Going to the Getty: First-century Rome revisited

Symmetry, function and beauty applied to Villa inside and out

Ellen Hamil

Getty's outdoor gardens and pool provide a relaxing setting for its visitors.

How would you like to spend a day wandering through the rooms and gardens of a first-century Roman villa?  Lounge on a marble bench by a long rectangular-shaped pool amidst formal gardens and bronze sculptures?  Bask in the sunshine of an open courtyard with soft fragrant breezes from the Mediterranean Sea to cool you?  

Sound good?  Well it’s all possible even without owning a passport.  

OK, I lied a little.  It’s the Pacific Ocean, not the Mediterranean Sea.   But the rest of my description comes pretty close to the real thing.  And it’s all found in Malibu at the Getty Villa, along with a first-class collection of ancient art.

Symmetery in the Getty gardens.

I had the good fortune to visit the Getty Villa on a beautiful spring day in late March.  The plan was hatched in February when a friend in Las Vegas decided she wanted to visit Los Angeles to see the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and attend a performance of the L.A. symphony.  Dates were discussed with a friend in Los Angeles with whom we would stay.   The L.A. friend suggested the visit to the Getty Villa, and we happily accepted her recommendation.  Everything was set.

To reach the Getty Villa, one drives north from Los Angeles along Pacific Coast Highway.  The entrance comes up quickly off a small street so watch carefully for the signs.  Admission to the Villa is free although you must have a ticket; parking requires a reservation and costs $8.00.  

You pass through a guarded gate onto a road paved with stones that winds uphill through a wooded area to the parking structure.  The path from the garage continues uphill until you reach the arrival balcony.

J. Paul Getty made his fortune wildcatting oil in Oklahoma and purchased the 64-acre site in 1945.  The house on the property - where he sometimes lived - served as his first museum to display the purchases of his new hobby, collecting Roman and Greek antiquities.  The museum was only open two days a week, and, as his collection grew, he realized he needed more space to house it.  

With a “When in Rome do as the Romans” dalliance, Getty started planning the construction of a Roman villa in the late 1960’s.  He was living in London at the time but worked closely with the architects and engineers on the project.  The Getty Villa opened in 1974.  Getty died two years later without ever setting foot inside it.

The museum’s design came from schematic drawings made by an archaeologist who worked on the excavation of a lovely country home built between 100 B.C. and 50 A.D., believed to be the property of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, in the city of Herculaneum.  It was totally buried when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.  The house was known as the Villa dei Papiri for the extensive rolls of papyrus found inside.  The house was never fully excavated so the interior appointments in the Getty Villa are from other houses of that period.  We were told by our docent that this Villa was probably nicer than the ones from which it is copied.  

Here I’ll interject that we are not visiting the Getty Villa that opened in 1974.  This is the newly renovated Getty Villa that took almost nine years to complete at a cost of over $500 million, opening again to the public in January 2006.  When I lived in Los Angeles between 1987 and 1989 I visited the Getty Villa twice so I was able to recognize the changes.  Mostly they are to the areas that serve the visitors:  a new parking area, an expanded Café with indoor and outdoor dining, a large museum shop, outdoor theater and indoor auditorium, to name a few.  

Author takes a break during tour.

At the arrival balcony we picked up a program “Today at the Getty Villa” and caught the 10-minute introductory film.  We quickly agreed on the Getty Villa Architecture and Gardens Tour but as that didn’t start until 1:30 p.m., a visit to the museum shop and lunch took place.  Sitting outside at a table with an umbrella you couldn’t have asked for a prettier setting: a hillside villa on the Pacific Ocean.  

At the tour desk, the staff issued us headsets and a small receiver that either fit in a shirt pocket or clamped onto a belt.  This allowed the docent to speak into a mouthpiece in a normal voice without distracting other visitors and for us to hear her by adjusting our volume.  This also meant we were free to move about and didn’t have to hover in a tight formation around her in case she had a soft and low voice.

Before our docent was able to utter a welcome, a late-arriving woman pushed her way to the front and asked about the “stolen” antiquities that the Greek and Italian governments want returned.  I thought the answer the docent gave was worthy of a career diplomat.  She replied that the world of ancient art and antiquities moved to the beat of a different drummer and that she was sure a resolution would be found that would be satisfactory to all the parties.  (She didn’t offer an example, but I found one in the April 9 issue of The New Yorker, an article entitled “Den of Antiquity.”  It states the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has in its possession a krater that is described as a “vase like object used for mixing wine and water” that it acquired in 1972.  It will be returned to the Italian government without any implication of wrongdoing, but not until 2008.)  That evening while listening to KCRW, a NPR station in San Diego, I heard on “Which Way L.A.” an interview with Ron Hartwig, Vice President for Communications for the Getty, who said that a gold funerary wreath had just been returned to the Greek government, the last of four items the Greeks wanted back, and they were working on whittling down the 52 objects on a list the Italian government wants returned.  

With that out of the way we were off through two large bronze doors with an explanation that there was no law and order in those days, and the doors provided important protection to the occupants of the Villa that could be as many as 100-150 people, including slaves.  The slaves would have occupied the upstairs and access would have been on narrow stairways at each end of the Villa.  

Just inside the doors we learned the term axial design concept as our eyes took in a view straight through the Villa, from the Atrium through an open courtyard called the Inner Peristyle, continuing through a room on the other side and then outside again.  Our gaze stopped at a beautiful and vibrantly colored shell fountain that was copied from one at Villa de Papari.

It didn’t take a docent to point out how symmetry, function and beauty were applied inside and out.  

The gardens also reflected these qualities.  The kitchen garden was an important source of fruits, vegetables and herbs used in the preparation of food and medicine and flowers for decoration.  It was spring when we were there, and I noticed blue and white violets, ageratum, thyme, mint, date palms, fruit trees, and grape arbors budding and blooming.  

Shell fountain in East garden.

If you didn’t know better you might think you were in the garden of a home on the Bay of Naples because the climates are similar the Getty Villa has taken pains to replicate the vegetation, including olive trees.  Olive oil was as important to the Romans as whale oil to the Eskimos.  They used it in make-up and medicine and for dipping freshly baked crusty bread in, mixed with a little sweet balsamic vinegar.  (Maybe I digress on that one.)   I also saw bay laurel trees, the leaves of which have a mystical power and are as important in Roman mythology as well as medicine.  Remember laurel wreaths and “may you rest on your laurels”?   The Acanthus plant was also present – as a living plant in the gardens and with leaves, that represent eternal life, reproduced on the Corinthian columns.

The East garden with its decorative fountain was a place frequented by the women for its meditative and relaxing qualities.  

There was an area for men called the Triclinium, translated to the three-couch area.   

As you walk down the halls on terrazzo floors, you can’t help but notice the walls are painted in vivid earth-tone colors, which we are told have been toned down.  In some rooms a rich deep ochre reached from the floor to about one-third of the way up the wall resembling wainscoting.  It reminded me of the outrageously loud wallpaper in some of the colonial homes in Portsmouth.  There was a lot of decoration on the walls, both inside and out, which leads me to believe they didn’t own many paintings.

What about the collection?  I don’t have the space here to tell you about it, and to tell you the truth I didn’t have enough time to see it.  I did visit “Stories in Stone:  Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa;  Masterpieces from the National Museums of Tunisia”  that was part of  the changing exhibitions, and it was fascinating, but there are eleven plus other rooms that house exhibits that are part of the permanent collection that I didn’t get to see.  Guess this means another visit.

But I do want to take you to the 220-foot pool in the Outer Peristyle –  a large area surrounded by Doric columns - with formal gardens and the bronze statues of Mercury and Venus  - statues of gods and goddesses are naked - and other statues placed in what is called their ancient findspots.  And walk you down along the length of the pool to the west end, where you can lean on the railing and apply the concept of axial design to let your gaze move down the canyon between the stone pines to the sparkling water of the Pacific, feel the coolness of a sea-turn as it moves landward and become transformed by what you’ve seen.  Maybe someone will peel you a grape.

It’s gracious and grand.  The Getty Villa gets to you.

Wall decoration incorporates depictions of flowers and plants from area.

(Sources:  Sandy Thomas of Pacific Palisades, a lovely and knowledgeable docent;  “The Getty Villa” a free pamphlet available at The Getty Villa and www.Getty.edu)

Photos by Jannette Williams

May, 2007