Getty Villa at 50: How One Man Manifested His Roman Empire Obsession on the California Coast

The 20th century industrial titan used his vast wealth to recreate a Roman country estate filled with ancient antiquities, which he shared with the public.

Courtesy of the Getty Villa

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Tucked away in the hills above the constant hum of a winding coastal Highway 1 north of Santa Monica, California, a symbol of one man’s obsession with the Roman Empire is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Built in the iconic architectural style of patrician country villas once all the rage in ancient Rome, the Getty Villa Museum opened to the public in 1974. But its benefactor would never see it himself.

Grounds at the Getty Villa (Courtesy of the Getty Villa)

J. Paul Getty, the early 20th century industrial titan whose shrewd business acumen amassed a fortune that fed a lifetime passion for antiquity and art, became fascinated by the ancient Mediterranean world during a visit to Herculaneum and Pompeii at the age of 19.

He spent a lifetime, and considerable fortune, collecting a vast array of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and Etruscan antiquities, many of which he stored at his 64-acre California Ranch House, which he bought in 1945. In 1954, he opened parts of the house to the public and established the J. Paul Getty Museum. Getty viewed art as a civilizing influence in society and believed in making it available to the public for both enjoyment and education. By the 1960s, his burgeoning collection was badly in need of a more spacious permanent home.

Getty decided to build a larger structure on the property as the ideal setting for his priceless collection of 44,000 antiques, marble sculptures, and objets d’art. Ground was broken in 1970 for the Getty Villa, a museum based on the Villa dei Papyri, a luxurious first-century Roman Empire country estate in Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples, destroyed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. (The Getty Villa shouldn’t be confused with the much larger Getty Center, a sweeping art museum built by the Getty Trust that opened in 1997.)

J. Paul Getting observing the Getty model (Courtesy of the Getty Villa)

In contemplating the recreation of ancient Rome in the new world, Getty wanted visitors to feel as if they had been invited into an intimate first-century setting to view and enjoy the ancient antiquities, in a space complete with intricate mosaic tile floors, highly decorated ceilings, and colorful “Pompeii red” trompe l’oeil walls and frescoes.

Trompe l’oeil painting and window (Photo courtesy of Claudia Laroye)

The Getty Villa was built according to the Vitruvian principles so favored by Roman nobility, where a building’s stability, quality, and beauty should “delight and raise the spirit.” One cannot wander the long corridors and manicured grounds and gardens, including the 320-foot-long pool bookended by two satyrs, without sensing the exquisite detail and architectural symmetry of the Villa.

The Villa gardens (Photo courtesy of Claudia Laroye)

More than 1,300 items are on view in 27 galleries devoted to the permanent collection and organized to follow the historical development of classical art from the Neolithic Period through the late Roman Empire (ca. 3000 B.C. – A.D. 600). The Villa’s four gardens and grounds are planted with species known and used in the ancient Mediterranean world, creating lush and fragrant places to sit or stroll.

The Villa opened in 1974, but sadly, Getty never saw his completed museum; he died two years later, in 1976. Critics called it a “highbrow Disneyland,” simultaneously a compliment and a put-down, perhaps finding this ode to antiquity an outlier in the land of sand, surf, and sunshine. But the criticisms did not impact the Villa’s popularity with the public, either then or today.

Kenneth Lapatin, the Villa’s Curator of Antiquities for more than two decades, likens a visit to the Villa and its precise replication of the architecture of the Villa dei Papyri as a wonderful form of time-travel, one “far superior to a digital or virtual reality experience.”

Crouching Venus from the first century (Photo courtesy of Claudia Laroye)

As an archaeologist, Lapatin finds joy in the collection of prehistoric, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman artifacts. His own favorite objects include a tiny amethyst gemstone carved with a portrait of the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes, signed by the artist who created it, Dioskourides, who ancient writers credit with engraving the sealstone of the emperor Augustus.

“Augustus’s seal is lost, but this small intaglio is vivid testimony to the skill of the best ancient artists,” he notes. It is certainly to the museum’s (and the Getty Trust’s) credit that access to such tangible manifestations of human artistry and ingenuity are free and available to the public, fueling our continuing Roman Empire obsession in the 21st century.

First century floor mosaic with Medusa (Photo courtesy of Clauda Laroye)

Getty Villa is busier than ever and celebrating its 50th anniversary in styles both classical and modern. As part of its golden jubilee, the museum is offering daily 45-minute tours delving into the artworks on display at the Getty Villa. The museum also continues to serve Jean Garrett’s famous carrot cake, a beloved, timeless menu item at the Villa café. And for those wishing to really get into the groove of auditory time travel, there’s a curated Spotify playlist with 50 songs from 1974.

J. Paul Getty never saw the full realization of his Roman Empire dream. But his legacy endures, ensuring that this wonderful oasis of calm and its beautiful relics of the ancient world remain accessible to the public on the magnificent sun-kissed coast of the golden state.

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  1. Thank you for this article about the Getty. The villa was one of my favorite get-away places while I lived in SoCal around 1980. I always made sure to take my visitors there, too. Plus, at the time I worked for Langdon&Wilson, the architectural firm that built the villa.

    In my den I have a framed poster of the reflecting pool side of the house. I’ve always been a bit afraid that with the new mega-museum, the house would be neglected. So glad it’s still being appreciated.

    You brought a smile to my face today.

  2. I remember going to the Getty Villa 30 years ago when you had to have special permission to arrive by public transportation. Is similar classist discrimination discrimination still in place?


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