Touring Italy

Capri: The Emperor's Hideaway

The Emperor's Hideaway

Rising like a whale from the ocean, the spectacular island of Capri has held a particular attraction over the centuries for celebrities trying to "get away from it all." In former times, it lured writers Goethe, Oscar Wilde, and Graham Greene; these days, it attracts American stars like Leonardo di Caprio, Harrison Ford, and Mariah Carey. But Capri first became famous in 26 AD, when Roman Emperor Tiberius "dropped out" here to escape the political in-fighting in Rome. For 16 years, he ruled the Empire from his luxurious cliffside palace—flashing his orders to the mainland via lighthouse.

Today, the remains of the Emperor's notorious Villa Jovis is a key attraction for any visitor to Capri. Tiberius was a dour, secretive man who chose his island home as much for its security as its beauty. Protected by 500-foot cliffs, Capri had only one landing point, and the villa, located on a remote headland, offered sweeping 300-degree views of the ocean.

According to muckraking Roman author Suetonius, Emperor Tiberius went wild in this prime piece of real estate, hosting round-the-clock parties. He apparently also enjoyed conducting mock trials of political enemies, after which he would personally eject them off a precipice. After his death, Romans became amused with Tiberius' reputation as a satyr, and tourists would visit the Villa Jovis to inspect the sexual imagery painted on his bedroom walls. His antics have since been recreated in the BBC series I, Claudius and the Penthouse-funded film Caligula.

Today, Villa Jovis has decayed into a poetic ruin. But ever since the Romans left, Capri itself has maintained a reputation for extraordinary luxury and sensual abandon. In the Victorian Age, the British turned to it as an escape and in the 1960s, film makers like Jean-Luc Goddard used it as a setting for chic thrillers like Contempt (starring Jack Palance and Bridget Bardot).