Getty Villa astounds. Nestled in a canyon, right off California’s busy Pacific Coast Highway, in Malibu, and a stone’s throw from the surfers at the famous beach, it’s J. Paul Getty’s gift to anyone who appreciates architecture, art, or history.
An accurate reproduction of the magnificent Villa dei Papiri, down to the mosaics and frescoes, Getty Villa is designed to give visitors the opportunity to understand what life was like in southern Italy when Mount Vesuvius erupted, back when Naples was “the Malibu of Ancient Rome.”
Mount Vesuvius seals off Herculaneum…and Its treasures
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, it immediately buried Pompeii in ashes and pumice. Nearby residents and vacationers at the upscale coastal resort town of Herculaneum thought they were safe. Then the winds shifted, bringing poisonous smoke, ashes…and fast-moving lava. The heat–up to 1300 degrees–caused condensation and heavy rain. Mud from Vesuvius then rolled down the mountain and sealed off Herculaneum in 65 to 100 feet of solid matter. It remained “un-rediscovered” until 1709, when a landowner tried to deepen his well and ended up finding small fragments of colorful marble.
Excavation started because an Austrian prince wanted to impress his Italian bride with a snazzy home. He needed all the marble that could be dug up. Along the way–and it was rough going to chip through–Villa dei Papiri started to emerge in 1750. Today, only 10 percent has been excavated!
Getty Villa becomes imagined as a museum and a history lesson
You see, Mr. Getty–the oil tycoon–had a fondness for antiquities. Being a billionaire allowed him to purchase whatever he fancied. And he fancied many, many things. Statues, pottery, paintings, artifacts–even chunks of floors and walls from ancient buildings. He started his collection in 1939 and never looked back.
He initially stored his treasures in his “Ranch House,” a vacation home that remains on the same property as Getty Villa. The house was expanded a few times to hold the growing collection. Mr. Getty eventually shared the art with visitors…two afternoons a week. Finally, in 1968, he decided to build a museum for the public. Hating contemporary architecture, he wanted a suitable structure that would demonstrate the experience of ancient Herculaneum. Like a replica of Villa dei Papiri? Perfect! “Why not show…what an especially attractive Roman building would have looked like, with its gardens, fountains–even details such as the lamps and appropriate flowers?”
Getty never saw his magnificent museum
When the construction started in 1970, Getty was living in England. He had developed a fear of flying and would not cross the ocean. However, he stayed actively involved in the project and spent $17 million ($170 million in today’s money) to create his dream. Getty Villa opened in 1974. Mr. Getty died in 1976, at age 83, leaving four million shares of Getty Oil stock to maintain the museum. This sum came in handy when a $275 million renovation was done to make it “America’s only museum devoted to ancient Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art.”
Getty believed art should be collected…and shared
Collecting art “is one of the most exhilarating and satisfying of all human endeavors,” Mr. Getty declared. He traveled extensively, always seeking out fine pieces to ship back to the Ranch House. His favorite piece was the Lansdowne Hercules, which once stood at Hadrian’s villa. Getty displayed in an outdoor courtyard, but now it’s well-protected in the Temple of Hercules hall at Getty Villa.
Getty also believed that great art should be shared. “The true collector does not acquire objects of art for himself alone. His is no selfish drive or desire to have and hold a painting, a sculpture, or a fine example of antique furniture so that only he may see and enjoy….he is eager to have others share his pleasure.”
Wander the galleries and the gardens. Choose a guided tour, there’s one every hour: art, architecture, and garden. Stop for lunch or a cold drink at the cafe. Browse the bookstore. Stroll the peristyles, imagining yourself there 2,000 years ago…
If you go:
The Getty Villa is free, but you must make a reservation for a timed entry. Parking is $15. Once you’re there, stay as long as you like. You’ll be glad you went!
Open 10 am-5 pm–Closed Tuesdays
17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
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