Villa Ephrussi & Gardens
Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild
Charlotte-Béatrice de Rothschild was born in Paris on 14 September 1864. She was the daughter of Alphonse de Rothschild and his wife Leonora, and the granddaughter of James, founder of the French branch of the family, and his wife, the celebrated society hostess Betty.
When she was 19, the family moved to Provence and it was there that she discovered her two passions in life. The first was Maurice Ephrussi (1849–1916), himself a member of a banking family originating from Russia, whom she married in 1883, and the second was architecture. Following their marriage the couple divided their time between Paris and their yachts and country properties.
In 1905 she bought the narrowest part of the Saint-Jean Cap-Ferrat peninsula, a plot of terraced land some 7 hectares in all, where she decided to build her dream home.
The villa itself is a 1910 version of a Venician palazzino. South of the house is an esplanade whose parterres and reflecting pools are laid out symmetrically, above a series of small gardens on the western slope which finally disappears in the woods.
As you see it today, the villa is painted a somewhat gaudy pink, but originally its colour scheme was a soft pastel yellow that blended easily into the landscape.
Blasting the landscape
In order to achieve a flat garden and spectacular views across the Bay of Beaulieu and Villefranche harbour, she had most of the hill dynamited and reshaped. It is said that rocks removed from this work went to enlarge the port of St Jean. In fact so much land was laid bare that it became necessary to haul in numerous cartloads of topsoil to enable the planting of the diversity of plants Charlotte-Béatrice had set her heart on.
She was extremely hard to please and when not satisfied with any building work, would have it pulled down and remodelled. Such was her exacting nature that she went through nine consecutive architects (some reports say it was as many as fifteen). The villa was finally finished in 1912.
She named her villa “Ile de France”, after a ship in which she had enjoyed a memorable cruise. Today it is better known as Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild.
The Baroness prospected all over the world for rarities and, with money never an issue, she would go to extreme lengths to acquire certain rare items: for one coveted fresco she bought an entire palace in ruins. If unable to purchase the object of her desire she’d have it replicated, as was the case of the stairway leading up to her bedroom (repositioned now for show on the ground floor), which is an exact copy of the staircase in the Saint-Maclou Cathedral in Rouen.
And thus her palazzino became a succession of richly decorated salons and private apartments; the atmosphere recalling Florence, Ravenna and Venice, with rose marble columns from Verona and a touch of Spain with patios. Inside the villa was adorned with artwork ranging from the late Middle Ages to the early Renaissance, as well as paintings by Renoir, Sisley and Monet. Flemish tapestries and 16th and 17th century furniture further embellished the villa.
Many grand fêtes and balls were held in these sumptuous rooms with such dignitaries as the Prince of Monaco, the Duke of Eboli Doria of Naples, the Princess Ghika, the Count and Countess of Brémond d’Ars, the Grand-ducs of Russia.
The rooms were stunning: the Salon Louis XV with its great Aubusson carpet; the Salon Fragonard with its 18th century antiques and paintings by Honoré Fragonard; the Salon des Singeries, where Huet’s paintings of monkeys replaced the chinoiseries so fashionable at the time; the Salon des Tapisseries with its Jacob furnishings and rare commodes; and the Salon d’Art d’Etrême-Orient with its gold and lacquered doors from the Imperial Palace of Peking and other treasures from the Far East.
The former apartments of Monsieur Ephrussi now contain one of the finest collections of porcelain in the world, including rare pieces from la Manufacture de Sèvres and that of Vincennes. In another room, connoisseurs will appreciate Dresden china and delicate porcelain items from Berlin, Würtzbourg and Meissen, most of them still set on their original plinths.
If she was exacting with the villa, Charlotte-Béatrice was equally so with the layout and planting of her gardens, calling in several renowned landscape gardeners and architects such as Richard Wallace, Aaron Messiah and Achille Duchêne, until she was satisfied with the layout.
It might seem strange that she would select a garden site buffeted by the strongest prevailing winds in the entire area but she had in mind to create a three-dimensional Italian-Florentine garden so that, from any part of her villa or bedroom balcony, she’d have stunning views of Villefranche and St Jean harbours through different “layers” of garden. And she succeeded: no matter where you look you there are plunging views of the Mediterranean and bays of Eze and Villefranche.
Note that you cannot gain immediate access to the gardens: you are first required to follow a fixed itinerary through the villa’s collections of rare objects.
The gardens are arranged around the villa and are similarly connected to her travel memories, with the main garden in the form of a ship with the Temple of Love, built on a promontory, at its bow. There are six gardens in all: Spanish, Florentine, Lapidary, Japanese, Exotic and Rose. Six secret gardens leading one into another and thence back in the broad daylight of the main garden with its stepped waterfall over which presides a smaller-scale replica of the Trianon’s Temple of Love. At one point, thirty-five gardeners are said to have worked here, dressed as sailors with red-pomponned berets, and tasked with setting out some 45,000 annual bedding plants – amongst many other duties.
The Spanish Garden
This is the first in the sequence of gardens to greet you as you start your exploration. Several steps lead to a stylized grotto with its elegant Spanish fountain and stone basin smothered in maidenhair ferns. Huge clumps of strelitzias and papyrus stand guard at the grotto’s arched entrance from where an ornamental canal filled with water-lilies leads to a triple colonnade. This supports a pergola brimming with lush plantings, pomegranates and tree-sized daturas and acts as a separation to the next garden.
Banks of colourful flowers surrounds a baroque horseshoe staircase that leads back up to the villa. It is flanked by Cyprus arches and espaliered wisteria between which a small grotto is home to a marble Ephebus. From this vantage point is a wonderful view across to the pretty port of Villefranche-sur-Mer with its colourful harbour-front restaurants and houses.
This is a very shady rock garden and home to redbuds, a camphor tree, asters, bergenia and sedums. Strewn amongst them somewhat hap-haphazardly are stone arches, a Roman door frame, statuary pieces and sculpted rocks. It is said these were all items the Baroness couldn’t fit into her villa.
The Japanese Garden
An amazing garden with some of the tallest bamboo I have ever seen. It speaks of tranquillity with its miniature pagoda, raked sand and small pond filled with Koi carp. The dense bamboos act as a tunnel that leads you into the next garden.
The Rose Garden
Here you’ll find over a hundred different varieties of rose bushes set out on several levels as well as wonderful views across the bay. As a byline, looking towards the bay of Villefranche you can’t help but notice the stunning varnished green tiled roofs of a superb Italian style villa. This is Villa Sylvia built by the American Ralph Curtis in 1902. Turning round and facing the rose garden once more a pathway leads you gently up towards to the Exotic Garden.
The Exotic Garden
This is an astounding area overflowing with magnificent spiky cacti and enormous succulents that would be the envy of any cacti collector. An aloe-lined path brings you back under old olives trees bent by the east wind, reminders of Cap Ferrat’s natural landscape.
Now you have reached the south-eastern tip of the promontory and the domain’s crowning glory: the Temple of Love. The Temple is situated at the garden’s original ground level and looks down towards the villa some three hundred metres beyond. Its stepped waterfall tumbles into an artificial canal that spreads into a round basin containing dancing water-fountains. The canal is flanked by colourful annuals, giant Formosa agaves, palm trees and stone urns.
We actually owe the implantation of the French garden in front of the villa to Louis Marchand, as well as the prolongation and broadening of the canal towards the Temple of Love and the creation of the Spanish, Lapidary, Japanese and Exotic gardens.
(Byline: Born in 1858, Aaron Messiah became very popular amongst the rich and famous due to his perfect knowledge of English, his talent and total honesty. He created a number of important buildings along the French Riviera such as Les Cèdres on Cap Ferrat for Leopold II, King of the Belgians, the Leopolda in Villefranche-sur-Mer, he finished the Anglican church as well as building another Rothschild villa in Monte-Carlo.)
When palm trees were required as part of the overall design, she depleted the entire stock belonging to Hickel Frères, a German horticulturist established in Beaulieu. Such were the weight and size of these trees (thirty in all) that they required the harnessing of six horses to deliver each one.
Upon her death in 1934, the property was gifted to the Académie des Beaux Arts division of the Institut de France (a grouping of all French academies of the arts).