Outside of the Mediterranean, there are a few areas in the world with a Mediterranean climate: the cape of South Africa, Chile, and the California coast. Perhaps that’s why, when oil tycoon J Paul Getty wanted to build a replica Roman villa on the cliffs of Malibu to house his art collection, nobody called him crazy. And arriving here, the place kind of makes sense, overlooking the Pacific instead of the Bay of Naples.
The Getty Villa opened in 1954 on the grounds of one of Getty’s homes in Malibu. (That home, called the Ranch House, today houses some offices for the J Paul Getty Trust.) With the opening of the Getty Center several miles away in 1997, the Villa today houses the extensive Getty antiquities collection, focusing on artifacts from Ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria.
A look at one of the entrances of the museum. The leveling of the property is meant to mimic an architectural dig.
I know very little about these eras, so I was incredibly lucky to be shown around by Alexandra Schneider, a Graduate Intern in public programming for the Getty Trust. Her specialty is in antiquities and the associated history and mythology, so she is one of only a few in this highly competitive and prestigious internship program based here at the Getty Villa, spending a year working and learning between her second masters degree and a life in public education in the museum world.
Having recently returned from a trip to Rome and the Bay of Naples, Alexandra explains that the Getty Villa is constructed to look like the Villa dei Papiri, so named for the numerous papyrus scrolls found there. The features here at the Getty Villa include gardens and statuary that would have been found at such a villa (yes, even with papyrus trees/plants), though the statues outside are all replicas to prevent their destruction from the weather. Each statue around the central gardens and fountain is an exact replica of one that actually exists, so don’t worry that you are seeing something that wouldn’t be relevant to a villa like this.
I mean, wow!
The Getty Villa also has a Greek-style amphitheater used for programs and productions. It is details like this that set a place like the Getty Villa apart, along with the varying strata of the buildings, constructed to mimic an archeological dig.
The amphitheater is a nice addition.
The collection is, in terms of museums, fairly small. Greek pottery, statuary and busts, and Roman glass sit alongside Etruscan artifacts, ancient tombs and funerary art, and a truly wonderful exhibit on the afterlife. Built into the small rooms of the replica villa, each exhibit is easily manageable to see and fully experience.
A bust of the emperor Commodus, made infamous from the movie Gladiator.
Alexandra is full of incredible facts and stories in each room. She explains the difference between Corinthian and Athenian pottery (Athenian is characterized by large figures and scenes that take up the entire surface of the piece, whereas Corinthian is done in neat rows), tells the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in the afterlife exhibit (Orpheus went to the Underworld to try to rescue his love, Eurydice), and recites some of the murders of Livia, wife of the Roman emperor Augustus who killed his other children so her son Tiberius would succeed him, as we gaze upon her bust in another room. Facts and stories like this bring the exhibits to life for me, and speak well to her future doing the same for people all over.
This is Athenian pottery, evidenced by the large figures.
Even without a tour guide, the artifacts are well laid out with short descriptions. And, for more detail, many rooms are equipped with touch-screen monitors that allow for a much more in-depth experience of your favorite portions of the collection. The exhibits are organized by civilization, type of artifact, and in some cases by subject matter, making navigation pretty simple as well. All in all, two to three hours should be plenty of time to see everything.
Whether or not you participate in an organized tour or program, the Getty Villa is certainly worth visiting. Best of all, admission is free, though must be reserved ahead of time (and parking is $15). Even if you only stroll the grounds, or want to see the famed Lansdowne Heracles (which is in a room with my favorite flooring in the museum), or just want to admire the amazing marble work throughout the Villa, this is an easy and fun excursion in combination with a beach day in Malibu!
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