Location: The Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, California, USA
Date of Visit: January 18, 2016
You sweep down a garden walkway paved with exotic colored marble, admiring the shadows of tall columns topped with Corinthian capitals. Rosemary overflows from the garden flower beds, scenting the air as you pass. Delicate paintings on the walls depict animals and demi-gods frolicking, and contribute to a pleasant pastoral setting. You close your eyes and imagine the folds of a linen tunic draping across your shoulders. You faintly hear the waves crashing on the beach down below the house. When you open your eyes, you see a majestic villa, with modern traffic far removed. This idyllic retreat is the Getty Villa, a wholly special museum facility north of Los Angeles.
The Getty Villa represents an interesting moment in the history of museums and exhibition. The main benefactor in this case had a unique vision for the final product, and he envisioned it in extreme detail based on archaeology and research. Jean Paul Getty had a particular fondness for Antique culture, not just art and artifacts and this partiality pushed him to create an experience rather than just galleries.
Southern California is on a similar latitude as the Mediterranean coastlines of Europe, and Getty took advantage of the balmy weather when he purchased 64 acres in 1945. The narrow canyon plot rises above the Pacific with stunning views of the water and the Villa is ideally situated to take advantage of those views. Getty, traveling throughout Europe and Asia for business, acquired a massive collection of art and antiquities while exploring historical sites. Eventually he decided to build his own personal museum and looked to historic architecture for inspiration. The Villa dei Papiri, partially excavated in the 18th century, was near Herculaneum and covered with ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This nearly intact Roman palace still contained mosaics, statues, plaster, frescoes, and other detailed features. While the Villa was extensively explored through tunnels, it was never completely exposed until the 20th century due to the hardness of the ash encasing the site. Getty was intrigued by this lost structure and decided to recreate the Villa dei Papiri on his Southern California land.
Every detail of the resulting project was copied from the Villa dei Papiri or other Roman villa sites. The mosaic patterns, the colors of the plaster, the location of the fountains, and the placement of the statuary all mimic a Roman escape complemented by ocean breezes. The building itself is a fascinating place to point out small details and architectural features, but it also contains hundreds of art and artifacts from Etruscan, Greek, Roman, and other Mediterranean cultures. While the Villa used to house diverse pieces from Getty’s collection, the opening of the Getty Center in 1997 has re-arranged the exhibit space so that the Center is more of an encyclopedic art museum while the Villa displays Ancient and Antique artwork. Both institutions are still managed by the J. Paul Getty Trust and all artwork is from the same collection.
The Villa is built around a central courtyard, or peristyle, with a ground floor and first floor hosting galleries. The ground floor galleries include Greek and Roman art and artifacts, the Family Forum (a youth exploration room), and the TimeScape gallery. The Family Forum is very well done, with multiple hands-on activities including vase decoration à la Greek figure ceramics, touch screens, and a large shadow theater with Roman gladiatorial props. Everyone can have fun in here. The TimeScape gallery has a little something for everyone including a vertical timeline showing the basic principles of archaeological stratigraphy, touchscreens allowing visitors to explore various topics like economy, transportation, and sculpture techniques, and a large timeline showing the ebb and flow of various cultural units represented in the Villa’s exhibits. Considering the rather conventional nature of most of the exhibit space, the Family Forum and the TimeScape gallery offer a refreshing way to provide context for the exhibits without distracting from the art itself.
Moving up a grand staircase added in the early 2000’s and stylistically very modern, visitors come to the first floor. Historically, the first floor of a villa would host servants’ quarters, dry goods, and sale products, but here it has permanent exhibits of ancient art, Roman statuary, and rotating temporary exhibits. My favorite gallery is on the first floor, a relatively small room with fantastic view of the water and containing a choice selection of Antique and Medieval coinage, jewelry, and bullion. This compact space presents the diverse economic currencies of the Mediterranean, beautifully illustrated by well-preserved coins, maps, and carefully worded labels. No touchscreens here, although I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two is eventually installed to help engage visitors.
Outdoors, visitors can stroll the Inner Peristyle, the larger Outer Peristyle, and adjacent gardens. The long covered galleries are also decadent in their painting and embellishment and the foliage is a blend of native California and Roman plants and herbs. The garden fountains and statues are all copies of collection pieces and archaeological finds and are accompanied by descriptive labels. It’s a beautiful spot, but exclusive. The Villa hosts very few events apart from its own in-house programming, and is fortunate that it can afford to keep its space focused on the interpretation of the site and the collection.
The Villa is keen to engage visitors, even in the more traditionally staged galleries. Several statues displayed in the center of rooms encourage visitors to take selfies and offer hashtags for the Villa or sculpture itself. Numerous guided tours and talks occur throughout the day, focusing on the site’s architecture, collection highlights, and historic horticulture. The mix of activities, exhibits, and facility features provide a diverse setting for education and amusement. Young, old, novice, and expert will all find a delightful moment or two, and maybe even a bit of enchantment at the Getty Villa.
Part 2 of this article series will provide an overview of the Getty Villa’s architecture including discussion about their daily tours and educational activities. Part 3 will include more details on the display, mounts, and exhibits at this delightful institution.