Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, also called villa Île-de-France, is a French seaside villa located at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera. The villa was designed by the French architect Aaron Messiah, and constructed between 1905 and 1912.
The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a sumptuous residence surrounded by nine idyllic gardens in Saint-Jean-Cap Ferrat on the Côte d’Azur, was constructed during the Belle Epoque by Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, an extraordinary woman, whose everyday life and taste for art are forever embodied in the villa.
The Villa is a collector’s residence, where porcelain manufactured by the royal Manufactory of Sèvres stands beside Gobelins tapestries, paintings by the masters and rare items of furniture. The nine gardens are decorated with columns, waterfalls, ornamental ponds, flowerbeds and rare species of trees.
A member of the Rothschild banking family and the wife of the banker Baron Maurice de Ephrussi, Béatrice de Rothschild built her rose-colored villa on a promontory on the isthmus of Cap Ferrat overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The Baroness filled the mansion with antique furniture, Old Master paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, and assembled an extensive collection of rare porcelain. The gardens are classified by the French Ministry of Culture as one of the Notable Gardens of France.
On her death in 1934, the Baroness donated the property and its collections to the Académie des Beaux Arts division of the Institut de France and it is now open to the public.
Béatrice de Rothschild was born on September 14, 1864 of the union of Baron Alphonse de Rothschild with Leonora von Rothschild (1837-1911) from the Rothschild branch known as “London”. She married Russian Jewish billionaire banker Maurice Ephrussi on June 5, 1883, aged 19. The couple will separate in 1904, the baroness reproaching her husband addiction to the game.
The couple is passionate about architecture, nature and art and collects sumptuous residences and rare objects. The Baroness leads a lifestyle of Queen of France to Marie Antoinette.
Like his father Alphonse, regent of the Banque de France, one of the main shareholders of the Railway Company from Paris to Lyon and the Mediterranean (PLM), a member of the Academy of Fine Arts , or her uncle Alfred, curator of the Wallace collection in London, Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild collects works of art and residences.
Because of its history, its taste for the eighteenth century French or exoticism, it is in line with the great art collectors of the time: Cernuschi, Jacquemart-Andre, Wallace, Frick, not to mention many members of her family (Edmond de Rothschild, Ferdinand de Rothschild (Waddesdon), etc. She prospects and brings by train to Beaulieu-sur-Mer works that she selects on the platform of the station. Art extreme, it is said that she bought a chapel one day to remove only a fresco.
Beatrice Ephrussi discovered Cap Ferrat in 1905, when the Côte d’Azur was a holiday resort for high society. Seduced by the natural beauty of the site, it acquires seven hectares of rocky and barren land on the narrowest part of the peninsula, disputing this plot with King Leopold II of Belgium, eager to enlarge its adjoining property.
The architecture of the Villa
No less than five years of work (1907-1912) gigantic will be necessary to build this house in the Rothschild taste reminiscent of the great houses of the Italian Renaissance. Several architects are expected including Jacques Marcel Auburtin (1872-1926), Prix de Rome, whose project seduced Beatrice Ephrussi. The latter entrusted to Aaron Messiah the construction of the villa “Île-de-France” so named because of the shape of the main garden in the shape of a ship’s bridge. Beatrice could imagine, seeing the sea on each side, be at the edge of the steamer Île de France of the General Society of Maritime Transport (SGTM) in memory of a memorable trip. It imposed on its gardeners the wearing of the beret of marine, thus giving the illusion of living surrounded by crewmen on a steamer around the world. The ground is dynamited and leveled. The construction can then begin. The sponsor does not hesitate to have the life-size projects realized to ensure the final result. In 1912, the villa is habitable.
Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild has arranged this house into a suite of salons, galleries, cabinets, bedrooms and boudoirs whose decor is predominantly ocher.
Evocative of an Italian palazzo, this façade is made up of four parts: on the far left, a staircase tower with a very open, fantastical design; on the far right, a low, porticoed wing which draws its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance; in the centre, an entrance porch in a flamboyant Gothic style and an internal staircase bay in the style of the Florentine Renaissance.
In the courtyard, there is a Venetian well made from Verona marble and curious wrought iron, as well as a backdrop of vegetation decorated with bas-reliefs from Catalan cloisters, and a fountain with a Crouching Venus who appears to be getting out of her bath.
More than the other façades, this appears to have been designed to be viewed from a distance and from various viewpoints. It is therefore on a larger scale and exceptionally symmetrical. It also has a greater number of references: all the designs come from the Florence and Venice schools. For example, the frames in the bays and the pilasters form a strict geometric network, faithfully reproducing the style of some Venetian churches. What is more, the same types of marble are used: red Verona marble, white Carrara marble, light grey marble. These highly accurate reproductions were enabled by casts and photographs provided by Italian craftsmen and these references were then set in a modern composition, allowing for a few adaptations.
The State Apartments:
The patio was the place where Béatrice welcomed her visitors and held her receptions. Its architecture is inspired by that of Italian Renaissance villas. Most of the pink columns supporting the arches are made from Verona marble; the remainder are metal columns supporting the structure. Béatrice elected to conceal the latter with a clever trompe-l’œil technique, imitating the characteristic veins of pink marble.
Elements from churches or convents punctuate the décor of this room, the style of which is in stark contrast to the rooms surrounding it.
The decoration on the arches of the gallery surrounding the patio is copied from a Venetian palazzo. The suspended ceiling was originally decorated with a trompe-l’œil sky.
The grand salon, the most sumptuous in the Villa, looks out onto the Baie des Fourmis at Beaulieu-sur-Mer. It is the perfect illustration of Béatrice’s sophistication and pronounced taste for the 18th century.
The panelling that adorns the walls came from the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris. In 1907, this mansion was completely renovated to turn it into the palace that it is today. The former décor was removed and Béatrice got hold of these wall panels from the architect responsible for the work. The furniture is in the purer style of Louis XVI. The feet of the tables and armchairs are straight or tapered, unlike the curved feet of Louis XV style furniture.
With its two alcoves, this room was designed for after-dinner conversation. It is decorated with tapestries from the end of the 18th century woven at the royal Gobelins Manufactory in Paris and depicting scenes from the adventures of Don Quixote.
The Apartment of Béatrice:
Béatrice used the boudoir to write or to receive her closest friends.
Facing west towards the setting sun, the Baroness’s bedroom is furnished with a Venetian bed covered with Chinese silk embroidered with various flower and bird motifs. The Rothschilds were trading silk with China from 1838, hardly 4 years after the end of the commercial monopoly imposed by the East India Company.
In the bedroom, the chest of drawers to the right of the bed is signed Nicolas Petit, one of the best proponents of the Transition style, marking the switch between the rococo of Louis XV and the neo-classicism of Louis XVI. On top of this, there is a portrait of Béatrice as a young girl, the only portrait to be preserved to this day.
The second part of the bedroom, which is round in shape, looks on to the Bay of Villefranche.
The large oval carpet comes from the Aubusson Manufactory and dates from the end of the reign of Louis XVI. It echoes exactly the shape of the ceiling. The ceiling is decorated with a painting from the Venice school from the 18th century depicting the Triumph of a patrician family.
In the Dressing room, there are tiny shoes on show in a display cabinet. It was a traditional belief in China that a woman should have tiny feet. Béatrice tried to meet this requirement at the expense of great suffering: all of her toes, apart from the big toe, were bent under the foot and held there with extremely tightly tied strips of cloth. Another display cabinet exhibits grand Mandarin robes.
In the second part of the dressing room, there are gowns, waistcoats and fabrics made from satin, taffeta, silk and velvet dating from the 18th century. All represent a very high level of refinement.
Béatrice’s bathroom is a masterpiece in sophistication. In a circular shape, its dome is covered in guilt chestnut slats forming a trellis. On the walls, the panelling, painted in the 18th century by Pierre Leriche, one of Marie-Antoinette’s painters, conceals small closets housing the washbasin, dressing table and bidet.
In the centre of the bathroom, there would certainly have been a bathtub supplied with running water. It no longer exists today.
The Porcelaim Collection:
The Dining room looks out over the Bay of Villefranche and would probably have been the bedroom of Maurice Ephrussi. Even though he and Béatrice were separated in 1904, he found it convenient to keep a room at the Villa. Today, this room has been fitted out as a dining room. This room and the next house Béatrice’s collections of French porcelain, considered to be one of the richest in France, if not the world. She got her taste for porcelain from her father Alphonse, who was a great enthusiast and collector.
All the porcelain in the dining room comes from the royal Sèvres Manufactory near to Paris, the successor of the Vincennes Manufactory created by Louis XV.
The majority of the porcelains in the Porcelain room come from the Vincennes Manufactory. You can admire the “vases of three ages”, extremely rare and belonged to Béatrice’s father or an antique urn, another marvel of the collection.
The 1st Floor Rooms:
The décor in the Directoire bedroom, the paintings set in panels, includes motifs known as grotesques that were very popular during the Directoire period, between 1795 and 1799. These feature floral scrolls, suspended central motif, exotic animals such as ibis and monkeys, etc. This type of décor was inspired by antique decorations discovered in the excavations at Pompeii in 1748. They had a major influence on art in the second half of the 18th century.
With its generous size and triple aspect overlooking the sea and the gardens, the blue bedroom is one of the nicest of the rooms reserved for guests. It is decorated with Pompeian panelling from the end of the 18th century. The furniture is partly French, but also Italian, including the blue chairs with their pyramid-shaped feet. The ceiling holds an 18th century Meissen chandelier decorated with flowers, among which Béatrice had placed a small porcelain bird. This chandelier was electrified at the start of the 20th century.
The Tapestry room naturally takes its name from the tapestries adorning its walls and in particular the large tapestry of nearly 20 m2 hanging on the back wall. Made by the royal Gobelins Manufactory, its flamboyant red motif represents the homage of Bacchus to Ariane.
Two of the other tapestries were created based on cartoons by François Boucher. They depict pastoral and romantic scenes. One shows a young couple among the trees, sitting under the bust of Pan, the god of nature. The young woman’s gaping neckline exposes one of her breasts. She has lost her shoe and you can see the details of her toenails. This highly refined romantic scene was originally mounted in wall panels.
The furniture in the room is representative of the expertise of French cabinetmakers in the 18th century. In the centre of the room, the tric-trac table stamped by Pierre Garnier is further evidence of Béatrice’s love of games. It is surrounded by chairs, armchairs and sofas with tapered and fluted feet, upholstered in Beauvais tapestries.
The slant-top writing desk, made by the cabinetmaker René Dubois, is decorated with panels painted in various shades of green, which lends it its originality. The colours used as a rule during the period were greys and beiges.
This Meissen Porcelain small is dedicated entirely to German porcelain, specifically the famous porcelain from Meissen, the Saxon manufactory that produced it from the start of the 18th century. In 1710, Meissen became the first ever manufactory of hard-paste porcelain, which had been created in the West.
In the display cabinet, several items remind us of the taste for chinoiserie that prevailed during the period: a strange elephant with the body of a pig, the ears of a man, a pipe-like trunk and the teeth of a carnivore, straight out of the imagination of modeller Johann Kirchner and Joseph Fröhlich, one of the jesters to the ruler of the Electorate of Saxony.
The monkey room takes its name from the décor in the room, where the monkey motif is omnipresent. The use of this animal in the decoration is not insignificant: monkeys were very fashionable during the 18th century and Béatrice owned two as pets. The décor in this room bears witness to the Baroness’s liking for the impertinence and freedom of the 18th century.
The panels all come from private mansions in Paris and feature monkey musicians: a trumpeter, violinist, conductor, singer… There’s an entire orchestra here. Above the mirror, there are more monkeys, for example, playing with flames, skating, doing acrobatics and drinking.
In the display cabinet, the small monkey musicians in Meissen porcelain are a rare level of quality. They form a second orchestra, echoing the first on the panels. This orchestra was a caricature of the court of Saxony. For example, the conductor, wearing the tallest wig, stamping his feet in his bright pink trousers and opening his mouth to show his long white teeth, would have represented prime minister von Brühl. This set was a phenomenal success – and caused a phenomenal scandal. It is one of the treasures of the collections at the Villa Ephrussi.
The Chinese Room contains what is known as “chinoiserie”. These types of objects arrived in France from the 17th century thanks to ambassadors from Siam, now known as Thailand. Between 1684 and 1686, the ships that accompanied them were basically filled with gifts for King Louis XIV.
The villa is surrounded by nine gardens, each on a different theme: Florentine, Spanish, Garden à la française, exotic, a stone garden, a Japanese garden, a rose garden, Provençal and a garden de Sèvres. They were created between 1905 and 1912 under the direction of landscape architect Achille Duchêne.
The garden was conceived in the form of a ship, to be viewed from the loggia of the house, which was like the bridge of a vessel, with the sea visible on all sides. It was inspired by a voyage she made on the liner Île de France, and the villa was given that name. The thirty gardeners who maintained the garden were dressed as sailors, with berets with red pom-poms.
The French garden
Béatrice designed this main garden in the shape of ship’s deck, decorated with waterfalls and ponds, with the Temple of Love at the bow. And, as she could see the sea on either side, she could imagine being on board the steamship “Ile de France”, which is the name she gave to the Villa in memory of an unforgettable voyage. From the loggia, Admiral Béatrice could survey her team of thirty gardeners, all wearing berets with a red pompom!
Trees such as hundred-year-old olive trees, cypress hedges and Aleppo pines have been given pride of place in the garden. During the night, cleverly arranged lamps lit up their foliage and also the large pond. This meant that Béatrice could also admire the spectacle from a distance as she returned from her baccarat parties or from the casino at Monte Carlo.
This garden comprises a high flowerbed in front of the Villa, lawns decorated with flame-topped urns and large Italian Renaissance urns called “cardinal vases”, a large oval flowerbed with a channel and ornamental ponds, and an exotic touch provided by palm trees and the scent of agaves.
To add to the fairytale feel, musical fountains spring from the large pond like a grand aquatic ballet.
The Villa’s gardens have been cultivated according to the principles of organic cultivation in recent years. All the chemical treatments have been replaced by:
– nettle fertilizer,
– organic fertilizer,
– ozone treatment of the basins
– the use of ladybirds to eliminate aphids on roses,
– rapeseed oil treatments for the orange trees,
– biostimulants for the boxwood,
– and a treatment for roses using a lemon- and savory-based product.
The Spanish garden
The Spanish garden takes the form of a covered patio, crossed by a narrow channel filled with plants and surrounded on the three other sides by fine Corinthian arcades. The ochre walls and the arches create an oriental ambience. In the summer, datura, arum lilies and honeysuckle give forth their heady perfumes. The Mediterranean pomegranate trees give way to strelitzia reginae, otherwise known as bird of paradise, with their strange spiked blue and orange petals that resemble the heads of tropical birds. Around the ponds grows papyrus from Egypt and the huge perforated leaves of Monstera deliciosa, commonly called the “Swiss-cheese plant”.
The Florentine garden
The Florentine garden is the only remnant of the huge Italian garden that Béatrice had planted. A large horseshoe staircase contains a neoclassical marble angel in its niche. Philodendrons and water hyacinths grow in this garden.
The Stone garden
A shady enclosure in the shape of a quadrilateral, the stone garden features bas-reliefs and gargoyles originally from civil or religious buildings, shaded by a camphor laurel and a California bay tree. It is an unusual sight that unfolds before your eyes here, an exquisite combination of works of art from diverse origins and eras. It is a disparate collection of works of art that did not find a place inside the Villa: arches, fountains, canopies, bas-reliefs from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, monstrous gargoyles, stone grotesques, carnivalesque gnomes from Provence. A rampant dwarf fig tree winds around the columns and there is an ambience of the undergrowth here. The best time to visit this garden is from February to April to see the azaleas, Japanese camellias, rhododendrons, fuchsias and the unusual solandras.
The Japanese garden
The Japanese garden is known as “Cho-Seki-Tei”, which means “garden where one can calmly listen to the pleasant sound of the waves at twilight”. In this “zen world”, water is everywhere. The garden also features soothing motifs traced in the white sand. Designed and created by Professor Shigeo Fukuhara, this garden features the traditional wooden pavilion, bridge, lanterns and basins which echo over a thousand years of Japanese tradition. A pond with a pebble shore contains beautiful koi carp, which are highly revered in the land of the rising sun.
The garden was fully restored in spring 2016, thanks to the intervention of a sponsor, Nippon TV.
The Exotic garden
Formerly called the Mexican garden, the exotic garden was nearly destroyed during the heavy frosts of 1985. It is the kingdom of succulents and gigantic cacti. The various species of agave, with smooth or prickly leaves, have achieved an impressive size over the years, and so too have the barbary figs that collapse under the weight of their flowers in the spring and the echinocatus with their spiny barrels known as “mother-in-law’s cushions”. The clusters of orange flowers on the aloes accentuate the flamboyant character of this garden, a sharp contrast to the subdued atmosphere of the neighbouring rose garden. Its steep and winding paths truly transport you to a different world.
The Rose garden
Adorning the tip of the rocky outcrop, the rose garden is an enchantment for the senses. Numerous varieties fill the air with their fragrance at this far end of the garden, a special corner with a niche in openwork marble and a small hexagonal temple containing a graceful deity at its centre. There are a hundred varieties of rose growing here, one of which bears the name of the Baroness. The best time of year to visit this part of the garden is May to July, when the flowers are in full bloom and at their most fragrant.
The Provençal garden
The various paths of the Provençal garden are bordered with olive and pine trees bent by the wind, lavender and agapanthus.
The baroness will stay only a little in the villa she abandons from 1916, after the death of her husband.
She died in Davos (Switzerland), on April 7, 1934, at the age of 69, of galloping pulmonary tuberculosis. By will and in the absence of descendants, she bequeaths the villa to the Academy of Fine Arts of the Institut de France with all of her very important collection of objects of art of more than 5 300 pieces distributed in its various residences to create a museum that would keep “the appearance of a living room” in the spirit of museums Nissim-de-Camondo or Jacquemart-André. In accordance with her wish, the collections of the Baroness during her lifetime were collected in the villa and, at her death, were distributed in her various residences in Paris and on the Côte d’Azur.
Since 1991, the management and development of the Villa and gardens has been entrusted by the Institut de France to Culturespaces.
The Académie des Beaux-Arts, as it has been known since 1803, is one of five academies that make up the Institut de France which cover the French language, sciences, humanities, philosophy and political science: Académie Française, Académie des Sciences, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques. It is the successor to the separate academies for art, music and architecture: Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (1648), Académie de Musique (1669) and the Académie Royale d’Architecture (1671).
The role of the Académie des Beaux-Arts is to defend and highlight France’s artistic heritage and promote its growth in all its forms of expression.
In order to fulfil its mission of supporting creativity, the Académie des Beaux-Arts provides funding in France and abroad in various formats: awarding prizes to emerging or established artists, organising competitions, financing artists’ residences, and supporting projects, events and associations of an artistic nature. To perform this role it manages its assets of donations and legacies, and administrates its large museum heritage, including the Marmottan Monet Museum and Marmottan Library, the Claude Monet Foundation (Giverny) and the Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa (Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat). It also maintains an active policy of partnerships with a broad network of cultural institutions and patrons.
Every year the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild puts on The Painters’ Day in June. The Villa opens its doors to the artists who want to find their inspiration and practise their art in one of the nine gardens of the site.
The villa is also the location of the annual summer opera festival Opera Azuriales.