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Oil billionaire J. Paul Getty had a problem. The museum next to his
house in a canyon north of Los Angeles was running out of room for his
growing collection of art treasures. Since much of that collection
consisted of Greek and Roman antiquities, he decided that a new larger
museum should offer an appropriately Classical setting. So in 1968 he
commissioned an authentic reproduction of the Villa of the Papyri, an
opulent house in Herculaneum most likely owned by Julius Caesar’s
father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. First opened to the
public in 1974, the Villa housed Getty’s art collection until
1997, when most of the art moved to a new modern museum (the Getty Center) and the Villa
closed for a major makeover. After delays from lawsuits filed by
neighbors concerned about traffic and noise, the new and improved Getty
Villa reopened in January 2006. It appropriately features the Greek,
Roman, and Etruscan works in the Getty collection.
The museum inside the Villa showcases a world-class collection of
antiquities, although there are persistent allegations that some of them
were illegally looted from Greece and Italy. But the outside is what
makes visiting the Getty Villa a unique experience. At one of the
numerous Greek and Roman ruins in Europe, you’ll usually see bleached and
weathered stones in various states of preservation and excavation. A few
ancient buildings— such as the theatre in Orange and the amphitheaters in Arles and
Nîmes— are in good enough
condition to be used for something like their original purposes. But the
Getty Villa offers a trip directly into the first century CE, in full
color. Walking around the Villa’s grounds, it’s easy to imagine that
you’re actually in Herculaneum, at the summer home of the prosperous
(olive) oil merchant Gnaeus Paulus Gettius. I suspect this could have
been a fantasy Getty himself entertained, even though he never set foot
in his Villa. He spent his last years in London, and died there in 1976
at the age of 83.
Greek colonists founded Herculaneum in the fifth century BCE as a
trading post on the Bay of Naples. By the first century CE it had
become a swanky Roman seaside resort. Elite families owned opulent villas
there, where they stayed during the summer to escape sweltering Rome.
The famous eruption of the Vesuvius volcano in 79 CE buried Herculaneum
along with nearby Pompeii. Calpurnius Piso’s villa was forgotten until
1755, when the Swiss military engineer Karl Weber discovered it. For two
years he systematically excavated and dug tunnels through the house, in
one of the earliest archaeological “digs.” Weber was a pioneer of modern
archeology because he mapped and made detailed drawings of the site rather
than merely hauling away statues and valuables to decorate aristocratic
palaces. Getty’s architects based their reconstruction on Weber’s map.
The house became known as the Villa of the Papyri after Weber discovered
its collection of papyrus scrolls, the only known intact ancient
library. The intense heat from the lava that buried Herculaneum charred
the scrolls but did not burn them. Many are readable with the help of
infrared cameras and computer enhancement.
Pedants will point out that the Getty Villa isn’t a completely accurate
reconstruction of the Villa of the Papyri. That’s technically true,
since the Herculaneum site is only partially excavated. Karl Weber and
others have uncovered some of the house, but the exterior remains
buried. Weber mapped the hidden sections by digging tunnels. Getty’s
team of architects and archaeologists derived the architectural details
of the exterior and gardens from other houses in Herculaneum and
Pompeii. It’s a composite, but a historically accurate one. The location
at the bottom of a canyon is wrong, since the original Herculaneum villa
enjoyed ocean breezes and views. There are also some anachronistic
improvements, including handrails, wheelchair accessibility, and plaques
in English describing the statuary. (But why didn’t they include a
translation in the modern form of Latin widely spoken in Southern
California?) These necessary liberties need not detract from the
experience. Everything else is as historically authentic as possible,
including the statuary, the decorations and colors of the walls
and ceilings, and even the trees and plants in the gardens.
One surprising thing about the Getty Villa is how colorful it is. If you’ve visited ruins in Europe, or have seen pictures of them, you’ll likely get the impression that Roman buildings and statues were staid and colorless. But they were actually painted, often elaborately and in bright colors. The paint on most statues and columns faded and eroded away over the centuries, although close examination reveals traces of it. Wall paintings are typically removed to museums for protection against further deterioration.
The Getty Villa corrects that drab misconception. The walls
surrounding the pool and formal gardens of the outer peristyle (an
enclosed back yard) are brightly painted with depictions of columns,
bricks, windows, plants, and food. The statuary— reproduced from
original bronzes at the Villa of the Papyri— is painted black, and the
statues’ eyes are white with black pupils. The volutes on the Ionic
capitals of the columns in the inner courtyard are a robin’s-egg blue.
In addition to the formal garden in the outer peristyle, the Villa has
two other gardens outside the main building. An herb garden includes an
extensive collection of plants the ancient Romans used for medicinal and
culinary purposes. Some of them remain familiar cooking ingredients.
They’re all carefully labeled with the common and botanical names (the
latter are the only Latin texts visible at the Villa). There’s also a
small “east garden” that features two fountains. One is covered with
colorful mosaic tiles, sculpted sea shells, and theatre masks. It was
copied from a villa in Pompeii. The other is a large circular bowl with
an array of bronze civet cats “drooling” water.
To keep the traffic in its residential neighborhood manageable, the Getty Villa has limited hours for visitors and requires an advance reservation. If you arrive without a ticket, the implacable gatekeepers will turn you away without exception. Admission is free— the lavishly-endowed Getty Trust has no need for visitors’ money— but there is a fee for the only parking in the vicinity. If you’re ecologically-minded (and/or a cheapskate), you can avoid that charge by riding a bicycle or the (one) public bus route that runs near the Villa. I would suggest visiting on a weekday in the spring or autumn, when it’s much less crowded. Arrive in the early afternoon and take a docent-led walking tour (the Getty Trust thoughtfully provides umbrellas to shield visitors from the sun). Then visit the museum galleries. By the time you’re done with that, there’s a good chance that most other visitors will have gone home and you’ll have the gardens mostly to yourself— with nice lighting— before the Villa closes at 5. Finally, many people (including travel writers) believe that the Getty Villa is in the glamorous city of Malibu. It’s actually just south of Malibu in Pacific Palisades, within the Los Angeles city limits.