August 26, 2004
For Gore Vidal, a Last, Long Look From the Heights
To a point. Unlike Tiberius, the Roman emperor who clung to his palace above the cobalt-blue waters until his mysterious death, Mr. Vidal is letting go, selling his 5,000-square-foot villa after 30 years, to move permanently to his other house, in Hollywood. Eat your heart out, Tiberius.
The humidity this morning had erased the horizon outside Mr. Vidal's vaulted study, fusing sea and sky into an atmospheric tableau. The craggy silhouette of Mount Falesio down the Amalfi coast gave the seascape its only edge, shaping the gulf into a large bowl of infinity. As a historian, Mr. Vidal outdid himself when he bought into a vista where Ulysses had sailed.
Still, Mr. Vidal, 79, has decided to leave, and the wheelchair parked near his blue-bottomed pool helps explain why. "I can no longer walk from here to the piazza," he said. "That's the only reason I'm selling." (He is asking 14 million euros, roughly $17 million). Mr. Vidal is recovering from an operation on his bad knee, which, for five grinding years, threw off his gait, leaving both legs weakened. Roman patricians escaping barbarians settled these heights late in the empire, precisely because access was so difficult. Houses in Ravello are opportunistic, built where the slopes give way to small ledges, just as wildflowers find cracks in the high walls holding up terraced fields.
Everything here is a climb, even the interiors of Mr. Gore's own perch, named La Rondinaia, or the Swallow's Nest. Its upper floors are terraced around stairways, and the six-acre property itself has 20 levels.
La Rondinaia already had a pedigree when Mr. Vidal bought it in 1972. It was built in the late 19th century by a daughter of Lord Grimthorpe, a lawyer and architect who owned the massive Villa Cimbrone just up the slope. But it took Mr. Vidal to make the pedigreed house legendary.
Like his friend Greta Garbo, Mr. Vidal wanted to be alone, but with select company. In their reclusive paradise, he and his longtime companion, Howard Austen, entertained Rudolf Nureyev, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Tennessee Williams and Princess Margaret, among many others.
From childhood, Mr. Vidal has lived in stately houses. La Rondinaia, though, is large without being grand. At the end of paths leveled into the hillside, it reveals itself on the oblique, in half-profile, much like Mr. Vidal in the many portraits in which his eyes engage the camera as his head turns slyly away.
Despite the terraced acres, La Rondinaia seems all house and no land, rising abruptly from the narrow end of the property, where the last ledge tapers into a cliff. The house is aerial, not stately, relating to the sky and the view more than to the earth. It is the rare European villa with virtually no facades announcing an elevated social status.
The broad wall of windows facing the Tyrrhenian Sea cannot be seen from the entry terrace, nor can the master bedroom and library, a level below grade. The house, with six bedrooms, two studies and five fireplaces, understates its mass.
"I end up with big houses because I have so many books," Mr. Vidal said. "If I didn't have the 8,000 volumes, I'd be in a one-room flat somewhere."
Shirley Hazzard, the novelist, recalls that when she arrived for lunch with Louis Auchincloss half a dozen years ago, Mr. Vidal greeted them at one of the villa's three gates wearing embroidered slippers and walked them along the cypress all╚e with beds of iris leading up to the front door.
"To some extent, it's a simple life, though it's difficult to speak of Gore and his life as simple," she said. "Even though he knows so many people, he would have found a great deal of quiet and solitude there."
"Of course, Ravello has always been known as an exalted place for love," she continued ˇ at one time for couples whose illicit loves "could not have been countenanced in other places."
In his memoir, "Palimpsest," Mr. Vidal recalls his life as a series of starts and corrections. The villa, too, is a palimpsest, with its archaeological layers of past and present. With its purchase, Mr. Vidal inherited furniture, which he reupholstered. He brought in paintings and memorabilia from an apartment he had sold in Rome. At first, he made a few minor structural changes. The addition of a pool, a pool house and a sauna date from 1984, paid for with earnings from his historical novel "Lincoln."
It was Mr. Austen who oversaw the decoration and furnishing of the house, until his long illness, and his death last year. "He took over care of the house and grounds," Mr. Vidal said. "His presence is everywhere ˇ I feel him constantly."
Famously world-weary, Mr. Vidal grows most animated when discussing the objects with a history, like the tapestry in the small salon portraying a hunting scene ("It's the first Aubusson ever made, done for the Dutch trade") and the dining chairs designed for the film "Ben Hur," which Mr. Vidal helped script.
"Gore is always working, but with the door to the big study wide open," said Barbara Epstein, the editor of The New York Review of Books, who is a longtime friend. "At night, after you have this wonderful pasta-infested dinner in the small but beautiful dining room ˇ Howard was a wonderful cook ˇ you listen to music in the salone and have a little of the very good local wine. It's very relaxed, even cozy.
"Of course, there is nothing like conversation with Gore, and his impersonations are hilarious. He's such a fabulous host because he loves company. It's really a house where he works ˇ and he works hard ˇ through the winter, and I imagine he longs for company, as though he were saving up for you to come and be entertained."
The study, where Mr. Vidal has written everything from the historical novel "Burr" to the polemical "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace," is the room that today seems most filled by his presence. The public rooms feel ceremonial, and vacant. Not as many friends come to visit now. "I know fewer and fewer people," he said.
But Mr. Vidal, as politically engaged as ever, has transcended generations, and despite his weak legs, maintains an active lecture schedule attended by much younger readers abroad and in America.
The world will get a glimpse inside La Rondinaia in December, when Touchstone releases "The Life Aquatic," a movie starring Bill Murray that uses it as a location. "The character in the film has everything ˇ fame, money, grants, awards ˇ and Gore's house was his villa on a made-up island," said Barry Mendel, a producer of the film. "It has a reputation for elegance, and a mystique, and when we went there for scouting, the reputation proved true."
Finished with his breakfast, Mr. Vidal lifted his loafered feet up on a capacious, tufted sofa, tailored 30 years ago in Rome to the scale of the room. Behind the couch, a long wooden desk, another distinguished leftover from the previous owner, serves as the cockpit of his active universe. Between two antique world globes at the ends of the desk, he writes, by hand or typewriter, under a lamp shaped like a classical column. Bookcases line three walls. All the furniture faces a tufa fireplace decorated with floral tiles, under a lofty vaulted ceiling characteristic of local vernacular architecture. Two long windows open to the view down the Amalfi coast to Paestum. A television keeps him informed about current events.
In "Palimpsest" he wrote, "Ordinarily, I don't think much about the past," adding, "I am only at home in the present."
The studied indifference seems to apply to the house. "Everything has its time in life," he said, "and in a year, I'll be 80. I'm not about to add a new wing. This was a venture for two people. Now there's only one."
He elaborates, always in his slow, deliberate baritone. "I'm not sentimental about anything. Life flows by, and you flow with it or you don't. Move on and move out."