In Malibu, the Getty Villa's Grand Opening

Sunday, February 26, 2006

RESEARCH QUESTION: After a nine-year, $275 million restoration, Malibu's Getty Villa (not to be confused with its sprawling sister museum, the Getty Center in Los Angeles) has finally reopened to great fanfare as the country's only museum dedicated entirely to antiquities. Despite allegations by the Italian government that dozens of artifacts are looted, and scandals that forced the resignation of the Villa's curator and the J. Paul Getty Trust's president, the mansion is the toughest ticket in town.

At the moment, you can't even get near the place until August, though officials say they may release more tickets on short notice (check the Web frequently if you can't wait until summer). We wondered: Does the Getty Villa live up to the hype?

METHODOLOGY: On a sunny Friday, we drove north from Santa Monica to Malibu up the Pacific Coast Highway and into the placid Getty porte-cochere. We spent a few hours strolling through the galleries, wandering the sun-drenched gardens and courtyards, and pretending we led the life of a Roman aristocrat.

RESULTS: The Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities at the Villa are centuries old and have taken lifetimes to collect. There's no need to worry about them becoming so five minutes ago. Besides, the upside of the limit on visitors -- no more than 1,200 people, spread throughout the day via timed tickets -- is a lack of crowds.

J. Paul Getty's first antiquities acquisition was a fake; a sculpture he'd bought from Sotheby's later was revealed to be an excellent forgery. So it's fitting that the Getty Villa starts with a reproduction. The building itself is a 1974 copy of the first-century Roman Villa dei Papiri, which was buried under Mount Vesuvius.

The oil magnate died before he got to see his dream house come to fruition, but he'd be ecstatic about the remodeling job. Getty wanted people to experience what it was like to occupy a Mediterranean villa, and the new incarnation does an excellent job of transporting you to ancient Rome. The decade-long renovation has added more natural light, opened up tiny rooms into larger galleries and provided an ideal home for a collection that has improved considerably since its inaugural purchase.

The Getty Villa is also uniquely suited to the clement climate of Southern California. It may be the only museum in the world where you need sunglasses. Visitors float between indoor galleries and outdoor balconies, peristyles and courtyards.

The entire estate is bathed in marble, inside and out, and nowhere better than the newly cleaned floor in the Temple of Herakles, which houses one of Getty's earliest purchases. Alternating triangles of marble create a circular pattern that faithfully replicates a floor from the Villa dei Papiri.

Galleries are arranged by subject matter, rather than by region or chronology. The result is that each one feels like a small exhibition of highlights from some larger collection. In a sense, they are, since only 1,200 of the Getty's 44,000 artifacts can be displayed at one time. There are galleries devoted to bronze vessels; monsters; Dionysus and the theater; athletes and competition; and stories of the Trojan War. This last gallery even has copies of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" on hand for easy reference.

The griffin gallery, featuring sculptures, vases and engravings of the mythical half-lion, half-eagle, feels like a first-century trophy room, with its sienna walls and rich wood paneling.

A pleasant indoor-outdoor cafe serves -- what else -- Mediterranean-style pastas, pizzas and panini, featuring organic ingredients ($7.50 for three-cheese pizza, $10 for blue crab and rock shrimp cake). The Family Forum room allows kids to draw their own artwork on cutouts of "ancient" vases. Otherwise, there isn't much at the villa that will interest children.

CONCLUSION: The massive collection and the delightful outdoor spaces invite repeat visits. Given the hot demand for tickets, which are free and must be reserved, that's not realistic in the short run. But in the long run -- and where better than an antiquities museum to consider the long run? -- the Getty Villa is a museum people will want to return to often.

A tip: One way to get in to see the galleries before July is to purchase a ticket to one of the lectures, films, demonstrations or stage performances in the handsome outdoor amphitheater. You can't show up hours early, but you can hang around as long as you like afterward. Note that the galleries may not be open after longer evening events.

-- John Rosenthal

The Getty Villa (17985 Pacific Coast Hwy.) is open Thursdays through Mondays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Parking is $7, so carpool if you can. Info: 310-440-7300,

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