As we shared last week on The Iris, the display of antiquities in the Getty Villa galleries has been reenvisioned, literally from the ground up. Nearly every work of art—1,357 objects—has been moved, and some thirty galleries on both floors of the museum have been reconceived and renamed.
Among the many new galleries are those devoted to Archaic and Classical Greece, Etruscan art, Greek colonies in Southern Italy and Sicily, the Hellenistic world, the luxury arts of the Roman Villa, and the collecting of antiquities. Most of these galleries are open now, with reopening of all spaces scheduled for April 18, 2018.
While hands-on installation work began about a year ago, research, planning, conservation, and design began more than two years earlier. The entire project has been a fruitful, and at times intense, collaboration among many valued colleagues with a range of expertise: curators, conservators, mountmakers, educators, designers, editors, digital media producers, preparators, and many more.
On the occasion of the full reopening of the galleries on April 18, I asked members of the Getty Villa curatorial team to highlight a sampling of what’s new to see.
A New Gallery for Etruscan Art
When imagery and themes governed the Villa’s arrangement, the scope of Etruscan art at the Getty wasn’t obvious. Comprising about 1,400 objects, the collection is much more extensive than it appeared (and larger still, if you include study materials from neighboring cultures in Umbria and Latium). As an archaeology student, my first fieldwork was at an Etruscan site near Siena in Tuscany. The chance to delve once again into this intriguing and influential culture was thus also something of a homecoming.
Curating the selection of 86 works of art now in Gallery 110 involved a different sort of excavation—a year of research and regular storeroom visits. Objects were unpacked, evaluated, and arranged to illustrate six centuries of artistic developments. Among the works now on view is a formidable head of Medusa, which stares down at visitors as they enter. Revealing its internal organs, a votive anatomical torso was used to petition or thank the gods for a cure. Dancers play castanets atop a pair of elegant bronze candelabra that illuminated banquets and funeral rituals.
Only a small handful of galleries in this country are devoted to the arts of Etruria. What began as an installation project is branching out into scientific analyses, provenance research, and a forthcoming collection catalogue. No doubt many surprising discoveries still await.
Gems, Coins, and Zoomable Digital Labels
Gems exquisitely carved from semi-precious stones, finely crafted jewelry, and gold and silver coins were far more valuable to inhabitants of the ancient world than marble sculptures and terracotta vessels. Yet statues and vases are not only fashioned from longer-lasting materials, but also considerably larger and therefore easier to display in a modern museum setting, where they often steal the show from smaller artworks that require close looking.
In antiquity, cameos and intaglios, jewelry, and coins were worn on the body or held in the hand. Thus they could be raised to the eye and rotated to catch the light, the better to admire their artistry. For us, in reinstalling the Villa’s galleries, a significant challenge was how to display our spectacular collection of these minute masterpieces to their best advantage. We simultaneously adopted two strategies:
First, most items were mounted in very shallow wall cases—shadowboxes—so that viewers can get as close as possible. (Intricate detail becomes illegible at the back of deep vitrines.) And we also angled the backboards of these cases slightly, just 1 to 3 degrees, so that each item catches the light projected from above.
Second, we adapted, updated, and simplified iPad displays that have been employed elsewhere for coins and gems (notably at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), so that visitors can easily tap to select an individual object, zoom in to admire its minute detail, flip coins to see both sides or examine the impression of a gem, and read a more detailed description than a normal paper label might allow. Have a look at our innovative iPad labels in Galleries 101D, 101E, 109, 110, 111, and especially 216, and let us know your thoughts!
Roman Guardian Spirits and Collectibles
I never thought the new Roman Treasury (Gallery 216), squeezed into a space that once held a few computers, would work for tours. But despite its small size, it has become a favorite stopping place for me to pique visitors’ interest and invite them to return for a closer look. This little gallery allows us to see at a glance not just some lovely objects owned by the ancient Roman 1%, but also a range of more affordable bronze household objects of very different functions.
Some of my favorites: a Lar, a guardian spirit worshipped at household shrines, pours wine from a goat’s-head drinking horn into an offering dish. The base says he was dedicated to the genius—the spirit of a living head-of-household—of a praetorian soldier. (Was the Lar carried on campaign? Dedicated at the household shrine for the soldier’s safe return?) A similar protective figure, but perhaps reflecting the personal devotion of a family member, shows Asclepius’s health-bringing daughter Salus with a propitious snake entwined in her arms.
Another divine image may have served a purely ornamental function: an elegant Minerva, embellished with details in silver, reproduces a famous Greek statue of Athena and intentionally highlights old-fashioned features. There are also fun “collectibles”: actors with dangling costume phalluses, displayed by fans of comic plays. Lastly, tiny images for daily protection are found among the gems and amulets Ken mentions above. Look for the evil-averting head of Medusa and the anti-scorpion amulet of orange stone.
The Classical World in Context
Sara E. Cole
Most of the Villa’s galleries focus on art from ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria—but these cultures, rather than existing in isolation, engaged in intensive and fruitful exchange with many neighboring civilizations throughout the Mediterranean and Near East. While the Getty’s permanent collections don’t allow us to tell these stories, a new initiative called the Classical World in Context places Greece and Rome within a broader framework of ancient internationalism through a series of special exhibitions and long-term loans.
Gallery 114 will now be dedicated to the Classical World in Context, which will help visitors to the Villa appreciate just how interconnected the ancient world really was. Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance (April 18, 2018–May 27, 2019), is an exhibition of funerary sculpture from the Syrian city of Palmyra, located at the crossroads of east and west under the Roman Empire. Generously on loan from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (along with material from the Getty Research Institute and the Cantor Art Center at Stanford), these artworks are particularly poignant given the recent losses our collective cultural heritage has suffered in Syria.
Future exhibitions in Gallery 114 will include Assyrian reliefs and Egyptian art. And speaking of Egypt, the major international loan exhibition Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World (on view at the Getty Center through September 9, 2018) is also part of this initiative.
A New Gallery for Athenian Vases
The reinstallation project has transformed the content of the Getty Villa’s galleries, but the floorplan and layout of the museum remain, essentially, the same. I’ve had the good fortune to work on the one notable exception, Gallery 103, which opens April 18. Formerly the coat-check area, it now holds around 40 Athenian vases. We’ve dedicated one gallery to Archaic and Classical Greece (800–323 B.C.), but didn’t want to overwhelm it with ancient pottery. We also didn’t want to limit one of the richest aspects of our collection to just a couple of cases. The new room thus provides a happy solution.
The display includes many black- and red-figure vases that will be familiar, but also a number of vessels that have been residing in storage. The selection was by no means easy (and there’s a small part of me that would love the chance to do it all over again), but my hope is that the themes allow for an enriching engagement with diverse aspects of the ancient Greek experience—the
tales of heroes and drama of myth, the use and abuse of pottery in the symposium, the position of women in a male-centric society, and the painting of the vases themselves.
Frescoes from a Roman Villa at Boscoreale
Mary Louise Hart
A dramatic transformation has taken place on the second floor of the Villa, now devoted to the arts of Rome. Our collection of Neolithic, Cycladic, Cypriot, and Aegean Bronze Age sculpture and vessels—formerly displayed in colors evoking the rich blue of the Mediterranean—has moved downstairs to the former Timescape room and been replaced by a new display of black, white, and yellow wall-size frescoes from the Roman villa of Numerius Popidius Florus at Boscoreale, sited north of Pompeii at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. The villa dates to the early first century BC and was being renovated from earthquake damage when Vesuvius again exploded, burying it in pyroclastic flow in AD 79.
In contrast to the elegance and grandeur of seaside villas like the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, the Boscoreale villa was a working farm, with wine stored in large jars in its courtyard. Yet despite its agrarian features, the house was richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics and had a small bath complex.
The wall frescoes were acquired by Mr. Getty in the early 1970s but scarcely displayed through the years; now that they are shown together, we can imagine how they shaped the owner’s sense of his domestic space. The paintings come from two rooms of the villa: one frescoed in black pigment and one in white. Sections from the black frescoes have been installed on the north wall flanking a conversational scene. Originally they flanked a landscape with a yellow background, now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
A Countess’s “Beautiful Things”
One of my favorite new galleries is Collecting Antiquities (Gallery 206), where the histories behind some of the objects in the Getty’s collection come to the forefront. It serves as an excellent introduction to Martine-Marie-Pol de Béhague, comtesse de Béarn (1870–1939), a collector who travelled all over the world to find splendid works of art from every period. Her great-nephew once described the parade of dealers to the room where she held court from a bed covered in “wolfskin and lynx furs.” We’re lucky to be able to get a sense of her discerning choices at the Getty Villa.
Highlighted within Collecting Antiquities is a wine pitcher once owned by the Comtesse, which was made in Athens and decorated with three boys caught in the act of playing a game of knucklebones, their hands ready to throw the gaming pieces. But it’s easy to trace the Comtesse’s “passion for beautiful things” throughout the rest of the Villa: just look downstairs in Athenian Vases (Gallery 103) for the massive dinos, made for mixing wine, its rim decorated with black seas lapping at ships with unfurled sails. In the Roman Treasury (Gallery 216), you can see a fantastic amethyst carved with a head of Apollo, with the losses in the stone mended in gold. And finally, a graceful Roman beaker made entirely from gold, reportedly bought by the Comtesse for its weight in gold coins from sponge-divers at Cape Krio during one of her trips on her yacht Nirvana. (Her taste is evident at the Getty Center as well, where a painting once in her collection by Titian hangs in gallery N205.)