In our new column, we uncover the secret history behind some of the world's most exquisite and unusual dwellings. First up: the sublime Sicilian residences that charmed Pablo Picasso, Greta Garbo and Truman Capote
Since the 18th century, the small Sicilian town of Taormina has been exerting its pull on some of the biggest names in art, literature and film – Goethe, Picasso, Greta Garbo, DH Lawrence, Truman Capote and many more, have all been enchanted by the seaside enclave that lies in the shadow of Mount Etna, the active volcano that still erupts regularly, covering the town in a fine layer of ash.
At the heart of Taormina’s mystique lies the Grand Hotel Timeo, a beautiful classical villa built into the rugged cliffs. Not a man of understatement, late 19th century French writer Guy De Maupassant sold it like this - “If a man only has one day to spend in Sicily and asks what to see, I would answer without any hesitation: Taormina,” he declared, “It is only a place, but a place in which you will find everything created on earth to seduce the eyes, the spirit and the imagination.”
The history of the Grand Hotel Timeo is also the history of the grand tour, that cultural tradition of wealthy young men and women travelling the length of Europe, taking in the antiquities and architecture while perfecting their languages and their social circle of fellow young aristocrats.
Case in point is classical German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was the first to put Sicilian coastal town on the map. “Know’st thou the land where lemon-trees do bloom, And oranges like gold in leafy gloom…?” he asked, in his book, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. He spent two years in Italy in the 1780’s and described his exuberant encounter with the land in his Italian Journey, with one section recounting the charms of the ancient Greek theatre of Taormina, which lies behind the Grand Hotel Timeo.
Continuing the tradition in 1863, a 20-year-old Prussian baron Otto Gèleng came to Taormina to paint, and rented a room in the private home of a certain Don Francesco La Floresta, who called his house “Timeo”, in honour of the Greek man who founded the town in 358 B.C. Gèleng’s watercolours created interest in Berlin and Paris, bringing more artists to Don Francesco’s Timeo, which then expanded into a full-fledged luxury hotel over the next 30 years. This attracted a range of nobility from across Europe, many for the Sicilian sojourn of their grand tours, as well as composers and artists of the time, including Klimt, Klee, Bramhs, Bernstein and Wagner.
In 1920, DH Lawrence checked into The Grand Hotel Timeo and didn’t check out for four years. Seated on the hotel’s large terrace, overlooking the lemon orchards and the sea, Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his erotic masterpiece which scandalised the world at the time.
After a brief closure during the second world war, when the Timeo was bombed and the RAF requisitioned the hotel, the grand hotel reopened and entered its most glamorous epoch yet.
Throughout the late 40s and the 50s, a veritable who’s who visited the hotel, from the old Hollywood set – Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn as well as Jackie Kennedy, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, and Tennessee Williams who stayed for months at a time, while Truman Capote refused to leave for two entire years.
But it wasn’t just the opulence of the Grand Hotel Timeo that brought the world’s intelligentsia to this sleepy Sicilian town. In 1900, English artist Robert H. Kitson built his villa Casa Cuseni in Taormina to escape the overbearing English homophobia of the times, and invited his circle of friends to join him. Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, and Bertrand Russell all came to Kitson’s villa and worked here. It was to the Casa Cuseni that Tennessee Williams took his lover Henry Faulkner, and English artist Julian Trevelyan fell in love with Mary Fadden. Kitson was in the same expat social circle as eccentric German baron, Wilhelm Von Gloeden, best known for his homoerotic photography series of young Sicilian men in Taormina, and some of Von Gloeden’s work can still be found at the villa.
Kitson was an avid collector, and Casa Cuseni’s art collection still remains in a league of its own. Today you can walk around the villa and encounter a rare Frank Brangwyn mural, Picasso’s ink drawings and letters from Tennessee Williams, as well as 15th-century Tibetan rugs, ancient Islamic ceramics and dolls belonging to King Ferdinand IV. None of the works lie behind glass, and little has changed in the Casa in the last hundred years, there is a sense that it’s former guests have just stepped out of the room for a moment.