As usual, it all comes back to Slim Aarons. “I photographed attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places,” the society photographer once said, when asked to sum up his long, sun-drenched career. This is one heck of a mission statement — not so much a job description as a hazy daydream with added countesses — and it’s produced some of the loveliest (and most heavily moodboard) images known to man. The Germans have a word for misplaced nostalgia — ‘sehnsucht’ — which roughly translates to a longing for a time you never knew. It’s telling, I think, that Aarons’ photographs have seen a huge surge in popularity in the last few miserable, recession-sandwiched years (he never enjoyed a huge amount of success in his lifetime, as it happens). We are all now sehnsucht-ing for that golden age — hot terracotta, short shorts, and long lunches; heiresses, socialites, pool boys and poets, posed and poised like wedding cake decorations on the deck of some glorious yacht, floating ever further away.
It may just be headed to Capri. That island has long felt insulated from the general naff-ification of the rest of the former jet set haunts; just far enough off the Amalfi Coast to (mostly) avoid the dribble of Whispering Angel and the Invasion of the Influencer. At its pomp, the place might best be summed up by two of Aarons’ photographs. The first shows a stack of sunbathing women, each tanned to the tone of a Burford Brown, lying by the turquoise pool at the Hotel Punta Tragara in 1974. You can hear the the cicadas and the tinkle of ice. The second shows an al fresco dinner scene from 1980, high up in the hills, as Domiziana Giordano, Francesca Sanvitale, Dino Trappetti and Umberto Terrelli enjoy pasta in white linen. You can see the rocky stacks below them in the evening haze; you can smell the fresh basil through the frame. Both shots are rich: in colour and feeling and money. And they have that magical, uncanny Aarons feeling: confected and candid all at once. It’s sehnsucht-on-sea.
This is what Hotel La Palma hopes to bring back to life, perhaps, when it opens up again later this summer. The doyens behind Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc (another Aarons canvas) have a knack for timeless nostalgia. But this one goes way, way back. To 1822, in fact — more than half a century before the Grand Dame of Antibes opened its gilded gates. Back then, this funny four-square-mile rock, stuck out in the gulf of Naples, was not so much a tourist trap as a craggy little curio, an oddity.
In 1806, Napoleon stationed some merry troops there for no reason in particular. In 1906, Somerset Maugham and the lads pitched up for some discreet fun and games. At all times, the magic was in the seclusion — an offshore territory without the bankers; a hideaway for painters and rogues to mingle with novelists and society exiles. (Like the brilliantly named Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, for example, who fled Paris following a scandal with some raunchy tableaux vivant, and holed up in the pale Villa Lysis where he became a tourist attraction in his own right.) Later on there was Jackie O, and Brigitte Bardot; Valentino and Versace. But before all of that was La Palma — the island’s first hotel, which must have seen it all from its central perch.
Now, exactly two centuries since its first opening — how pleasing! — the game’s afoot again. The new project, created in partnership with the Reuben Brothers, will open with 50 rooms (including 18 suites), with the curved ceilings, white stucco, and cool, thick walls that are only natural in this neck of the woods. The interiors have been masterminded by the much-admired designer Francis Sultana, while Francesco Delogu of Delogu Architects is crafting the exterior fixtures, and restoring a little of that long lost magic.
The food will be simplicity herself, too — in Gennaro’s, under the watchful eye of Gennaro Esposito, the idea is hearty, unpretentious Italian food; pasta, fish, buffalo mozzarella from the hills of Campania. There is a decadent rooftop, somewhere up there in those eerily blue skies, and a beach club far below, in Piccola Marina — ideally, one hopes, dotted with bright parasols and louche plagistes, should any latter-day Slim Aarons come a-wondering. He’ll likely find plenty to play with here.