BY CHERYL ANDERSON
La Villa Santo Sospir is a gem on a quiet street in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France. It’s a museum within a residence, a house that is a piece of art history. The gated entrance to the villa’s grounds is unassuming, simply marked by two pale stone pillars with ‘Santo Sospir’ spelled out in black wrought iron letters. Beyond the garden gate at the end of a short walk, surrounded by lush foliage, your first indication of the importance of the villa lays before you: Jean Cocteau’s famous large black and white mosaic walkway. So begins the visual feast you are about to enjoy!
As you step through the entryway of the villa, soon the blue sea comes into view. An even more spectacular view of the sea and the sweeping grounds below are beyond the French doors off of the living room, leading to the shaded balcony encased in greenery.
A tour will take you from room to room amongst the frescoed walls decorated by Cocteau. Allow yourself to imagine the parties held there in the ‘50s and early ‘60s where the rich and famous of the day enjoyed themselves to the maximum—oh, how they partied. There are many bawdy stories centered on Villa Santo Sospir.
Jean Cocteau’s impact on this charming villa began in the spring of 1950 when socialite Francine Weisweiller (1916-2003), owner of the villa, invited him for dinner and to stay for one week. She had met him after the filming of his movie, Enfants Terribles. That one week turned into the entire summer and would mark the beginning of his thirteen-year on and off stay at Villa Santo Sospir.
At that dinner Cocteau asked to sketch a head of Apollo over the living room fireplace; the drawing was the first of Cocteau’s imaginative designs that would eventually appear throughout the villa. The Apollo drawing was eventually followed by more charcoal drawings and colored frescoes tempera. By the end he embellished nearly every wall in the villa—I even saw a lampshade emblazoned with his drawings!
Cocteau declared that the white stucco walls were like a huge canvas and must be decorated—with his art, of course. More than merely dressing the walls, he wanted to draw on their skin, “likening his frescoes with line drawings to tattoos. ‘Santo Sospir est une villa tatouée.’” Primarily, Cocteau’s art depicts his evocative interpretation of Greek mythology and local scenes; they’re inspired and unique as only Jean Cocteau could make them.
Take note of the photos and memorabilia placed on the tabletops in the living room and throughout the villa; a visual history of Santo Sospir presents itself in this informal manner. The tapestry, covering an entire wall in the dining room, was also designed by Jean Cocteau.
Down a very steep tunneled staircase, whose ceiling and walls are decorated with dramatic Cocteau images, you are taken to the lower level where the bedrooms and baths are located. Stories abound as to the past occupants of said rooms, rooms that represent the individual lives that lived there and the lives they were leading. Oh my, what secrets must those decorated walls hold.
From there, step out onto the grounds and take in the beauty of the sea, the lush surroundings, and imagine the drama that ensued at gatherings with its many noted guests milling about. Guests that included Greta Garbo, who I presume didn’t say much; Marlene Dietrich, who ignored Francine and spoke only to Jean Cocteau; and Coco Chanel, who came with her drinking companions. Picasso sojourned there as well. At a party, jealous that his art was not represented, he declared he would be the one to paint the fronts and backs of doors.
Annie Guédras, a Jean Cocteau speciaist, states, “Cocteau always said he was an acrobat who led his life on the high wire across the decades of the century. He was always in the avant garde, always looking at new ideas and new ways of expressing himself.”
I was not a huge fan of Jean Cocteau until I visited La Villa Santo Sospir and saw his work displayed in a résidence privé. However, I’ve seen public displays of his work for over 20 years in Menton, France. He decorated the marriage chapel in the Hotel d’Ville (village hall), where many couples from around the world travel to get married. His mosaics are on the entrance wall of the Bastion on the seafront—the views are wonderful from the battlements. Recently, Menton has constructed a museum dedicated to Cocteau’s art; it faces a large sunny plaza located directly across the street from the Municipal Market. Around the perimeter of the plaza are metal canopies that shade benches, a perfect spot to enjoy a gelato or a lunch you’ve bought in town. Close by, in Villefranche-sur-Mer, he restored and decorated the ancient Romanesque chapel, Saint-Pierre.
Carole, Francine Weisweiller’s daughter, frequents the villa now classified as a historic monument in order to avoid inheritance taxes. Although the villa is not a secret, it’s not widely advertised, that I am aware. Tours are given all year long; they last for about 45 minutes and must be prearranged. Eric Marteau is your excellent guide. He’s the property manager and former nurse to Francine. He delights in sharing anecdotes associated with La Villa Santo Sospir.
If you would like to hear the voice of Jean Cocteau, go to the Quintessence site and watch the short video, La Villa Santo Sospir, directed by Cocteau; there are scenes of him working and of the villa with music of Vivaldi and J.S. Bach playing in the background. To learn more about the villa, call +33-4-93-76-00-16 or visit villasantosospir.fr.