In the late 19th century, Gustave Revilliod decided to build a museum to display his vast collections, housed until then in his mansion in Geneva’s Old Town. In 1876, he acquired a huge estate at Varembé, which stretched from the present-day Avenue de la Paix right down to the lakeside. The Musée Ariana, named in honour of his late mother Ariane de la Rive (1791-1876), was the second purpose-built museum in Geneva after the Rath Museum (1826). It was, on the other hand, the city’s first encyclopaedic museum, since the Museum of Art and History did not open until 1910.
For his project, Revilliod first called on the services of a less experienced architect, Émile Grobéty. After an educational journey to France and Italy, the latter designed a structure in an eclectic Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Baroque style, dominated by the influence of Italian palatial architecture.
Construction began in 1877. Grobéty was soon overwhelmed by the scale of the project and was replaced by the architect Jacques-Élysée Goss (1839-1921), to whom we owe such noteworthy buildings in Geneva as the Grand-Théâtre (1875-1879) and the Hôtel National that became the Palais Wilson (1875-1876). In 1884, structural work was complete and the museum opened its doors to the public, but costs had almost doubled. Due to a lack of additional funds, some elements originally included in the plans never saw the light of day, in particular the monumental staircase and some decorative features.
The building has two symmetrical wings, set either side of a hall surrounded by a majestic two level colonnade and crowned by a remarkable elliptical dome.
The iconography of the painted ceilings, by the Genevan artist Frédéric Dufaux (1852-1943), includes mythological and allegorical subjects of Italian inspiration. Stained glass was also incorporated into the structure. The sculptures for the roof and the oval niches were made by the Italian Luigi Guglielmi (1834-1907) and in 1898, the sculptor Émile Leysalle (1847-1912) completed the missing busts. The two sphinxes guarding the main entrance on the lake side are the work of Emile-Dominique Fasanino (1851-1910).
With its majestic and unusual palatial appearance, the Ariana is an important monument to late 19th century eclecticism. Its architecture distinguishes it from other constructions of the period and breaks with the austerity of Protestant Geneva. This building is often associated with the personal glorification of its creator, a philanthropist with an educational mission.