The villa and the Ephrussi de Rothschild Gardens, located on the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat peninsula, in the Alpes-Maritimes, are among the three monuments in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region selected to participate in The favorite monument of the French.
Internet users have until May 27 to vote on the show’s website to compete against 13 other monuments in France. On this occasion, Bruno Henri Rousseau, the site’s director for nine years, tells the story of this “patchwork” villa, which is ultimately better known by foreigners than by the French.
In what context was this villa built?
It was Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild who wanted this villa in the early 1900s. The Rothschild family were people who lived in abundance and never far from the art world. When her father died, she inherited a colossal fortune and used it to collect works of art. She is also a great traveler and likes to immerse herself in the cultures and atmosphere of the places she visits. After a trip to Italy, she decided to build a palace with Italian influence.
Why this particular place?
If she chooses Cap-Ferrat, it is because it is conducive to a mild winter and it is the only area on the Côte d’Azur where there is no wind. And then there was only the King of the Belgians who had a residence there at the time, the rest was just a rock with Mediterranean vegetation. She then sees in this isthmus, the ideal place to build her villa. She exploded the rock, imported tons of soil and built on this artificial ground a huge garden with in the middle a giant palace of Italian inspiration, which sums up her very eclectic taste. In this architecture we find Romanesque and Gothic influences. This is the very definition of an architectural madness [ce terme désigne ces maisons très luxueuses construites à partir du XIXe siècle sur les côtes françaises et qui n’étaient pas forcément connectées à l’histoire locale], both by the means used and by these atypical tastes. It is a patchwork villa.
What is so special about this place that has become symbolic?
The architects use innovative, avant-garde construction methods, especially using iron. Béatrice de Rothschild will go fast. The villa was also completed in 1912, almost seven years after the start of work. Thanks to these materials, she will equate stucco and plaster elements, and the sculptures that are usually made by hand are then cast. Inside, the owner exhibits a rich collection of works that illustrate the Rothschild taste, that is, that takes from each period what is considered most beautiful. In addition to her passion for works, she was also very attached to anything that could link her to a kind of French royal family. It then has furniture that comes from Versailles and even from Louis XV and Louis XVI. She had this taste for a certain greatness and for a striving for the best.
The gardens are also absolutely exceptional…
In fact, they were classified by national geography among the ten most beautiful gardens in the entire world. They were imagined in the same way as the villa, inspired by his travels. Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild discovered a passion for botany at the age of 22, during a trip aboard a yacht called “Ile-de-France”, hence the nickname also given to this place. She will then plant in this garden, as souvenirs, what she has taken from the various countries visited. There are atmospheres in Spain, Italy, Asia and even Provence, in addition to the grandeur and structure of French gardens. It is the heart of the place, with a festive and elegant character, where all the private receptions take place.
What is the calling of this place today?
Before it is a museum, it is first and foremost a house with the soul of someone who had a passion for the arts. Childless, she wanted to transfer all this love to beauty in general by bequeathing her villa to the Academy of Fine Arts at her death. It then provided access to a legacy to be discovered by the general public. [200.000 visiteurs par an avant Covid-19]. We propose today, through a journey, to trace its history to try to understand it. And we still hold an elitist side via private receptions [30 à 40 chaque année] because it is the very essence of this villa that got the biggest names back then.
We also underwent an unprecedented reflection on its restoration and preservation. The iron erodes with the sea air and has lost 30 to 40% of its material, which is very serious for the solidity of the building. From this atypical construction, we did not know how to approach it. We then surrounded ourselves with architects, specialists, managers of historical monuments to preserve the sustainability of the place and ensure that the dream continues.
How do you feel about participating in the France 3 broadcast?
For its spectacular appearance, its construction, which is the symbol of unique know-how, the villa and the gardens are monuments that are better known abroad than in France. For foreigners, it’s a piece of French genius. The program is then a great opportunity to make this work better known to the French. And she has every chance of winning because in a single unit of time and place she brings together the madness of the gardens, the love of art history and a particular architecture, while remaining in the continuity of great European palaces. This villa is a walk in itself.