Nice’s Negresco, An Empire For Rent
By Rory Winston
‘Cultural imperialism’, ‘exported values’ …? We should feel flattered that France bothers to revile the US for possessing (even a smidgen of) the very qualities that had once marked her own supremacy. By the mid-17th century – though half of Europe had successfully allied itself against Louis XIV – France’s literature, art, and fashion were not only thriving domestically, but conquering the globe as never before. Though a few begrudging comments about French opulence and vulgarity were recorded for posterity in the frustrated annals of embittered rivals, the cognoscenti world-over rightfully believed that French paintings, dress-codes and design were de rigueur for scaling the ranks of any given society. France not only enjoyed as much clout amongst the international community as Hollywood does today, but – unlike her less grandiose contemporary counterpart – she even appealed to the global intelligentsia of her time. As her architectural emphasis shifted from ‘devout celebration of God’s might’ to ‘mighty celebration devoted to aesthetics’, it was in Nice’s Old City where the concept of ‘profane baroque’ reached its zenith.
After all, the Riviera’s Bay of Angels has always been a burgeoning stage for both nature and man – a pas de deux of azure sea and waves of celebrities, a duet between awe-inspiring cliffs with waterfalls and vainglorious landmarks laced in marble and gold. Ironically, it was long after the glory of the Sun King had set, that the edifice which would prove most emblematic of the Côte d’Azur’s capricious elegance rose to dazzle the world.
Encapsulating the aspirations of the Belle Epoch, the monumental palace hotel, the Negresco, stands fixed at the center of a concave boardwalk like a magnificent royal brooch fastened to a carcanet. With a flourish indicative of the region, Gustav Eifel constructed the prodigious domes of this “last word in luxury” property at the behest of Henri Negresco (a confidant of both royalty and Rockefeller alike).
Surpassing the panache of these heraldic days, Madame Jeanne Augier (who still resides in the Negresco herself while serving in the capacity of Chairman) has managed to impart the set with even more opulence. As Jean Cocteau, the renowned poet and regular Negresco guest once stated: “Tact is knowing how far to go too far”.
So just how far “too far” did Madame Augier go? Well, just imagine if Peggy Guggenheim instead of building galleries would have had all her Uncle Solomon’s resources, even more friends from the French artistic circle, a better understanding of history, and an exponential desire to house all her whimsy within the perimeters of one estate. As poetic justice would have it, the glorious epoch of the Sun king appears in Negresco in its purest contemporary form: an original portrait (one of only three in the world) of the ‘enlightened/enlightening ruler’, his sphere of influence overseeing a myriad of changes. Hanging upon a celestial salon that bears his name, his royal highness exudes insatiability – his crimson authority capable of elevating appetite to noble heights.
Culling forth the fulgent colors of both the ancien régime and the generations of sans culottes that followed, Negresco’s Salon Royal articulates the dissonant time periods in a fugue-like carpet-landscape by Raymond Moretti. As the rococo world of Louis XV armchairs gives way to Niki de Saint-Phalle’s post-modern “Nana” – an enormous rotund statue of an exuberant female bather in flight (her organic motion recalling Brancusi while her vibrant colors make one think of a Hockney painting) – one gets the sense that the hall is an installation art piece. With a battery of “audacious juxtapositions” reminiscent of the Tate Modern, the overall sensibility in Negresco is one of ‘variant harmonies in a constant state of flux’ – each angle readjusting the viewer in a world where the borders between old and new become indistinguishable, where perfectly fixed images become components of larger fluid states. Grau, Dali, Sosno, Folon… the renowned masters lining each room from the vestibule through to the remotest corridor are no more than minor themes in a larger composition.
While the macro-design has 5 floors arranged in period sequence (going from Baroque to classical to Belle Epoch to Art deco and, finally, contemporary), the 119 rooms and 23 suites constitute single historical moments – each individually cohesive, and each with veritable heirlooms and appropriate artifacts.
Montserrat Caballé Suite (the singer regularly frequented this room) unfurls its turquoise moiré silk in hand-woven curtains and music box-like walls. Guarded by 2 gold plated statues, a Louis XVI bed flirts with a Louis XV period painting while 2 bedside lamps in Sévres porcelain echo the floral motif in the tapestry-covered chairs. Though the periwinkle blue damask hanging from these walls has lulled the likes of President Chirac, Phil Collins, Alain Delon, Gérard Depardieu, Mick Jagger, Elton John, and Gina Lollobrigida among others, it was only Michael Jackson – the prince of pop who, here, dressed up as a pauper to evade the media – that returned a sense of histrionics to this operatic suite.
Of course, history is replete with iconic romance as much as it is with idiosyncratic vanity. In the Imperial Suite – decorated according to the given themes in Empress Josephine’s bedroom – a vigorous Richard Burton once spent hours taming his eternal Cleopatra and shrew, Elizabeth Taylor. With mahogany wood bed, sculpted swans and sideboards filled with rare and delicate bronzes, it’s not hard to understand why other romantics like Frank Sinatra, Marcello Mastroianni and Yves Montand also chose to live between these four gold-threaded walls.
Marc Chagall, another former guest, once commented, “I adore the theater and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love”. Undoubtedly, Negresco has chosen to be the site of just such a wedding. With voiturers and doormen dressed like the staff in 18th century elite bourgeois households – complete with red plumed postilion hat – the Negresco is has a theatrical history. As a painting of Louis Armstrong shares space with a Versaille’s settee, it’s not difficult to understand how guests like Walt Disney (familiar with imaginative asides) and guests like Queen Elizabeth the II (quite used to authenticity) were equally impressed.
Reclining in a plush velvet chair amidst the rich walnut wood panels of the Palace bar (a majestic space whose whose many original tapestries date back to Napoleon I) it’s not difficult to imagine how this was the site where Prince of Monaco wove a wall’s-worth of tales for his young bride, Grace Kelly. As for whether it was Chaplin, Dali, or a member of the Beatles to have been most amused by La Rotande – a banquet hall built to look like an 18th century merry-go-round… such matters are best left to those who continue to enjoy their complementary breakfasts within this festive milieu.
Historically, Negresco has been referred to as anything from a living museum to an upscale theme-park cum palace for the aristocracy. But, with guests like Truman, Churchill, Marlene Dietrich, Hitchcock, the ones defining the hotel eventually succumb to being part of the definition. Like the art works, the many celebrities, rulers, and artists to have shared in Negresco’s legacy, become a permanent part of this timeless capsule, the ever-reinvented and reinventing components of the Belle Epoch landscape.
Between the principality of Monaco and the film city of Cannes, between the Carolingians and the recent Hollywood monarchs, between the half-moon of Nice’s seashore and the Provencal mountains that hover beyond, Negresco sits – eternal sovereign of the Mediterranean sun; not a Sun King per se, but an energetic and warm ruler whose empire embraces a history of art, whose crown encompasses the larger promenade of Western creativity under a roof of its own making.
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