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Fontana Vecchia, The House of Words, Part Two

(Click to read part one.)


Truman Capote looking very dapper. Courtesy of N. Harrison, 1999When Truman Capote discovered Fontana Vecchia in April, 1950, the villa's charm and beauty immediately bewitched him. He could hardly believe his fortune when he discovered this villa had been the home of D.H. Lawrence; he felt it might inspire him, too, and lead to a brilliant future as a writer. Just after discovering the villa, Capote wrote, "We have just had luck, at least I hope it is luck, in finding a place to live...about twenty minutes walk from Taormina, very isolated, but plenty of room and a wonderful view. It costs $50 a month, which is rather a lot, at least by Italian standards, but I like it tremendously."

"Fontana Vecchia, Old Fountain," Capote writes in The Dogs Bark. "So the house is called…There is no fountain…It is a rose-colored house dominating a valley of almond and olive trees that sinks into the sea. Across the water is a view on clear days of Italy's tip end, the peninsula of Calabria. Back of us, a stony, wavering path, traveled mostly by farming peasants, their donkeys and goats, leads along the side of the mountain into the town of Taormina. It is very like living in an airplane, or a ship trembling on the peak of a tidal wave. There is a momentous feeling each time one looks from the windows, steps onto the terrace, a feeling of being suspended, like the white reeling doves, between the mountains and above the sea."

This villa has character. Copyright: N. Harrison, 1999Capote's hunch about his good fortune must have been an omen because, during the thirteen months he lived in Fontana Vecchia, he completed his most famous work to date, The Grass Harp, a book that catapulted him into international stardom.

Capote shared his villa with his lover, Jack Dunphy. Shortly after arriving at Fontana Vecchia, Capote enthusiastically describes a day following harvest in The Dogs Bark: "When we first leased Fontana Vecchia – this was in the spring. April – the valley was high with wheat green as the lizards racing among its stalks. It begins in January, the Sicilian spring, and accumulates into a kingly bouquet, a wizard's garden where all things have bloomed; the creek sprouts mint; dead trees are wreathed in wild clamber roses; even the brutal cactus shoots tender blossoms…It is bright as the snows on Etna's summit. Children climb along the mountainside filling sacks of petals in preparation for a Saint's Day, and fishermen, passing with their baskets of pearl-colored pesce, have geraniums tucked behind their ears. May, and the spring is in its twilight; the sun enlarges; you remember that Africa is only eighty miles away; like a bronze shadow autumn color falls across the land. By June the wheat was ready to harvest. We listened with a certain melancholy to the scythes swinging in the golden field. When the work was over, our landlord, to whom the crop belonged, gave a party for the harvesters. There were only two women – a young girl who sat nursing a baby, and an old woman, the girl's grandmother. The old woman loved to dance; barefooted, she whirled with all the men – no one could make her take a rest, she would spring up in the middle of a tune to grab herself a partner. The men took turns playing the accordion, all danced together, which is a rural custom in Sicily. It was the best kind of party; too much dancing, far too much wine. Later, as I went exhaustedly to bed, I thought of the old woman. After working all day in the field and dancing all evening, she had now to start on a five-mile upward climb to her house in the mountains."

Seek sanctuary from the sun in the shady yard. Copyright N. Harrison, 1999"…Taormina is as scenically extravagant as Goethe claims; but it is a curious town. During the war, it was the headquarters of Kesselring, the German general; consequently, it came in for a share of Allied bombing. The damage was slight. Nevertheless, the war was the town's undoing. Up until 1940 it was, with the exception of Capri, the most successful Mediterranean resort south of the French Riviera."

"We do not have many visitors at Fontana Vecchia; it is too far a walk for casual callers, and days go by when no one knocks at the door except the ice boy."

Truman Capote was often seen with Tennessee Williams – the pair of them sipping drinks together at the famous Wunderbar and the Americano Bar in Taormina's main piazza. So much did Capote treasure the friendship with Williams that he dedicated a book to him, Music for Chameleons.

Robert Linscott, a senior editor at Random House, said of Capote's Grass Harp, "Wonderful Wonderful Wonderful...There is a perfection about these two chapters that is simply miraculous. I read and reread and love every word...Rumor has it that you plan to return in March...I hope this means with the completed manuscript, as it would be a pity to leave such ideal working conditions before the job is done...I adore every word you have written to date. I read it all through last night from beginning to its present end and had to stop every few paragraphs to hug myself with pleasure. If the last chapter is as good as the preceding ones, this is really going to be a masterpiece."

The following quote is from Gerald Clarke who wrote Capote, A Biography: "The view from the huge windows and broad terraces was as wonderful as Truman said, however, a more than adequate reward for the hike up that steep and stony path; down below, a valley of olive and almond trees, the blue Ionian Sea beyond, and, in the distance, the miragelike outline of the Italian mainland."

And we too say farewell to Fontana Vecchia. Copyright N. Harrison, 1999Clarke reports on their departure in mid-September 1951, "Truman and Jack stuffed their belongings into the little Renault...they said farewell… to Taormina, whose appeal had depended, more than they had thought, on the charms of Fontana Vecchia."

Fontana Vecchia and good fortune must have smiled on Capote for he went on to become the most photographed writer of his generation. Chances are likely the enchanting villa will bring good fortune to its lucky tenants for another 350 years.