The Roman style road of large, irregular stones winds up through the canyon, past the gate house ($15 admission per car) until a visitor glimpses the splendid Roman villa through the trees. It is not a Roman ruin, magically transplanted from ancient Rome to the coast of Southern California. It’s J. Paul Getty’s creation of a country house as it would have been in the days when rich Romans had sumptuous villas under the shadow of Vesuvius. Getty’s Villa has the San Andreas Fault and a view of the Pacific Ocean rather than the Tyrrhenean Sea
In 1968, Getty decided to re-create a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri, and in 1974, the J. Paul Getty Museum opened to the public. In the museum, Getty displayed his extensive collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. The Museum was closed for renovations for almost ten years, from 1997 to 2006, during which time the Getty Center, on a hill above the 405 highway in Los Angeles, opened to the public. Today, the Getty Villa -- as the Museum is now called -- is dedicated to the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria. (17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, California. 310-440-7300.)
The Roman and Greek sculptures, vases and other objects are stunningly beautiful, the Etruscan pieces especially so. But what makes the Getty Villa so unique is the building itself. The original Villa dei Papiri was a country house in Herculaneum, buried in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which also buried Pompeii.. Most of the original villa has not been excavated; the plans of Getty’s Villa dei Papiri are based on excavations of other houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
A visitor approaches the museum from above. Facing the entrance is a Roman amphitheatre, where performances of classical drama take place during the summer. Throughout the year, lectures and other events take place in the indoor Auditorium.
Visitors enter into the atrium, which was the main public room of a Roman house. From there, one visits the inner and outer peristyles. (A peristyle is a columned porch surrounding a courtyard.) The rooms leading from these areas house the collection. The outer peristyle has a long pool and lovely formal gardens of flowers and trees, Replicas of statutes found at the original villa grace the area. The inner peristyle garden is less formal but also contains flowers and trees.
The villa has two gardens aside from the the ones in the peristyles: the herb (or kitchen) garden, which supplied the Roman family with herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes, and the East garden, where the women of the family would gather to chat and weave or sew while their children played. This pretty garden has a charming fountain decorated with shells and theatre masks. All the gardens are planted with flowers and trees native to the Mediterranean region,
The Museum has changing exhibits as well as its permanent collection,. A recent exhibit on loan from the Capitoline Museum in Rome was the huge marble sculpture of a lion attacking a horse. Tours, focusing on collection highlights, architecture and the gardens, are offered free to the public.