Location: The Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, California, USA
Date of Visit: January 18, 2016
This part of the article series will review the Villa dei Papiri Architecture Tour at the Getty Villa with Docent Susan Quillan, taken in January 2016. The tour group consisted of about 30 people, and the museum provided earpieces for the tour guests and a microphone for the docent. This ensured that the group could clearly hear the presentation while moving throughout the relatively busy museum. The Getty offers these sets for every tour offered at both the Getty Villa and the Getty Center, and rotates the handsets through chargers and the earpieces through a disinfectant. I would encourage more museums to investigate the cost of adding this equipment to their programs, especially if tours are a respectable portion of interpretive programming and income-generating.
The Getty Villa is a reconstruction largely based on Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, built before 79 A.D. by Piso, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. It was completely buried by 60 feet of volcanic debris by Mount Vesuvius. During the exploration of Pompeii and Herculaneum, marble surfaced in the 18th century indicating ruins beneath the compressed ash. The villa, a summer residence, was excavated through tunnels over the next fifteen years, and a detailed plan was created by Karl Weber. Jean Paul Getty was inspired by the villa, and aimed to reconstruct it to simulate the villa experience and house his growing collection of antiquities. It’s located on approximately the same latitude as the original Villa dei Papiri and the area enjoys a similar Mediterranean climate.
Susan moves the group to the base of the museum’s amphitheater, and asks the group which features make an impression. The columns and decorated capitals of the portico are mentioned in the group’s responses, and clearly these are common answers on this tour. The columns on the portico are Corinthian columns with long furrows and decorated capitals. She points out the acanthus leaves decorating the capitals, a commonly used motif in Roman and medieval architectural details. The acanthus plant symbolized long life and growth. Looking through the open doors beneath the portico, Susan tells us about the Principles of Axiality and Symmetry as described by Vetruvius and manifested in villa architecture. Axiality refers to the presence of a spatial scheme of reference; where the structure or sculpture is using its inherent axes, typically a central axis, to produce an overall effect. For an extensive discussion on Axiality in architecture, see here.
The flooring of the Portico is white Carrera marble, with painted walls. The paintings in vibrant colors are a significant detail as they showcased the Roman owner’s wealth and network. The large blocks of painted space are standard of the First Roman Style. We move across the Portico into the Atrium, which functioned as the main entry or receiving room in the villa. The Atrium is decorated with an intricate mosaic floor and a recessed coffered ceiling, which provides a platform for additional decoration. The compluvium, the opening in the ceiling, illuminates the brilliant decorations and allows rain to fall into the impluvium. The impluvium would be the primary water source for the villa, and would drain into the pipes.
At night, wall-mounted bronze oil lamps would have provided light. The use of oil lamps was another way of showing wealth; in the Roman household the ability to obtain and burn a high volume of valuable olive oil equaled big bucks. The modern “lamps” are electrified but the fixtures are copies of the Roman lamps. Susan points out the change in decoration on the capitals atop the Ionic columns; in an adaptation from Greek styles, they imitate papyrus scrolls. The small rooms adjacent to the Atrium, the cubicula, were multi-purpose spaces used for meetings or guest sleeping quarters.
Moving to the Inner Peristyle, we learn that this inner courtyard was carefully decorated to encourage discussion, reflection, and relaxation. The plants and statues were meant to inspire discussion about myths, symbols, and daily lifestyle. Even the bronze lamps had selective details such as the head of Medusa. The lamp is an apotropaic talisman, using the embodiment of evil to scare away other evil beings or spirits. The floor is constructed using a terrazzo technique, poured concrete with high quality stone fragments added for embellishment. Through one pair of doors is a large staircase in a distinctly modern style. This was installed as part of the late 1990’s renovation of the facility which also saw the expansion of all the visitor services facilities. Susan made it a point to highlight the original features of the Villa contrasted with the later additions or alterations.
The portico leading to the Outer Peristyle is painted in the Second Roman Style, with detailed murals featuring agricultural products, produce, and architectural features. Most of the Getty Villa’s murals were painted by Garth Benton in 1974 and were copies or amalgamations of Roman frescoes. These give clues to the products and activity on the villa estate and also to Roman diet and nutrition. Many of the murals accentuate architecture, such as an elaborate frame around a doorway. The centerpiece of the Outer Peristyle is its pool, 220 feet long and 18 inches deep. At the Villa dei Papiri, the pool was up to 13 feet deep, and was another way to display wealth. The ability to collect, store, and manage that much water was a tangible demonstration of the villa owner’s wealth and status. Due to California’s drought conditions the Getty Villa was not maintaining water in the pool at the time of the visit. The pool and gardens are surrounded by elegant walkways, full of interesting elements. The fanciful window grates alternate with mosaic floor panels so the shadows of the window panels would cast detail on the “blank” floor spaces. The columns change again, now using the Doric style with smooth, simple mouldings around the capitals.
At the end of the tour, the group filtered back through the meeting point and dropped off the earpieces, thanking Susan for her time. I continued to wander and discovered the basilica, richly decorated with marble, mosaics, and other lush building materials.
The Getty Villa provides a fascinating glimpse of the physical platforms for the development of classical culture, both built culture and material culture. It’s also an excellent case study for museum design and architecture. The visitor experience was carefully thought out and implemented in the 1990’s and early 2000’s re-model. During this change, a large part of the materials on display were moved to the new Getty Center and the Villa was refocused to exclusively house the classical works in the collection. This decision heavily influenced many details of the re-model, including the parking garage, main entrance, amphitheater, and design. Guests enter by descending into the Villa’s main complex, to imitate the descent into an archaeological dig site. The amphitheater and plazas around the cafes and museum store are decorated in traditional materials used throughout the Villa but in a modern style. The layout of the common spaces, classrooms, and visitor services can accommodate large groups for tours or other programs. Free well-produced tours like this one enhance the overall experience and provide more in-depth information for guests who want it.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this Getty Villa visit, which will review the exhibits and objects including the Getty’s experiments with designing sculpture bases and supports in an earthquake-prone region!