A Greek Dream… A Modern Villa
By Cynthia Fray
Growing up on the French Riviera was a constant source of inspiration for French antiques dealer Jean-Marc Fray. A native of Nice, where art and architecture are surpassed only by breathtaking landscapes and the shimmering brilliance of the Mediterranean Sea, Jean-Marc often escaped as an adolescent to the local museums and noble palaces for reflection, wonderment or comfort. Nice was something of an international Mecca for 19th century European aristocracy (a summer destination for the Russians, the English and Parisians), and a haven for artists as well. The combination of great wealth and exceptional artistic talent in that area produced a profusion of opulent estates and summer villas, exquisitely furnished with art and antiques. These landmarks have made the French Riviera one of the richest destinations in all of Europe for architecture and art. Today, as an antiques dealer residing in Austin, Texas, Jean-Marc frequently returns to these places with great fondness and respect, where a sense of nostalgia and pride leave him brimming with inspiration time and time again. One of his favorites, where time seems to have come to a halt centuries ago, is the magnificent Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-Sur-Mer…
Built by two fervent Hellenists, Theodore Reinach, a Greek scholar and owner of the villa, and Emmanuel Pontremoli, architect, the Villa Kerylos dominates the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, on the very point of the Baie des Fourmis in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. It is an exceptional site – an archetype of good taste, refinement and beauty, as well as a symbol of intellect and appreciation of history and architecture. Inspired by the noble villas on the island of Dellos, Kerylos is no mere imitation; it is a reinvention; an authentic Greek home, with astonishingly luxurious decorations and furnishings commissioned and crafted by the most prestigious interior decorators and artists of the time. The patterns of the frescoes and mosaics, the furniture design and the motifs in the tapestries and fabrics were inspired directly from antique documents. Rare materials were used extensively such as Carrara and Sienna marble, Australian prune wood, American walnut, and Angelica wood inlaid with ivory. Elaborate gardens of Greek plants surround the villa offering an idyllic setting for meditation and reflection. An expensive endeavor at the time, it cost over ten million francs to build this tribute. Even still, Villa Kerylos cannot be dismissed as just another aristocratic whim, for it is much more than that – it is a veritable link between modern society and ancient Greek civilization.
Son of a wealthy Parisian banker, Theodore Reinach was a child prodigy who grew up to become a Doctor of Law, Doctor of Literature, archeologist, papyrologist, numismatist, musicologist, professor and distinguished member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, (not to mention deputy for the Dept. of Savoie). He was a well known and highly regarded Hellenist and, like his two equally accomplished brothers, a man of great discipline and principles who diligently pursued his studies with the conviction that knowledge acquired through extensive study was meant be shared for public benefit. The grand plan for Villa Kerylos was a testimony to the man himself – at once a reflection of his extensive knowledge of Greek history and art, his passion for Mediterranean culture, and a treasure to be admired and shared by all, under the stewardship of L’Institut de France – a gift he granted France in his final will.
Emmanuel Pontremoli, an architect and archaeologist from Nice, winner of the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome in 1890 and an elected member of the Académie des Beaux Arts, shared Reinach’s passion for ancient Greece. When Reinach offered him the job, he fell in love with the idea and spent 6 years, from 1902 to 1908, creating the Villa Kerylos. [The Greek word “Kerylos” means Halcyon or kingfisher which in Greek mythology was thought to be a bird of good omen]. Pontremoli understood that a mere reproduction or recreation of a Grecian villa would not work for all sorts of practical, technical and aesthetic reasons, so he decided to build something completely original “along Grecian lines”. Accuracy therefore, was not the basis for this project, but rather freedom – artistic license in the decorative decisions he made and aesthetic principles from which he would draw his inspiration; for this reason, in his opinion, Villa Kerylos, was destined to be a success.
The Serpent, the Sphinx and Sophocles
In keeping with the style of many Mediterranean houses, the Villa Kerylos is built around a peristyle – a vast central courtyard surrounded by twelve monolithic columns in white Carrara marble. Almost every wall in the villa is decorated with mythological scenes selected by Reinach himself and painted using antique methods. Numerous mythic symbols can be found throughout the villa, such as the serpent and sphinx, the protective spirits of the household who keep watch from the peristyle, a mosaic of cock, hen and chicks in the entry way offering an allegory of the family, and a marble statue of Sophocles standing guard nearby.
Four main rooms surround the peristyle starting with the Library. The Library is the most spectacular room with its soaring ceilings and remarkable furnishings – inlaid oak sideboards and cabinets modeled after furniture discovered in Herculaneum in 1762, Egyptian chairs and stands which Reinach used, since he stood when he wrote, and a magnificent bronze and alabaster chandelier. All the furniture was crafted by Bettendfeld, a cabinetmaker from the Faubourg-Saint-Antoine in Paris. The variety of the different species of wood, the delicate inlays of ivory and use of woven leather contribute to the originality of the project. The room faces east for maximum morning light and contains many reference works on classical art. Reinach had an inscription placed on the south wall which one could interpret as the Kerylos motto: “Here, in the company of the Greek orators, scholars and poets, I have created a peaceful retreat among immortal beauty.”
Farther along lies the Triklinos (room with three couches), or banquet room, where guests sat (or laid) on leather couches and dined on tripod tables placed in the middle of the room. “Three tables are placed there”, writes Pontremoli, “according to an antique arrangement. Behind one of them was a banquet couch that stood somewhat higher than the others, such as those painted on antique vases. In this way, the master of the home could preside over the meal in a posture we have all seen on these vases.”
The room next door, the Andron (the men’s room, used for entertaining guests) contains a domestic altar in honor of the “the unknown god” from an inscription St. Paul read on the altar of Athens. In the adjoining family meeting room, or Oikos, an interesting folding piano, specially designed by Pleyel for Kerylos, stands out among the lemon wood furniture. This was just one example of Pontremoli’s ingenious attempts to incorporate the modern conveniences of Belle Epoque villas into the luxury setting of a classical Grecian villa. Other examples can be found in the Balaneion (baths): the drains and the water faucets are concealed under bronze plates, the bronze soap and sponge-holders with openwork design are modeled after the strainers in the Naples Museum, and the shower area boasts a circular shower head for “rain showers”. The bath is done entirely in Carrara tiger marble.
The bedrooms are located on the upper floor. The first room belonged to Reinach’s wife, Fanny Kann, the niece of Charles Ephrussi (it is important to note that Kerylos was financed in large part by her personal fortune – over 9 million francs). This predominantly blue room is called Ornites (the Birds) and is dedicated to Hera, Zeus’ wife, goddess of marriage and femininity – hence the peacock and swan details. Theodore Reinach’s richly decorated bedroom is called Erotès, dedicated to Eros, God of love. This symmetrical room faces the sea to the south. The walls are painted a deep Pompeian red, with gold palm leaves, cupid figures and flying doves in the frescoes. The floor is a large mosaic depicting Dionysus on a trireme, surrounded by dolphins.
The location of the Villa Kerylos, the details in its design and the selection of its exquisite furnishings reveal the very spirit of this extraordinary place – a notion that might be summed up by the Greek word “Xaipe” which greets the villa’s visitors in the mosaic of the entrance floor; it means “Rejoice” or “Enjoy Yourself” which no doubt its owner, family and honorable guests (Cocteau and Eiffel were frequent guests and neighbors) most assuredly did for many years. Today, as art lovers, history buffs, architects and romantics walk through the halls of this enchanting place, another Greek word comes to mind that might have proven equally appropriate as an inscription: “Enthousiazein , or “Be Inspired” – an invitation that you will discover is quite easy to comply with. (Jean-Marc Fray can vouch for that… ).
Impasse Gustave Eiffel
Open year round.