Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Great French Architecture, Breath-Taking Location

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.

Theodore Reinach

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.

For more information:

Villa Kerylos
Impasse Gustave Eiffel


My Castle in Spain said...

oh what a fabulous gem and an exemplary source of inspiration !
am so eager to see your pics of Indian splendor!

Mrs. Blandings said...

Amazingly beautiful - thanks for the tour.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

what a glorious place (with a sad history unforunately). I am adding this to my list of vacation 'musts'!

Trouvais said...

Welcome back Diane! Incredible story, even with the tragedy. It's amazing that there are some who are so compelled to search for beauty, who live to preserve the best efforts and art of mankind. Grateful that it's preserved as an historical monument, and that your melodious writing brings it into our homes. Thank you, Trish

Karena said...

Ooh and ah. The south of France is one vacation on my list of places to go! Beautiful images!

Lynne Rutter said...

Just gorgeous. I recently borrowed a book about this villa and have been secretly plotting a trip there. I had not heard what happened to the Reinach family, only that they donated the house as a museum. Thanks for sharing this.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

It must be like a visit to Eden.


Diane, just simply beautiful and made more wonderful by your commentary. I love the South of France and have vacationed in a lovely home in Juan les Pins many reading this was especially poignant to me as my darling husband can no longer travel and we had so much fun during our times there.

The people who say you write too much (absolutely hilarious comment) must know WAAAY more than you. The rest of us love you!!!

WM Twigs said...

This Post really rubs salt into my wounds!
To visit Kerylos has been at the top of my "to do" list several times, but it keeps being over looked. It is now back at the top! Thank you for the reminder.
I visit the Musee Comondo every time I am in Paris, but have never picked up on the name Reinach, and the connection. I also give you Many Thanks for this sad bit of information.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Good afternoon, Dear Friends-
Thank you so much for your ebullient comments.
Villa Kerylos is on the list of 'top architecture' of many architects and designers.
It is full of inspiration--and in retrospect it feels so modern and contemporary (esp for a house that is almost 100 years old).
It's important to note that I had to search and research for the tragic family story. Perhaps it is not surprising that in the official notes I did not see any mention that Reinach family members were deported and killed. It is such a beautiful property--and for me this utterly sad history makes it seem even more poignant.
Reinach was a man of great optimism and love of the arts and love of beauty. Certainly his heirs keep a very low profile.
The house is superbly maintained. Unlike many former private residences now in the hands of the state of an organization, Villa Kerylos feels alive and well...and not at all institutional. I hope you all visit soon. You will be so inspired.
Important to note: whenever I have visited over the years, there have never been more than a handful of design and architecture fans wandering about, and you hardly feel their presence. I am captivated by the place--and feel alone there, in my reverie.
cheers and happy days, DIANE


How can I have missed going to this Fab Villa?
Thanks so much for the introduction!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


I'm so pleased you're discovering it for the first time--as you and SA have seen every great house in Europe and America.
The villa stands on one of the most beautiful locations in the world, and you are minutes from Nice and Cannes and Monaco.
Best of all--it is usually deserted and 'security' is very subtle-to-invisible. Nearby is the Villa Ephrussi, very Beaux-Arts and over-the-top, and many people are lured by its garden and the grandeur, leaving the Villa Kerylos quiet and peaceful, so that a serious visitor can peruse every detail in peace and contentment. Note that the furniture was made by Saridis--and many pieces are still made today.
cheers, DIANE

little augury said...

It is always fascinating to see an absolute passion for any period or style played out to its most complete-doing so makes it truly timeless. I can imagine the stillness that surrounds a place like this. Tragic family losses but what a living testament to beauty for those who continue to seek it amidst an unkind world. beautifully written and shared. la

Shannon said...

A lovely and stylish piece of history. Thanks for sharing. :-)


red ticking said...

this looks heavenly... i will hope to visit someday very soon. have a lovely holiday.... x pam

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Good Morning from San Francisco--Shannon and Pam-

Loved hearing from you.
I've been surprised that so many design-obsessed readers and other bloggers have not yet visited the Villa Kerylos, especially as many have been to Provence and other parts of the south of France.
The villa is worth a trip.
It's so beautiful and so dramatic there.
One summer when I was there, fires were blazing in the hills above the villa and great plumes of threatening smoke formed a backdrop to the scene. As I walked out onto the villa terrace, big old army planes were swooping down to the bay nearby and with giant metal scoops were grabbing up seawater to take up into the hills to douse the flames. It was noisy--the buzzing planes and slosh of water, but heroic and dramatic...and soon the smoke and flames died down. The villa have been witness to much drama.
all very best for the holidays, whereever you are! DIANE

A Super Dilettante said...

Hello Diane, looking at the photos and reading your description about Villa Kerylos, I felt like I just went to a trip up in Heaven.

DennyHollandStudio said...

Wonderful and informative post, as can one go wrong with monkeys on the roof?!

Toby Worthington said...

Hoping it isn't too late to thank you for the wonderful essay on
Villa Kerylos. Only last week I was discussing it with a visiting friend from the south of France, who'd attended at gathering at Keylos with a bunch of academics who took a jaundiced view of the place, much to the bemusement of my stylish friend. One of them turned to her and
whispered sharply: "You do know, my dear, that it is all FAKE."
In other words, he missed the point of this brilliant synthesis of modern and antique~completely!!!