In 1945, J. Paul Getty purchased 64 acres of land overlooking the coast near Malibu, California. He built a ranch style home that also displayed his growing collection of antiquities. Through the passing years, this property has metamorphosed into what is today, the Getty Villa. It was a short 20 years that saw the property turn from home to museum, then in 1968 he began the plans to recreate a first century Roman country house based on the Villa dei Papiri, a barely known excavation site at the time, located outside of Naples, but one with an illustrious past.
The Villa dei Papiri stood on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, just outside of Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples. With the eruption of the volcano at Vesuvius in 79 AD, the Villa was left under layers of volcanic rock, the opulence of the aristocratic Roman lifestyle frozen in time.
Sixteen centuries later, in 1709, workmen digging a well in the village of Resina struck something hard. The obstacle was the upper tier of marble seats for an ancient theater. Excavation by Charles III, the Bourbon King of Naples, began in earnest. Not only was unique statuary recovered, ancient designs that would influence the classical architecture movement and a library of 1700 scrolls of papyrus, singed, but not completely obliterated were also discovered. From these documents, historians have gleaned the identity of the owner of the property, the father of Julius Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.
Getty’s vision for this villa was not only a place to house his art collection, but to provide a perfect context for the objects’ surroundings. The building is designed to symbolize the archeology of the bay of Naples in the form of an archeological site, providing a vision of the ancient Romans living in their own surroundings. Norman Neuerberg, archeologist and leading authority on Roman domestic architecture supplied intimate knowledge of classical procedures, bringing an authenticity to the project that surpassed any blueprint.
Construction began in 1970 while Getty was living in England, but he was involved in every phase of planning, development and execution of the Villa with his architect Steven Garrett, and the museum opened in 1974. J Paul Getty died in 1976 without ever seeing the museum.
The Getty Villa is not a replica of the Villa dei Papiri, but a reconstruction based partly on fact and partly on scholarly imagination. The constant movement between indoor and outdoor spaces, plants cultivated in ancient times growing in the gardens, conveys the experience of Roman citizens walking around their ancient homes and grounds.
Unifying this unique feel and vision, natural lighting was added during a renovation in the 1990’s. Pouring over the photos I have shared with you, I can sense the transcendence of time between the Villa on the ocean, fountains of water splashing in the background, ancient sculptures, mosaics, frescoed walls, marble flooring surrounding a tranquil pool inviting enough for a swim. All things an aristocratic Roman family would have enjoyed in their home. There is no doubt the Getty Villa experience fills all the senses at once.
Next week I will continue with the Getty Museum which is located a short distance from the Getty Villa. During the interim, I will have a new Cabinet of Curiosities on Friday. If you have discovered a wonderful museum, why not share it in the comments below?
August 1, 2011