A visit to Villa Kérylos in the south of France transports you irresistibly back to the classical world. I visited in October and the buzz of tourists on the beach at nearby Beaulieu-sur-Mer, and the hum of the train labouring along the tracks between Menton and Nice all seemed to fade away in these serene surroundings.
The house was built in the early 1900s by French lawyer and politician, Théodore Reinach (1860-1928). Reinach was a lawmaker by profession, but a mathematician, papyrologist, numismatist, classicist and archaeologist by inclination and, I think, a dreamer at heart. Marriage to his second wife, heiress Fanny Kann, had given him the means to build this replica of a Graeco-Roman villa.
Reinach hired as his architect Emmanuel Pontremoli (1865-1956); both men were fascinated by the classical past and had practical experience of archaeological digs. They were particularly inspired by 1st and 2nd century BCE architectural remains on the Greek island of Delos. Trading and political connections had made the ancient Delians rich, and they devoted their wealth to opulent domestic architecture and the finer houses all had extensive mosaics. Much of this ornamentation could still be appreciated two thousand years later through the survival of extensive ruins. Reinach and Pontremoli found these fragments deeply moving and saw how the characteristic ancient Greek house plan with a central courtyard surrounded by rooms could be translated for the modern era.
Reinach's search for a site that reminded him of coastal Greece took him to the Cote d’Azur and he purchased a piece of land on the Baie des Fourmis, surrounded by the sea on three sides. Construction began in 1902 and took six years to complete. Reinach and Pontremoli commissioned nothing but the best; Parisian decorators Gustave Louis Jaulmes and Adrien Karbowsky were hired to provide decorative frescoes, plaster bas-reliefs were created by sculptor Paul Jean-Bapiste Gascq, and furniture was made in bronze and Mediterranean woods by the cabinetmaker, Bettenfeld (who based his designs on real classical examples in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples). And dozens of mosaics were made to Pontremoli’s designs. I haven’t been able to discover who did the fabrication, but the quality of the mosaics and the flair of their makers is unmistakable.
The study-cum-library where Theodore Reinach worked and, occasionally, entertained:
The dining room. Yes, guests were required to recline while they ate.
Now we're going upstairs....the staircase goes up behind this basin; annoyingly, I forgot to photograph it.
Fanny Reinach's bedroom:
And Théodore Reinach's quarters:
The villa offers a stunningly complete vision of the classical world. Like all good replicas, it initially gives a compelling impression of historical 'accuracy', but on close inspection the building also reveals much about the time in which it was conceived and built. Much as the Getty Villa in Malibu has a bling-y look that hints at its 1970s California birthplace, the Villa Kérylos whispers – very gently – of its early 1900s origin. In keeping with the trends of the time, the villa's bathrooms boast facilities that allowed previously unattainable standards of hygiene, and it combines these with spectacularly lavish decoration.
History doesn’t relate what Fanny Reinach thought of her husband's project. She may have had strong feelings about his edict that there was to be no upholstery – as you can see all seat furniture and even the beds were made of bronze, wood or leather – but she must surely have loved her wonderful shower room.
And the knock-out bathroom is yet to come. You have to go back downstairs and you find it here, leading off the vestibulum:
This bathroom bears no relation to anything you might have found in Greece or Rome (no communal latrines here) but is a wonderful reverie on what should have been. Fittingly, the only real concession to modernity anywhere in the house, an electric bell push, is in this bathroom – Reinach was willing to abandon his rules when he needed a dry towel.
At the time the villa was built, the surrounding area was undeveloped but other plots were soon snapped up and villas sprung up, with Gustave Eiffel (of Tower fame) being an immediate neighbour and Fanny Reinach’s cousin by marriage, Béatrice de Rothschild, setting up home just across the bay on Cap Ferrat, at the now-famous Villa Ephrussi-Rothschild. The built fantasies commissioned by these and other aristocratic and commercial snowbirds give this area its strange character; baronial castles rear up next to Venetian palazzi which adjoin Belle Époque châteaux. Such architectural flights of fancy – and the eclectic accumulations of treasures they mostly contained – make the simplicity of the Villa Kerylos all the more striking.
I am glad that when I visited I had no idea of the misfortunes that were to befall the Reinachs. The family was Jewish, and Théodore and his three brothers were prominent figures in the political world. They all paid the price for publicly battling against rising anti-Semitism in France, and Joseph was ostracised by many for his vocal support of Alfred Dreyfus. Although Théodore died peacefully in 1928 (and bequeathed Villa Kérylos to the Institut de France) his son’s fate was a tragic one. Léon, a composer, lived in the Villa with his family in the 1930s but they fled for Paris when this part of southern France was occupied first by Italy and then by Germany during the Second World War. But their Jewish heritage was well known, and they were unable to avoid deportation. Léon, his wife Béatrice and their two children all died at Auschwitz in 1944.
After the War, other members of the family returned to Villa Kérylos, and Théodore’s descendants were still living there in the 1960s. The villa was eventually turned into a museum, and it is a wonderful place to visit, both for its mosaic treasures and for the powerful way it encapsulates one man’s dream of the classical past - a dream whose realisation, one hopes, gave Théodore Reinach consolation in an increasingly difficult world.
Read more about Villa Kerylos here.
All photos, unless otherwise specified, © Mosaic Workshop Ltd