a vision in pink: the mediterranean villa fit for a baroness

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Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

acs_0491 In 1905, Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, heiress to a banking fortune, was so wealthy, restless, and enamored with the color pink that she oversaw the construction of a bubblegum mansion overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

A native Parisienne, Béatrice warmed her new summer home with splashes of her favorite color. It was everywhere: from the eye-catching exterior paint to the marble columns to the roses in the nine surrounding gardens. Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was a veritable island of pink: 17 acres of la vie en rose. acs_0496

Béatrice filled her winter home with art from her personal collections and established a small private zoo, featuring such exotic specimens as mongoose, gazelles, and–naturally–pink flamingos.

The villa sat on a cape, so Béatrice could enjoy a view of the sea from almost any window. The nine gardens were themed in a display of worldly botanical abundance, from Spanish to Florentine to Japanese. No less than thirty gardeners worked to maintain the property. They dressed as sailors to further the comforting illusion of the villa and gardens as adrift on a lazy sea. In fact, Béatrice called the property the “Ile de France,” also the name of a grand ship on which she had traveled.

Béatrice knew how to throw a party. And like the classiest of hosts, she was inconspicuous, though the poet Andre de Fouquières wryly described her fêtes as  “generous.” He noted one particular image that stuck with him: that of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova dancing in the gardens to Chopin nocturnes, “bathed in moonlight.”

On my visit to the villa, it was tempting for me, a mere peasant, to dream myself into this world. Baroness Béatrice’s pink confection of a house brought to mind the Barbie Dream House I had as a little girl. Complete with a working elevator, it was magic itself. And here I was in the South of France twenty years later, staring at a much bigger pink house, this one a delight to my grown-up heart.

img_2748There were no flamingos and I didn’t spy a single gazelle, but there was a fountain choreographed to elegant classical music. There was a café with a garden view, where you could linger over tea and a luscious tarte aux fraises.

I imagine living with so many choices, so much power. I imagine hosting parties lit only by the moon and tiny candles placed in the garden. I imagine swans in the fountain. Shimmering necklaces that lay heavy across my collarbone. Piles of exotic fruit topped with fresh chantilly. A treasured white mare brought by sea.

But I must keep my feet on the ground. On my feet, anyway, are heavy Vans hi-tops. They clomp on the aging wood floors, floors that squeak and tilt just a bit. They slap inelegantly on marble patterned with pink and white diamonds. I walk through intimate rooms where people once slept, now open to me and my camera and my sneakers. The rooms are still furnished with mirrors and bedding and vases of fresh flowers and might have seen all kinds of human emotion: joy or strife or simple boredom–a world-weary party guest staring bleakly out the window. There was life here. What are my Vans doing stomping through this early 20th-century glamour? Suddenly it looked so strange and anachronistic that I laughed.

Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild died in 1934 and was buried in La Père Lachaise in Paris. She bequeathed her property, all of it, to the Institut de France for the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and wished her home to be reopened as a museum. “It is my wish that as much as possible the museum keeps its current appearance as a salon.”

Would she have been pleased? Here there is dust, there, a chip in the paint. The villa remains grand, but the subtle decay is undeniable. Slowly going the way of all things.

Exploring places where people have lived tends to make me consider mortality.

A palace or villa or château that has outlived its owners does a much better job bringing the dead to life than does a graveyard, with its sober finality. These empty spaces evoke a bittersweet melancholy.

Look at these treasures, stored where “moth and rust doth corrupt,” already succumbing. Look at the owners–gone. Look what they took with them–none of it.

I am again struck by what terrible predictors physical possessions are for happiness.

Who was this eccentric woman, really? Was she happy? What did she long for? Did she know love? Did she find truth?

History remembers her…is that a solace?

History remembers her, of course, because of her father’s wealth, because of La Banque de France. Because she had the whimsy and the means to build a pretty pink house on the sea. acs_0510Some other facts: she was married at 19 to a friend of her father’s, much older than she. Her husband gave her a disease that left her unable to have children, and his serious gambling addiction threatened the marriage until it broke, culminating in divorce in 1904.

We love to glamorize the wealthy and dead, as if fine clothes and cakes work to redeem suffering.

 


Further reading:

Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild: creator and collector

Rothschild Family Archive

Tour the Villa with Exploring Provence

secret garden: serre de la madone

Menton, France has a Secret Garden beauty, rich as it is in dilapidated grandeur. img_3917

There are candy pastel hotels tucked in the hills, once wedding cake-grand but now closed with broken windows. The small downtown area houses murals, fountains, and statues that show their age. A striking yellow staircase leads from the Basilique St. Michel down to the sea, but it begs for a fresh coat of paint.

This pearl of France could use some polishing.

That’s what makes it special, though. It’s cozy, instead of glamorous and glitzy like other spots on the Côte d’Azur. It’s calm (though admittedly I’ve never been here in prime tourist season).

Menton has long been a haven for foreigners, so much so that the town holds a sort of “tourist cemetery” high on a hill with a view of the sea. img_3889

Menton also contains a number of botanical gardens, many of them created by foreign botanists attracted to Menton’s unique climate. Menton is typically about three degrees warmer than other parts of the Riviera on any given day. It’s sheltered from harsh weather by the hills surrounding it, meaning that plants found nowhere else in France can still flourish here (not the least of which is the Menton lemon, celebrated every year with a monthlong festival. To see what I thought of that, click here).

I visited Serre de la Madone, a garden designed by Lawrence Johnston, a wealthy American (though he died in 1958 before he saw the project come to fruition).

Like much of Menton, it’s a cozy contradiction: nine hectares of manicured wildness.

img_3909 Despite the villa, greenhouse, and mossy statues, the garden lacks a human presence. It feels as if it was designed and then left alone, left to the elements. Actually, that is what happened, to a certain extent. When Johnston died the development of the unfinished garden was left to the plants, as he didn’t leave any plans. img_3905

There’s upkeep of course; there was a man weed-eating when I was there, the noise cutting through the tropical tweets of the birds, but the garden cast a spell even so. It seemed beautifully abandoned, despite evidence to the contrary.img_3886

I slipped over stones and ducked under vines, noticing subtle movement everywhere.

Frogs startled, splashing into algae-green pools, thick like pea soup. They croaked from lily pads, perhaps motivated by mating season, so loudly it actually hurt my ears. img_3902

Beetles and dragonflies whirred, and ants marched steadily. img_3930

Brilliant orange fish bobbed, friendly, to the tops of pools.img_3913

At the end of a shallow pool sat a greenhouse that looked both abandoned and ready for guests, a Mad Hatter’s tea. Fat lizards scurried up the walls.