Hellenic Spirit

“THE GREEK SPIRIT WAS FOR HIM BOTH DREAM AND REALITY, MEMORY AND PRESENT…”

The descent is steep, winding, and impossibly verdant for mid-winter. It is a clear blue day in the aptly named Beaulieu-sur-Mer, a pastel-hued seaside village on the outskirts of Nice. The road is lined with climbing vines and succulents, the air redolent of pine trees in the heat. Then, after a short drive alongside a golden bay, it appears, perched atop a promontory, jutting defiantly from the Côte d’Azur.

Inscribed in the mosaic floor of the entranceway is the word “XAIPE,” Ancient Greek for ‘enjoy yourself.’ Dionysus, god of wine, smiles down from frescoed walls. Athena, goddess of wisdom, stands triumphant as a bronze statuette. Yet this is not a classical relic, but the Villa Kérylos; a 20th century facsimile of ancient Greece.

Commissioned by Théodore Reinach in 1900, the Villa Kérylos is closely modelled on the noble houses of Delos in the 2nd century BCE. Reinach was, among other things, a lawyer, archaeologist, and prominent Hellenist, whose reverence for ancient Greece borders on obsession in this painstaking reproduction. Though it was to be used as his family’s leisure home, the Villa Kérylos is evidently an academic endeavour. Realised under architect Emmanuel Pontremoli between 1902-1908, classical allusions pervade every wall, sculpture and furnishing. The result is an exquisite anachronism; convincingly Greek, yet nestled in the French Riviera, and built in the throes of the Belle Époque.

The building is structured around a Grecian peristyle, its sunlight-flooded central courtyard encircled by orderly Doric columns, the relative sparseness belying the opulence within. At its heart, a stone fountain sits surrounded by palms and kumquat trees, the sound of trickling water playing off the walls in tinkling echoes.

Throughout, the attention to detail is meticulous: mosaic floors of mythical beasts; intricately painted ceilings of interlocking wooden beams. The walls of the Andron, traditionally the male quarters of an ancient Greek household, are streaked with three types of Tuscan marble: ochre Siena, mauve Fleur de Pêcher, and grey-white Carrara. In Mrs Reinach’s bathroom, an immense bathtub weighing one tonne is balanced on two lion paws. Above its ornamental bronze taps, a low-relief frieze depicts the chariot of Demeter. From every window stretches a panorama of glittering blue.

So committed was he to his vision, Reinach would occasionally adopt the ancient functions of his classical furniture. In the library are two tall desks at which Reinach would stand to study, as was the practice in ancient times. The Balaneion, or bathing room, was fully operational, complete with Carrara marble plunge pool and coal-fired steam grates. Other furnishings are purely aesthetic. The dining room, for example, is equipped with plaited leather beds at the same height as the dining table, which made it possible to recline as you dined; Reinach and his family, however, surrendered to upright eating.

There are some concessions to modernity, though anything that did not exist in the ancient world is rendered as discreetly as possible, if not entirely concealed. Electric lights are designed to resemble oil lamps, their power sources camouflaged amidst tiles and marbling. Contemporary mirrors are rather ingeniously hidden within bedroom doors. And in the Oikos, a room dedicated to the arts, what appears to be a wooden chest in fact unfolds to a beautiful Pleyel piano. Such revelations feel whimsical, often amusing, and bring an element of playfulness to the villa.

On his death, Reinach bequeathed the villa to the Institut de France. His children and grandchildren continued to live there until 1966, at which time it became listed as a historical monument and was opened to the public. Later, in 1997, a sea-level gallery was built beneath the villa to showcase moulds of some of the great classical sculptures. In the far corner of the long stone corridor, alongside casts of Venus de Milo and Apollo Belvedere, are a handful of black and white photographs of Reinach’s grandchildren, playing happily amidst the Grecian splendour. It feels incongruous, somehow, that this elegant, scholarly mansion was ever a family home. Yet the conception of the villa, in itself, feels an attempt to resurrect a bygone era; as though its art and architecture do not belong to academia alone. As Fabrice Reinach, Théodore’s grandson, wrote:

[The villa] represented for my grandfather the very essence of a civilisation with an essentially human face like that of the Greeks, their gods and their Art, a model and way of thinking… The Greek Spirit was for him both dream and reality, memory and present.

Walking through the sun-dappled chambers, suffused with nostalgia for a time he never knew, it is as though the veil between dream and reality is momentarily lifted.