French archaeologist and scholar Théodore Reinach built the home of his dreams on the Côte d’Azur: a spectacular re-creation of an ancient Greek villa.

La Belle Époque: the dawn of the 20th century and one of the most idyllic, beautifully nostalgic moments in human history. As science and the arts flourished, the crowned heads of Europe stopped quibbling — for a moment
— instead finding time for pleasure and indulgence. Nowhere was this hedonistic spirit of the Belle Époque more alive than the Côte d’Azur, where aristocrats and the nouveaux riches followed in the wake of tsars, kings and queens, building grand mansions that reflected their taste and influence.

The most refined of Belle Époque homes on the Côte d’Azur belonged to French archaeologist and scholar Théodore Reinach. Born into a family of Franco-German bankers, and prominent in the French Third Republic, Reinach had a lifelong passion for the history and culture of ancient Greece. Inspired by excavations in Delos, he formulated an ambitious plan: to go far beyond the realm of ordinary collecting and reconstruct an authentic Greek villa.
Built between 1902 and 1908 in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, the magnificent
residence was named Villa Kerylos, which means ‘halcyon’, a bird of good omen in Greek mythology.

Reinach’s wife, Fanny, was a member of the Ephrussi family, vastly wealthy Odessan bankers. Their Austrian branch was elevated to nobility by the Habsburgs; Fanny’s cousins, Baron Maurice Ephrussi and Beatrice de Rothschild, would go on to build Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in neighbouring Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in 1905. Though she was far less fervent a Hellenist than Reinach, it was largely Fanny’s personal fortune — over nine million gold
francs — that financed Villa Kerylos.

Reinach selected Nice-based architect Emmanuel Pontremoli, his match in both knowledge and enthusiasm for the ancient world, to construct his dream project. Pontremoli incorporated all that was then known about ancient Greek art and architecture, with lesser influences from Egypt and Pompeii, alongside all the modern conveniences of the early 20th century. No expense was spared; frescoes and mosaics depicted scenes from Greek mythology and magnificent ancient Greek-style furniture was crafted by Parisian cabinetmaker Bettenfeld. Even the planting of the gardens surrounding the villa was elaborately Greek. From the central peristyle (colonnaded courtyard) to the room arrangement and decor, every aspect of the design was painstakingly thought out to re-create the atmosphere of a luxurious Greek villa.

Dividing his time between Paris, a chateau in Savoy, and Beaulieu, — and with the onset of World War I — Reinach spent far less time at the villa than he had originally hoped. While there, however, he would pass much of his time reading and writing in the library, which was built over one and a half floors and dedicated to Athena,
the goddess of war and wisdom. The library, with its Bettenfeld furniture and glorious views of the Mediterranean, is perhaps Villa Kerylos’ most spectacular room.

One wonders if Fanny Reinach was equally content with the quiet, erudite reflection of the villa. In a 1912 letter to Pontremoli, she impatiently called for the installation of a piano, which was custom-made and ingeniously concealed within a lemonwood chest. However, despite the serene ambience of the villa, the Reinachs did on occasion entertain. Gustave Eiffel and Jean Cocteau were both neighbours and frequent guests, as were Fanny’s cousins, the Ephrussis. Other illustrious visitors would be received in the andron (the main reception room which, in ancient times, was reserved exclusively for entertaining men), including the actress Sarah Bernhardt; dancer Isadora Duncan; the kings of Belgium, Sweden and Greece; and Armand Fallières, the president of France.

Just before his death in 1928, Théodore Reinach bequeathed Villa Kerylos to the Institut de France and in 1967 it was classified a national monument. A wonderful inscription on the south wall of Reinach’s beloved library can be seen as a motto of sorts for the villa: “It is here in the company of the Greek orators, scholars and poets that I have created a peaceful retreat among immortal beauty.” He most certainly did — Villa Kerylos remains the most eloquent link between the ancient and modern worlds, while embodying that precious, fleeting spirit of the Belle Époque.