One of the loveliest, art-filled spots in Anacapri has its roots in America’s Civil War. The charm and beauty of Capri’s Casa Rossa (“Red House”) (Via Giuseppe Orlandi, 78), owes its origins to Lieutenant Colonel John Clay MacKowen. He was drawn to the tiny island in Italy after America’s darkest days left him searching for peace in a faraway land. His legacy is a quirky museum filled with wonder including the ancient underwater treasures of Capri’s mysterious Blue Grotto.
Red House Origins
MacKowen was a medical doctor who found his way to Anacapri at the pinnacle of the island after the end of America’s Civil War. The house wasn’t built in a day and was a true labor of love. It took MacKowen more than twenty years to complete between 1876 and 1899 and is a hodge-podge of architectural styles emanating from its characteristic 16th century watch-tower and painted in brilliant Pompeiian red. We can only imagine how difficult it must have been to bring his vision to life at a time when the Home Depot and Lowe’s didn’t exist, making it extremely difficult to haul supplies to this clifftop spot.
The house itself is a collection of MacKowen’s diverse background and varied interests. Having been born in Ireland and raised in the United States, he was well-traveled before arriving on Capri. The art collection is a result of visits to Africa, Asia and Europe and contains the underwater statutes he gathered after buying the famous Blue Grotto. No joke, MacKowen, owned the Blue Grotto, where the sunlight radiates the water from underneath, casting an iridescent glow in the cave. I hear back then you could buy it for a siren’s song.
MacKowen saved the statutes originally placed in the Grotto by Emperor Tiberius nearly 2,000 years earlier. He saved them from their watery tomb for us to enjoy in the 21st Century. The statues are part of the magnificent permanent collection at Casa Rossa, which also includes paintings by various artists of life on Capri through the decades. He captured his love of the island in his book Capri published in 1884 and later reprinted in an annotated version in 2012. Consider yourself lucky if you can find a copy today.
“It is like being aboard a large ship, which never rocks nor plunges, and which affords beautiful, pleasant walks over vine, orange, fig and lemon-clad terraces; these mingle their odours with the sea breeze and furnish pretty contrasts of colour with the ever-changing blues of the sea. . .”~ Capri/MacKowen (1884)
Sadly, MacKowen’s life was cut short in the blink of an eye as he was murdered after returning home to his native Louisiana over a land dispute. No one is quite sure why but the Colonel’s legacy lives on in Casa Rossa’s art and its storied past.
Visiting Casa Rossa
Upon landing on the island, take a sharp right and you’ll find the ticket booths. Buy a roundtrip bus ticket to Anacapri. The buses leave every 20 minutes or so and will take you to the lovely, off the beaten path, artsy neighborhood known as Anacapri. Casa Rossa is open from April to October and closed on Mondays.
Author Lisa Fantino, author of the bestselling memoir “Amalfi Blue, Lost & Found in the South of Italy,” has visited Capri numerous times and tells us Anacapri is one of the prettiest spots to spend the day on Italy’s island of luxury, Capri.