Your Own Private Amalfi: The Islands of Li Galli

For centuries, intrepid souls—from Rudolf Nureyev, who once owned it, to 17th-century pirates—have lived on the idyllic islands of Li Galli, off the Amalfi Coast. Now the seven-suite paradise is open to everyone...for a price.

Michael James O'Brien
OF 13

In Homer’s tale The Odyssey, Circe gave Odysseus explicit instructions to resist the song of the Sirens, those half-bird, half-human seductresses who taunted sailors from their rocky perches in the sea. According to legend, when their boat passed a small archipelago off Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Odysseus followed Circe’s orders and put beeswax in the ears of his sailors and ordered them to tie him to the mast of his ship.

Those storied islands aren’t just the stuff of legend. Known today as Le Sirenuse, or Li Galli (the roosters), the three small locales have captivated travelers and rogues ever since, from the ancient Romans, who took advantage of the natural harbor, and the king of Naples, who built a fortress there, to 17th-century pirates who used it as a prison and 20th-century ballet legends Léonide Massine and Rudolf Nureyev. Today, hotelier Giovanni Russo continues to protect and enhance the work of his predecessors, transforming Li Galli into one of the world’s most rarified destinations.

The islands’ first modern-day champion was Léonide Massine. He was one of the most famous Russian ballet dancers in Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, discovered by the legendary impresario when Massine was with the Bolshoi in 1913. He joined the Ballets Russes in 1914 and soon became Diaghilev’s protégé. Proving to be a brilliant dancer and choreographer, he enjoyed the new world of travel made possible by Diaghilev.

Nowadays, traveling to the islands by motorboat from Positano takes about ten minutes. You disembark at the little port on the large island, Isola Lunga, and climb the steep, narrow path that snakes through the thick, gnarly landscape scented with rosemary, cypress, and southern pine trees. The trail leads to a large stone terrace with a villa off to the side, in front of which is a stone patio with a tiled fountain. Beyond lies a low wall of stone to which you are drawn by a beautiful view of islands Rotonda and Brigante and, off in the distance, Capri.

Massine first fell in love with Li Galli in 1917, when his solitary, spiritual nature was touched while visiting music critic Mikhail Nikolaevich Semenoff and his wife, who summered in Positano. Massine described his discovery of the islands in his autobiography, My Life in Ballet. After seeing Isola Lunga from his bedroom one night, he visited Li Galli and was enchanted by the rough-hewn paradise. “I was overcome by the beauty of the view across the sea, with the Gulf of Salerno spreading out in the distance,” he wrote. “The silence was broken only by the murmur of the sea and the occasional cry of a gull. I knew that here I would find the solitude I had been seeking, a refuge from the exhausting pressure of my chosen career.” In 1922, Semenoff negotiated with the family that owned the islands—they used them for quail hunting—and Massine closed the deal.

In 1924, Massine began the Herculean task of working to make the island habitable. The jewel in the crown for Massine on Isola Lunga was a 14th-century crumbling stone tower; he felt it was the perfect place to put a dance studio. The Siberian pine floor he laid down is still in place today. “The local people in Positano referred to me as ‘the mad Russian who bought a rocky island where only rabbits could live,’” he wrote. Challenges aside, during the years he owned Li Galli, Massine was able to build a private radio station, establish four beaches and a boathouse in the port, and turn the old vineyard into a large terraced garden that thrives to this day. 

In the 1930s, Massine continued the work he had started on the main villa with the help of a local contractor from Positano. He even elicited advice from famed architect and friend Le Corbusier at one point. Tatiana Massine Weinbaum, Massine’s daughter who lives in New York, recalls that there had originally been a primitive dwelling at the villa’s site. “My memories of it are of an enchanted place of serenity and beauty,” says Tatiana, who remembers her father’s discovering ancient bones and mosaics while renovating. “It’s a place where there is—how do you say?—a psychic space for endless fantasy.” 

Massine’s restoration of the tower entailed creating the dance studio on the first floor and then building six small bedrooms on the floors above as quarters for visiting dance students. As much as Li Galli became a retreat for his family, it was also where Massine established a meticulously regimented schedule to choreograph and rehearse new ballets. Massine wanted to establish an arts center there, and although he kept up his work schedule until his death, in 1979, the plans were never realized. 

Nureyev’s purchase of Li Galli from the Massine estate for $2.4 million was finalized in 1988. Like Massine, Nureyev felt it would be his own restorative oasis, and he became totally absorbed in redecorating Li Galli’s main villa. Nureyev had many plans for his life on the largest island, but his battle with AIDS limited what he could accomplish. 

His grandest achievement was a dramatic redesign to the main villa in 1991. In her 2007 biography, Nureyev: The Life, Julie Kavanagh writes about how the dancer found the perfect tiles for a room in the basement during a trip to Seville. When he heard that the delivery could not be made quickly enough, he ended up enlisting two vans and picking up the tiles himself. The finished room, covered floor to domed ceiling in the Turkish tiles, resembled a mausoleum, and Nureyev had his mother’s name, Farida, inscribed there in Arabic. He died in Paris, in 1993, and Li Galli and its contents were donated to a foundation Nureyev had created in his name. In 1994, the foundation put the islands on the market for more than $3 million. Russo snapped them up that year. 

“I was born in a hotel,” says Russo, laughing when asked how he came into the business. “My parents were hoteliers, and I was literally birthed in the hotel.” That spot was the Hotel Capri in Ethiopia. Russo, who owns such properties as the Relais & Châteaux Bellevue Syrene, in Sorrento, and the Hilton Sorrento Palace, had his sights on Isola Lunga since he first laid eyes on it, about 45 years ago, during a sailing trip. “The island was exactly as it is now,” Russo, 74, says. “Massine built it because when he went there, there was nothing. He was really a magical man.” When Russo purchased the islands, the villas and tower had been completely stripped of furniture by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, and the neglected landscape needed lots of attention. “The island, like every island when it is abandoned, was run-down,” he says. “Everything was already there; we only made it more comfortable.” 

Russo is being modest, as he and his staff of nine have enhanced the natural beauty of the property in a flawlessly organic way. His team gathers the fresh fruit from the island’s gardens that appear by the side of the saltwater pool when visitors arrive for a swim. He built two pools that are actually stone grottoes, hidden in the landscape until you’re right in front of them; renovated the interiors of the main villa and the tower to open up what had previously been small bedrooms for Massine’s students; created different areas to dine within the foliage; and built a terrace off the main villa’s kitchen where Nureyev covered the walls with deep-green ceramic tiles. Finally, Russo and his partner, the art patron Nicoletta Fiorucci, who started the Fiorucci Trust, have enlivened the decor of both the villa and the tower with an eclectic mix of furniture and art, including works by Julian Schnabel, William Kentridge, and Antonio Biasiucci.

When Tatiana was asked if she had one defining memory of her childhood on the island, she didn’t miss a beat. “I remember by moonlight, my mother calling us outside, saying that a whale and her husband and baby were spouting water. She brought us out to the terrace, and there were two adult whales and a baby in the moonlight. It’s such an indelible memory.” The sirens may have left the islands, but if you really listen, you can still hear their song. 

Giovanni Russo rents the seven-suite villa for only three weeks each season, from May through October. Rates may vary; 39-081/878-1629; smeralda.congressi@russotravel.it

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