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A Snake in the Library, or, the Mysterious Whereabouts of the Villa Warden, a Former United States Consulate in the French Riviera

L'Aspic [Cobra] engraving
L’Aspic [Cobra] engraving
Imagine that you’re a newly-minted American diplomat in 1954, posted to the official U.S. consular residence in the coastal city of Nice, France, where you’ve been sent to brush up on your French language skills. The consulate, overlooking the Mediterranean sea, is located in an elegant old building known as the Villa Warden, after the former owner of the property, Standard Oil executive John B. Warden.  Your envious colleagues back in Washington tease you about taking “the Riviera rest cure,” since you get to spend three months in Nice living at the Villa with a couple dozen or so other foreign service officers, rubbing elbows with vivacious ladies and gentlemen and eating excellent meals prepared by French chefs featuring luscious pastries and good wine.  Late one afternoon, you’re exploring the various rooms in the Villa. Your favorite room is the library, which is filled floor to ceiling with shelves of intriguing old books which hardly seem to have been disturbed in decades. In the dim light, you’re browsing through the volumes when you catch sight of something that causes you to gasp in shock: behind a row of books you see a cobra, coiled and poised to strike.

Well, it’s not actually a real cobra, but a very convincing engraving of one. “What the devil?” you say, as you pick up the illustration to study it more closely. The image is captioned, H.N. Zoologie. Reptiles (Supplément) par J.-Ces. Savigny. Pl. 3. Dessiné et grave en 1813. L’Aspic. Tresca sc[ulp]t. Based on your elementary French reading skills, you’re able to figure out that the plate is from a zoological publication featuring a section on reptiles written by someone named Savigny and engraved by Tresca, dating back to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Indeed, the cobra plate comes from a set of the Description de l’Égypte, a monumental work documenting the natural history, antiquities and contemporary life of Egypt published in 27 volumes between the years 1809 and 1828 by a team of over 150 scientists and historians and more than 1000 illustrators and engravers, many of whom accompanied Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt from 1798 to 1801. French zoologist Marie Jules César Savigny (1777-1851) was the compiler of the reptiles section in the Description de l’Égypte. The cobra plate, excised from one of the large atlas volumes of the set, was engraved by Sicilian artist Salvadore Tresca (1750?-1815).

U.S. Dept. of State memo on verso of L'Aspic [Cobra] engraving
U.S. Dept. of State memo on verso of L’Aspic [Cobra] engraving
So how did this particularly fierce-looking cobra plate find its way from the library of the Villa Warden in France to the collection of the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History at the Smithsonian Libraries in Washington, D.C.? A memo dated January 6, 1955, glued to the back of the plate and addressed from the consulate in Nice to the Department of State’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom, tells the story:  “There is enclosed, for such use as may be made of it, possibly by the Smithsonian Institute, a single zoological engraving of considerable antiquity found in the Villa Warden, the official consular residence at Nice. The engraving was presumably acquired with the building. It was concealed behind books in the library which were also acquired when the property was purchased.” The memo is signed by A.E. Clattenburg, Jr. A handwritten note appears at the bottom of the memo: “Forwarded from Jacob Kainen  of the State Dept. on Feb. 4, 1955.” Art lovers may recognize Kainen’s name: an accomplished painter and printmaker, as well as a noted art collector, he served as curator of the Division of Graphic Arts for the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum from 1946 to 1970.

Intrigued by the details in this memo, I wanted to find out more about the Villa Warden. I searched the internet for details and also contacted the staff at the Department of State’s Ralph J. Bunche Library. The helpful librarians at the Bunche Library found a memo from their agency’s legal adviser, S. Houston Lay, to E.R. Mosburg of the foreign building office, dated June 30, 1948, outlining irregularities in documents detailing the Department of State’s acquisition of the Villa Warden. Then in 1958, the Villa Warden was briefly in the news as the subject of a U.S. congressional investigation into entertainment expenses associated with the foreign service. According to a story on page 8 of the May 7, 1958 issue of the Chicago Tribune, “A state department ‘school’ on the French Riviera, one of the world’s most famous adult playgrounds, has stirred the ire of the House appropriations committee, members revealed today. The school is housed in the Villa Warden, near Nice. State department officials go down from Paris for three months of French lessons, the delicacies of a French chef, the finest of wines, and frequent feminine companionship, the committee has learned. … [I]t costs $2,512 per pupil [equivalent to nearly $20,000 in 2012] to give the foreign service officers the French lessons ….”

Unfortunately, after these news reports on the 1958 congressional investigations, the information trail on the Villa Warden seems to have gone cold. The Bunche Library staff checked with their overseas building office but were unable to determine what became of the Villa. Presumably it was sold, but does it still exist, or was it torn down? What was its exact address? And what happened to the rest of the Villa’s library collection? There apparently was a U.S. consulate at 31 Rue Maréchal Joffre in Nice (at the same address as the Palais Baréty), but I could find no confirming details that that remarkable 19th century stone  building, with its unusual balcony supported by sculpted cattle heads, was ever known as the Villa Warden.

If any reader of this blog post knows more details about the Villa Warden during its time as a U.S. consulate and foreign service language school, or its existence before or after then, I would be delighted to hear about it!

L’Aspic [Cobra], excised from Description de L’Égypte, Zoologie, Reptiles (Supplément), planche 3 from Histoire naturelle atlas 1, call number: f DT46 .F815 copy 2 SCNHRB Cullman Library

A partial set of the multi-volume publication of the Description de L’Égypte, digitized by the Smithsonian Libraries, is available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library website here.

–Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Libraries

3 Comments

  1. Nancy Gwinn

    What an intriguing story! Thanks for all the details. Makes one realize the federal agency “entertainment” happened long before the GSA…..

  2. Hi Chad,

    Feel free to email me at rushinge at si.edu if you have additional questions. I’d be happy to put you in touch with the appropriate staff member.

    Best,

    Erin Rushing
    Outreach Librarian

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