by Ciriaco Viggiano

On the occasion of the 8th edition of the „Gorky Award“, the international literature competition named after the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, organized by the Municipal Administration of Sorrento and the Association of Social Promotion “Gorky Award” with the aim of enhancing the cultural relationship between Italy and Russia, held in Sorrento on 2nd and 3rd June 2016, we interviewed writer Raffaele Lauro, the author of the third novel of “The Sorrentine Trilogy”, entitled “Dance The Love - A Star in Vico Equense”, dedicated to the great Russian dancer, Violetta Elvin, born Prokhorova. Through the story of the protagonist, the book tells of the Russian colony in Sorrento, Positano and Capri between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, which gathered eminent personalities of Russian history in the fields of painting, literature, politics and dance: painter Sylvester Feodosiyevich Shchedrin in Sorrento, writer Maxim Gorky between Capri and Sorrento, the exiled Bolsheviks in Capri and, in particular, the two legends of classical dance, Léonide Massine and Rudolf Nureyev, between Positano and the Li Galli islands.

D: Does dancer Violetta Elvin, the protagonist of your new novel, “Dance The Love - A Star in Vico Equense”, continue the long tradition of Russian figures who stayed and loved the Sorrento-Amalfi coast and Capri between the nineteenth and the twentieth century?

R: Precisely. Violetta Prokhorova, aka Violetta Elvin, was not the only famous person of Russian origin to be left spellbound by the beauty of islands in the Bay of Naples and the Sorrento and Amalfi coast. Sorrento, Capri, Positano and Li Galli boasted prominent Russian presence since the nineteenth century, both in artistic and political field: painter Sylvester Feodosiyevich Shchedrin in Sorrento, writer Maxim Gorky between Capri and Sorrento, the exiled Bolsheviks in Capri and, in particular, the two legends of ballet, Léonide Massine and Rudolf Nureyev, between Positano and the Li Galli islands.

D: How did Shchedrin arrive to Sorrento, where he lived, worked and died in 1830?

R: Shchedrin came from St. Petersburg. His father, Feodosij, was a famous sculptor, who taught at the Academy of Fine Arts, just as his uncle did. Therefore, Sylvester grew up in an art-oriented family environment. His uncle, Semyon, frequently took him to the Hermitage, and he learned to paint as a child to become a child prodigy like Mozart. In the Hermitage museum he fell in love with the paintings by Canaletto. Great scenarios. Landscapes. Just at the age of nine, after having received a solid art education at home, he was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, graduating at the age of twelve and winning a scholarship with the three-year residence in Italy.

D: Did he choose Sorrento as the place of his stay?

R: No. Firstly, he stopped in Venice to pay tribute to the pictorial myth of his childhood, Canaletto. After Venice, he moved to Rome, where he loved to paint en plein air, just like the French Impressionists. And in Rome he began to lay the foundations of his painting style. His work focused on the creation of landscapes. Roman countryside becomes his atelier and its inhabitants – objects of his works. He was forced to include archaeological ruins only for marketing reasons to characterize to buyers the ancient Roman world presented in his paintings. That nature, those places, those colours and especially those people, those farmers, those shepherds – they formed his inspiration. He started to paint a lot when the scholarship grants were finished, because he wanted to stay in Italy, his main source of inspiration, and he decided to support himself by selling paintings.

D: And finally he arrived to Sorrento?

R: The landscapes of the Sorrentine Peninsula, as evidenced by the works kept in the Correale Museum of Terranova and at the very Hermitage, as well as in Naples, testify of Shchedrin’s falling for Sorrento and the peninsula. The magical realism, on which he commented: “There is shade and wonderful refreshment brought to a courageous man on the cliff in the taste of the sea by a wave breaking on the rock.”

D: He died very young, and his remains are kept at the municipal cemetery of Sorrento. Is the bond between Shchedrin and Sorrento really unbreakable?

R: Shchedrin dedicated his short and intense life to the beauty of our land. He sought it, he portrayed it, and he immortalized it. He died young, at only thirty-nine, maybe because his eyes were no longer able to withstand so much wonder. His paintings continue to talk about this beauty. The eternity of art!

D: From Sorrento to Capri. From Shchedrin to Maxim Gorky?

R: The artists who had visited the small island of Capri since the second half of the nineteenth century were fascinated by the unspoiled nature, the sheer sea views and rustic simplicity, with which the islanders lived their lives. After the Russian--Japanese War of 1904-1905, Capri became a favourite place of many Russian exiles adverse to the Tsarist regime, who transformed the island into a political and literary oasis, a centre of culture and at the same time, a pre-revolutionary school. Gorky, the writer, was persecuted by the Tsarist regime. That's why he had to take refuge in Capri with his family. He was an already famous author at the time, in particular for the novel “The Mother”.

D: Why was Gorky persecuted by the Tsarist regime?

R: Gorky had an unhappy childhood, so as a writer he always fought against poverty, ignorance and tyranny represented back then by the Tsarist regime. In his works, he showed the true face of Russia, hunger, vagrants, serfdom, all the outside of the glittering imperial palaces. That's why the Tsar, the landowning nobility, and the privileged class feared him like plague. They feared that his writings could provide ideological weapons to those who were convinced by Lenin, that the power of Tsars would never be reformed by itself, but it had to be knocked down by people’s revolution led by the Bolshevik Party , by the Leninist party.

D: A revolution that replaced a despotic regime with an even more cruel dictatorship in the name of people?

R: The Bolshevik revolution aroused many hopes, so many illusions, with an image of social justice and collective well-being. A revolution that overthrew the despotic order, imposed by the Tsar, and eventually replaced it with an even worse regime than what it had fought.

D: Let's come back to Gorky and Capri. How much time did he spend on the island?

R: Gorky and his family did not have to stay there for a long time, but they were charmed by the beauty of the enchanted places of Capri and remained there for seven years, from 1906 to 1913. They stayed mainly at Villa Blaesus, on the terrace of which the writer was photographed with other famous Russians while playing chess.

D: How and why did Lenin arrive to Capri?

R: On Capri, Gorky created a kind of a party school, a political-cultural workshop for intellectuals expelled or fled from the Tsarist Russia after the failure of the first revolutionary movements. They discussed political economy, the theory of the labour movement, International Socialism, social democracy, literature, and also performed practical tasks for the party and held conversations and debates on the most interesting publications of the European socialist press. Later on he was joined by other Russian exiles, such as Alexander Bogdanov, writers Anatoly Lunacharsky, Ivan Bunin and Leonid Andreyev, philosopher Vladimir Alexandrovich Bazarov and tenor Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin. The visit of Lenin, however, was dictated by the revolutionary concern to control the ideological orientation and revolutionary practice discussed in the school of Capri, not always orthodox with regards to that of the Bolshevik Party.

D: However, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the birth of the Soviet regime Gorky returned to Italy with his family and settled at the Cape of Sorrento, at Villa Il Sorito?

R: From 1924, Gorky, suffering from tuberculosis, stayed at the Cape of Sorrento, no longer controlled by the Tsarist spies, but by those much more efficient ones of Stalin, who had seized power after the death of Lenin in the same year. He stayed in Sorrento until 1927, when, liking it or not, at the invitation of the new Tsar, Stalin, he had to return to devote himself as a proletarian writer to the education of new writers (of the regime) and to the celebration of the real socialism of Stalin.

D: Can we state that the late Gorky becomes an instrument in the hands of the Stalinist propaganda?

R: This remains a controversial page of the relationship between Gorky and Stalin. He was exploited by the Soviet propaganda, there is no doubt. Stalin was photographed with the writer. Just read “The Gulag Archipelago” and “Live not by lies” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: pages of harsh denunciation of Gorky’s attitude conniving with the Stalinist regime, especially from the time of his final return to his homeland from Sorrento until his death in 1936.

D: Now we will face the final stage: Positano and the mythical Li Galli. Does the history of world dance pass through Positano and the Li Galli archipelago?

R: Certainly. In 1917, the great Russian dancer and choreographer, Léonide Massine, was on tour with the company of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. The Russian writer, Mikhail Nikolaevich Semenov, was a guest of the company in Positano in that ancient seventeenth-century mill owned by the family of D'Arienzo, located on one of the beaches of Positano. Pablo Picasso and Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky also joined the company. From his room, Massine could see the Li Galli, then owned by the Parlato family, who kept them for hunting quail. He fell in love and later returned to Positano, and was able to buy them for 300 million Italian liras. He wanted to create a large amphitheatre, a worldwide dance school, like a stage unique in the world, overlooking Positano, the divine coast, the Faraglioni of Capri and the marine horizon.

D: For how many years did Massine stay on Li Galli?

R: After buying them, the great dancer-choreographer would spend much of the year there hosting his friends from the world of dance and creating choreography. At first, he considered that mythical place just a good retreat, but soon he realized that he had done the most important thing in his life, because on Li Galli he conceived and choreographed some of his more ambitious productions. He aspired to transform Li Galli into a place where young artists from all over the world could come and be inspired and prepare for the art of Terpsichore.

D: Did he succeed?

R: Unfortunately, not. Any attempt to build an amphitheatre was thwarted by storms and wind, as if the mythical Sirens rebelled to a profanation of those rocks.

D: On the death of Massine there was an ideal passing between the two giants of Russian origin, the lovers of Li Galli. From Massine to Rudolf Nureyev?

R: Not straight away. Nureyev had often stayed on Li Galli as Massine’s guest since 1970. He, too, fell in love with that enchanted place, so much so that in 1989, ten years after the death of the great choreographer, he bought them from his son, Lorca, the only heir of Massine. The fate, however, allowed him to enjoy the natural magic of summer there for just over three years. On 3 September 1992, in fact, Rudy said goodbye for the last time, repeatedly kissing them, his Li Galli. A few months later, in January 1993, in France, in Lavallois-Perret, the then incurable illness from which he suffered took him away from the world and the art of dance, handing him down to history as one of the greatest dancers of all time, and with him also the rocks of Ms. Parlato in front of Positano.

D: Apart from those famous people, how do you explain the love of the Russians for our coast and Capri?

R: I have asked myself this question, but apart from the charm of nature that captures everyone, Russian or non-Russian, there are other historical factors that have contributed to the myth of our land in the Russian world as a country of health and care of spirit and body. Two, in particular. The Sorrento stay in the late nineteenth century, at Hotel Tramontano, of Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna, where she found relief from her lung disease, which was described in all the newspapers of the era. The purchase by the noble Russian family of Cortchacow, related to Tsar Nicholas II, of the splendid residence Poggio Siracusa built by the Count of Syracuse, cousin of the King of Naples, Ferdinand IV of Bourbon. Russian nobles and celebrities who stayed there consolidated the myth of our land in Russian culture.

Back to Top