Dark green leaves flutter in the breeze; water splashes in a fountain; the shade deepens along a covered colonnade. It might be a hot day, but it feels like the temperature has fallen a few degrees.
That’s how a summer afternoon feels at the Getty Villa—and that’s how it might have felt to ancient Romans lucky enough to spend time at a Roman country house.
During the first century, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote a 10-volume treatise on architecture. De Architectura covered in detail the materials, colors, proper exposures to signs of the Zodiac, and other issues of concern when building a home.
He also examined the impact of climate: “In the north, houses should be entirely roofed over and sheltered as much as possible, not in the open, though having a warm exposure,” he wrote in Book VI. “But on the other hand, where the force of the sun is great in the southern countries that suffer from heat, houses must be built more in the open and with a northern or northeastern exposure. Thus we may amend by art what nature, if left to herself, would mar.”
He recommended the placement of different rooms for different seasons. “Summer dining rooms to the north, because that quarter is not, like the others, burning with heat during the solstice, for the reason that it is unexposed to the sun’s course, and hence it always keeps cool, and makes the use of the rooms both healthy and agreeable,” he advised.
The ancient architects of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, after which the Getty Villa is modeled, no doubt had similar aims, providing many of the cooling features that soothed Romans who escaped from the city to their country homes along the coast or in the hills that caught the breezes. And since coastal Southern California’s climate is similar to that of the Bay of Naples, the Villa benefits from those cooling strategies too.
“The Romans were very attuned to the seasons, and those who could afford it would escape Rome, which was notoriously hot and stuffy in the summer, to their seaside villas,” said Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities.
Senior Education Specialist Shelby Brown said an ocean view would have been a plus: “Special spots for viewing the coast were aspects of the coolest villas.”
If a far-off sea view was a luxury, the sight and sound of flowing water nearby was a necessity; every garden at the Getty Villa features pools and fountains.
Open walkways linked rooms and gardens. “The covered walkways of the Villa’s inner and outer peristyles provide shaded areas to walk and talk while looking at the greenery and cool water that rich Romans appreciated on hot days,” she said.
Long sight lines in ancient villas were not just pleasant; they helped control air flow. The Villa also adopts this cooling strategy. “The views from the front door of the Villa to the East Garden and from the Hercules gallery to the end of the Outer Peristyle are not only impressive but useful,” said Brown.
Many Southern Californians take for granted the advantages of “indoor-outdoor living,” but it was an integral part of ancient Roman Villa design. “Folding doors would open certain rooms onto gardens or colonnades that were open to the breeze,” said Lapatin. Shades opened up to luxuriant green gardens and fountains with flowing water that not only cooled things down but also provided fresh fruit and produce, and the pools and fountains could be used for raising fish and seafood—or for swimming.
“Really wealthy Romans could transport ice from the mountains in the winter and store it underground, both to keep drinks and luxuries like shellfish cool in the summer, and as a luxurious, evanescent topping for hors d’oeuvres,” said Lapatin.
This summer, due to the pandemic, visitors are not at the Villa to enjoy the cool breezes and an icy drink, or marvel at the ingenuity of first-century designers. We miss you, and hope you’re staying cool—and healthy—wherever you are.
But, it turns out, those first-century designers also had solutions for warding off chill. So when the days get shorter, and we are able to welcome back visitors, we look forward to sharing how the Romans invented central heating…
Wonderful article explaining in detail the ingenuity of the ancient Romans and it makes one wonder where we might be today had Roman passion for the good life been translated ,in that time, into a recognition of individual rights and the flourishing of mankind that sprang from that recognition.
Interesting and refreshing article especially as we are on the cusp of a very hot weekend here in So. Cal.
Living with arctic winter winds and six weeks of stage four lockdown on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, your article transported me to a couple of summers past when I was indeed strolling the beautiful grounds of the Getty. Thank you for the respite.
I miss the visits to the Getty Museum as well.
Delightful description. The sheer intelligence and sensitivity of their designs are still useful and adaptable today.
Thank you Getty staff for providing us with all of the interesting articles on “Getty Online”. As we cope with a pandemic, face masks, and soaring temperatures in Southern California, it was a pleasure to read Julie Jaskol’s article on how the ancient Romans kept their cool.
Keep up the good work.
Principles still followed today.
What an informative article! Thank you for providing knowledge of the ancient Romans. How I miss being able to enjoy visiting the Villa.! What a wonderful gift Mr. Getty left us!
The Romans were so advanced and made so many contributions that we use today and see all over Europe. Especially their water systems.
Beautiful piece, Julie. Made me wish I were a rich Roman. And I felt like I was back in your Villa.
I’m looking forward to our winter update.
This piece is lovely to read–thank you.
This is very important in our social life
This was a very thought-provoking article. It brought home to me the 2,000 year-old dispartiy in Western society between the wealthy and the rest of us that still exists. Roman patricians and their plebean lower classes had their dichotomy of living standard starkly pointed out in this article, though it was not stated (or intended) that way. As we experience an unprecedented heat wave due to the ongoing climate crisis, the threat of power blackouts loom, and we are almost reduced to the level of pre-Industrial Age, pre-air conditioning technology, where passive cooling requires large open spaces and access to freely flowing water in order to ensure one’s continued survival. The inhabitants of the city of Rome did not have individual possession of such luxuy; that was reserved for the wealthy patricians ALONE. It only took a moment’s thought for me to connect that fact to our present-day Los Angeles metropolitan area. Our society has re-created many of the same conditions as Rome, where people were concentrated into over-built stone and concrete environments with inadequate mechanisms to handle extremes in climate. Sadly, after 2,000 years to rethink and implement better answers, our society has refused to budge. We remain squarely in line with Imperial Rome, where the elite few remained comfortable, no matter how difficult things became for the rest of the people. This is exemplified by the effective cooling technology used by the Getty Villa and accessible to the very few. When the technology is juxtaposed between its original use in Roman times and its overall lack of use in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles today, it presents a truly poignant teaching moment. For me, the lesson is clear: The time for remedying our deficiencies in dealing with the climate crisis has arrived and is clamoring for our action. We must become far more egalitarian than Roman society was in order to survive as a peaceful, democratic society.
you need to cool down–time for a visit to the Villa!
Your reflections on the state of affairs, in Rome and now, are right on the mark. Unfortunately, our billionaire class seems to have no interest in creating a more just society, and our political leaders can’t help, unless pushed into taking necessary actions. Will Joe Biden learn how to get pushed to move the country? I hope so.
Thank you DS Smith. Right on.
We love the Getty Villa and miss visiting there. So hope we can come back soon and bring visiting, out-of -town guests to enjoy the culture as well!
Being transported to the summer breeze of Rome. During the fires in California.
I have yet to visit the Villa and cannot wait until the doors are to be opened again so I can make my way there. I loved all the
beautiful art and gorgeous gardens at the Getty without any politics being added to the ‘Behind the Scenes at the Getty’ articles.
For the few hours or so I was there, it was like heaven seeing all THE paintings I went to see and walking through the gardens
was like a fairyland to me. Keep up the good work for something that is FREE to EVERYONE.
What a beautiful piece of letteratura indeed .