Getty Villa Digs Out After Its Own Volcanic Eruption

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- When you are the world's richest man and an absolutely eccentric Mister Big, and you are obsessed with the glories of the ancient past, and imagine yourself a cosmic descendant of emperors and kings, then naturally you build yourself a replica of a first-century Roman palace.

A really, really big one. In Malibu. And fill it with 2,000-year-old statues of griffins and leering satyrs and terra-cotta wine cups decorated with scenes of vomiting philosophers.

And never, ever visit it.

This is exactly what J. Paul Getty did. In the late 1960s, the oilman-art collector and author of "How to Be Rich" hired architects, classicists and Hollywood set designers to re-create the Villa dei Papiri, at Herculaneum, which was smothered under a hundred feet of lava when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.

Now, after nine years and $275 million, after lawsuits and delays and amid ongoing scandals and the prosecution of its former curator (currently defending herself against charges in Italy of trafficking in stolen antiquities), Getty's over-the-top vision is restored, reopened and wow. Hail, Caesar by the seashore -- this place is a trip.

In a review of the opening last month, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote that "the disinterred Getty Villa is gorgeous, vulgar, filled with astounding treasure, tainted by corruption, often brilliant, more than a little decadent." He predicted it would be "an enormous popular hit." Paul Goldberger, in the New Yorker, wrote that "you still park your car and enter a fantasy world, but it's no longer a glib one: It's sincere, cerebral, and elegant." (Comparisons are being readily made to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's ersatz Medieval monastery, the Cloisters, which was bankrolled by the Rockefellers.) Already, you have to wait until July to get tickets to tour the villa, which are free -- though parking will set you back $7. (If you'd like to visit, details can be found at http://www.getty.edu/ .)

The Getty Villa was originally opened to the public in 1974, and it was long a favorite destination of California art lovers, though some critics condemned it as a Roman Disneyland. The museum also suffered from admittedly awkward "flow" -- a visitor entered the villa from the parking garage below -- and there was a kind of nouveau riche dissonance of seeing bulky French furniture, old master paintings and statues of Hercules all stuffed together as if at a garage sale. Vowing to re-imagine its mission, the Getty Villa closed its doors in 1997 for extensive renovations (just as the new Getty Center, the Richard Meier masterpiece in marble atop a Brentwood hill, was opening 13 miles to the east).

Guy Wheatley, the Getty Villa's transition manager, was happy to show a visiting journalist around and point out the new and the old. Getty purchased the 64-acre property in 1945, and for a time housed some of his collection in the existing "ranch house" (it's big, too) and let visitors come for a look a few afternoons a week. This is before Getty built the Roman villa. "I don't think he spent much time at all at the ranch house," Wheatley said, "though his various wives did." (Getty was married five times.) "But they probably kept it ever ready for his always-imminent return."

The original villa that Getty used as his model is described as "one of the most luxurious private residences of the ancient world," and is believed to have been the country estate of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Getty was smitten by the historical romance of the buried palace. (In fact, he penned a novella, "A Journey From Corinth," set at the villa, in which he indulges his fantasy that he and Piso were kindred spirits separated by the ages.)

Most curiously, Wheatley reminds us that Getty himself never -- ever -- visited his re-creation. Indeed, from the early 1950s on, Getty never returned to the United States. The man spoke five languages, but he feared flying. Instead, he directed the design and construction of the replica while living at his 16th-century Tudor estate, Sutton Place, outside of London, surrounded by 25 German shepherd watchdogs. Alas, the author of "How to be Rich" (famous aphorism: "The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights") died in 1976.

The renovated Getty Villa, with its new marble and mosaic floors and freshly painted walls, is now surrounded by a new campus of modernist buildings designed by Boston architects Roldolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti. The lean, clean structures house administration, education, conservation staffs, as well as a welcome pavilion, store and cafe (serving the "Roman burger" with "Athenian cabbage"). Among the challenges the architects had to deal with was the flow. What they hit upon, Wheatley explains, is the metaphor of an archeological dig. Today a visitor approaches the villa first from below; then you ascend to and rise above it, and look down and see it nestled in a narrow canyon, "as though the villa was being excavated." It is a neat trick.

And the idea of an excavation? It works in ways that Getty planners never intended. The Getty has been buried in scandal recently -- in accusations of looting and greed and shady double-dealings. The vibe is very Nero.


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