Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Cap Ferrat
Images from La Belle Èpoque (1871-1914) on the French Riviera generate the impression of a whimsical golden era brimming with pleasurable pursuits and indulgences. It was a time of pure fantasy; the stuff little girls might dream of — castles, palatial homes, ball gowns and glass slippers.
Baroness Charlotte Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild was born (in 1864) fabulously wealthy — a daughter of the multi-generational Rothschild bank-founding family. She was exposed from a young age to luxury goods and fabulous artwork and, like her parents, had a passion for collecting beautiful things.
At the age of 19, she was pushed into marriage with Maurice Ephrussi, who was 15 years her senior. The Ephrussi’s were a Russian-Jewish family who made a fortune controlling grain distribution, then made even more money in oil, and later founded a chain of banks called Ephrussi & Co. It was a power move for her father to promise his sophisticated yet virginal daughter to them.
Unsurprisingly, the marriage quickly turned sour for Béatrice. Maurice was a man of weak character and a cheating husband. Not long after they were married she found out that he’d given her a serious sexually-transmitted illness, which would prevent her from having children.
In 1902, Théodore Reinach (who also married into the Ephrussi family) began building a villa at Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Visiting his Villa Kerylos (which is now also available for visits), Béatrice fell in love with the area.
Maurice, too, was attracted to the South of France, because of the casino at Monte Carlo, and he and Béatrice maintained residency in tax-free Monaco. He was a compulsive gambler (both at the cards-table and via horse racing) and, by 1904, he had driven them into a hole of massive gambling debt adding up to a whopping 12 million gold francs (the equivalent of 30 million euros today).
Worried about the family’s financial future and not wanting the Rothschild name to be associated Maurice or his mounting debts, Béatrice’s father finally agreed to bring him to court in order to file for a divorce. They won the case and in June 1904, after 21 years of marriage, their divorce was officially pronounced and their loveless marriage was finally over.
Béatrice’s father died in 1905 (luckily, after her divorce) and she inherited part of his immense fortune. That same year, now 40 years old, she decided that she wanted a to start a fresh and independent new life, and that the way to do this was to construct her dream home in Cap Ferrat.
When she first discovered this 17-acre (69,000 m2) plot of land on Cap Ferrat, she was immediately seduced by the beauty of the surroundings. At the time the land was rather inaccessible; it was little more than a barren rocky area traversed by a mule track. When she learned the property was for sale and that the Belgian King, Léopold II, was also interested in it, she purchased it without hesitation and began building a luxurious villa in what later became known as the Goût Rothschild style.
The project, which included magnificent gardens, took seven years (1905 to 1912) to complete. Béatrice was especially fastidious when it came to the choice of an architect. She refused plans submitted by a dozen or so leading architects, including the projects proposed by Claude Girault (architect of the Petit Palais), and Henri-Paul Nénot (recipient of the Grand Prix de Rome and designer of the new Sorbonne). Architect Jacques-Marcel Auburtin was eventually entrusted with the design of the villa, having scrupulously met all of Béatrice’s requirements. He was assisted by Aaron Messiah, an architect from Nice who would go on to build several villas for the aristocracy.
Villa Ile-de-France (as it was called at the time) is a pastiche of Veronese marble, Louis XV furniture, and thousands and thousands of Sèvres tureens.
Béatrice was such a good customer, that sellers were willing to load their art and furniture onto trains and bring their shops to her. She furnished her villa directly at the Gare de Beaulieu; a train would arrive from Paris loaded with furniture and works of art and Béatrice would select the artwork she wanted for her villa on the platform of the train station! Much of the art and furniture not selected for this villa would, instead, furnish her villa in Monaco.
Béatrice loved art and used her wealth to travel the world and to acquire a collection of paintings including Old Masters, plus sculptures, rare porcelain, and antique furniture. She enjoyed filling the villa with her ever-growing art collections. She also created her own private zoo with exotic birds and animals including flamingos, parrots, monkeys, mongooses, antelope, and gazelles. The villa became a hub for art of all kinds: literary parties, music, gatherings of art collectors, and riveting conversation.
The villa is most famous for its nine themed gardens, as well as the rose and plant festival that takes place each May. Béatrice called upon the talents of several renowned designers including Harold Peto and Achille Duchêne — highly prized landscape architects in Europe and the United States at the time.
The site chosen for the villa was not particularly conducive to the creation of a garden. Indeed, creating a park on a rocky promontory covered with trees and exposed to strong winds was quite a tour de force. Béatrice had the ground dynamited and large quantities of earth were brought in to re-level the surface. Hundreds of Italian workers were hired for these large-scale re-leveling works. It was not uncommon to see her employees hidden in pyramids of green cardboard, representing cypress trees, or maneuvering long strips of silver, grey and green fabric in an attempt to determine the exact location of the ponds, driveways and flower beds…
Béatrice was inspired by her travels to create nine distinct gardens designed around international themes. Spanish, Florentine or Japanese… garden of the Muses, garden of the Lapidary, the rose garden… Impeccable walk-ways, classical statues, palm trees, and rare floral fragrances surround this paradise. As it was in her time, every twenty minutes, the famous “musical fountain” still moves into action while playing Mozart.
Béatrice made the villa her winter residence and came here regularly for a period of ten or so years, dividing her time between Paris, Monaco and Deauville. Having been born in the Talleyrand hotel in Paris on the 14th of September 1864, she died in Davos, Switzerland on the 7th of April 1934, of tuberculosis. On her death, 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.
Horrifyingly, during WW2, France (under the rule of the collaborationist Vichy government) participated in systematically looting and liquidating her villa and collections. During the the war, Cap Ferrat was deserted by its inhabitants and the area was mined and looted. The villa remained unattended and the gardens abandoned for two years.
Rebirth & Dishonor
After the war, the the members of the Academy of Fine Arts hired Louis Marchand to work on the badly neglected gardens, and restore them to their pre-war splendor. The building was repaired and a new color scheme chosen for the facades: while Béatrice had chosen ochre yellow, the Academy re-painted the villa in pink. Béatrice was a woman who knew what she wanted, and carefully chose every detail of the villa, making this a surprising move.
In an equally shocking (read: deeply sexist) move, the villa was renamed from Béatrice’s chosen name of ‘Ile de France’ to ‘Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild’. Beatrice’s horrible ex-husband’s name was added before hers, forever entwining their history in the public eye and unjustly giving him credit for a villa he had nothing to do with — in fact, he had never set foot in it! This would have disgusted Béatrice, who was a feminist and had to deal with sexism throughout her life. We hold out hope that the Academy will remove “Ephrussi” from the name in the near future.
Today, the villa and much of the gardens remain (although much of the land has been sold off) and, thanks to Béatrice, this estate is a major tourist attraction and money-maker for the French Riviera. It is not in very good condition, but still worth visiting to see the gardens and the surviving treasures collected by the Baroness.
Events to Attend
Many events are held at the villa. Check this post and our events calendar for updates.
Evening Cocktail Parties
In July and August, the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild stays open in the evenings. On Fridays and Saturdays, you can discover the villa and its gardens during evening events that will revive the magic of the golden days of the Riviera. Live music, fountains, a bar, and candles all around the gardens will create the setting for a romantic and glamorous visit of the villa. The villa will be open from 7:30pm to midnight. The patio and the basins of the Jardin à la Française (French-style garden) will be illuminated by hundreds of candles.
The villa (including the gardens) is open for visits, and is worth the trip to see. There’s also a tea room / restaurant in what was previously used as a dining room. You can go for a delicious snack in this calm oasis with an unrestricted view of the Bay of Villefranche. At lunchtime, the tea room serves light meals (salads, quiches or the daily special).
Villa & Gardens – Open Times: 365 days a year from 10am to 6pm, except in July and August, when it’s open until 7pm every day except Fridays and Saturdays, when it’s open until midnight.
Restaurant & Tea House – Open Times: From 11am to 5:30pm. Lunch is served from noon to 3pm and you can take a coffee break from 3pm to 5:30pm (6:30pm in July and August).
Cost: €16 per person
If you love architecture, art, or gardens, don’t miss the chance to visit the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.