Victoria Ocampo’s white sunglasses have become synonymous with Victoria herself, Argentinean literature, Sur literary magazine, and the get-togethers of renowned local and international authors in Victoria Ocampo’s lounge. Those sunglasses, along with other emblematic items such as her typewriter, can be seen at Villa Ocampo, Victoria’s mansion in San Isidro, a quiet upscale suburb of Buenos Aires.
But who was Victoria Ocampo, you may wonder. Victoria was born into a very rich family in Buenos Aires in 1880. She had the typical upbringing of the time: French governesses, piano lessons, trips to Europe but was denied a formal education, which was what she really wanted. She lived in a gilded cage and longed to break free. Her first marriage was a complete disaster and they separated soon after their return from their honeymoon. Victoria had a 13 year long affair but never remarried, as divorce was illegal. She did not have children either.
Literature and culture were Victoria’s passion. She wrote some books and used her considerable fortune to found a literary magazine called Sur, which promoted local and international writers and thinkers. Victoria hosted many of them at her homes in San Isidro and Mar del Plata. Writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Graham Greene or Jorge Luis Borges were among her guests and took part in her Sunday afternoons’ literary circle.
Tía Pancha, Victoria’s aunt, had Villa Ocampo built in 1891. At the time, the wealthy families spent their summers in San Isidro, a sleepy village north of Buenos Aires, and the Ocampos wanted their own summer retreat. Every summer, different branches of the family would arrive with their own servants, a la Downton Abbey.
Victoria’s engineer father designed Villa Ocampo in the picturesque style with Norman influences. The house had electricity, the height of luxury and an important technological advance for the time. It was also one of the forts homes to have a telephone line and the first to have an elevator, installed by Tia Pancha in 1910.
Victoria inherited Villa Ocampo and 1/9th of the gardens: 1 hectare. The rest of the land went to her five sisters, who sold it. Victoria lived in Buenos Aires but she moved to the villa permanently in 1943.
My parents and I visited this magnificent home on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I recommend taking the guided tour, which is very informative and is the only way to access the upper floor. Victoria’s bedroom spacious and luminous, her library, her office and the lounge where she hosted leading 20th century writers are all on the first floor. The top floor used to hold the servants’ quarters but there’s office space now.
Victoria’s library consisted of 11,000 books, 5,000 of which are signed by their authors ranging from Pablo Neruda to Graham Greene, who dedicated his novel The Honorary Consul to her. Her iconic sunglasses are displayed in the library as well.
Victoria Ocampo worked tirelessly to promote literature, culture and women’s rights. She donated her home to UNESCO in 1977, where she stayed until she passed away in 1979.
The villa functioned as UNESCO’s headquarters until UNESCO Mercosur was established in Montevideo. It was left to decay to some degree but the local government and private companies worked together to restore the house and gardens from 2003 to 2014. Nowadays, the general public can visit the villa and attend art exhibitions, concerts and seminars.