Nestled in a small canyon off Pacific Coast Highway within the Mediterranean climate of Pacific Palisades, the Getty Villa offers an experience in archaeological architecture that will fill the senses all at once!
Oil magnate J. Paul Getty used some of his vast wealth to accumulate an incredible collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. Quickly running out of room in a gallery adjacent to his home in Pacific Palisades, he had a Romanesque villa constructed on the property down the hill from the original gallery to be a permanent museum for his collection in the early 1970’s.
Constructed by the architectural firm of Landon and Wilson, the Villa is modeled after the Villa dei Papiri, a Roman country house in Herculaneum buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Since much of the Villa dei Papiri remains unexcavated, many of the Villa’s architectural details are based on elements from other ancient Roman homes in the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. Architectural consultant Norman Neuerbury worked closely with J. Paul Getty to develop the interior and exterior details of the Museum. It opened in 1974, but was never visited by Getty, who died in 1976.
Following his death, the museum inherited $661 million and plans began for a much larger campus, the Getty Center, in nearby Brentwood. To meet the museum’s total needed space, the museum decided to split between the two locations with the Getty Villa housing the Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. In 1993, the Getty Trust selected Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti to design the renovation of the Getty Villa and its campus.
After a nine-year, $275 million renovation and expansion, the newly restored Getty Villa re-opened in 2006.
Although the Villa and gardens are familiar to those who visited in the past, the original building was stripped down to the bare framework and re-built as an earthquake-resistant, enhanced version of itself. The rest of the ‘canyon’ was built up from bottom to top, covering the steep hillside with strata of wood-grained concrete and stone in a highly resembled version of an archaeological dig.
Once inside the south parking structure, we’re guided to a spectacular open-air path to the Entry Pavilion. The different textures of the surrounding retaining walls represent the strata of volcanic deposits that covered the Villa dei Papiri, which enhances the feel of a dig. The scenic pathway continues to the heart of the site, a 450-seat outdoor classical theater, based on ancient prototypes. While out of place so near the villa, the Theater emphasizes the importance of theater in the arts of the Etruscans, Greeks and Romans and also conveys the physical depth of a dig to this site. At the bottom level of the Theater, between the Auditorium and the Museum Store, a magnificent square pool of Chinese black marble collects water seeping from between layers of travertine, bronze and red porphyry stone and board-formed concrete to add to the archaeological concept.
As we gathered at the Museum entrance for the morning walking Architecture Tour, we were handed handheld listening devices to assure that the docent leading the tour can be heard even in a large, scattered group. Our docent, Betty, was a pleasure and offered a treasure of her own personal experiences since the Getty Villa first opened in 1974 along with a colorful mix of humor.
We first entered the Atrium, which was the main public room in a Roman House. The center ceiling (compluvium) opened to light and air, allowing rainwater to fall into a small pool-like area (impluvium), which channeled the gathered water to an underground cistern to provide for the household’s water supply. The center pool is surrounded by black-and-white mosaic pavement inspired by a mosaic from Pompeii.
The Atrium flows into the Inner Peristyle where decorative motifs are often drawn from nature. Ionic columns surround a garden with small marble fountains and a central, narrow pool lined with replicas of bronze statues of women once found at the Villa dei Papiri.
Around the Inner Peristyle is a series of small rooms, filled with the thematic exhibits combining Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities of every type and size. In the spectacular “Room of Colored Marbles,” 14 kinds of colored ancient and modern marbles are used in the walls. Even more intricate patterns of marble occurs in other rooms, like the alternating small triangles of honey-colored and black marbles in the circular floor of the “Temple of Hercules”
Beyond the East yellow marbled stairway, Betty guided us to the East Garden, one of the most tranquil spaces at the Villa. Shaded by sycamore and laurel trees, the splashing water from two sculptural fountains enhances this walled sanctuary. Theatrical masks adorn the mosaic-and-shell fountain on the east wall, while sculpted bronze civet heads stream splashing water into the more traditional circular pool planted with waterlilies and other complementary plants.
Our docent then lead us to the right of the Inner Peristyle, to the Triclinium – a fancy dining room in a 1st century Roman villa. This space is vacant to allow you to appreciate the intricate geometric marble designs on the floor and walls, and the grapevine–painted ceiling. The crowns (or capitals) of the Corinthian columns are influenced by the curling leaves of the acanthus, which is planted in the Peristyle and East Garden.
The Triclinium opens onto the Outer Peristyle and Garden, with a spectacular 220-foot-long reflecting pool running its length. Common to the architecture of that day, the gardens, fountains and pools were made an integral part of the interior of the property. Ancients used these water features for bathing, cooking, drinking, and irrigation. An open-air wonder and another recreation from the Villa dei Papyri, the Outer Peristyle is complete with copies of bronze sculptures that once graced the original, along with a host of Mediterranean plants arranged in patterns known from wall frescoes of the period. The peristyle (or covered walkway) surrounds the formal garden and leads us past illusionistic wall paintings, Corinthian and Doric columns, floor mosaics, latticed openings and carved ceilings, also copied from the original. At the far end of the garden, Betty introduced us to her favorite bronze figure of a sitting youth, she described as “Quite the handsome fellow”.
Departing the Outer Peristyle, we move onto the Villa’s lovely, fragrant Herb Garden. Horticulturists had planted the Garden with species from the Mediterranean – fruit trees (apples, pears, quince, olive, citrus, apricots), flowering shrubs, grapevines, and herbs that the ancient Romans would have used for cooking, ceremony, and medicine. Nestled at one end is a delightful little fountain and water lily pool with a playful assortment of Koi. Towards the ramp leading back up to the Museum entrance, a magnificent 114 year-old Italian Stone Pine captures our attention. The hillsides surrounding the Villa have been planted with many Stone Pines, which will eventually tower above the other trees, creating a typical ancient Roman horizon.
After our tour concluded at the Museum entrance, we started our way up through the archaeological layers to the open-air path. Before heading towards the parking structure, we paused a few moments to take ourselves back again, as in the days of the Villa of the Papri, (which overlooked the Mediterranean Sea) to admire the breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean. The Roman roads below are the Villa’s main drive, simulating the ancient streets of Pompeli and Herculaneum, which were paved with large, irregular stones.
The setting surrounds and captivates the visitor, and the experience makes the Getty Villa a place to revisit and explore the ancient world before 79 A.D.! Admission is free, however advance, timed tickets are required. You can book in advance via phone or the museum website. For more information, please visit The Getty website