Well before the Palme d’Or and cruise ships opened this sea of seas to the masses, the sunlight and azure waters of the Mediterranean coastline seduced aristocrats and artists who put down roots in the form of fashionable summer retreats. Today, the owner may be absent but the front door is wide open, revealing remarkable time capsules and voyeuristic delights. My curatorial specialty is European decorative arts, and there’s nothing more telling than seeing interior decoration (furniture, textiles and all the rest) in the settings for which they were acquired or conceived. Every visit, I am struck by how these exceptional escapes have survived wars and the elements and periods of neglect yet endure for our pleasure and edification.
Villa Kerylos Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, France
The Hellenist Théodore Reinach entrusted the design of his austere homage to the island of Delos, built between 1902 and 1908, to the archaeologically inclined Emmanuel Pontremoli. The furnishings and decor are remarkable in their faithfulness to excavated classical models from Herculaneum and Pompeii. There are no labels or guards and minimal barricades, allowing you to wander at will. Notice the fragile embroidered curtains and the mosaic floor in Mrs. Reinach’s bedroom, which mimics a carpet. Oh, and marvel at the balaneion (private bathroom) with the sunken octagonal Carrara marble bathtub. villa-kerylos.com.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Cap Ferrat, France
Built by Alphonse de Rothschild’s daughter Béatrice between 1907 and 1912, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, which overlooks Villa Kérylos, is not everyone’s taste, with its girly goût Rothschild decor. That said, there are important furnishings from Louis XIV, XV and XVI (some of the seating is understandably but unfortunately protected by distracting plastic covers); the paneling is from the Hôtel de Crillon; and there is the requisite amount of rare Sèvres paintings and drawings. The gardens are rapturous, with wraparound views and a delightful musical fountain. villa-ephrussi.com.
Villa San Michele Anacapri, Italy
Writer and doctor Axel Munthe put Anacapri on the map after he purchased the property in 1895 and welcomed European royalty, Oscar Wilde and Henry James to the artful idyll he fabricated, bit by bit, from Roman ruins and an abandoned chapel. Dark domestic rooms furnished with pewter and oak lead to a sunny courtyard and a snug sitting area with painted Venetian furniture reminiscent of Swedish designs. Ancient fragments of sarcophagi, busts and columns are visual cues and fanciful ploys to structure the space and romanticize the setting. Migratory birds stop here as well and are monitored by the sanctuary founded by Munthe. villasanmichele.eu.
Villa Fersen, Capri, Italy
Called Villa Lysis by Baron Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, whose scandalous life was the subject of Roger Peyrefitte’s 1959 L’Exilé de Capri, this cool, decadent, unfurnished 1905 folly perched on the side of a cliff is a shock and a delight to the senses. Its entrance has four Ionic columns encrusted with gold mosaics, but it’s the yellow-blue-and-white-tiled opium den—where the drug-addicted d’Adelswärd-Fersen committed suicide—and the views that fascinate. capritourism.com.
Villa Campolieto Ercolano, Italy
The ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, modern-day Ercolano, is stepchild to Pompeii in terms of notoriety and tourism but is better preserved and was discovered earlier, in 1738. The archaeological site is steps away from four grand Vesuvian villas on the Miglio d’Oro (Golden Mile), which brought the rich and the royal to this Neapolitan Newport. Trompe l’oeil wall paintings are what distinguish Villa Campolieto, completed in 1775 for Prince Luzio di Sangro. The Sala dell’Incannucciata (a trellised garden room) is painted with a party in full swing in the palace gardens; a table of cardplayers, including the owner, occupies one wall, and on another, the architect Vanvitelli surveys his design, holding a monocle to one eye. 39-081/732-2134.