Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Not one garden but nine!

When you have a spectacular site of 7 hectares (17 acres) in the Mediterranean, the means of a millionaire and the mind of a true aesthete how could you possibly settle for one garden? Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild had travelled extensively and seen different kinds of gardens around the world. So she set her mind on creating all her favourite gardens to complement the dream palace she built on the peninsula of Cap Ferrat about 10 kilometres to the east of Nice.

The most fabulous of the nine gardens of the Musée Ephrussi de Rothschild is the formal French garden that faces the Villa and was designed to resemble a ship’s deck. There is a canal in the middle with ponds, lawns, large flowerbeds, trees and other plants, antique statues and urns, etc,  arranged symmetrically on both sides. The canal leads the eye to the Temple of Love that serves as the focal point representing the bow in the ship-like shape. In Béatrice’s time when the trees and other plantings were younger and smaller the resemblance must have been rather striking.

But why settle for water if you can have fountains, too? There are fountains springing from the canal and ponds, dancing to the sound of music. During high season this happens every 20 minutes. The look and sound of the performance was most relaxing and refreshing even on a hot August day and a few of the younger visitors took the most of it.

The rest of the marvelous gardens are built on the hillside to the west and south of the French garden. There is a Spanish, Florentine, Japanese, Exotic and Provencal garden plus a Stone garden with arches, reliefs and other large items that could not be used inside the Villa, and a garden with Sèvres porcelain pieces. (Sorry, no photos of them all. It was too hot and most of the time there would have been too many people to spoil the view anyway.)

A guided path leads through the area towards what is probably the second most photographed of the gardens, the roseraie at the far end of the site. A small stone temple overlooks the Rose garden that boasts more than a hundred varieties. 

Even without the exotic birds, flamingos, gazelles, antelopes, monkeys and other wild animals Béatrice used to have on the grounds, the gardens of Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild are such an endless pleasure to your senses you could stay there for hours admiring the changing landscape as you walk along the path, every now and then turning your eye to the breathtaking views towards the sea. Should you be a garden enthusiast you will wish you could stay there forever.

This was my fifth proper holiday in and around Nice 
but for some curious reason I never made it to the Villa before. I will definitely return one fine spring day, most likely in April or May, to witness an even greater abundance of blossoms. Who knows, I may have turned into a bit of a gardener by then in which case I would enjoy the enchanting place even more than the pure amateur stepping the stones a few weeks ago.

Have a look also on my two previous posts on the magnificent Villa and its interior.

Monday, 27 August 2012

A collector's paradise

When working on the interior of her dream villa (see my previous post) Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild’s guiding light was not only to showcase her collections of arts and other antique pieces but to utilize them in the structures and decor of the palace.

Moreover, she never stopped collecting and never made any compromises constantly bringing new items to be incorporated into the interior. The never-ending changes were nerve-racking to the architects and designers and Béatrice built herself, with reason I suppose, the reputation of a difficult client.

Béatrice’s father, banker Alphonse J. de Rothschild, had a massive art collection, especially paintings of the Dutch masters and pieces of Islamic art, some 2000 items of which were left to several French museums after his death. Very few of her father’s  art treasures found their way to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild as Béatrice preferred lighter and paler kinds of items both in artworks and furniture.

Indeed, the interior of the Villa demonstrates Béatrice’s vision of light airiness. The spectacular views underlined through clever use of mirrors and the handcrafted antique pieces convey the desired atmosphere to perfection. Delicate pieces of furniture, elaborate tapestries and exquisite panelling incorporated into the structures are found everywhere in the palace.

I have a soft spot for both pretty hand-painted items and all kinds of hand-made textiles and I just loved the interior, most of all the hand-decorated antique panels and the tapestries and other antique textiles.

One of the most charming rooms in the Villa is Beatrice’s bedroom overlooking the Rade de Villefrance-sur-Mer, the bay of Villefrance to the west of the peninsula of Cap Ferrat. The hand-embroidered cover on the Venetian bed is a Chinese antique piece. Priceless, I would say, but silk was another commodity the Rothschilds were involved in importing.

The miniature seats were for Beatrice's poodles and pet mongoose.

The blue guest bedroom on the first floor is another space to die for. It also has antique panelling plus shuttered windows on three sides offering spectacular views to both bays and the French garden. It is a guestroom that would meet the requirements of the most exquisite taste.

A few rooms of the Villa are now devoted to Béatrice’s other vast collections, for example of Chinese items and rare china and porcelain. Some pieces of her collection of antique garments are on display in her dressing room. She liked old-fashioned clothing and was often seen wearing them. 

What an extraordinary lady, what an extraordinary villa! I am so happy Madame Ephrussi de Rothschild wanted her dream villa to be a museum available for the ordinary people to enjoy.

Have a look also on my posts about the Villa and the gardens.

The mirror on the door to the stairway fooled me. Note the lockers under the stairs.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Dream palace in pink

There has been so much going on since we returned from France – both in the real world and on my mind – that it’s been rather hard to get down to posting in the usual manner. However, I’m hoping to get started with these photos of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on the peninsula of Cap Ferrat just a few kilometres to the east of Nice.

The pink villa is only a hundred years old but it was designed and built to resemble a Venetian palazzo. It is a manifestation of Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild’s ambition, dedication and strong will. This unique piece of art from the belle époque demonstrates Béatrice’s personal taste and houses her vast collections of art and antiquities from wall panels to marble sculptures and rare porcelain to antique textiles. She personally supervised every detail of the construction to achieve her dream villa and gardens that were to become her winter residence.

Béatrice was born in 1864 as the daughter of a wealthy banker and art collector Baron Alphonse J. de Rothschild who had – like the Rockerfellers and the Nobels – a family oil business in Baku, Russia, in the present-day Azerbaijan. When she was 19 she married Maurice Ephrussi, a wealthy Russian-born banker and business associate of his fathers, who was 15 years her senior. They led an extravagant life of the rich and noble in the fashionable places such as Paris, Monaco and Deauville, attending and hosting parties, sailing on their yacht, collecting art and antiquities and spending many a moment by the gambling table.

Early in their marriage, Maurice was unfortunate enough to infect Béatrice with a disease that made her infertile so it is claimed they were never happy together. Moreover, by the time they had been married for two decades Maurice’s gambling debts amounted to the equivalent of 30 million Euros. The Rothschild family took him to court and a separation was granted in 1904.

The following year Béatrice’s farther died and she and her brother inherited his fortune estimated to have amounted to some 700 million Euros in present-day currency. She had already set her eyes on a 7-hectare (17-acre) hilltop site in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat with spectacular views towards the bays on both sides. She bought it and started her ambitious villa and garden creations that took seven years to complete.

Béatrice named the Villa Ile de France to commemorate the many, probably happy voyages she had made on the luxury cruise liner of the same name. The French garden facing the Villa was designed to resemble the deck of a ship. At parties the waiters and other staff were dressed in white uniforms to increase the effect.

However, it is in the question of happiness that the stories about the life of the Ephrussi de Rothschilds differ according to the source where you read about it.  Béatrice commissioned the palace after their divorce but had private rooms built for Maurice, too. She also never abandoned her husband’s name. The reason for these arrangements may have been a practical one: in the early 20th century divorce looked bad even among the aristocracy. Nevertheless, they did share the interest in arts and antiquities, travelling and the casinos, which may have been a reason to stay together.

Maurice died in 1916, only four years after the Villa Ile de France was completed. According to legend, Béatrice never lived there again after the death of her ‘beloved’ husband. Other sources tell she continued to stay there, although shorter periods, always working on artistic or architectural projects of some sort there or elsewhere. When she died at the age of 69 in 1934 – leaving the Villa to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the French Academy of Fine Arts, to be turned into a museum – she was renovating and rebuilding several adjacent villas with connected gardens in Monte Carlo.

The mythical love story that has grown around Béatrice and Maurice is being enhanced by the romantic overall colouring of the Musée Ephrussi de Rothschild. Even though the pale pink of the covered patio and balconies in the middle of the Villa was Béatrice’s favourite colour, according to an article I found on the internet the exterior of the Villa was originally pale yellow. For the meticulous Béatrice, that was certainly a more appropriate colour than pink to represent the luxury cruise liner the palace and the main garden were designed to resemble.

Whatever the truth about the couple, had I been Béatrice with financial resources you can’t even imagine but no occupation but to be rich and no fulfilling love or offspring to dedicate yourself to, I might also have become a strong-willed collector and creator of lasting beauty ‘commanding the flowers to grow during Mistral’.

Have a look also on my posts about the interior and gardens of the Villa.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Rainbow of friends

We returned from the French Riviera more than a week ago and I’ve been busy. At first, busy keeping myself warm after the Mediterranean heat and more recently busy with a few friends who stayed over.

There has been a curious repeating pattern with this summer: every time some friends or relatives have visited us the weather has magically turned most wonderful and continued that way through their stay. This happened again a few days ago when some exceptionally warm and lovely August days coincided with a very special ‘B&B booking’, now without any shuttle service though.

The last ones of these visitors left on Thursday before noon. We took the rest of the day rather easy but decided to have a walk in the evening. I should have expected what happened next. When we were returning we saw some grey clouds approaching. The first drops started hitting the ground when we had reached the pine tree by the road side close to our place. By the time we were inside the shower had truly begun drumming the patio.

First some great fun with a group of very special people and then some rainfall. Another repeating pattern of this summer but this time decorated with a perfect rainbow and even some hints of a second one. Weren’t we lucky to experience this all!