IN THE LION’S LAIR

Au­thor Gore Vi­dal has moved on but his Amalfi Coast home pro­vides many clues to his ca­reer, re­ports Chris­tine Ho­gan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

GET­TING to the front gate of the house in Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, has taken time and ef­fort. I false-started nearly 25 years ear­lier when I mis­took Ra­pallo, on the Lig­urian coast, for the lair of lit­er­ary lion Gore Vi­dal. His hill­side fast­ness is ac­tu­ally more than half a coun­try, and half a day, away to the south.

The sea­son is close to its end when I ar­rive in Naples decades later, at last on track to Ravello. La Ron­d­i­naia, the swal­low’s nest, has been Vi­dal’s home high above the Gulf of Salerno since 1972. It is here he added a par­tic­u­larly pa­tri­cian, if tardy, Amer­i­can spin to la dolce vita.

And it was here, with com­pan­ion Howard Austen, that he en­ter­tained fam­ily con­nec­tions in­clud­ing Jackie Kennedy Onas­sis and Louis Auch­in­closs and friends such as Ru­dolf Nureyev, Mick and Bianca Jag­ger, Lauren Ba­call, Paul New­man, Ten­nessee Wil­liams, Princess Mar­garet, Aus­tralian writer Shirley Haz­zard (who usu­ally perched on Capri) and Bar­bara Ep­stein, ed­i­tor of The New York Re­view of Books . It is here I hope to in­ter­view him.

Houses with lit­er­ary con­nec­tions are among my trea­sured mem­o­ries: lunch with Molly Keane at her house at Ard­more in south­ern Ire­land, af­ter­noon tea with Donna Leon at her apart­ment in Venice, a visit to the home of Jean Cocteau in Milly-la-Foret.

In Vi­dal’s case, I want to feel the en­vi­ron­ment in which he has worked so pro­lif­i­cally. In Ravello, a vil­lage of nar­row al­leys, enough steps to wear out the fittest vis­i­tor, and skinny, stucco-fronted houses, he en­ter­tained his muse Cal­liope, writ­ing Palimpsest , the his­tor­i­cal novel Burr and his great polemic, Per­pet­ual War for Per­pet­ual Peace . But then an­other set­back in the quest for Vi­dal: at the Ho­tel Caruso, I ask gen­eral man­ager Gi­ampaolo Ot­tazzi for La Ron­d­i­naia’s home num­ber.

Gi­ampaolo looks mys­ti­fied. ‘‘ But I think he is gone . . . last week,’’ he says, then throws me a line of hope: ‘‘ But if you would like to visit the house, I will ask Gino if he can ar­range it for you.’’

Within min­utes, the ur­bane Gino has or­gan­ised a visit to La Ron­d­i­naia and, af­ter a con­sid­er­able walk to the other side of town, we are stand­ing out­side one of its three gates, wait­ing for the cus­to­dian.

The house was built in the late 19th cen­tury for a daugh­ter of Lord Grimthorpe, an English ar­chi­tect and lawyer who owned the enor­mous Villa Cim­brone, just up the hill­side, so it has been fa­mous for more than a cen­tury. But it took Vi­dal and his en­tourage to write La Ron­d­i­naia into the his­tory of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture.

Why has he fi­nally left, I ask Gino, while we wait. ‘‘ The ac­cess,’’ he replies, ‘‘ is too dif­fi­cult.’’ Not only would it have been dif­fi­cult get­ting here from the vil­lage for a man in his 80s with bad knees and who used a wheel­chair, but the house’s heav­ily ter­raced 2.5ha gar­dens and mar­ble stair­cases would have been a chal­lenge.

But such steep­ness is pre­cisely why the up­per classes of the late Ro­man Em­pire be­gan to colonise th­ese cliffs for their hol­i­day homes. Th­ese nat­u­ral ram­parts were easy to de­fend against the depre­da­tions of the pi­rates who reg­u­larly raided the coast­line, and there were suf­fi­ciently wide ledges to per­mit some rather idio­syn­cratic houses to be built.

Ad­mit­ted at last, we walk along a heav­ily planted cy­press allee over­hung with chest­nut trees and car­peted with their shells dot­ted across the gravel like lost pow­der puffs. The av­enue opens to a blue-tiled pool — added by Vi­dal in 1984, with a pool house and sauna — which clearly has not been used for some time. Al­gae is in bloom, au­tumn leaves scat­tered across its dusty sur­face and drowned in its murky depths. Fi­nally the house ap­pears, less of the earth than a con­fec­tion caught be­tween sea and sky. There is no grand fa­cade to be seen; it sits obliquely to the front gate, yield­ing it­self slowly to vis­i­tors.

The guardian leaves us at the front door to ex­plore the house by our­selves. At the bot­tom of the stairs is a de­press­ing re­minder of in­fir­mity: a se­lec­tion of canes and walk­ing sticks.

Liv­ing on a prop­erty with an as­ton­ish­ing 20 lev­els, at least three of them in the main house, would have been a bur­den for Vi­dal.

With its six bed­rooms, five fire­places and two stud­ies, La Ron­d­i­naia looks a lit­tle familiar: this is the house used as a base for Jeff Gold­blum’s nutty char­ac­ter Alis­tair Hen­nessey in the 2004 film TheLifeAquatic with Steve Zis­sou .

The first door off the main hall­way on the en­try level opens into Vi­dal’s study, which feels as if he has just stepped out for a mo­ment to con­sult the cook about the evening’s menu. The book­shelves, on three walls, are largely de­nuded; he has taken the prized mem­bers of his li­brary to Los An­ge­les. There had been 8000 vol­umes here. The main im­pres­sion of the study is not the in­te­rior but the light stream­ing in, the open doors to the bal­conies, and the in­fi­nite sea be­yond. This is the coast that French writer An­dre Gide evoca­tively de­scribed as nearer to the sky than to the shore.

When Vi­dal lived here, this room was cen­tral com­mand. He would sit on a large sofa, parked in front of a long desk flanked by two an­tique globes of the world. He wrote (by hand or on a type­writer) by the light of a lamp that re­sem­bles a classical col­umn.

The desk and the sofa face a fire­place made from the lo­cal vol­canic stone (Pom­peii is just up the road) and dec­o­rated with flo­ral tiles. With its vaulted ceil­ing, com­mon to the lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar, this is a glo­ri­ous room.

The house has been half-stripped, but the lit­tle din­ing room, where he and Austen, who died in 2003, fed guests pasta and wine, looks com­plete. The chairs in here ap­par­ently are from the set of the 1959 epic film Ben-Hur , which Vi­dal helped script.

Past the study to the right is the for­mal sit­ting room, with more doors and a ter­race giv­ing out over the Tyrrhe­nian Sea. Ap­pro­pri­ately enough, this view of the seem­ingly in­fi­nite wa­ter is al­most ex­actly the one the em­peror Tiberius had from the Villa Jo­vis on the isle of Capri.

Down­stairs, the bed­rooms of Vi­dal and Austen look aban­doned, as does the study link­ing them.

In the study, on a ta­ble crowded with books, sits a hose fit­ting. Th­ese rooms feel des­o­late, as though the de­parted Vi­dal re­ally is dead, not just in Hol­ly­wood to be closer to bet­ter med­i­cal treat­ment.

Vi­dal was re­port­edly in­dif­fer­ent to the house and his leav­ing. As he wrote in Palimpsest: ‘‘ Or­di­nar­ily, I don’t think much

Check­list

Naples and the Amalfi Coast are fea­tured in Academy Travel’s Fab­u­lous Bay of Naples tour, led by Estelle Lazar and Robert Veel, Oc­to­ber 16-Novem­ber 1. More: www.acade­my­travel.com.au. Best beds in Ravello are at the Ho­tel Caruso. The pre­mier suite is No 301, which boasts its own stair­case lead­ing to a private pool. Aside from En­rico Caruso, the likes of Greta Garbo, Mar­got Fonteyn, Humphrey Bog­art and Jackie Kennedy Onas­sis stayed at the ho­tel when it was the Pen­sione Belvedere. More: www.hotel­caruso.com.

Ravello pic­tures: Chris­tine Ho­gan

Toast of the coast: Clock­wise from top, Ravello; street scene; Amalfi in­let; La Ron­d­i­naia; the writer’s desk; Vi­dal

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