The building now known as the Getty Villa was built by J. Paul Getty in the early ‘70s to house an ever-growing art collection that included many classical antiquities. As an appropriate setting for his collection, Getty set out to create a replica of the Villa dei Papiri, an ancient seaside luxury retreat at Herculaneum, Italy. Getty never actually saw the ancient villa, although he had visited Herculaneum several times over the course of his long life, for most of the building remains buried deep underneath volcanic debris.
Getty knew the Villa dei Papiri from two sources. First was the rich collection of sculptures, frescoes, and papyrus scrolls recovered from the site in the 1750s and displayed at the National Archaeological Museum and National Library of Naples. Second was the detailed plan of the excavations drawn by Swiss military engineer Karl Jacob Weber between 1754 and 1758. Because the ancient Villa dei Papiri was never fully brought to light, it was Weber’s plan that served J. Paul Getty’s architects and advisors as the model for his new museum.
Weber’s plan recently crossed the Atlantic for the first time along with numerous artifacts from the ancient Villa. These rare objects are featured in the exhibition Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri, on view June 26 to October 28, 2019, which explores the art and architecture of the ancient villa that inspired Getty’s recreation. As the curator of the exhibition and editor of the accompanying catalogue, this is a project I have long wanted to realize—both because of the close links between the two sites, and because of the opportunity this show offers our visitors to see original artifacts collected by ancient Romans of the highest rank.
An Ancient Library, Burned
Karl Weber’s crew at the Villa dei Papiri extracted almost 90 sculptures, the largest surviving collection from a single ancient building. They also uncovered smaller objects such as bronze and terracotta vessels, lamps, hinges, water pipes, and frescoes cut from walls. In the summer of 1752, they found the first of more than 1,100 carbonized papyrus scrolls: the classical world’s only ancient library with its texts intact, but burnt. The high temperatures of the volcanic explosion carbonized, and thus preserved, the scrolls, which are made of processed stalks of the papyrus plant. Originating in Egypt, papyri served as “paper” for most of the ancient world.
The exhibition brings to Malibu many ancient works of art found at the original Villa dei Papiri, including several of the bronze sculptures represented by modern replicas in the gardens of the Getty Villa. Through the generosity of our colleagues in Naples and Herculaneum, the exhibition also features ancient marble sculptures, frescoes, and papyrus scrolls recovered from the Villa dei Papiri in the 1750s, as well as spectacular new finds from the most recent excavations of the late 1990s and early 2000s. These include additional marble sculptures, detached frescoes, and unique ivory-veneered luxury furniture components, generously lent by the Parco Archeologico di Ercolano.
Wood and ivory are natural biodegradable materials and rarely survive from the ancient world, outside of the dry environment of Egypt. The legs of three to five tripods comprised of ash wood veneered with ivory were discovered at the Villa dei Papiri in the most recent excavations in 2007. They have no surviving parallels, although other tripods survive in bronze and are depicted on vases, frescoes, and in other media. Three legs in the exhibition are adorned with ivory veneers exquisitely carved in low relief with scenes relating to the worship of the wine-god Bacchus. They are on display at the Getty Villa for the first time.
Another stunning artifact that has never before left Italy for exhibition abroad is the monumental marble statue of Athena (Minerva to the Romans) that dominated one of the most important rooms of the ancient Villa dei Papiri. With arms outstretched, she stood between the square and rectangular peristyle gardens. In style, she combines Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greek forms, harking back to the glories of ancient Athens, which served as an inspiration for elite Romans who cast themselves as the inheritors of Greek culture.
A charming but unexpected find is a life-size bronze of a female piglet. This animal appears to have been adopted by followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus as a kind of mascot. Although their rivals may have insulted Epicureans as pigs because of their pursuit of pleasure (hedone in ancient Greek), Epicurean hedonism was not excessive, but consisted in avoiding pain, living a modest life, and cultivating friendship. The Roman poet Horace wrote of himself as “a pig from the sty of Epicurus”: sleek, fat, and happy.
Unlocking an Ancient Villa’s Secrets
The exhibition is an opportunity not just to share the Villa dei Papiri with Los Angeles, but also to continue to explore still-unanswered questions about its history. Three of the carbonized scrolls now housed in the National Library of Naples, for example, made a detour to the School of Dentistry at UCLA to undergo micro-CT scans. These have the potential to advance our knowledge of the content of many of the still-unopened Herculaneum book rolls.
Getty conservators and scientists have also been hard at work examining and stabilizing one of the Villa dei Papiri’s most famous statues, the Drunken Satyr, which came to Malibu well in advance of the exhibition. Their analysis has helped us understand how the sculpture was made and how it was treated and restored in the eighteenth century. The bronze is one of the exhibition’s many highlights, and will return to the National Archeological Museum in Naples in much improved condition.
How Authentic Is the Getty Villa?
Visitors to the exhibition may well wonder how similar the Getty Villa is to its ancient model. A quick comparison of the Getty Villa with Weber’s annotated ground plan reveals several differences. Also, the modern Villa is located in a narrow canyon perpendicular to the Pacific coast, rather than parallel to the Bay of Naples, and additional changes were necessary to suit the local topography. Numerous other differences result from the needs of a modern museum: security for the collections, automobile parking for visitors, and work spaces for staff.
Because many architectural elements needed for modern villa were not documented at the Villa dei Papiri, Getty’s archaeological advisor Norman Neuerburg derived them from other, better-known ancient buildings at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Rome. These included the heights and proportions of columns and the decoration of ceilings, walls, and many of the floors. This means that Getty Villa is both an accurate 1:1 scale replica of the Villa dei Papiri and a pastiche of diverse ancient buildings.
Still, the Getty Villa provides, as Mr. Getty himself wanted, an opportunity to view his collection of ancient art in a context similar to how it would originally have been seen—a villa complete with plants in the gardens, fountains, waterways, and cooling maritime breezes. In Buried by Vesuvius, visitors will be able to gain a still better experience of the life of Roman elites, seeing many of the most important finds from the ancient Villa dei Papiri in a full-scale modern replica of the building where they were discovered.