Best known for its sweeping coastlines and golden sunsets, Southern California doesn’t seem like the sort of place where you would find a grand Roman country house. Yet that’s part of the enchantment of the Getty Villa, a recreation of the ancient Villa dei Papiri that once stood in Herculaneum, Italy, and home of an extraordinary collection of Greek and Roman art.
Just minutes from Malibu Beach Inn, the Villa is both a museum and a tranquil escape with four lush gardens filled with fountains, arbors, reflecting ponds, and bronze sculptures, offering unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean. Indoors, an array of fascinating exhibits covers more than 7,000 years of ancient art from the Stone Age to the fall of the Roman Empire – with highlights like a life-size bronze statue of a young, victorious athlete after the Greek games.
After an expansive renovation led by Senior Curator of Antiquities Jeffrey Spier, the Villa recently reopened all galleries and exhibits on April 18.
“I came over many years to the Getty,” says Spier of his initial interest in the Villa. “Mostly because as an archaeologist, art historian, and classical artist, it’s the only museum in America that’s exclusively for ancient Greek and Roman art. It’s just a very special place.”
The Getty Villa was constructed in the 1970s by art collector J. Paul Getty, who hoped to give visitors insight into the ancient world. He chose the most luxurious of the villas in Herculaneum, named for its expansive library, and worked closely with architects to develop the same details throughout the recreation. He then filled the space with ancient sculpture, frescos, vases, glass, and jewelry.
In 1996, the Villa was renovated to add an open-air entry pavilion, and this year, the new presentation of the antiquities collection was unveiled, focusing on the actual development of art in the ancient Mediterranean cultures.
Museum Atrium at the Getty Villa. Photo by Tahnee L. Cracchiola, courtesy of J. Paul Getty Trust.
“We’ve just gone through a three-year process of redoing all of the galleries,” says Spier. “We spent a lot of time analyzing the collection, deciding what should be placed together, choosing what’s the best quality, what tells the best story. The initial idea was to present it to our visitors in a way that would make it easier for them to understand the development of art.”
Throughout the process, curators aimed not only to create a new way of viewing but to enhance the visual experience with new materials, lighting, and non-reflective glass.
“It’s a much more beautiful display,” says Spier. “We have galleries devoted to the different periods of Greek and Roman history, so you can really understand the culture and art of ancient Greece and Rome. They speak to each other.”
Along with the bronze statue of the athlete – one of the most famous sculptures in America, found in the Adriatic Sea in the 1960s – Spier recommends making time for the head of Alexander the Great in marble, the lively artworks of the Etruscans, and two sky-lit galleries filled with Roman statues and frescas from the villas of Pompeii (among many others).
But he would generally follow the exhibits chronologically, taking time in both the gardens and the special exhibits.
Brimming with more than 300 varieties of plants – both inspired by ancient Roman models and with herbs and shrubs known from the ancient Mediterranean – the gardens overlook the ocean for a truly serene experience. In the Inner Peristyle, you can enjoy replicas from the original villa including marble basins and bronze statues of women drawing water, while the Outer Peristyle offers paths lined with laurel, boxwood, myrtle, ivy, and oleander and a 220-foot-long reflecting pool.
The special exhibits feature international loans from all the great museums of the world. Currently, the Villa is home to the long-term loan exhibition, “Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance,” which includes funerary portraits of wealthy inhabitants of the ancient Palmyra, Syria, as well as a contemporary exhibit highlighting artists who have engaged with Plato’s philosophy and thinking.
“It is unexpected here,” says Spier of it all. “You go up Pacific Coast Highway and you encounter this beautiful building with beautiful views and a great collection. It’s a unique experience. I don’t know any place else that can offer this.”
During your journey back to life in the first century AD, Spier recommends attending some of the events at the Getty Villa from theater performances to lectures to wine tastings.
“It’s a lovely and unique visit,” he says. “You can take whatever you wish from this. If you want, you can learn a great deal.”
Although entry to the Getty Villa is free, tickets must be reserved in advance for timed entry. Garden, gallery, and architecture tours are available.
*Featured Image: Bobak Ha’Eri