A Confederate hero, his book about Capri, and how its
updated and amplified re-publication came about
by: John Churchill, Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd
This book came about because of a chance visit. There is an old library in the centre of Capri in a 14th-century building – you ring a bell, the buzzer goes and you climb the steps of a circular tower to find a quiet haven, knowledgeable staff, and a collection of books and documents dedicated exclusively to the island, many of them going back two, three and even four hundred years. You can’t work your way along the shelves – you take a seat, you’re given a list and your selection is brought to you.
My attention was caught by a title called simply ‘Capri’ by John Clay MacKowen, published in Naples, in English, in 1884. A frail little book – now apparently unobtainable even via antiquarian websites – was duly brought and I began to read. It turned out to be a compelling account of just about everything to do with the island – its prehistory, geology and palaeontology, its grottoes and spectacular landscape, the splendour of its residence for twenty years as the seat of the Emperor Tiberius, the richness of its archaeology, its turbulent political years during the Middle Ages and start of the modern era, and on through to the later part of the nineteenth century when Capri became a magnet for travellers, writers and scholars, holding them all with the spell that still brings its visitors back year after year.
Time ran out and I came back the next day to finish it, and then the day afterwards because I wanted to read it again. I’m a publisher by trade and felt that there could be other people who would be equally pleased to read this informative and spirited story. And what’s more … if this sparkling original were to be re-set in a more easily readable format and if its themes could be expanded in the light of current findings and research, then perhaps we would have a book of the greatest interest to the modern reader. Several academics who know the island well wrote additional chapters that supplemented the original material in the light of modern findings and research, and now the book is available in both a printed and Kindle edition. The book can also be ordered directly through Capri Revisited.
MacKowen was a celebrated cavalry officer who had earned two swords for gallantry as a Colonel in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. He then qualified in medicine at Munich in Germany and subsequently lived for twenty years on Capri before returning to his native Louisiana roots in 1897. His violent death in a shoot-out four years later is documented in the book. There’s more to the story because we have subsequently traced the author’s Louisiana family, but this is for a later article. For the moment I hope that those of you who have fallen in love with that magic island will take pleasure in this book.