Villa Kerylos: World Heritage Architecture on the Mediterranean
When I’m in the South of France, I always make a pilgrimage to the Villa Kerylos, a glorious white Greek-style residence built in 1908 on a point overlooking the Mediterranean and St-Jean Cap Ferrat.
Villa Kerylos is situated in the heart of one of the most dramatic and alluring locations in the world—with craggy mountains rearing up as backdrop, the chic Beaux-Arts town of Beaulieu nearby, lush frangipani and jasmine scenting the air, palaces on the horizon, all framed by the lambent Mediterranean.
This past summer, I spent several weeks in the South of France on the trail of Picasso, Matisse, historic architecture, seaside hotels, accomplished artists, regional cuisine. I immersed myself in the ramparts of culture and history encircling every town and village
I wrote a blog feature earlier about Aix-en-Provence and my discovery of the Picasso chateau in Vauvenargues, and another on my love affair with the Hotel Belles Rives in Juan-les-Pins.
On my Cote d’Azur agenda was a visit to the mysterious and elegant Villa Kerylos that billows out into the Mediterranean like a ship heading off to sea.
Hallucinatory light-filled interiors of utmost refinement, intricate Istrian marble mosaics, frescoes of Greek gods, and superbly authentic interiors take a visitor back to classic Athenian times.
Klismos chairs, murals of Poseidon and Athena, bronze lanterns, archaeological figures, as well as coffers, tables, and sleek daybeds crafted in palisander, Ceylonese citrus woods, and exotic woods from Australia and the Americas add layer upon layer of fascinating detail. Classical architects adore it. Antique dealers swoon. Designers rave.
Postcards above: I was fortunate to find several rare twenties postcards of Villa Kerylos and its delicious Cote d’Azur setting at a flea market in Nice several years ago. Vividly colored, they capture the intense light and dramatic mis-en-scene of Beaulieu-sur-Mer surrounded by the Mediterranean.
To bring his dream of a harmonious and beautiful Greek villa to life, in 1902 Theodore Reinach (1860-1928) commissioned Emmanuel Pontremoli (1865-1956). It was a fine match. Pontremoli, an architect and archaeologist, shared Reinach’s passion for ancient Greek ideals, was a winner of the Grand Prix de Rome” and he had been elected a member of the Académie des Beaux Arts. Pontremoli spent 6 years, from 1902 to 1908, creating the Villa Kerylos.
The villa is organized around a 12-columned peristyle, with a library, a banquet room, a bathroom (the shower uses rainwater), a room dedicated to Eros, and Mme Reinach’s bedchamber, all with vivid views of the sea.
The elegant original furniture with its pure lines is one of the most compelling aspects of the Villa. Each piece (crafted by the Athenian firm, Saridis) is a line-for-line copy of a Grecian original and was handmade using traditional methods.
Desks, plaited leather stools, cast-bronze tripod tables, and bronze-frame beds, are made from precious exotic woods, such as rosewood, American walnut, and are inlaid with ivory and coral.
Kerylos in classical Greek means halcyon or kingfisher. In Greek mythology it was an elegant bird that swam on calm seas and was seen as a good omen. Kingfishers and legendary sea creatures and gods are depicted in mosaics and paintings throughout the villa.
Just a few years ago, I stayed at the Royal Riviera hotel, which is located on St-Jean-Cap Ferrat, just across the bay from Villa Kerylos. Every morning I was mesmerized by the sharply delineated lines of the white villa, a piece of Attican history, clearly visible across the water.
I would circle the bay, walk along a narrow palm-fringed lane, and I find myself entering the dream house of Theodore Reinach, a classical scholar. His Greek fantasy was created with perfect symmetry, down to the rain-shower bathroom, the entry peristyle, a wall sundial, cast bronze faucets, superbly executed statuary, and a mis-en-scene that recreates life in early Greece.
The Villa Kerylos cost a fortune (nine million francs) to build at the turn of the century. With price no object, Carrara marble columns, mythological friezes, alabaster and bronze artifacts were found or commissioned. The effect, however, is subtle, understated, and elegant.
In every room there are frescoes and mosaics inspired by ancient documents. Visitors can see a depiction of the death of Talos after winning the Golden Fleece, the return of Hephaestus to Olympia, and the muscular dramas of the legend of Pelops and the life of Apollo.
The Mind Behind the Villa
Villa Kerylos was built for Théodore Reinach, who became obsessed with ancient Greece and classical Greek ideals. He was the youngest son born into a family of bankers, originally from Frankfurt.
Reinach gained a double doctoral degree (in law and arts) before following his passion and concentrating on ancient Greek history. He was an archaeologist, epigramist, papyrologist, numismatist and musicologist, a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres, as well as being deputy for the Savoie department in Eastern France.
Reinach’s life-long love of Greek literature, architecture, and philosophiy inspired him to build his Grecian villa on Pointe Fourmie near Beaulieu-sur-Mer and between Nice and Monte Carlo.
An Aesthete’s Lament earlier wrote about the floor mosaics and the Greek myths and legends they illustrated.
Xaipe (Greek for rejoice or celebrate) is emblazoned over the entrance. But amidst the beauty, there is also a tragic aspect to this story. You won’t find this in the official Villa website, most likely.
Léon Reinach, the son of Theodore, was married to Béatrice de Camondo with whom he had two children. Those who have visited Beatrice’s family residence, the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris (one of the great historic houses), will see a wall plaque that spells out this tragedy. “Mme. Leon Reinach, born Béatrice de Camondo, her children, Fanny and Bertrand, the last descendants of the Nissim de Camondo family, and her husband M. Léon Reinach, were deported from Paris by the Germans in 1943-44, and died at Auschwitz.”
While these horrors were happening in Paris, the Villa was seized by the Nazis. Fortunately it was not destroyed. After the war, Theodore Reinach’s nieces and nephews and the Reinach family grandchildren continued to spend summers there until 1967 when the villa was officially handed over to the Institut de France. It is currently classified as a French historical monument.
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Impasse Gustave Eiffel