The Story Behind Villa Santo Sospir
Here, the joy practically jumps off the walls. “I didn’t have to dress the walls; I had to paint on their skin, that’s why I treated the frescoes linearly, with few colours that enhanced the tattoos. Santo Sospir is a tattooed villa.” – Jean Cocteau
In the spring of 1950, the French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic, Jean Cocteau, was introduced to heiress Francine Weisweiller, one of the wealthiest and most stylish women in Paris. It happened during the shooting for the Enfants Terribles movie, based on his famous novel. Nicole de Rothschild, the main actress of the film, presented the poet to Francine, who was instantly besotted with Cocteau. They began an intense period of friendship and patronage.
In the Spring of 1950, Francine invited Jean Cocteau to spend a week in her house in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, which was a flowering enclave and one of the loveliest seaside villas in Cap Ferrat. The Santo Sospir villa was built shortly after the war and was purchased by Alec and Francine in 1946. The villa was a gift from her husband, Alex, who spent most of his time elsewhere with his mistress. Cocteau arrived for what was to be a few days, and wound up staying there on and off for twelve years while he completed other commissions, including St. Pierre Chapel.
Francine was a devotee of the Parisian decorator Madeline Castaing, whose touches are everywhere from furniture and walls fashioned out of reeds to leopard print carpets all around the house. There is just enough whimsy to stay sophisticated, with fanciful accents throughout-a chair whose wooden frame is carved with lilies of the valley, a ceramic roast chicken and, most of all, Cocteau’s drawings.
The house was already a temple of sky-high but quirky Parisian style –think opium den meets tony beach cottage– but Cocteau was distressed by the sad white walls in such a riot of eclectic design, so he set to work.
Used as a holiday home, the walls of the villa had remained empty till Cocteau’s stay. Few days after his arrival, he said: “I’m tired of idleness, I wither here…”. He asked Francine if he could draw the head of Apollo above the fireplace in the living room. Inch by inch, he tattooed with frescoes all the walls of the house, Matisse was not wrong when saying: “When you decorate a wall, it’s like you decorate the others”.
In Santo Sospir, there were no constraints to his creative genius, no fishermen to assuage or religion to pay deference to, so he let the muses fly. He painted with abandon –“tattooed” the place, he said– and the walls are a triumph of his signature line drawings, some of which have words attached in his tidy penman-ship, giving the appearance of animated stories.
The drawings are partially based on the Greek mythology that had obsessed him for so much of his career. Over the mantelpiece, Apollo glares with his hair fanned towards two hulking priests of the sun, who both wear the typical fishing berets of Villefranche. The Mediterranean, just outside the villa, was his other source of inspiration, and there are ‘ bright suns, the echo of a perched village and a simple fisherman’s lunch.
There are gods, satyrs, unicorns and in Francine’s room,the story of the goddess Diana changing Actaeon into a stag when he happened upon her bathing. The longtime caretaker, Eric, shows visitors around the house, filled with photographs of Francine, her daughter Carole, Picasso and other illustrious guests, who were served gin cocktails prepared from the mirrored bar cabinet still stocked with Angostura bitters and Aperol.
Cocteau was very inspired by two other artists who had painted their ways across the Cote d’Azur, Matisse and Picasso, and his drawings offered the occasional homage. The vignette of the fisherman’s meal is of sea urchins and fougasse, which Cocteau coined “Picasso’s hands”, after a photograph by Robert Doisneau where the artist leans against a table set with fat doughy fingers of the cherished local bread. Picasso may have been just as genius, but Cocteau’s mark is equally indelible in the south of France.