One of the most gloriously opulent sites on the Côte d’Azur is the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, built between 1907 and 1912 on the peninsula of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat between Nice and Monaco. The young heiress Baroness Beatrice de Rothschild married the Parisian banker Maurice Ephrussi, a friend of her parents, but it was not to prove a happy union. Ephrussi proved to be an inveterate (and obviously unlucky) gambler in more ways than one; not only did he plunge himself catastrophically into debt, he also bequeathed a serious illness to his wife, leaving her childless. The Rothschilds managed to have the marriage annulled, and when in the following year her father died, Beatrice inherited his fortune and began planning her villa. Inspired by a voyage taken some years previously on the Ile de France, Villa Ephrussi is conceived in the shape of a ship, built on a narrow spit of land and surrounded on three sides by the sea; the view from the loggia is that of a ship’s captain on the bridge. Principally designed by Jacques-Marcel Auburtin assisted by Aaron Messiah, who was court architect to the Belgian king Leopold II (who was also interested in buying the land upon which the villa is built – Beatrice beat him to it), Villa Ephrussi became the Baroness’ winter residence from 1912 onwards, and until her death in 1934 was the scene of many an extravagent Côte d’Azur crème-de-la-crème grande réunion. It was bequeathed to the Académie des Beaux Arts (Institut de France) along with some 5000 works of art, and in 1996 was registered as a National Historic Monument.
The Villa is built in the style of an Italian palazzo, its two main façades incorporating several architectural styles mostly built in a lavish mixture of Carrera and Verona marble. The northern façade features a flamboyant Gothic entrance porch and a Florentine Renaissance staircase bay. The southern façade evokes Venetian church architecture, its features painstakingly reproduced in great detail by Italian craftsmen from models and photographs. The patio, which was the Baroness’ principal reception area, typifies her vivacious style, happily combining Italian Renaissance church and convent architecture with decorative elements copied straight from a Venetian palace. The grand salon is pure Belle Epoque, with Louis XVI furniture, carpets that once graced the floor at the Palace of Versailles, and a recently-restored mounted canvas by Tiepolo on the ceiling. There is also a whist table which once belonged to Marie Antoinette, as did a monogrammed firescreen in the small salon. Throughout the Villa are collections worthy of any museum. The Baroness’ motto was “Ars patriae decus” (“Art is the honour of the homeland”), a very Culturespaces-worthy sentiment. Especially noteworthy are the porcelain collections, mostly from Vincennes but also including Sèvres vases, and an impressive collection of Meissen figures including an orchestra of be-wigged monkey musicians. The de Rothschild fortune was to a large extent built on the silk trade with China, and there is a fine collection of 18th century silk chinoiserie and some magnificent screens and cabinets in gold, lacquer, and jade.
Surrounding the Villa are nine different remarkable gardens, now classified as “notable” by the French Ministry of Culture. These were constructed at considerable effort and expense, as the rocky promontory and persistent sea-breeze made the delicate landscaping difficult. Nevertheless, although 4 hectares of the garden had not been completed at the Villa’s inauguration in 1912, the formal French gardens – the largest of all and best viewed from the Villa – as well as the rose garden, were opened. Later additions included a Spanish garden, a Florentine garden, and an exotic Japanese garden, which were in part completed after the Baroness’ death in 1934 by Louis Marchand, who also restored the entire site after it had lain neglected during the Second World War. Today the gardens host an annual Rose and Extraordinary Plants Festival (this year from 6 – 8 May), summer opera performances by Opera Azuriales, and can be hired for wedding receptions and other prestigious events.
Culturespaces assumed the management of Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in 1992, and since then has extensively reorganized the collections, created audio guided tours of the patio, salons, 1st floor private apartments and gardens, and opened the Villa for visits all year round. Cost of the ticket is 12 €. There is a combined ticket available, with entrance to Villa Kérylos included (18 €).
Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa & Gardens
© S. Lloyd
© Pierre Behard
© S. Lloyd / Culturespaces
© S. Lloyd / Culturespaces