I went today to St Jean Cap Ferrat and Beaulieu sur Mer to see the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and the Villa Kérylos. While different enough as to avoid direct comparison, the two houses are well-paired for more than just the (lovely) twenty minute walk between them. Both, obviously, overlook the mediterranean and were built at the beginning of the twentieth century (1902-8 for the Villa Kérylos, 1905-1912 for the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild). They're both primarily two storeys in height, centred around internal courtyards (though one is closed and the other open); both have striking ceilings and intricately tiled floors in parts.
Most interesting, though, is the eccentric fantasy and perfectionism that's behind both villas: they evoke a very strong sense of place that's not disrupted by the hoards of tourists and which is added to, not overpowered, by the exceptional views out every window. Each villa is complete in itself, but perhaps mirrored slightly by the other across the bay.
The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild is unbelievable. Wandering about the estate, one feels partially astonished by how beautiful everything is and partially just confused about how it can actually exist. What motivates somebody to build something so entirely lavish, on such a huge scale?
As it turns out, the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild is a byproduct of extreme wealth and eccentricity. Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild had a villa in Monaco before purchasing land at St Jean Cap Ferrat, where she leveled the rock to build her Italian renaissance inspired villa. It is pink (like her favourite animal, the flamingo), has a room dedicated to monkeys and another filled with sketches by Fragonard.
The Villa was named Île de France after the famous ocean liner, on which Ephrussi de Rothschild had travelled.
Ephrussi de Rothschild's love of pink is also the reason for her rose garden, one of nine themed gardens. The Japanese garden was inspired by the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the French garden features elaborate musical fountains and the stone garden houses antique pieces that could not fit inside the Villa itself. There were reportedly 35 gardeners, all of whom were required to wear red pompom hats while tending to the estate.
Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild left the estate to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris upon her death in 1934, intending it to be a sort of twentieth century salon.
Villa Kérylos was completed in 1908, but is actually a reconstruction of a second century Greek palace on the Island of Délos. They were preparing for an evening function when I was there, which firstly made me think that it would be an absolutely magnificent place for a party (à la Sara and Gerald Murphy) and secondly meant that they were moving furniture around a bit and that the gallery of antique casts was closed.
While the Villa is a reconstruction of a Greek villa, archaeologist Théodore Reinach and architect Emmanuel Pontremoli adapted it to provide modern comforts. It also, though, brought the antique to the twentieth century in a dreamier way, showing that modern and antique luxury could be simultaneous.
On the outside, the Villa Kérylos is primarily white, bright enough to hurt the eyes. The interiors are dark, much cooler, and often amazingly patterned. There's an interior plunge pool beneath a gold and blue tiled alcove with a basin. In the central courtyard, again white and cream but here tempered by the shade, there are reproductions of Greek murals and columns made of astonishingly pillowy marble. The wooden ceilings in each room are patterned differently, and it's all extraordinary.
The Villa Kérylos is positioned on a rock jutting out into the sea; on two sides the waves throw themselves against the walls of the garden and on the third lie quietly. The garden is small but charming, smelling of lavender and thyme.
Oh, and Gustave Eiffel reportedly had his villa in the same short street; I'm awfully curious about that.
I will continue also to put photos of the Mediterranean on my photo blog.