In 1949, the poet Jean Cocteau, during the shooting of Enfants Terrible a film based on his famous novel and shot by a young film maker of the time, Jean Pierre Melville met Francine Weisweiller. Nicole Stéphane (her real name Nicole de Rothschild), the main actress of the film and cousin of Alec Weisweiller presented to poet Francine that there was a real friendship at first sight between them.
In the Spring of 1950 after the montage of Enfants Terribles, Francine invited Jean Cocteau (as well as his adopted son Edouard Dermit, who played the role of Paul in the film), to spend a week’s holiday in his house in St Jean Cap Ferrat which overlooked the bay of Villefranche.
The villa Santo Sospir was built shortly after the war and had been purchased by Alec and Francine in 1950. Used as a holiday home, the walls of the villa remained empty. A few days after his arrival, Jean Cocteau would say: “I’m tired of idleness, I wither here…” He asked Francine whether 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 had told him: “When you decorate a wall, you decorate the others”, and he was right. Cocteau also said: “Picasso opened and closed all doors; so it remained to paint on the doors: this is what I tried to do. But the doors open in the rooms; the rooms have walls, and if the doors are painted, the walls look empty…”
Frescoes in Tempera
All summer in 1950, Jean Cocteau worked on ladders without any preliminary model. After drawing in charcoal, the poet enhanced his drawings with colours. An Italian workman prepared coloured powders for him which were diluted in raw milk. That is what we call frescoes in tempera. Cocteau would write: “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”.
For the majority of frescoes, Jean Cocteau was inspired by the Greek mythology, also with illusions to the French Riviera: Fishermen of Villefranche and their nets, the sea urchin, the fougasse (the bread of Nice).
Two years after completing the walls of the villa, Jean Cocteau tackled the ceilings. Finding them too white, he coloured them with pastels in very soft tones.
He then composed two mosaics for the entrance patio, one on the threshold which was two faces and a snake and the other on the wall on the left which was a head of Orpheus.
Finally, three years later, Jean Cocteau proposed to Francine. For the wall of the dining room that was left empty, the tapestry Judith and Holopherne, of which he had made a pastel drawing on cardboard in 1948 in his house of Milly-la-Forêt.
The Indelible Mark of the Poet
For many years, Jean Cocteau spend long periods in the villa of Saint-Jean Cap-Ferrat. He would write about the place: “When I was working at Santo Sospir, I became myself a wall and these walls spoke for me”.
Frescoes, mosaics and tapestry still decorate Santo Sospir more than ever. They not only merge with the architecture of the building, but also the souls of its inhabitants. The furniture has also remained the same, so that today’s visitors are immersed in the timelessness of the poet.
Shortly after having tattooed the villa of Santo Sospir, in this same French Riviera, Jean Cocteau decorated with frescoes the chapel of St Pierre in Villefranche, which he offered to fishermen; then the turn came to the wedding room in the Town Hall of Menton. He also designed a Greek theatre for the Mediterranean University Centre in Cap d’Ail, and one year before his death, Jean Cocteau would make models for another chapel in Fréjus: Our Lady of Jerusalem: The Domaine of the Tower of Mare. This manual work did not prevent him from writing poems, essays, novels and from realising his last film: “The Testament of Orpheus”.
Since 5 May 1995, the villa of Santo Sospir has been listed in the Supplementary Inventory of Historical Monuments.