Entertainment | Visual & Performing Arts

Replica of Roman grandeur

With its stunning architecture and location high above Bel Air, the J Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Centre is visited as much for the artwork as for the context it is displayed in.

  • Text and Photos By Gautam Raja, Special to Weekend Review
  • Published: 00:44 April 4, 2008
  • Weekend Review

  • Image Credit: Gautam Raja

Los Angeles isn't often thought of as a city, and even when it is, it is rarely considered a museum city. It doesn't, for example, have the authority or density of Washington DC or London.

Even so, it is home to one of the most famous museums in the world — recently ranked 30th in the world and seventh in the United States in terms of attendance.

With its stunning architecture and location high above Bel Air, the J Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Centre is visited as much for the artwork as for the context it is displayed in.

The building material itself is one of the attractions: Fossils of animals and plants are visible on the walls and floors, which are made of travertine stones from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy.
Rather less known is that the Getty Centre has a cousin on the coast called the Getty Villa — a museum and replica of a Roman home called the Villa dei Papiri.

The original stood in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, halfway up the slope of Mount Vesuvius, looking out over the Tyrhennian Sea. The modern replica stands on a cliff over a famous fault-line and looks out over the Pacific.

The Getty Villa faded from memory a little when it was closed for eight years — five years longer than expected — for renovation. It opened in January 2006, as both a museum and an education centre that focuses on Greek, Roman and Etruscan art and culture.

As it regains popularity, a fake version of a historical site might seem too much in keeping with the stereotypes of its host city, but the villa is far too sumptuously appointed to dismiss in this manner.

Its floors are displays: from the bold black-and-white mosaic at the entrance to the captivating patterns in the inner rooms.
If one thinks of a museum as the background and the art in it as the foreground, the Getty Villa constantly surprises, flipping background and foreground, letting visitors take as much from the setting as the art itself.

Visiting the villa

The mosaic floors mean the villa is a delicate place. So the museum controls the number of visitors through a slightly baffling process of “parking reservations''. Entry to the museum is free but it costs $8 for parking.

Visitors on foot are not admitted unless they have used public transportation; and these arrivals have to ensure that their bus driver clips their museum reservations or they won't be let in.

Reservations have to made on the website, getty.edu/visit/, for certain times of day (but visitors can stay as long as they want). These slots, especially morning ones, run out days ahead in summer, so visitors forced to choose the afternoon ones should remember that the villa closes at 5pm.

Once it is all worked out, it is worth driving out early because the villa is along one of the most famous stretches on Highway 1 — the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). The Malibu coastline will be familiar to any television watcher and here, the PCH is overlooked by cliffs with expensive houses on one side and the shimmering Pacific on the other.

Fire damage, though not pretty, is very much part of this landscape and marks from the huge Malibu fire last summer are still visible. Also, visitors with an hour to spare should visit the other villa by the sea, the Adamson House (see box).
It is in one of those mansions above the PCH that the Getty museum originated.

J. Paul Getty, born in 1892 into great wealth, was an oil magnate worth around $4 billion when he died in 1976. He was a passionate collector of art, especially sculpture from the cultures that the Getty museums specialise in today: Greek, Roman and Etruscan.

It was not Paul Getty's way to have a cloistered private collection that sees light of day only after the collector dies. He believed that art was meant to be shared and, in 1954, threw open the doors of his Malibu ranch home to the public on certain days.

These open days were so popular that Getty, fearing damage to his marble floors, decided to build another location to house his collection. Today, the villa is not just a themed outhouse for art but also a complete museum with a highly respected conservation programme — a steady stream of damaged paintings from around the world are sent to it for restoration.

Because the original Villa dei Papiri is still largely buried, the renovated Getty Villa's surroundings are themed on an archaeological dig. Though the parking area is below the villa, visitors are led up around it to enter from above, looking down as if it was in a pit.

One of the first sights is a fountain with a “weeping wall'', reminiscent of seeping ground water. The walls here use rough cement to look like soil strata and there are many touches to give the site a sense of temporariness, such as ramps or the columns at the café that look as if they have been shored up with pieces of marble. (The guides hasten to add that the columns are actually strong enough to withstand a powerful earthquake.)

Theatre of style

Just outside the replica villa is an outdoor theatre in the style of an amphitheatre, though not round. Impassive guards hold visitors away until the exact second the villa opens, upon which visitors walk over a dizzying pattern of mosaic cubes into the atrium.

The Romans loved peristyles (gardens that are surrounded by columns and porches), and it is easy to see why. They bring the outdoors in, or take the indoors out, in the same mixed-up way that the Getty Villa toys with art and context.

The outer peristyle is huge and it features a well-tended garden with topiary and sculpture, with long, colonnaded porches along its sides. There are paintings on the walls and windows that let the patterns of the sun on the floor interact with the tiles.

Sadly, this writer visited the villa during one of Los Angeles's rare, dim and drizzly days and could not appreciate the bright colours and clear lines as they were meant to be seen.

The gardens are authentic too, featuring only trees, bushes and herbs that Romans would have grown. The kitchen garden features an extensive collection of herbs and medicinal plants and surrounding it is the Roman herbaceous equivalent of the Holy Trinity: fig trees, olive trees and date palms.

The design of the villa, just like that of the Getty Centre, is such that it “decompresses'' the visitor from the urban chaos that Los Angeles can be.

The villa, though not spread over an enormous area, contains enough to fill a visitor's day. It has a fine-dining (but not overly expensive) café, as well as live demonstrations, talks and guided tours.

During this writer's visit, glassblowers were showing ancient traditions and recreating some of the techniques used to make the exquisite pieces on display inside. The café offers, appropriately, Mediterranean cuisine such as panini, pizzas, pastas and risotto.

Many visitors to Los Angeles have probably barely survived the garish excesses of the area and so the Getty Villa offers a much-needed break from crowds, freeways and, of course, Disneyland. Call it a one-day Roman holiday.

Gautam Raja is an independent writer based in California.

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