Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A richer dust

"Properties down here in the late thirties were easy to find and the prices comparatively reasonable. It was a question, really, of elimination and on what part of the coast one wanted to be. It took my mother about six weeks to find her ideal; a house on the end of Point Saint Hospice with enough land around it to assure complete privacy. St Hospice is a small peninsula jutting out from Cap Ferrat and, bending back like a thumb, faces out across Beaulieu Bay to the mainland, and is about as near to being an island as it is possible to be. Angled east-west, the house faces due south and full out to sea on one façade and to the shelter of a large, open bay on the other. The property was known as La Fiorentina, and as its name suggests, was a Florentine pastiche and was built just after the outbreak of the 1914 war by Comtesse Robert de Beauchamp, and is illustrated, incidentally, in Robert Doré's extremely useful L'Art en Provence.

"It was a typical house of the period and remembering it as it used to look it is much to my mother's credit that she saw its possibilities and understood what could be made of it. I was not experienced enough in those days to be consulted seriously and the whole responsibility rested with her. It was a brave choice and, as it turned out, a very fortunate one. Of course its whole raison d'être is the position, its gardens reaching right down to the rocks and the heaving Mediterranean. The end of the point was left wild and grown over with a tangle of stone pines tortured by the wind into wierd Rackham-like shapes, and it was for these trees, I believe, that my mother really bought the place.

"The Comtesse de Beauchamp had sold Fiorentina to Sir Edmund Davis, a man who had made his fortune in South Africa, and it was from him, or rather his widow, that my mother had bought it. The purchase went through a few months before Chamberlain and his Cabinet declared war on the Third Reich, and the family spent the first few months at Fiorentina, dispersing afterwards to their different duties; my mother and sister to London, and myself, an American citizen, to a heavy bomb group based in Nebraska. I was eventually transferred to the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, and from there moved to London, on loan to MI5, England's Intelligence service. Fiorentina stood empty for some time and was subsequently occupied by the Germans when they moved over the demarcation line into unoccupied France. Fearing an allied invasion they started fortifying what they considered the strategic points along the coast, and our peninsula, commanding the entrance to Beaulieu Bay, was one of them. One wonders, however, at their reasoning, for no invading force could possibly have considered landing on a mountainous coastline that dipped precipitously from the height of some thousand feet directly into the sea."

The day we headed to Rome we took the morning to visit Pointe Saint-Hospice, thinking, perhaps, we might get a glimpse of La Fiorentina from the coastal path that wound around the point. Before we set off, we knew the house was not visible from the street and so it proved, for Impasse Fiorentina, at the end of which the villa stands, is a gated street - in effect, all the houses and their grounds, form a gated community. Chilled in the shade, as we were, and impatient to get up the hill, as I was, the Celt went back to fetch the car to schlepp his aching and cranky partner upwards. I, in my excitement at being in a place I had read so much about, climbed a long flight of steep stone steps - a shortcut, so called - the while feeling dulled by the certainty that I was come pretty close to being one those people who in LA take the "houses of the stars" tours.

We met again at the parking place at the gate of the Great War military graveyard above which looms the King of Sardinia's memorial chapel and a twelve-metre-tall bronze Madonna and Child, cyclamen, the bedding plant of the Cote d'Azur, at her feet. She stands there, not so much wedged between the walls of the chapel and those of a park surrounding the ancient tower on which, as an icon for the sailors of that coast, she was originally intended to stand, but rather in that no man's land between faith and kitsch where her shadow stretches back to a world predating Christianity.

It isn't difficult, I think, to find a melancholic romance in old, tottering and lichen-blotched graveyards but, on walking into a place such as this - this corner of a foreign field - one sees not romance, but  a ninety-four-year-old, kept-as-new military graveyard where the inevitabilty of war and the waste of life is heartbreakingly clear - as clear as the light that raked the Madonna and threw her shadow over that rich earth a richer dust concealing.

So, in the end, did we take the sea-path around the headland in the direction of Villa Fiorentina? Given my misgivings as I climbed those steps to the Belgian military graveyard, and when I looked at the surface of the path - gravel it seemed to me, and not the easiest surface for me to walk on - the distance to be walked, the distance I'd already walked, and the fact that we been texted to say that we should be at the airport early than we'd expected to be, we, acutely aware of the irony of it all, did not take the path.

There are a couple of references to Rupert Brooke's The Soldier in the text, and the quotation with which I set the scene is from Roderick Cameron's The Golden Riviera.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The light from the sea

The entrance hall, with its encaustic mural representing peace

The bathroom next to the entrance hall

The grand salon 

The library

The dining room

Just for a few seconds, before my eye roamed again, I was entranced by the way light, as only it can when reflected off moving water, trembled on the walls and the ceiling of Théodore Reinach's bedroom. We had walked slowly through each room and upstairs, iPhones in hand ready to capture everything we could, not quite overwhelmed but certainly slightly addled by the riches to be seen in this astonishingly beautiful house. And astonishing it is: not just because of the Romantic recreation of ancient Greece and to some extent of ancient Rome, or its Greek and Roman-inspired furniture (Mr Reinach's bed, actually a reproduction of a Roman bed found in Pompeii and displayed at the Archaeological Museum in Naples), but also because of its marble walls and encaustic murals, its thyrôreion, balaneion, gynaeceum, andron and triklinos, delectable columns, mosaic floors, stucco friezes, painted ceilings, polished bronze tabletop serving, as it would have in the ancient world, as a mirror, Roman-style "rain" shower, embroidered linen curtains, rotting and frayed though they are, chandeliers inspired by those in Hagia Sophia, electric lamps modeled after ancient oil lamps, Christophle silver vase based on the krater found with the Hildesheim Treasure and, finally - because this list could go on and on - a carrara marble altar bearing the inscription To an Unknown God.

It occurs to me, as I sort through the hundreds of photographs we took, how little one experiences from behind the lens - involvement at a remove, as it were - and how intrusive and misleading the desire to photograph everything can be. An end in itself, perhaps, using the world's wonders as background for our lives: as one sees with tourists everywhere, for there they are, grinning away in front of every monument, fountain, ruin, painting and statue, even posturing for the camera, as I saw last year in Florence, to appear to be holding David's dick.

All photographs by us except for the second - the bathroom next to the entrance hall - which is by M. Listri, from The Kérylos Villa, Beaux Arts magazine/TMM Editions, Paris. 

Friday, January 13, 2012


It was on a whim that we decided that this winter the Villa Kérylos should be part of our itinerary - an itinerary that eventually involved seven flights, three train journeys and numerous taxi rides. Rome was a given but, instead of going north via Lucca to the Veneto as we had originally discussed, we decided that Naples with its proximity to Pompeii and Herculaneum, its Archaeological Museum and warmer weather might be just the thing at the end of what had been a very long year. Nice, an aside as it were, became, because of our visit to the Villa Kérylos, one of the many highlights of the whole vacation - its mild weather and sparkling sea a blessing after those short, sombre, sodden, solstice days we'd left behind in London. As the plane circled over the water towards the airport, it occurred to me that this was my first view ever of the Mediterranean and that, in two countries, I was to spend a number of days on its shores.

The rental car with automatic transmission, reserved long before and despite emailed confirmation, was nowhere to be found, and enquiries produced wreaths of bemused smiles, tossings of the head and shrugs of the shoulders indicating quite clearly that in France one does not drive an automatic, one simply knows how to drive properly. We lurched a few times around the parking lot - the Celt remembering how to drive a stick-shift (I'm purely automatic) - flung ourselves into early morning rush-hour traffic and headed for the Promenade des Anglais where our hotel, cunningly disguised behind a large sign for the Casino, awaited.

The first view we had of Villa Kerylos was above the Baie des Fournis on the ever-climbing and narrow road from Nice. I had read about the villa years ago in an issue of The World of Interiors and it had remained at the back of my mind as nothing more than a curiosity. It was our friend Will's recent visit there and his account of what he saw that made Kérylos interesting enough for us to decide it should be part of our vacation.

The most surprising thing for me about houses such as Villa Kérylos, Villa Ephrussi, La Leopolda, even Villa Fiorentina, was that they are all either on or at the end of narrow, frequently car-choked, paved tracks winding up and around the terrain. Surrounded as they may be by large grounds and as magnificent as they are, these houses are as closely packed together as any subdivision in America. Why I should have been expecting otherwise I cannot say.

Villa Kerylos is probably one of the most exciting houses I've seen. It was difficult to concentrate on it when we first arrived, so much was there to take in: the air; the light; the sea; the curve of the bay;the plantings; the sky; the flanking hills; the boats in the dock; and the house itself - in all its crisp, white splendour speaking of a time long gone, if only from the imagination of the modern world. Hard to concentrate indeed, difficult not to photograph everything in sight and consequently easy, in my excitement, to feel I missed a lot.

There were but two other visitors when we arrived at the front door and they quickly departed, leaving the house to the two of us so we could wander at will - or, at least, where the self-guided tour recording suggested. The Villa Kérylos is a marvelous place, an entirely convincing (save for the chrome and lucite folding visitor's chairs discretely placed here and there) recreation of what could have been an ancient Greek house. This house does not make one shuffle self-consciously through its rooms, across its mosaic floors, by its murals and friezes, under its lamps and ceilings, through its peristyle and by its superbly crafted and beautiful inlaid furniture, as did the Getty Villa when I first visited it fifteen years ago.  Perhaps the culture has changed, but there was a time when such a recreation, or better, evocation, would have been dismissed as mere rich-man's revivalism, kitsch even. Not so, I felt, with the Kérylos, for clearly it is the product of an education, depth of scholarship, culture and refinement, the likes of which today, if it exists, is subsumed in a celebrity-ridden culture that has not one jot of value for it. Judgmental, you think? Perhaps.

The experience of visiting the Villa Kerylos is so astonishing - almost overwhelming - that I shall leave for a second post more details of the interiors, decoration and furnishings.

The vestibule or thyroreion has a beautiful mosaic floor (as do most of the rooms) with a delightful inset panel of hens and chicks and an inscription that translates as both "hail" and "rejoice" - a wonderful welcome, as well as an instruction to the visitor.

Unlike a museum, where one is herded through roped-off corners of rooms and allowed to peer at things from a "safe" distance, at the Kerylos, the rooms are completely open and one may walk where one pleases. One could almost sit on the furniture if one dared (we didn't of course). This freedom, and the fact that we were entirely alone, created the impression we were truly visiting a house, rather than a museum - a 3,000-year-old house, but a living house. The sensation was vivid and enveloping and quite, quite magical.

Above, the statue of Sophocles that faces the visitor on entering the vestibule; then, views of the peristyle, or atrium, that formed the center of a classical Greek house, with its colonnade of devastatingly simple white marble Doric columns surrounding a slender basin, and sepia-colored frescoes of gods, legends and sea creatures on all the walls.

All photographs, except the second which is from Wikipedia Commons, are by the Celt and me.