Many many generations in a score of different countries and cultures have shared a taste for a house by the sea. Especially the Med. And the ideal must always have been similar.
Alma Tadema’s lush paintings of ancient Rome (at Leighton House for another two weeks) provided all the research Metro Goldwyn Mayer needed for Ben Hur or Cecil B de Mille for Cleopatra. Having seen his lithe young ladies in tunics leaning on white marble balconies above a turquoise sea it is not easy to picture the ancient Roman world in any other way. The ancient Greeks at the seaside are not so clear in my mind. Their salads may tasted different – minus the tomatoes – but the fish and the wine and the fun and games would be familiar.
The place to get some idea of a rich Greek’s summer holidays is Beaulieu sur Mer. The Villa Kerylos is a reconstruction of a luxurious villa built in about 200bc on Delos, the Aegean island sacred to Apollo. It sits on rocks at sea level, supported on an open arcade, surrounding an open atrium, cooled by the wash of sea air as waves break almost into the basement. At least that was the idea until the municipality decided to close the arcade with glass panels – so no more air conditioning.
The austerely elegant furniture was copied from the evidence of vase paintings and the Naples museum, the décor fashionably pharaonic. Its high ceilings and spare decoration seem to evoke the Greece of the ancients, whether accurately or not who is to say? I doubt whether the small garden of native plants represents anything ancient – but who knows?
It was built in the first years of the 20th century for an archaeologist, Theodore Reinach, who left it to the Institut de France. His wife Fanny was a cousin of Maurice Ephrussi, who married a Rothschild and built (as his riposte, perhaps) what is now the rival attraction of this part of the coast, the Villa Ephrussi, on the slopes of Cap Ferrat above.
The comparison is engrossing. The Greek villa evokes bare limbs, a certain frugality and healthy living, however distant that may be from Attic reality. The Rothschild palace, sugar pink and full of ormolu and bibelots, summons up long skirts and S-shaped corsets, vast tea tables and vast hats. The Ephrussi Gardens wander along the crest of the Cape and omit few idioms: formal (with musical fountains), woodland, Japanese, rose, succulent and archaeological (full of antique fragments). It looks down on Beaulieu Bay one way, Villefranche Bay the other. I will happily eat ices there all afternoon, but there’s no doubt, on this showing, who really loved the seaside.