Inside the remote Italian home of Australia’s bohemian high priestess

“Some tourists come saying they are looking for the path of the gods, but no, I tell them, this is the path of the dogs!” says Gianni Menichetti when I arrive drenched in sweat from my solo hike in the 40-degree autumn heat.

I’ve travelled here to Positano on the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy in search of the wild canyon and 17th-century pavilion that was the home of Vali Myers, considered by many as Australia’s bohemian high priestess.

Myers lived and worked here between 1958 and 1993 with a menagerie of dogs, goats and foxes, before finally returning to Melbourne where she kept a studio on the seventh floor of the iconic Nicholas Building until her death at the Cabrini Hospital in 2003.

After conducting what would turn out to be her final interview, where she spoke to me from her hospital bed, it had been a dream of mine for the past two decades to visit this place.

The instructions I was given to find Myers’ former home were somewhat complicated – take a bus past Positano, walk through the forest off the highway until you spot Vali and Gianni’s letterbox. Then follow the steep forested path winding upwards into the canyon for 20 minutes until you hear dogs barking.

Menichetti, himself a poet and artist as well as Myers’ former partner and author of the biography Vali Myers – A Memoir, greets me with good humour and intermittently recites the hilarious Australian slang poetry of CJ Dennis from The Sentimental Bloke. “‘Wot’s in a name?” she sez.’ Struth, I dunno. Billo is just as good as Romeo.”

“Vali taught me those poems – they are like nothing else I’ve read and I love them,” he says.

The house is a summer pavilion that dates back to the second half of the 17th century, with a loft consisting of a red room bursting with Vali’s artwork, some uncompleted, and a wooden box containing fragments of Vali’s ashes and the embalmed body of her former pet fox, Foxi. Menichetti still lives here with a pack of 22 dogs, bantams, doves, ducks and a solitary cat.

Out the back is a lush waterfall flowing down into the canyon below. “The river of life goes unavoidably to the sea,” Menichetti says, reflecting on Myers’ death and his own 70 years of life. “But you can always swim the other way.

“You know, I called myself the sailor’s wife, because Vali was always going off to New York, Amsterdam and other places, and then eventually went back to Australia while I stayed here to look after the animals,” he says.

According to Menichetti, Myers had been travelling south in August 1954 and had just walked into this abandoned garden and ancient pavilion. Then she settled here in 1958. “She fell in love with this place. It was like the place of her soul. She knew she had to live here.”

Born in Sydney in 1930, Vali Myers moved to Box Hill in Melbourne when she was 11. At 19, she fled Australia and became a dancer in the left bank of Paris in the Saint Germaine des Pres district between 1950 and 1958, before finally settling in Positano with her partner Rudi Rappold.

“Vali got over her opium addiction living here. If you live in a place like this you have to watch every step. If you live in such a green place, you can overcome your suffering. That is the real meaning of love – when you love a place in a true sense it gives you so much strength,” he says.

She then lived between Italy and the Chelsea hotel in New York to sell her artworks – fastidiously rendered depictions of an animal and spirit world that were snapped up by many prominent collections. There she became acquainted with many well-known figures including Patti Smith, Tennessee Williams, Debbie Harry and Jean Genet, though Myers often said she preferred the company of outsiders on the street.

Menichetti first arrived at Myers’ place in Positano in 1971 to bring some fruits and nuts out to them. “I was vegan before the word existed,” he says. “But I really needed to be convinced to come out here because I didn’t want to intrude. Eventually I delivered the goods.

“Then a month later I got a letter saying Vali was in New York and Rudi wanted to join her. Would I come and look after the animals? I got the letter at 10am and by 11.30 I was on the train. I call it the hand of fate.

“Mick Jagger once came out here to this canyon with Marianne Faithfull in the 1960s – Vali had no idea who he was and said, ‘Oh, do you play guitar?’ But that was Vali. She had many periods where she lived without a cent to her name – then she would have an exhibition and unexpectedly make a lot of money. Vali always used to say ‘from the dust to the stars and back again’ because that was her life.”

Menichetti says despite her wild life and art career outside of Positano, Myers always remained steadfast in her focus on protecting the nature of the wild canyon, which still exists in remarkable contrast to the rampant commercialisation of Positano, just kilometres away.

“Vali had an incredible, motherly sense of protection for this place. She really fought for it. She got her family lawyer from Australia to intervene with the local government prefect when they wanted to cut the trees here – and it worked,” he says.

After years of fighting with local authorities, the canyon – which is home to a range of local amphibians – has been designated a protected area under the jurisdiction of the World Wildlife Fund.

Before I leave I want to ask Menichetti about Myers’ attitude to love – because she had often stated she didn’t believe in it. “On love – Vali has a good point. She used to say that love is a very much abused word. She’d say that love should be taken out of the dictionary. But that never made me sad – she was my inspiration.”

And living alone here in this wild canyon with his dogs and goats, doesn’t he miss her terribly?

“I am beyond missing her because her spirit was so wild. She was so incredibly generous and yet so devastatingly tough on me. She made me tough. She used to say I am tough on you because one day it will make you strong. I don’t say I miss her because she is still the air I breathe here. This is Vali’s valley.”

First published in The Age newspaper

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