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The island of Capri is situated in the Gulf of Naples, between the Italian Peninsula and the islands of Procida and Ischia. Made of limestone, its lowest part is at the center, while its sides are high and mostly surrounded by steep precipices, which contain numerous caves. Its topography is dominated by the slopes of the Monte Solaro in the West and Monte St Michele in the East.
The historian and Greek geographer Strabo thought that Capri broke off from the mainland. His theory has been confirmed recently, both from geologic findings that link the island with the Sorrento Peninsula and from archaeological discoveries.
The first discoveries of prehistoric-age remains occurred more than two thousand years ago during the Roman Imperial era, when excavations for Imperial buildings on the island unearthed remains of animals that had disappeared tens of thousands before, as well as traces of Stone-Age occupants. The story was documented by the historian Suetonius (75–140) who described the interest shown by the emperor Augustus in preserving these remains, creating the first museum of paleontology and paleoanthropology in his villa's garden.
The earliest mythical inhabitants were the Teleboi from Acarnania under their king Telon. Neolithic remains were found in 1882 in the Grotta delle Felci, a cave on the south coast. In historical times the island was occupied by Greeks who from the eighth century BC onwards first settled on the island of Ischia and the mainland, at Cumae, and later came to Capri. The historian Strabo wrote that "in ancient times there were two towns in Capri, which were later reduced to one".
One of those two towns was the precursor to today's Capri town. This is confirmed by the remains of fortification walls, built with large limestone boulders at the bottom and square blocks at the top, visible from the terrace of the funicular railway, and a building at the foot of Castiglione, and these, together with other buildings now destroyed, complete the old town (5th to 4th century BC).
Regarding the second city, many hypotheses have been advanced, but the most reliable is that even then it was Anacapri, based on the existence of the Phoenician Steps that connect to the port (despite its name, the steps cannot not have been built by the Phoenicians, but by Greek colonists).
Since its first settlement, the natural shape of the island led to the creation of two communities, one in the East with hills sloping down to the sea, and one to the West on a large plateau, the steep slopes of Monte Solaro and with no access to the sea.
Capri subsequently fell into the hands of Neapolis (the former Greek colony called Naples today) and remained so until the time of Augustus, who took it in exchange for Aenaria (Ischia) and often resided there.
Tiberius, who spent the last ten years of his life at Capri, built twelve villas there. Ruins of one at Tragara could still be seen in the 19th century. All these villas can be identified with more or less certainty, the best-preserved being those on the East extremity, consisting of a large number of vaulted substructures and the foundations perhaps of a Pharos (lighthouse). One was known as Villa Jovis, and the other eleven were probably named after other deities. The existence of numerous ancient cisterns shows that in Roman as in modern times rain provided the island's culinary water, since it contains no natural springs. South of the main building there are remains of a watch tower, used to communicate with the mainland.
Apparently the main motivation for Tiberius' move from Rome to Capri was his wariness with the political manoeuvring in Rome and a lingering fear of assassination. The villa is situated at a secluded spot of the island and the quarters of Tiberius in the north and east of the palatial villa were particularly difficult to reach and heavily guarded.
According to Suetonius, Villa Jovis was the scene of Tiberius' wild debauchery, but many modern historians regard these tales as merely vicious slander by his detractors. These historians believe that he lived a modest, reclusive existence on the island.
After Tiberius died, the island seems to have been little visited by the emperors, and we hear of it only as a place of banishment for the wife and sister of Commodus. The island, having been at first the property of Neapolis, and later of the emperors, never had upon it any community with civic rights. Even in Imperial times Greek was largely spoken there. As many Greek as Latin inscriptions have been found on the island.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Capri fell again under the rule of Naples, and suffered various attacks and ravages by pirates. In 866 Emperor Louis II gave the island to the comune of Amalfi. The political dependence of Capri to Amalfi, which had relations to the Eastern Mediterranean, is particularly evident in art and architecture, in which Byzantine and Islamic forms appeared. In 987 Pope John XV consecrated the first Caprese bishop.
Frederick IV of Naples established legal and administrative parity between the two settlements of Capri and Anacapri in 1496. Pirate raids by the Barbary corsairs reached their peak during the reign of Charles V. The medieval town was on the north side at the chief landing-place (Marina Grande), and to it belonged the church of S. Costanzo, an early Christian building. It was abandoned in the 15th century on account of the inroads of pirates, and the inhabitants took refuge higher up, in Capri and Anacapri. The pirate Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, called Barbarossa, plundered and burned Capri seven times. The worst raid occurred in 1535, when Barbarossa captured the island for the Ottoman Empire and had Anacapri castle burned down, the ruins of which are now called Castello Barbarossa. This castle is on the property of Villa San Michele today.) In 1553, a second invasion by Turgut Reis resulted in another capture and in the looting and destruction of Certosa di San Giacomo. The danger of such attacks led Charles V to allow the inhabitants to arm themselves, and new towers were built to defend the island. Only the 1830 French defeat of the pirates ended this threat.
A 17th-century visitor to the island was the French erudite libertine Jean-Jacques Bouchard, who may be considered Capri's first modern tourist. His diary, found in 1850, is an important information source about Capri.
In January 1806, French troops under Bonaparte took control of the island. In May 1806, the island was wrested from French control by an English fleet under Sir Sidney Smith, and strongly fortified, but in 1808 it was retaken by the French under Lamarque. By a simulated attack on the two docks of Marina Grande and Marina Piccola, British attention was diverted from the west coast, where the French were able to scale the cliffs and forced the enemy to surrender. In 1813 Capri, was restored to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Capri became a popular resort for European artists, writers and other celebrities, such as Norman Douglas, Friedrich Alfred Krupp, Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen, Christian Wilhelm Allers, Emil von Behring, Curzio Malaparte, Axel Munthe, and Maxim Gorky. The book that spawned the 19th century fascination with Capri in France, Germany, and England was Entdeckung der Blauen Grotte auf der Insel Capri, 'Discovery of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri', by German painter and writer August Kopisch, in which he describes his 1826 stay on Capri and his (re)discovery of the Blue Grotto.
Several novels were written about Capri in the early 20th century by authors who lived here, including Fersen, Douglas, and Mackenzie: Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen wrote the roman à clef Et le feu s’èteignit sur le mer (1910), causing a minor scandal. Fersen's life on Capri became the subject of Roger Peyrefitte's fictionalised biography, L'Exile de Capri. Norman Douglas's novel South Wind is a thinly fictionalized description of Capri's residents and visitors, and a number of his other works, both books and pamphlets, deal with the island, including Capri (1930) and his last work, A Footnote on Capri (1952). A satirical presentation of the island's lesbian colony in the 1920s is made in Compton Mackenzie's novel Extraordinary Women (1928).
Ignazio Cerio's son, author and engineer Edwin Cerio, wrote several books about life on Capri and also continued the work of his father in cataloging the local flora and fauna. In 1920, as a self-proclaimed Liberal at a time when the Fascists were gaining ground in the rest of Italy, he was elected Mayor of Capri. Although he held this post for just three years, he greatly affected the way that the island would be governed for the rest of the century. To prevent Milanese property developers from destroying the traditional ambience of Capri, he organised in 1922 a "conference for the defence of the landscape", whose planning groundrules still influence the government of Capri. His passionate opposition to what he called the "sharks" who were building hotels, apartment blocks and department stores was not popular with everyone, however, and in 1923 he was voted out of office.
In 1995 the Capri Film Festival was founded, which takes place every December and attracts both Italian and foreign filmmakers as well as Hollywood stars. The Capri Art Film Festival, an annual event, was also started in 2006.
The early 2000s saw the addition of two tourist destinations: In the Northeast, Villa Lysis, which had been derelict for decades, was meticulously restored to serve as a cultural center and museum; in the Southwest near the Southern coast, Capri Philosophical Park opened, showcasing quotes by 60 different Western philosophers.