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Out of Towner: The Getty Villa

I have an artistic tradition of visiting a major museum once per season and was lucky enough to receive tickets to visit the Getty Villa in Malibu, California during the first week of July (2012). One can request tickets for free at their website. The Getty issues tickets dependent upon what days you request and if not available, will issue those nearest available.  Its advisable to give at least two weeks notice or more if an upcoming show is well advertised or hugely popular; we obtained ours about a month in advance and printed the paperwork right off the web.

We visited the Villa on the closing day of an exhibition titled, "Aphrodite and the Gods of Love."  It was a Sunday and be warned - they close promptly at 5pm!  If you approach the Getty Villa from the south on Pacific Coast Highway 1, know this:  You will encounter heavy traffic and compete with those visiting the Will Rogers Beach.  It took us 40 minutes to grind though just before 2 pm.

The stories of antiquity ranging from Aesop to Xerxes have inspired artists for millennia and they've been inspiring me since the 5th grade.  I was tickled and surprised at some of the collection's contents and especially those items brought to California for the special exhibition (some I had not seen since Rome, 2001).  I had never been to the Getty Villa before this visit so I was eager to investigate the architecture which is based on the Villa of Papyri (located in Herculaneum, Italy).

The first peristyle garden just off the atrium.  These half-filled fluted columns leave much to be desired.
I was saddened to see them used in such a prestigious setting. They are awkward and clumsily executed.

The Villa of Papyri, aside from its incredible and invaluable stores of ancient papyrus scrolls is also rather famous because of ancient celebrity.  The villa was owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.  In a twist of fate, or perhaps more as an act of vengeful competition with Pompey Magnus, Caesar would conquer modern-day France where Piso's father (of the same name) had been treacherously murdered by the Gauls.  

Piso Caesoninus was active in Roman politics during the tumultuous late Republican era.  He was Consul in 58 BC and played an integral part in the divisive political battles against Cicero.  He along with P. Clodius Pulcher had Cicero exiled for his actions during the Cataline Conspiracy in 63 BC.  Cicero declared a senatus consultum de re publica defendenda or what is essentially Roman Martial Law and summarily executed Cataline without trial.  The Romans, who were great sticklers for following penal codes, cherished the citizen's right to trial above all others and we only need to recall St. Paul and his famous appeal to appreciate the seriousness of Pulcher's charge against Cicero.   

Through closed-door politicking Piso was given the governorship of Macedonia for 2 years but later returned to Rome as Cicero's persecutors lost favor.  Cicero returned to Rome in 57 BC.  Later, following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Piso was an ardent supporter of Dictator's last will and testament.  Furthermore, Piso was an active participant at the Mutina camp delegation which attempted to broker reconciliation between Antony and Octavian.

The Getty Villa has replicated the Villa of Papyri almost exactly in some areas while its ceiling decor, wall painting and other architectural details come from other archaeological discovers in neighboring Pompeii.  To this day Herculaneum is mostly still buried due to the difficulty of excavating fused pyroclastic flows which cover the site.

The Getty Villa feels Roman enough, though a bit sterile because of its "Getty-ness"; perfectly groomed bushes, swept walkways and manicured flowerbeds.  I was disappointed to discover some of the Getty Center's famous travertine design elements in a few of the retaining walls which surround the Villa.  The museum goes to great lengths to promote Paul Getty's original vision for a wholly ancient site plan and the modernistic elements betray his unwavering attention to detail.  My wife quipped that Mr. Getty would have jumped his grave if he could only known as his master plan was promote not only a great collection of antiquities but an entire archeological dig which he loved some much when traveling in Italy.  I wholeheartedly agree; he was obsessed with every facet, every design element of this project and would be greatly depressed that his stewards knowingly defiled the space.  The Getty Center is an amazing environment and one of the few successful modern architectural experiments but it is my opinion its voice has no place among the classicists.  

The signage from the parking lot (which is thankfully free) could be more user-friendly.  We weren't the only ones confused by directions to retaining-wall levels only to be redirected towards elevators over and back down seemingly without purpose.  When you've dragged three kids through traffic, closed restaurants, and hours of antiquity this sort of needless redirection seems straight out of the Dentist's Inferno.

Obviously my criticisms are rather miniscule in comparison to what one gets.  A world class institution with a reportedly $2 billion endowment spread between two sprawling campuses.  I've visited museums in every major US city I've ever visited that include LA, Philadelphia, NYC, SF, Santa Barbara, etc - and the Malibu Villa stands out at the top of the list for antiquities.  LACMA beats out the Villa on sheer volume of ancient objects but LACMA overwhelms you and leaves you with an ancient headache (who can look at hundreds of pots, cups and bowls from the Iron Age for hours on end?).  The Villa's paradise setting in the sunny California hills of the Pacific combined with the cool sea breeze continually revive its visitors to keep the Greek and Romans coming.  I can only close with this: if you haven't visited either Getty yet - do so now!

This is the Villa Papyri, Herculaneum, Italy.  It was the basis of the Getty Villa, Malibu, Ca.

This is the introductory video one can view immediately entering the Getty Villa.

Statuette of a Griffin Devouring an Arimasp, Bronze, 3.125", Greek, 125 - 75 B.C. Bronze
Bruce White Photography, Source. The dark photo is my own.

First display case off of the video theater, atrium.

Marble herma, 58.6575", Roman, A.D. 50 - 10 (?).
In Greece, Hermes was also the phallic god of boundaries in addition to his other duties in trade and mischief.
In Athens, herms were placed outside houses for good luck.
One of these types were defiled before Athens' fleet set out to invade Sicily and Syracuse in 415 BC.
The invasion was disastrous for the Athenians.

Herm of Dionysus Attributed to the Workshop of Boethos of Kalchedon, Bronze and ivory, 40.75", Greek, Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) 100 - 50 B.C.
I had meant to take my own photo of this wonderfully sculpted bronze but in my haste I forgot to do so.  Source.

The Mazarin Venus, marble, 72.4375", Roman, Rome, A.D. 100 - 200.  More info here.

This satyr's quality and detail was very impressive for its very small scale.  About 3" tall.

Etrusco-Roman (Samnite) bronze helmet with wings and griffin.
Described by John Warry in his seminal illustrated book, Warfare in the Classical World, ISBN 0-8061-2794-5. 
Found on page 109, circa 300 BC, Southern Italy. Source.

Griffin head (part of a large cauldron), bronze, 11.25", Greek, about 650 B.C.
Bruce White Photography, Source.

Leda and the Swan, marble, 52", Roman, A.D. 1 - 10.
Copied from an earlier Greek statue from the 300s B.C. attributed to Timotheos. Read more here.

Having a great affinity for well-made capitals, I couldn't resist taking this photograph.

A surprise in more ways than one!
I hadn't seen the sleeping erote Hermaphroditos since the Capitoline Museums in Rome.  Source.

Popular in ancient times, this sculpture and its many permutations play on the viewer's expectations; its the original "male gaze" trick.
Hermaphroditos was said to be the son/daughter of Aphrodite and Hermes.
Salmakis might be the other originator further explained at Theoi Greek Mythology site.

The main peristyle.  I took an unbelievably similar photo to the others found online.