How to Throw a Dinner Party Like You’re in an Italian Villa

The New York Times Entertainment 2 months ago

Among the many beguiling locations on the island of Capri, the Villa San Michele vibrates with a particularly fantastical sense of history. At the turn of the last century, the Swedish doctor Axel Munthe constructed the villa upon the ruins of a palace from the time of the Roman emperor Tiberius, and the artifacts abandoned there in the first century A.D. became the enduring antiquarian ornaments of the doctor’s residence, where Latin stone plaques, marble corkscrew columns, and statues, missing their noses or other extremities, alternate with Roman copies and medieval relics throughout the property. In 1929, Munthe wrote “The Story of San Michele,” a best-selling memoir translated into more than 40 languages that included run-ins with ghosts and guiding voices as he pursued his dream of the villa.

Following Munthe’s death in 1949, the villa was transformed into a tiny Swedish consulate and a cultural institute hosting the country’s artists, including, most recently, the Stockholm-born, Rome-based artist and illustrator Liselotte Watkins. Entitled “Sbiadito,” or sun-faded, like the timeworn statuary of the villa’s loggia that houses her works, her show features a series of Watkins’s vases, reclaimed from flea markets and painted with her signature Cubist women in a pastel palette. A collaborator with Prada, Marimekko, Bitossi and others, Watkins decided to celebrate this personal collection with an intimate meal in the villa’s wisteria-trellised colonnade.

Two dozen invitees dined on traditional Italian dishes of panzanella, caponata, and Caprese salad, seated in the chapel and surrounded by Munthe’s centuries-old wooden saints and iron candelabras, before ambling out to the marble terrace for glasses of the local Greco di Tufo wine and end-of-the-night chats. Here, Watkins shares her tips for entertaining at the Villa San Michele and beyond.

Munthe’s prized possession, a pink granite Egyptian sphinx said to date back 3,000 years, was occasionally rubbed by guests for its purported good luck.
Set among the Ancient Roman sculptures dug up during the villa’s construction, the vases, abstractly depicting the women that Dr. Munthe treated, formed a show Watkins entitled “Sbiadito,” or sun-faded, in an ode to the time-worn antiquities that fill the island estate.
Atop the multi-colored plates, Watkins placed postcards of her vases as a souvenir of the evening for each guest to take home.

Enlist Your Friends

With the onus of an exhibition to mount, Watkins delegated the party planning wherever possible. For the dinner’s tabletop design, she turned to J.J. Martin, a friend who shares her aesthetic passions, and who creates clothing and homewares in revived vintage prints for her LaDoubleJ line. “We both appreciate bold, feminine design and fashion. We’re both vintage freaks,” said Martin. “So when Liselotte called me and said I need to dress an empty church, I knew exactly what she needed.” From the table mockups Martin sent over, Watkins chose LaDoubleJ’s newly released “Wildbird” print, first designed by the Como silk brand Mantero in the 1940s. Its swirling pattern was repeated in the green tablecloth, the purple cloth napkins and a rainbow of plates — a surprisingly Scandinavian look Watkins termed “Swedish cottage.”

Watkins wore a LaDoubleJ striped skirt that mirrored the beach umbrellas of Capri’s seashore in an homage to the setting.

Dress the Part

“I believe in dressing for the occasion,” said the artist, wearing a billowing LaDoubleJ skirt in bold green and yellow stripes — a dead ringer for the seaside umbrellas of Capri’s beach clubs. Equally appropriate, Kristina Kappelin, a former Swedish TV reporter and the director of the Villa San Michele, wore a caftan by the Stockholm brand Rodebjer that was printed with a vivid design by Watkins that recalled her vase paintings.

Olga Mottola, who had overseen domestic duties at the villa for decades, prepared summertime specialties the old-fashioned Italian way — with heaps of tomatoes and locally grown vegetables, and with figs and other fruits at peak ripeness served for dessert alongside her Caprese cakes.

Trust an Experienced Home Cook

How does an artist approach a dinner party? “I like the still-life aspect,” said Watkins, “So if I’m making the meal, I like little finger food that I can compose. Olga, however, is not a believer in finger food.” Olga Mottola, who was tasked with the cooking on this occasion, is the veteran caretaker of this villa, a 70-something-year-old traditionalist who sticks to abundant Italian dishes. With help from Kappelin’s Italian husband, she prepared local classics, including an octopus dish with potato and basil — made with a wine cork in the boiling water to help soften the tentacles, one of Mottola’s cooking secrets. The home-style approach is “so much more my style, and so much more fun,” said Watkins. “With home cooking, a meal becomes a family affair.”

J.J. Martin supplied table settings in a somewhat Scandinavian print from her LaDoubleJ line, which Watkins paired with bouquets of flowers gathered from the villa’s gardens.

Go Wild

“Buying flowers is a bit weird to me,” said Watkins. “I think you should always pick wildflowers if you can.” It was an effortless undertaking at the Villa San Michele, where the gardener gathered late-summer sunflowers, bougainvillea, dahlias and white-budded myrtle branches for the bouquets the artist composed, adding sets of postcard prints of her “Sbiadito” vases on each plate as a personal gift to bring home.

To create the dinner and exhibition, Watkins worked closely with her long-time collaborator and friend Veronica Wallin, who handles the pragmatic side of her artistic output. “The most fun stage for me is creating, but when it comes to practicalities, I would just give up without Veronica,” said the artist.
In the small medieval chapel where Munthe formerly held musical performances, two dozen guests squeezed around the dinner table, filling the nave with a jovial din as they shared stories and toasted their host.

Don’t Stress the Socializing

“At a good dinner party, table discussions are more interesting than the menu, even if I love to eat,” said Watkins, and her curious, conversational manner was reflected in the circle of friends she invited. As a result, she opted for an easygoing, hands-off approach to mixing the group, and still, guests who arrived strangers were chummy by the end of the evening, if not sooner. Contacts were exchanged and future plans made as the group departed for their separate ways, still touched by the euphoric vision Munthe recounted of his first of many sojourns to Capri: “My head was full of rapturous wonder, my heart full of the joy of life, the world was beautiful …” And on one of summer’s final nights, it undoubtedly was.

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