Excerpt from Earth by Richard Fortey, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


An Intimate History

by Richard Fortey

  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2004, 448 pages
    Nov 2005, 448 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

The massive limestones continue westwards on to the island of Capri, which is a twenty-minute ferry ride from Sorrento and bounds the southern edge of the Bay of Naples. The island rises sheer from the sea, circumscribed by steep limestone cliffs, and your first thought is how could it support the smallest village, let alone a town. The town of Capri lies at the top of a vertiginous funicular railway running from the harbour. The buildings are ancient and quaint, and, naturally enough, built of the local stone. The blocks themselves are often concealed under stucco. There is a fine medieval charterhouse where the pale limestone is put to good effect in columns supporting cloisters. Almost everything else is fabricated of limestone—walls, floors, piazzas. In the bright Mediterranean light there is an overwhelming sense of whiteness; some of the villas glimpsed on the hillside have the appearance of frosted cakes tucked under umbrella pines. Only dark basalt must have been imported from Vesuvius to make the surfaces of the streets: this volcanic rock is less liable to shatter than limestone. It is not difficult to imagine the racket that iron-rimmed wheels made as they clattered over these roughly matched, large blocks. On the inner side of the island there are truly astonishing vertical limestone cliffs dropping hundreds of metres to the sea. The Roman Emperor Tiberius spent his declining years in a palace on the island, the ruins of which endure. According to the prurient accounts of his chronicler Suetonius, he indulged every kind of sexual perversion in a life of epicene self-gratification. Small boys were favoured. Those who displeased him were liable to be thrown off the monstrous cliffs. There is a subtle undercurrent in the Caprese atmosphere that hints at such darker things. Just offshore there are two enormous and forbidding sea-stacks—masses of limestone isolated from the main cliff by the relentless erosion of the sea. According to Norman Douglas, this was the abode of the Sirens, whose alluring and fatal song Odysseus was able to resist only by being strapped to the mast of his vessel, while his muffled crew rowed onwards to safety. Capri makes you wonder whether an idyllic hilltop haven might eventually also deprave and destroy. One of the grandest villas (now a hotel) overlooking the fearsome cliffs was built by the Krupps dynasty, once the armourers of German ambitions. Unexpectedly, the builder apparently immersed himself in studying the growth of lampreys, a primitive and parasitic fish. On this island there is a seamless continuity with the past—with Hellenic myth and Roman decadence and medieval devotion. The island gardens have seen the ages come and go, perched high upon the hardened sediments of a sea far more ancient than human frailty.

There is something different about the cliffs behind the harbour in the middle of Sorrento. From afar they have a greyish cast, a dull uniformity, lacking all the brilliance of limestone. The streets career downwards towards the sea below the central piazza, following a steep-sided valley. Now you can see the rock in the valley sides. It is brownish, like spiced cake, and displays little obvious structure. Look closely and you see that embedded within it, like dates in a home-bake, there are darker patches. Some are little more than wisps, others are larger—angular pieces of another rock, here nearly black, there umber brown, some including little bubbles. Then you notice that the same rock has been recruited by the local builders to construct the high walls that line the steeply sloping path, comprising blocks a few tens of centimetres across, neatly cut and used like bricks. Clearly, this rock is softer than the rough limestones that bolster the hilly vineyards and terraces. Then you notice that the same stone has been used to construct the older buildings. Down by the port there are shops and cafés painted jolly ochre and sienna, but where the stucco has peeled— or where warehouses have simply been left undecorated—the same rock is revealed as having been used for their construction. Much of the town has grown from the identical rock that forms the steep cliffs backing the harbour.

Excerpted from Earth by Richard Fortey Copyright © 2005 by Richard Fortey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
    by Mario Giordano
    Munich matron and self-described worldly sophisticate, Isolde Oberreiter, has decided to retire to a...
  • Book Jacket: Of Arms and Artists
    Of Arms and Artists
    by Paul Staiti
    In the late eighteenth-century, the United States of America was still an emerging country, ...
  • Book Jacket: So Say the Fallen
    So Say the Fallen
    by Stuart Neville
    Noir crime fiction – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett anyone? – is an American invention...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Les Parisiennes
    by Anne Sebba

    How the women of Paris lived, loved, and died under Nazi occupation.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Next
    by Stephanie Gangi

    Fast-paced, wickedly observant, and haunting in the best sense of the word.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Comet Seekers
    by Helen Sedgwick

    A magical, intoxicating debut novel, both intimate and epic.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.