Prior to visiting, I honestly believed that Taormina would be one of the most touristy places I’d experience in Sicily. I doubted whether I could find any ‘hidden gems’ to write about for The Museum Times. Then my mother suggested we visit Casa Cuseni. After all, Piscasso, Greta Garbo, Oscar Wilde, Henry Faulkner and many other famous individuals once stayed there. She couldn’t have been more spot on.
History of Casa Cuseni in a Nutshell
Upon arrival, Maria, our Sicilian tour guide at Casa Cuseni, led us from room to room explaining the very special history of the building. The initial owner, Robert H. Kitson (a wealthy British businessman, artist and patron of the arts) left it to his niece, Daphne Phelps (author of A House in Sicily). Kitson once entertained his many creatively-inclined friends (including Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, Henry Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams) at the villa – many of whom aptly came there to write, paint and find inspiration.
But why did Kitson initially come to Taormina you may ask? Well, Kitson and even writer Oscar Wilde were both so taken up with the place all because of Wilhelm van Gloeden’s photography which they saw in a popular UK magazine at the time. Van Gloeden’s photography represented free, young Sicilian men enjoying life (and this was particularly appealing to both Kitson and Wilde who grew up in Great Britain within the restrictive, homophobic context at the time – in fact, even Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality at some point). They both later met the photographer in Taormina. And it was then on his visit to Taormina that Kitson fell in love with the place, went home and sold his locomotive business in order to move there.
Upon Kitson’s death, his niece, Daphne Phelps took up ownership of Casa Cuseni and resided there from 1948 and 1999. During this time she wrote her novel (A House in Sicily). She later passed away at the age of 94 in 2005.
Today, the villa is both a museum and hotel – you can stay in one of the rooms (named after artists and creatives) with wonderful views overlooking the city with Mount Etna in the background and views of the sea too. One can easily see why such scenery has been inspiring to all creatives who have visited the place.
Casa Cuseni is definitely a respite away from the crowds in central Taormina. This tranquility is evident in the beautiful gardens surrounding the house. There are various exotic plants, flowers and a lovely pond.
But of course, views and the exterior of the house are not the only thing that makes Casa Cuseni so delightful. The interior is equally as special (if not more so) for it tells a unique story that has attracted writers and artists from all over the world. There is a definite old-world charm to the interior, combining artworks, antique furniture and soft wall colours.
Moreover, there are some really special finds within. Namely, an entire room painted by Belgium artist, Sir Frank Brangwyn (good friend of Kitson) called La Camera Segreta which is one of a kind (see below). The room is exceptionally special as the subject matter painted on the walls documents homosexual love and also depicts an adoption by a homosexual couple which indeed happened (which at the time was illegal in Great Britain) but accepted in Taormina itself. It is also important to note that this room wherein the mural lies was closed for a century because of the nature of the illustration and for the artists’ fear of imprisonment for homosexuality. Additionally, Brangwyn’s mural is the only mural he ever created inside a private house during his lifetime and therefore even more special.
The below video captures this special room.
In close, if you ever have the chance to visit Taormina, Sicily do visit Casa Cuseni (especially if you have an appreciation for the arts and are creatively-inclined). And if you do, please note that you cannot simply go to the villa without an appointment/booking. Tours are available but must be booked in advance via the Casa Cuseni website. I highly recommend Maria who was our tour guide there. Her enthusiasm and love for the place is evident and equally inspiring.