At the beginning of the 17th century, a modest country house occupied by sharecroppers stood on the Gubernatis family estate. The plain building was nestled in the remains of the Roman city of Cemenelum between olive groves, crops, vineyards and pastures. The head of the Gubernatis family, Jean-Baptiste, was first consul of Nice in 1618 and 1629. His heir, Jean-Jérôme, president of the Senate and ambassador of the dukes of Savoy decided to build a mansion named “Palais de Gubernatis” on the site while the sharecroppers settled in the Roman thermae.
Completed in 1695, it was a beautiful villa in the typical Genoese style with a coloured façade adorned with trompe l’oeil decorations and pierced with numerous windows. Inside, it had an imposing groin vaulted hall.
Count Raymond Garin de Cocconato bought the property in 1823. In 1865, he backed the archeological excavations which uncovered a district of the Roman city of Cemenelum. In this rural scenary, the Garin villa created a romantic landscape.
“The vast and majestic building is surrounded by cypresses, olive trees and palm trees in the midst of the Roman ruins. In front of the facade, there is a large semi-circular lawn with fragments of capitals and marble statues placed in the middle of a thick curtains of cypresses; to the left the Roman Amphitheatre, to the right the temple [the baths] of Diana and the palace of the prefects”. (L. Watripon, Nice-guide, 1869)
Raymond’s son, Urbain, is now best known for his passion for drawing and watercolour.
After the annexation of Nice in 1860, the Cocconato family seldom lived in Nice and the villa was converted into a summer residence before becoming a modest English boarding house at the end of the 19th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the increasing urbanisation of Nice threatened the very existence of the estate. In 1923, the Garin de Cocconato villa, deemed an interesting building plot, was sold to a real estate company. Anxious to see the site preserved, the City of Nice acquired the house in 1950 and renamed it “Villa des Arènes”.
In 1963, the Archaeological Museum opened on the ground floor and the Matisse Museum on the upper floor of the house, as a result of the important donation made by Matisse’s heirs to the City of Nice.
In 1989, the Archaeological Museum relocated on the neighbouring Roman site. The Matisse Museum was renovated and an expansion complemented the original building. The museum as we know it today reopened in June 1993