Passy. He was sowing pebbles on the flower – beds and explained that the pebbles would grow into small Maupassants if it rains. The book ends with a moving story in which the author imagines himself knocking on heaven's door and saints disputing angrily over his salvation. Finally two small birds, who know his good acts, call St. Francis and the narrator finds his peace. Munthe says in the book that it was Henry James who encouraged him to write about the villa. Munthe lived on Capri for over 50 years.

With his royalties from his books, Munthe financed sanctuaries for migrating birds in Capri and in Sweden, and contributed to charities for the poor, becoming known as "the modern St. Francis of Assisi." Around the villa, Munthe had built loggias, teracces, and pergolias, so that he could watch the birds, the clouds, Mount Vesuvius, the sun and sea. A pathway, shadowed by cypress trees, led to the chapel. When the American violinist and concertmaster Louis Kaufman, who became famous for his 1947 recordings of The Four Seasons,  played there in the 1930s a short program of string quartets by Mozart and Beethoven, he got the impression that Munthe did not particularly care for this type of music. However, Kaufman also said in his book of memoir that Munthe was slightly deaf. (A Fiddler's Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me by Louis Kaufman & Annette Kaufman, 2003, pp. 66-68)

For a time in the 1930s, he was entirely blind, until his sight was restored in 1934 in an operation performed by Dr Vogt, the same doctor who had operated on James Joyce. With the help of spectacles he could read again and see the stars; "... it seems to me that I even see too much when I look into the faces of mhy fellow men," he wrote in a letter. By 1937, his sight had deteriorated again but the planned operation was never carried out.

During World War I Munthe worked at English hospitals, and lived then in Rome, London and Capri. Red Cross & Iron Cross (1916), written in the from of a report from Dr Martin, was a poignant indictment of German militarism. The book was a great success throughout the British Empire. An Italian translation was published in 1918 with financial assistance from the British Mission of Allied Propaganda. Munthe's anti-German attitude (he sent back his German decorations to Kaiser Wilhelm) did not prevent Hermann Göring from visiting him in the 1930s. They both were interested in occultism. Göring wanted to buy San Michele, possibly for Führer – Hitler believed that in an earlier life he had been the Roman emperor Tiberius, who retired to the island of Capri.

In 1942 Munthe returned to Sweden and spent his remaining years as a guest at the Royal Palace in Stockholm. He suffered from asthma and insomnia, sunlight hurt him, but he never stopped of dreaming of returning to Capri. Munthe died on February 11, 1949. In his last will and testament he donated the villa of San Michele to the state of Sweden. Munthe's villa is situated high up on the rocky ledges northeast of Anacapri, at the foot of Mount Barbarossa. In 2016, Axel Munthe's syndrome was proposed for frontal fibrosing hair loss.

For further reading: Sweet Is  War – To Them That Know It Not by Malcolm Munthe (1954); I skuggan av San Michele by Knut Bonde (1946); The Story of Axel Munthe by G. Munthe and G. Uezkull (1953); The Story of Axel Munthe, Capri and San Michele by A. Andrén et al. (1959); Där citroner blomma: en bok om Axel Munthe, drottning Victoria, Capri och musiken by  Per Anders Hellqvist (1989); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 3, ed. Martin Seymor-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Artes, publ. by the Swedish Academy, no.1 (2000); Axel Munthe som byggherre: verkligheten bakom myten by Bo Sahlin (2007); Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele by Bengt Jangfeldt (2008); Axel Munthen jäljillä by Maria Salonen (2016). Film: Axel Munthe, der Artz von San Michele (1962), dir. Rudolf Jugert, starring O.W. Fischer as Axel Munthe. Suomessa Huvila meren rannalla on pysynyt vakiintuneena myyntivalttina ja vuosien 1930 ja 2000 välissä sitä oli myyty jo noin 100 000 kappaletta. Note: The literary hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, who had been a close friend of Munthe on the turn of the century, had later a lenghty affair with Bertrand Russell.

Selected bibliography:

  • Prophylaxie et traitement des hémorrhagies post-partumm, 1880
  • Från Napoli: resebrev, 1885 (as Puck Munthe)
    - Letters from a Mourning City (transl. from the Swedish by Maude Valérie, 1899)
  • Små skizzer, 1888 (as Puck Munthe)
  • Vagaries, 1898 (Memories and Vagaries, rev. and enl. ed., 1908)
    - En gammal bok om människor och djur (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1931)
    - Lumottu saari: muistoja ja kuvitelmia (suom. Tyyni Haapanen-Tallgren, 1931)
  • Bref och skizzer: gammalt och nytt, 1909 (as Puck Munthe)
  • Red Cross & Iron Cross, by a doctor in France, 1916 (published anonymously)
  • The Story of San Michele, 1929
    - Boken om San Michele (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1930)
    - Huvila meren rannalla (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1930)
  • For Those Who Love Music, 1936

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