“Culture and science can be instruments that enable man, and put him on the path to solutions that have not been found since the world began.” – Victoria Ocampo. *All photos by Nithil Dennis*
The wealthy northern suburb of San Isidro is well known as a getaway to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a few hours; a place to soak up leafy tranquility and eye some of the city’s largest, most expensive mansions.
Walking these lanes gives you a feeling that you have been transported a century back. Tree lined avenues, huge green carpets of creepers on the outer walls of luxury estates hark back to the elite who inhabited this area in early 20th Century.
Among them was Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine intellectual and writer who spent most of her life in Villa Ocampo, a stunning Victorian-age mansion close to the river that is now a cultural observatory run by UNESCO.
Ocampo is one of Argentina’s most important cultural figures: most known for setting up the literary magazine and publishing house ‘Sur’ in the 1930s – an editorial that would feature some of Latin America’s greatest 20th century writers – she was also a pioneer in the fight for women’s rights and outspoken against Antisemitism, later becoming the only Argentine woman to be invited to the Nuremberg Trials.
Ocampo was also close friends with the first director of UNESCO, Julian Huxley, and in 1973 donated her mansion to the organisation so that it may remain a space for culture, ideas, tolerance, and peace. Visitors can now tour the place she called home for over 30 years, following in the footsteps of the many prestigious literary and political figures that were once her guests. Alongside the stunning mansion and landscape gardens, UNESCO also runs cultural exhibitions at Villa Ocampo, unsurprisingly often with a focus on Argentine literature.
Villa Ocampo was originally a holiday home for the Ocampo family, but in the 1940s, Victoria Ocampo turned it into her permanent residence. The mansion was built by her father, Manual Ocampo, an engineer. She received there an incredible array of intellectuals and artists from all over the world: Igor Stravinsky, José Ortega y Gasset, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Graham Greene, Indira Gandhi, and Rabindranath Tagore to cite just a few of them.
The house itself is spectacular, with rooms kept intact from the era in which they enjoyed their greatest glory. The spacious grounds are filled with trees and lawns that once sloped down almost right to the edge of the Río de la Plata (which has since receded).
Inside, areas like the dining room reflect Ocampo’s relatively modern tastes for the era, with white paint, Bow House lamps and a simple, minimalist decor. The main hall where most of Ocampo’s illustrious friends were entertained is supported by huge pillars and on the walls hang the paintings of her grandparents.
The house contains numerous historical artifacts with interesting personal anecdotes. A rug with a design inspired by one of Picasso’s painting hangs on one side of the stairway; one of her friends once made a small hole in the rug by stubbing his cigarette and, furious, Ocampo hung it on the wall to avoid future damage.
A separate room is dedicated to music and it houses an old beautifully polished and well-maintained shining Steinway & Co piano, with a photograph of Igor Stravinsky, one of her friends and favourite composers, placed on top. Another room is dedicated to the collection of Sur magazine.
Her desk, with a part of her collection of books, also reflects her interest in art and design; simple lines, white furniture, and straight corners are evident in every room. Her bedroom also exudes simplicity and elegance. It is here she spent her last days, before dying in 1979, aged 88.
Finally, Ocampo’s library remains one of the most important libraries of Latin America, with rare collections of signed books and first editions.
After a short break over the festive holidays, Villa Ocampo will re-open on 4th January, with the temporary exhibit ‘Heritage and Memory – Resplendent Silence: A Commemoration in Argentina’ – a reflection on history and human rights in Argentina and Japan – running until 29th January.
Villa Ocampo, Elortondo 1837, Beccar, San Isidro (Open Wednesday through Sunday, 12:30pm to 7pm). The site will re-open on 4th January, 2017. More information can be found on the website and official Facebook page.