during the belle epoque, noblemen, millionaire industrialists, financiers, and kings seeking civilized retreats from civilization carved up the rocky coast of the French Riviera, planting exotic gardens as stage settings for an extraordinary assortment of pastel pleasure palaces, such as the Villa Rose-Pierre at Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat featured in this month’s selection of vacation villas at the world’s leading resorts (see “Home, Suite Home,” page 88). Like most of these ornate follies, the Villa Rose-Pierre wraps every modern convenience in a package that recalls the ancient past, when Roman plutocrats contemplated the sparkling sea from the loggias of their own elaborately constructed dwellings. Still, at almost 6,000 square feet, this house is a mere reflection in miniature of its equally pink but much more opulent neighbor, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, located in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
Pink was a favorite color of the chatelaine of this Venetian-style palazzo, Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, who not only painted the structure’s stucco exterior a cheerful shade of rose, but also filled the property’s gardens with flocks of flamingos. This daughter of two branches of the Rothschild family and wife of Maurice Ephrussi, scion of another prominent European banking dynasty, spared no expense on the estate, which is long, narrow, and surrounded on three sides by water. When development of the 17-acre property began in 1905, the heiress placed her villa at the back of the estate, so that its nine distinct gardens stretched outward from its terraces like the deck of a ship. This maritime effect was not coincidence but a deliberate conceit formulated during a voyage aboard the SS Île de France. From the upper floors of her home—which brimmed with its cargo of gilded Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture, priceless tapestries, Sèvres china, and paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard—the baroness could gaze at the distant, watery horizon or glance below to survey with a captain’s eye her crews of gardeners, who energetically performed their duties attired in the sailor uniforms she required them to wear.
Despite this odd whim, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was actually inspired by a similarly esoteric house rather than an ocean liner. The baroness’ architectural ambitions were stirred during a visit to relatives of her husband only a few miles up the coast in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Maurice’s cousin Fanny also united the Ephrussis to an influential financial family through her marriage to Théodore Reinach. Like his gifted brothers—one a member of the French Parliament, the other curator of France’s Museum of National Antiquities—Reinach chose a career outside of banking, distinguishing himself as, among other things, a lawyer, a mathematician, a historian, and an archaeologist before assuming a role that would perhaps have had greater appeal to his forebears: that of professor of numismatics. But his passion for the past—and in particular for Hellenism—found its most meaningful expression in Villa Kerylos (pictured), the fanciful residence that so captivated the baroness.
Built on a promontory, Reinach’s modern evocation of the aristocratic houses erected on the island of Delos during the 2nd century BC was organized around a peristyle, or atrium, featuring 12 Doric columns of Carrara marble and a central fountain. The other interiors of the villa also followed the Grecian pattern. In the triklinos, or banquet hall, couches enabled guests to recline while dining, and the balaneion, or thermal baths, included an enormous octagonal sunken marble tub decorated with mosaics depicting sea creatures. But the library best embodied the tastes of the villa’s owner. One and a half floors high, the room contained Tanagra figurines, Roman glass, works on classical culture, and extensive scholarly archives. On one wall, Reinach placed an inscription in Greek: “It is here,” it read, “in the company of Greek orators, scholars, and poets that I have found peaceful retreat in immortal beauty.”
The name Reinach chose for his new home alluded to the serenity that he hoped he and his children would find there: Kerylos is Greek for “seabird,” a reference to the halcyon, a mythical bird of good omen. Peace, however, did not long outlive the master of the villa. After Reinach’s death in 1928, his son Léon assumed responsibility for the villa’s archives, until the Nazis seized the property during World War II. In 1943, the younger Reinach, his wife, and two children were deported to Auschwitz, where they perished. Today, Villa Kerylos, like Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, belongs to the Institut de France.