The Masséna family and Nice

Author(s) : MASSÉNA Victor-A.
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100 years ago today…

Victor-André Masséna, Prince d’Essling, Duc de Rivoli, Président of the Fondation Napoléon ©Fondation Napoléon/Rebecca Young

100 years ago today, 23 September 1919, the Mayor of Nice, General André Goiran officially received, on behalf of the town, the Villa Masséna, donated my father.

Two years earlier, on 31 October 1917, my father – André Masséna – caught up in the trauma of the war decided to give the family mansion to the town. As a young officer on the front, he was worried as to what might happen to the property should he die – as yet he did not have any descendants. He preferred to donate the house to Nice rather than for it to have an uncertain future.
A huge fresco still today rises above the grand staircase in the villa representing my grand-parents and their descendants, a vibrant commemoration of  my family’s great sense of attachment to Nice.
Naturally there have been times when I have regretted my father’s decision. As a child I could have taken my first steps in the superb garden. I could have grown up against the deep blue background of the Mediterranean. As an adult I would of course have gazed out over the so-often azure sea and sky.
But, deep down, these regrets disappear quite quickly when I see what the villa has become, namely, a prestigious site for all the inhabitants of the town. As my father wished, it is first and foremost an emblematic museum of the history of the town. Whether faced with portraits of my ancestors or an evocation of the history of the Promenade des Anglais, lucky visitors to the museum (who come from far and wide) are presented with some fascinating stories. And the garden, standing as it does right in the heart of the Baie des Anges, is a verdant gem.

Every excellently displayed exhibition there makes me glow with Niçois pride. It is then that I realise the true importance of my father’s gift. Without him, culture would not have shone so brightly in this incomparable town.
The “Villa” is also a place of reception and celebration.
Nice Town Hall, represented by its first magistrate, Christian Estrosi, has used the mansion to host receptions for not only courageous rescuers but also some of the world’s most powerful figures. I got a special thrill when the Chinese president came. I like to think that the charm of the villa strengthened his love for Nice. Beneath paintings of some of the Imperial marshal’s finest victories, other histories are being written, as individuals from all walks of life meet and share their experiences.
Furthermore, since 2016, the villa’s gardens have been now a realm of memory commemorating the victims of 86 victims of the atrocious, barbarous act of terrorism committed in the town on 14 July in that year.
So with its exhibition and receptions, the Villa is today much more than a museum.
In its salons and gardens, and in this city that I love, the past rubs shoulders with the present, and in all of this, I delightfully find some of my roots.

The Masséna family and Nice
La Villa Masséna, today Musée Masséna © Ville de Nice

Whilst it is true that the town of Nice has never forgotten my ancestor, the Marshal André Masséna, it would not be quite accurate to say that the man who was to give his name to a famous town square, a highly respected secondary school and a pedestrian street dreamed in youth of living there. It was indeed quite the opposite.
His father Jules and his uncle Augustin were amongst the first Massénas to move to Nice, in the 1740s. The Masséna family originated from Piedmont and had preferred to settle firstly in Levens. Jules’s third child, André, was born in the capital of the county on 6 May 1758, and baptised in the cathedral Sainte-Réparate two days later. He was to spend his early childhood to the east of Nice, near Trinité, where Jules had a shop in the hamlet called La Bourgade, which was to disappear in 1764. When he was 6 years old, André was sent to live with his grandmother in Levens. In his early adolescence, he was briefly apprenticed to to his uncle Augustin in a soap factory before going to sea. He wasn’t even 15 when he set set sail at Toulon. After nearly three years scrubbing the decks of ships, he returned to Toulon to become a soldier in the Royal Italien regiment. He was a successful NCO, and left the army just before the Revolution to marry Marie-Rosalie Lamarre and live in Antibes.

After joining the Garde Nationale in 1791, the following year he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel en second in the Deuxième Bataillon du Var. It was leading his men that he made his return to Nice during the war between France and the Kindgom of Piedmont Sardinia. He was successful in this and the following campaigns, becoming a well-known general. The local boy had become victorious in his native land.
However, in 1796, just when he was hoping to be appointed general in chief of the Armée d’Italie, he was pipped at the post by an as yet unknown general, Napoleon Bonaparte. The two men met for the first time in Nice in March of the same year. For my ancestor, the encounter was decisive. It is true that his first reaction was distrust – the man had never done anything whilst leading an army and worse still had stolen his dream job. But, soon afterwards, just like the rest of the army, he was won over by the energy and genius of the young general from Corsica.

Portrait du maréchal Masséna, prince d'Essling, duc de Rivoli <br>© Versailles, châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, RMN / Gérard Blot
Portrait of the Marshal Masséna, Prince d’Essling, Duc de Rivoli
© Versailles, Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, RMN / Gérard Blot


There began the epic adventure that would end only in 1815. For his triumph on the field of battle, at Rivoli in particular, my ancestor then became known as “the darling child of victory”. In 1804, he was made Maréchal d’Empire, and then in 1809 he was ennobled by Napoleon as the Prince d’Essling for his heroic resistance at the eponymous battle.

However, as the Masséna name began to be known throughout Europe, it was then that the family began to stray from Nice. Not only the Marshal himself but also his son, François Victor, began to prefer Paris or the stately home at la Ferté-Saint Aubin to the town on the Côte d’azur .

It was not until my grandfather (the Marshal’s grand son) that the family made a notable return to the town. Victor Masséna was born in 1836, and during the Second Empire he was elected Député for the Alpes-Maritimes region in the Grasse constituency. Towards the end of the century, he acquired several sites in Nice, including one looking over the sea.

At that time, no-one knew that this part of the Riviera would become one of the most popular, and that the small path bordering the estate would become the Promenade des Anglais. He built here a residence that today is known as the “Villa Masséna”. This grand “villa de plaisance” whose façade has some Empire-style neoclassical features, was designed and built by the architects Hans-Georg Tersling and Aaron Messiah along the lines of the Rothchild villa in Cannes. And since Victor was also keen on flora and fauna, he had the garden splendidly arranged, with its majestic sea view, by the botanist and lanscape gardener, Edouard André.

My grandfather acquired and had redesigned another complementary residence in the Saint-Augustin neighbourhood to the west of Nice. He gave it the delightful name Victorine, in homage to his daughter Victoire. This house would later become a celebrated cinema studio when my father André sold the site to the producers Louis Nalpas and Serge Sandberg. Famously, Marcel Carné was to shoot the timeless classic Les enfants du paradis there.

La Victorine, Masséna family residence. Photo from the 1940s © D. R.


After WWI and the donation of the villa to the town of Nice, André Masséna remained very attached to Nice, the town of his childhood and school years (at the secondary school that bears the family name).
Alongside Jean Médecin, as Conseiller Municipal, André participated in the development of the town. He was furthermore for many years president of the race course at Cagnes-sur-Mer.
My father (d. 1974) transmitted to me his love for Nice, and the emotional bond between my family and the town remains as strong as ever.

André Masséna (1891-1974)
André Masséna (1891-1974)


Victor-André Masséna, Prince d’Essling, Duc de Rivoli
President of the Fondation Napoléon
September 2019

This article appeared in the periodical Nice historique and in that journal’s special issue entitled De la Villa au Musée Masséna : histoires d’un centenaire 1919 – 2019.

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