C California Style

A portion of a mosaic floor from the late 5th century, and a sculpture of Aphrodite from the 1st Century made Christian by the addition of a cross, both part of the traveling exhibition “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.” PHOTO: Image Courtesy of the 24th EBA, inv. no 9.
The Men in Antiquity gallery at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa. PHOTO: The Getty Research Institute, L.A. (2011.IA.68) © 2005 Richard Ross with the Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust.
The view over the Outer Peristyle garden. PHOTO: The Getty Research Institute, L.A. (2011.IA.68); © 2005 Richard Ross with the Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust.
Gold-and-enamel bracelet from the 9th or 10th century on loan from the Museum of Bzyantine Culture in Thessaloniki. PHOTO: Image Courtesy of The Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki, inv.no bko 262/6.
The tycoon. PHOTO: Research library, the Getty Research Institute, L.A., CA (840006), © 1964 Karsh, Ottawa.
Herb Garden at the Getty Villa. © 2014 J. Paul Getty Trust.
The original ranch house. PHOTO: The Getty Research Institute, L.A. (1986.IA.48).
The Outer Peristyle garden resembles the pool from the Villa San Marco in Stabiae. PHOTO: The Getty Research Institute, L.A. (2011.IA.68); © 2005 Richard Ross with the Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust.
Getty’s favorite sculpture, the Lansdowne Herakles, was unearthed from Hadrian’s villa in 1790. PHOTO: The Getty Research Institute, L.A. (2011.IA.68); © 2005 Richard Ross with the Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust.
A portion of a mosaic floor from the late 5th century, and a sculpture of Aphrodite from the 1st Century made Christian by the addition of a cross, both part of the traveling exhibition “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.” PHOTO: 2014 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Up at the Villa

by C California Style

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Getty Villa has come a long way from fanciful vision to treasured L.A. institution.

When the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu opened on January 16, 1974, criticism was widespread among the artistic cognoscenti. Some called it “kitsch,” others “a folly” or “a millionaire’s whim.” At the time, Jean Paul Getty’s vision of a historically accurate re-created villa museum to contextualize antiquities and educate visitors—many of whom would never be able to go to Italy and Greece or see a Roman house in a non-derelict state—was counter to the decade’s glass-and-steel aesthetic.

But the public loved it. They crowded the Canon de Sentimiento to see the five bronze maidens scattered about the 18-inch-deep pool (in Roman times, it would have been 12 feet deep), view the riotously colored marble floors and meander through the leafy gardens populated with the same flora and fauna that the ancient Romans enjoyed. “The hubris on the part of Mr. Getty to build a re-creation of a Roman villa in Malibu was so wacky that it couldn’t help but draw the public,” says Kevin Salatino, a former curator of graphic arts at the Getty Research Institute, who is now director of art collections at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. “Critics called it Disneyland, but Disneyland is popular.”

“It’s fitting that the villa is modeled after Herculaneum and Pompeii,” says Salatino. “I like to think that L.A. is as decadent as those cities. Or vice versa.”

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the museum that  Getty refused to build in the style of a “glib and brittle age” now commands a comfortable place in the Los Angeles museum eco-system. The structure continues to house a trove of ancient treasures and to offer unique programming, and after another renovation in the late ’90s, it’s become an emblem of the postmodern era: mixing and matching from various styles and time periods. As a subset of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which has four programs (and a $5.9 billion endowment as of 2013), the universe that is the Getty has vast resources and tentacles that span a variety of pursuits: scholarly work, Southern California-wide initiatives such as Pacific Standard Time, and conservation projects that touch upon work from around the globe—all of which result in public access to great art. “It’s an institution that wants to do the most it possibly can do for its public. They’ve done a remarkable job of bringing more and more cultural credibility to Los Angeles. The world doesn’t look at L.A. as a place that is only interested in the new, the immediate and the superficial,” notes Salatino.

What is now a cultural behemoth started out with one man who happened to be obsessed with outdoing the Rockefellers and the Hearsts. Like all tycoons, Getty was a fiercely competitive man with many eccentricities, including a lifelong fascination with the values of the ancient world and connecting himself with their traditions. The villa property was originally purchased as a weekend ranch house in 1946 for $250,000, and the oilman kept his own mini-menagerie on the grounds, à la Hearst, along with a burgeoning collection of antiquities, decorative arts and European master paintings. Eventually, he came upon the idea of a small museum within his weekend home. By 1954, the public was able to visit the house by appointment on Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons, taking in the antiquities outside on the patio and additional antiquities, furniture and painting in the galleries.

It wasn’t until 1968—17 years after Getty left California for good (he developed a phobia about flying after owning an aircraft company and seeing a plane crash)—that the entrepreneur decided to build a bigger museum from scratch. From the United Kingdom, he hired archaeologist Norman Neuerburg as a historical consultant and the firm Langdon and Wilson, and declared he wanted a re-creation of the site Villa dei Papiri from Herculaneum, a coastal town that was covered by hot volcanic mud from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Believed to be owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Villa dei Papiri had been home base for a very powerful man and arts patron, appealing to Getty’s sense of context. “He was a very enlightened, important and complicated fellow—he’d roll over in his grave if he heard us calling him Caesar’s father-in-law,” quips Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities. But perhaps even more important, when the Bourbon king of Naples, Charles III, first excavated the property in 1750, Swiss military engineer Karl Jakob Weber was prescient enough to create detailed ground plans of the building, from which the Getty architects took their cue. Construction began in earnest in 1970, with some crews who had worked on the Hollywood set of Cleopatra, and borrowed elements liberally from a variety of other historical sites: masonry from the necropolis of the Porto Romano in Ostia, wall decorations from a villa at Boscoreale and spiral columns from the Villa San Marco at Stabiae. Getty insisted on precise historical accuracy, which was duly recorded, and dispatched to him through photographs and renderings of the building. Of course, there are a few digressions from a true Roman villa of antiquity: A proper pool would have required a lifeguard, and the topiaries are simple rather than figurative—in ancient times, the hedges would have been cut to resemble battle scenes and chariot races.

And coming this fall, “Roman Luxury: The Berthouville Silver Treasure” highlights another advantage that the Getty Trust holds over almost any other art institution in the world: its reputation as a conservator.

Getty remained in London when the property opened in 1974, and the evolution continued long after his death in 1976. Phase three of the villa took place in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Some of those changes are obvious, such as the new outdoor theater, opening up the galleries to let in natural light, but others are largely invisible to the public: tunnels, handicapped features, access roads, parking. It’s also when a    postmodern sensibility came through in the architecture of the campus. “We reference a dig site in many of the new structures,” Lapatin explains. For example, the roof above the café is “held up by high beams and cross bars; that’s what you put on an archaeological site temporarily to cover a mosaic or a painting to protect it, but here we’ve done it in luxurious materials.”

Today, the villa still welcomes the same number of visitors it accepted in 1974—around 350,000 per year, a number limited by parking and the residential surroundings. But it’s also home to exceptional traveling exhibitions such as this month’s “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections” (April 9), a nearly 170-piece extravaganza of icons, jewelry, frescoes, mosaics and textile art exported from Thessaloniki, Athens and the Peloponnese areas. Showing how the establishment of Christianity as a state religion influenced the art and culture of the time, the collection is an exciting peek into a unique visual patina. “Because Byzantine culture grew out of the art, literature and philosophies of late antiquity—itself a hybrid of Greek and Roman forms—this exhibition is a perfect fit,” notes Mary Louise Hart, associate curator of antiquities. And coming this fall, “Roman Luxury: The Berthouville Silver Treasure” highlights another advantage that the Getty Trust holds over almost any other art institution in the world: its reputation as a conservator.

“We’re like a university,” explains Lapatin as he strolls through the villa’s conservation lab and picks up a vase covered in scenes from the Trojan War. “With different departments working together and independently.” Within the trust, four divisions are busy: the Getty Conservation Institute, which advances conservation practice worldwide; the Getty Foundation, which supports the visual arts through grants; the J. Paul Getty Museum (of which the villa is one of two locations); and the Getty Research Institute, which leads the world in cultural research, with a massive collection of rare books, photographs, prints, artists’ letters and archives of artists, architects and scholars.

For the Berthouville exhibition, the conservation department from the   museum was able to take on a treasure trove of silver discovered in northwest France in 1830 and usually kept at the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. A farmer had unearthed a pod of silver objects dedicated to the god Mercury from the first, second and third centuries. Since the Getty shipped in the materials in 2010, the objects have undergone extensive conservation (which means stabilizing the piece, not restoring, which can mean adding something that was not previously there). They’ve imaged the pieces with X-rays, discovering inscriptions hidden inside that were intended for the silver workers—thus revealing how the precious metal was tracked in ancient times. Along the way, they’ve also discovered fabrication techniques, corrected records and mounted the pieces for earthquakes, a specialty that the museum pioneered.

“It’s a win-win,” says Lapatin. “It’s part of our philanthropic mission. We get objects that need help, we help them, we display them, and we send them back better than they were before.” And up at the villa, Californians get to see it all: Getty’s collection, traveling exhibitions such as “Heaven and Earth” and iconographic works on loan from the Mediterranean basin.

“It’s fitting that the villa is modeled after Herculaneum and Pompeii,” says Salatino. “I like to think that L.A. is as decadent as those cities. Or vice versa.”

Written and edited by Elizabeth Khuri Chandler.