A glorious pastime and an uncertain future: the Villa Medici in Cairo

A glorious pastime and an uncertain future: the Villa Medici in Cairo

27 Madabegh Street in 1897 | Photo credit: MUSEUM OF ART AND HISTORY, CITY OF GENEVA

A house at 27 Madbagha Street in downtown Cairo, adorned with striking Islamic and Gothic-style architecture, was once a sparkling beacon of innovation – an epicenter of Egypt’s modern art movement. Today, only the ghostly past of Cairo’s Villa Medici remains: a memory that stands on the now-renowned Sherif Street sandwiched between two towering, derelict and derelict structures.

Although the Villa Medici in Cairo remains modest at present, the story behind this place speaks volumes about the far-reaching historical and cultural influence on the development of the modern Egyptian art movement.

A new era for Egyptian art

In the late 1800s, Cairo was to become a magnet for orientalists, Egyptologists and art connoisseurs of the highest pedigree. An extravagant French industrialist and resident of Cairo, Alphonse-Léopold, widely known as Baron Alphonse Delort de Gléon was deeply drawn to Egyptian art and culture.

According to an article in Rawi magazine, Gléon had a vision for a new center for creative and artistic communities in Cairo, an artistic circle that would later become embody First Egyptian artistic society.

Leopold was renamed for having “reproduced in Cairo the ‘Villa Medici’ – the home of the French Academy in Rome – in Cairo” and created a new space for Egyptian artists in the process. The villa’s architectural designs, a convergence of Arabic and Gothic, imbued cultural dialogue and artistic innovation.

Originally, the ‘Villa Medici in Rome’ was a institution which helped nurture young French artists in their quest to discover and learn from the great masterpieces of antiquity or the Renaissance found in Rome. Since 1803, the Villa Medici in Rome has remained a vibrant center for artistic circles.

According to for Mercedes Volait, an eminent research professor at the National Institute of Art History in Paris, the property was a very “beautiful bachelor’s house, where exceptional entertainment and distractions were offered to young gentlemen”.

The Villa Medici in Cairo would come to host some of the most famous painters, artists and exhibitions of the time. A series of exhibitions took place at the Villa Medici, following the establishment of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, among the exhibited works, a bronze by Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934), and paintings by Ragheb Ayad (1892-1982), two notable figures of this pioneering generation of modern Egyptian artists.

The works of these emerging and up-and-coming artists have gone on to be recognized as the founding fathers of modern Egyptian art.

Decrepit Legacy

A 1939 advertisement for the Maurice Nahman Gallery at the Villa Medici in Cairo | Photo credit: CEALEX ARCHIVES/CNRS

The abandonment of Madbagha Street began in the early 1920s, as the modern Egyptian art movement has begun grow and grow exponentially.

Maurice Nahman, a prominent antiquities dealer with an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian, Islamic and Coptic artifacts, would later come to acquire the property. Nahman was recognized as the leading dealer in ancient Egyptian objects, having sold quality Coptic and Islamic pieces to the most distinguished European museums which “had not yet established independent departments dedicated to these areas”. according to at the American Center for Research in Egypt (ARCE).

Abdulfattah believes that Nahman’s legacy helped shape public and private perceptions of a nascent discipline. In fact, according to the organization of the Historical Society of the Jews of Egypt, Nahman was would have the inspiration behind merchant Ayyub in Shadi Abdel Salaam’s feature debut Night of Counting the Years based on a true story of the discovery of 40 royal mummies in 1881.

However, the building’s history after Nahman is controversial, as disputes over ownership would see the property quickly neglected and abandoned. In the spring of 2014, the State Posted a demolition permit for 27 Madbagha Street.

A place teeming with creation, art and culture; Cairo Villa Medici’s contributions to the foundation of Egypt’s modern art movement have been overlooked.

Unfortunately, as so many architectural monuments in Egypt that once witnessed great cultural history and social change, such as the demolished villa of Umm Kalthoum, are today destined for rubble and debris.

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