Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, also called Villa Île-de-France, is a French seaside villa located at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera.
The villa was designed by the French architect Aaron Messiah, and constructed between 1905 and 1912 by Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild (1864–1934).
A member of the Rothschild banking family and the wife of the banker Baron Maurice de Ephrussi, Béatrice de Rothschild built her rose-colored villa on a promontory on the isthmus of Cap Ferrat, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The Baroness filled the mansion with antique furniture, paintings by Old Master, sculptures, objets d’art, and assembled an extensive collection of rare porcelain.
The gardens are classified by the French Ministry of Culture as one of the Notable Gardens of France.
On her death in 1934, 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.
The villa is surrounded by nine gardens, each on a different theme: Florentine, Spanish, « à la française », exotic, a stone garden, a Japanese garden, a rose garden, Provençal and a garden de Sèvres. They were created between 1905 and 1912 under the direction of landscape architect Achille Duchêne.
The garden was conceived in the form of a ship, to be viewed from the loggia of the house, which was like the bridge of a vessel, with the sea visible on all sides. It was inspired by a voyage she made on the liner Île de France, and the villa was given that name. The thirty gardeners who maintained the garden were dressed as sailors, with berets with red pom-poms.
The Garden à la française is the largest garden and occupies the area behind the villa. Next to the villa there is a terrace with a formal French garden and topiaries. Beyond the terrace is a park with palm trees and a long basin, ornamented with fountains, statues, and basins with water lilies and other aquatic plants. On the far end of the park is a hill covered with cypress trees, surrounding a replica garden of the Temple of Love at the Petit Trianon palace. The slope below the temple has a cascade of water in the form of a stairway, which feeds into the large basin.
A stairway from the French garden descends to the circle of gardens on the lower level. The Spanish garden features a shaded courtyard and fountain, with aromatic plants, Catalan amphorae, and a Gallo-Roman bench. The Florentine garden, facing the harbour of Villefranche-sur-Mer, has a grand stairway, an artificial grotto, and a marble statue of an ephebe. Beyond the Florentine garden is the lapidary, or stone garden, with an assortment of gargoyles, columns, and other architectural elements from ancient and medieval buildings. The Japanese garden has a wooden pavilion, a bridge, and lanterns. The exotic garden features giant cactus and other rare plants. A rose garden with a statue surrounded by columns adjoins it, where pink, the favourite colour of the owner, is predominant. On the east side of the villa is a garden of native plants of Provence and a garden with decorations of Sèvres porcelain.
The villa was registered as a historical monument in 1996.
The Villa : Past and Present
Béatrice de Rothschild is born
Béatrice was the daughter of the baron Alphonse de Rothschild, a banker and renowned art collector. At the age of 19, she married Maurice Ephrussi, a Parisian banker of Russian origin, 15 years her senior, and a friend of her parents. The marriage quickly turned sour for Béatrice. She contracted a serious illness from Maurice, which prevented her from having children. Maurice was a gambler and in 1904, his debts totalled over 12 million gold francs, the equivalent of 30 million euros today.
Maurice and Béatrice divorce
Worried about the future, the Rothschild family decided to bring Maurice to court in order to file for a divorce. They won the case and in June 1904, after 21 years of marriage, the divorce of Béatrice de Rothschild and Maurice Ephrussi was officially pronounced. Béatrice then turned her attention to one of her great passions: collecting art. Béatrice had inherited her keen eye and her taste for beautiful objects from her family, renowned for the remarkable collections built up by several of her relatives over the years. Her motto was ‘Ars Patriae Decus’: ‘Art is the honour of the fatherland’. She acquired many items—a Tiepolo ceiling, eighteenth-century furniture, a games table that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette, and a rug commissioned by Louis XIV—to furnish the future villa.
Beatrice discovers Cap Ferrat
Béatrice’s father died in 1905 and the Baroness inherited his immense fortune. That same year, she decided to construct her dream home in Cap Ferrat. When she first discovered this plot of land, she was immediately seduced by the beauty of the surroundings. However at the time, the site was rather inaccessible—it was little more than a barren rocky area traversed by a mule track. When she learned of the sale of the terrain and that the Belgian King, Léopold II, was also interested in it, she purchased it without hesitation.
Work begins on the gardens
Work on the gardens began immediately and took seven years to complete. The Baroness called upon the talents of several renowned personalities such as 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. The Baroness had the ground dynamited and large quantities of earth were brought in to relevel the surface. Hundreds of Italian workers were hired for these large-scale relevelling works.
Work begins on the Villa
Béatrice Ephrussi was especially fastidious when it came to the choice of an architect. She refused projects submitted by a dozen or so leading architects, considering them as ‘idiotic’. 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, were also rejected. Architect Jacques-Marcel Auburtin was eventually entrusted with the design of the Villa, having scrupulously met all of Béatrice Ephrussi’s requirements. He was assisted by Aaron Messiah, an architect from Nice who would go on to build several villas for the aristocracy.
Landscaping the gardens
When the Baroness moved into the Villa, four hectares of the gardens were still to be landscaped. The Baroness had given priority to those areas of the grounds visible from the house, i.e. the French formal garden.
She spared no expense or effort when it came to landscaping the grounds of the Villa, and even created a veritable mobile and living decor in her endeavour to design the French formal garden. It was not uncommon to see her employees hidden in pyramids of green cardboard, representing cypress trees, or manoeuvring long strips of silver, grey and green fabric in an attempt to determine the exact location of the ponds, driveways and flower beds…
The Baroness moves into the Villa
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.
The Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild made her Villa a true haven for art collectors with porcelain, furniture and paintings by the Great Masters. The Villa was decorated in the Rothschild style, i.e., with the best from each era, resulting in a somewhat eclectic mix!
The Baroness furnished her Villa directly at the Gare de Beaulieu. A train would arrive from Paris, loaded with furniture and works of art. The Baroness would select the artworks for her Villa on the platform of the train station! Those works not selected for the Villa Ephrussi would furnish her villa in Monaco.
Béatrice bequeaths her collection to the Académie des Beaux-Arts
A year before her death, Beatrice bequeathed her Villa and the entirety of its collections to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Académie also received the 7 hectares of land and some 5,000 works of art.
Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild passes away
Suffering from tuberculosis, Béatrice retired to Davos in Switzerland where she passed away. One of her relatives would describe Béatrice on her deathbed in the following words: ‘she was still beautiful, with the snowy halo of her hair surrounding the deathly pallor of her face’.
That same year, the landscape architect Louis Marchand was entrusted with designing the themed gardens of the estate: a Spanish, Florentine, Japanese, and Mexican garden. Such variety would surely have pleased the first occupant of the premises. He also had water put in the fountains and renovated the French formal gardens.
Following the Second World War
During the war, Cap Ferrat was deserted by its inhabitants and the area was mined. The Villa remained unattended and the gardens abandoned for two years. When Louis Marchand returned to the Villa after the war, he quickly began work on the badly neglected gardens, soon restoring them to their pre-war splendour. The building was also renovated, and a new colour scheme chosen for the facades: once ochre yellow, the Villa was painted in reddish-pink hues, providing it with a Venetian air.
A harsh winter
This year was marked by a particularly harsh winter. As the Villa’s lavish gardens are more exposed to the cold wind than other gardens on the cape, the estate lost many of its tall, beautiful trees and almost all of the Mexican garden.
The Marnier Lapostolle family, who lived in the neighbouring villa and were friends of the former head gardener and the owners of a remarkable collection of cacti and rare plants, offered many of the plants from their own collection to the Villa Ephrussi in an effort to restore the devastated Mexican garden, today referred to as the ‘exotic garden’.
Culturespaces named delegatee
The Académie des Beaux-Arts entrusted the management of the site to Culturespaces. The latter has overseen the renovation of the Villa’s interior, and the restoration of the gardens, respecting the original plan designed by Louis Marchand. Culturespaces is responsible for organizing several events at the site, including the Fête des Roses et des Plantes (Rose and Plant Festival) showcasing the Villa’s splendid gardens.
The Villa is open 365 days a year from 10 a.m to 6 p.m,
July and August: from 10 a.m to 7 p.m
From November to January: Monday to Friday from 2 p.m to 6 p.m. / weekends and holidays from 10 a.m to 6 p.m.
Last admission 30 minutes before closing.
The cultural gift shop is open during the Villa’s opening times.
The tea room is open only on weekends from November to January.
Tél : 04 93 01 33 09
Fax : 04 93 01 31 10