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 father’s, 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’.