You wouldn’t think that the Rothschilds would need to marry for money. But they wanted access to the vast Russian world of the tsars, financial markets that they had not conquered. The solution: marry an Ephrussi. After all, the Ephrussi patriarch was from Odessa; he had cornered the wheat market and made a fortune; he had sent sons off to Berlin, Vienna, and Paris to establish Ephrussi banks and a family empire.
Beatrix, granddaughter of the founder of the Rothschild dynasty, was born in 1864, just as the American civil war was winding down. Nineteen years later, she was married off to Maurice Ephrussi. His fortune was something less than hers (on her father’s death she and her brother shared, in modern terms, 700 million euros.) But Maurice had access to Russia—and a penchant for gambling. When he died, he left debts of more than 30 million modern euros.
Happily, for us visitors, Beatrix also liked to gamble, so when her marriage broke down, she outmaneuvered Belgium’s King Leopold II, and bought a plot on a high, narrow peninsula in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. There she built the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, which overlooks the Mediterranean on two sides—and is close enough to visit the casinos in Monaco and to attract house guests from the surrounding villas and yachts.
The estate cannot compete with, say, Blenheim Palace in Oxford. Her garden comprises 17 acres; the Duke of Marlborough’s formal garden of 150 acres is submerged in a carefully designed Capability Brown estate of 2000 acres. I do believe that Beatrix’ villa would comfortably fit in the Blenheim carriage house.
Ah, but comparisons are odious. We should look instead at the estate Beatrix created. Her tastes are nothing if not eclectic. The basic design is Italian Renaissance, and a fair amount of Renaissance (and earlier) Christian art bedecks this house of solid Jewish commerce.
But her real interest was in 18th century France. Fragonard, of course. But also rugs and furniture not only in the style of but also from the collections of one King Louis or another. Her writing desk was Marie Antoinette’s. Her porcelain collection features works from both the Sevres and Meissen factories. The rooms themselves are especially inventive and site appropriate. The grand parlor is a self-contained party, conversation, and game room littered with groups of settees, chairs, tea tables, game boards. The alcove at the end of the room, however, is a glassed-in portico, streaming with light from the brilliant Provencal sun and from the reflections from the water so far below. You can look out over the sea or, by turning slightly on your heel, you can revel in the first of nine separate gardens, the French garden with its distant rotunda housing Aphrodite and its long reflecting pond graced by a fountain which, every twenty minutes, performs a shooting water show in time to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Beatrix was not without her eccentricities or, perhaps, her sense of humor. In the parlor, for instance, there are chairs for guests to talk about fashion or the view from the parlor windows. There are also two small chairs: one for her dog, and one for her pet mongoose. The mongoose, the servants have it, was good pals with Beatrix’ two pet monkeys. Are the monkeys responsible for the fact that there is a monkey room replete with a Meissen set of figurines of a monkey orchestra? It’s said folk could identify members of the German court among these apes. Von Bruhl, the prime minister, is the scowling conductor.
High art and pragmatism meet in a pair of beautiful Sevres porcelain bowls. They were commissioned because Louis XV (I think) was mesmerized by a preacher who gave excruciatingly long sermons. Louis’ court was obliged to stay for the whole performance. These bowls fit conveniently under the skirts of the ladies-in-too-long-waiting, so, as we know can happen, art can bring great relief to the tedium of spiritual life.
Outside, the gardens include the French, Spanish, Florentine, Stone, Japanese, Rose, Exotic, Sevres, and Provencal. I’ll let the photographs provide descriptions of some. Just keep in mind that each garden also provides a panoramic view of the sea, the nearby coastal towns, and a rare study of classism in the variety, size, and glitz of the visiting yachts.
Travel is so broadening, isn’t it?