Roman Paradise in the City of Angels

The first Museum Monday of August take a virtual tour of the Getty Villa, and let the trickle of fountains and breezes from the ocean transport you to another time.

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.

Charles III, Bourbon King of Naples, 1716-1788

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?


Mary Jo

August 1, 2011



Filed under August

6 responses to “Roman Paradise in the City of Angels

  1. This would be a great place to visit (imagine living there, wow!). The Getty did a fantastic job both in putting together this masterful work of architecture but also in mainitaining it and filling it with such an array of beautiful art work. Thanks for sharing this with us, Mary Jo.

  2. John Christian Hager

    Humph. They dig in their yard and they find Julius Caesar’s father-in-law’s house. I dig in my yard and all I get is a hole. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Blog Treasures 8-6 « Gene Lempp's Blog

  4. Enjoyed this write up about the Getty Villa — posted your link on a FB historic group I belong to.

  5. Pingback: Museum Monday at the Getty | This write life

  6. Hi, great article this one. I am beloved with the Gulf of Naples in Italy and I’ve found this great article. Thank you very much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s