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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

Getty Villa by the Sea

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

June 30, 2021

After revisiting the Getty Center about a month ago, I visited another location of the the J. Paul Getty Museum—the Getty Villa. The most immediate difference between these two locations is their geography: the former is on a hilltop, while the latter is at the seaside. Like their settings, their collections are completely different. While the Getty Center is a comprehensive museum experience, displaying art as modern as photography and as old as antiquities, the Getty Villa is a portal to the ancient world of Romans, Greeks, and Etruscans.

Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, we made a turn entering a narrow cobblestone path through a small gate. Although this entrance seems to pale in comparison with the grand Roman villa inside, I found it rather clever. It reminds me of a layout technique in Chinese gardening where sceneries follow each other in a winding path, obstructing the spectator from seeing the entire garden at once. The Villa may not have been designed with this idea in mind, as it is a recreation of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy, (see more in Context section), but it certainly stands in unique contrast with the gardens at Versailles.

Figure 1: Photo taken by me of the entrance of the Getty Villa

An imposing and modern structure made of wood planks and textured rock greets us upon arrival (figure 1). We took the stairs up and followed a zigzagging bridge walled by vines, flowers, and dense trees. During this time, I caught a glimpse of a pond covered in floating vegetation in a section of the garden to be renovated (figure 2), and I anticipate its completion.

Figure 2: Photo taken by me of pond under reconstruction


Visiting the Getty Villa was the first time in a long time when I found myself in mostly unfamiliar territory. I hope that when I return in the future, I will have more background and analysis, but for now, I write of my pure observations. Both of the Getty Museums emphasize the relation between their collections and their architecture. However, the Getty Villa is unique in its ability to create harmony through the juxtaposition of Roman and modern architectural styles, bridging a gap of over two millenniums.

Figure 3: Photo taken by me of view towards the ocean from the top of the entrance

Red of the roof's terracotta tiles balances with greens of the surrounding trees, and beige is echoed in the foreground and in the distance. Every plant as noticeable as cypress trees and as intricate as flowers on the sidewalk is designed and coordinated to make this replica look like its Roman original. The picturesque landscape before me is similar to a piece I saw at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bordighera by Monet (figure 4). The shimmering sea to the distance, as if the Pacific Ocean was the Gulf of Naples, the creamy color of the architecture, and the haze of sunlight which creates an ultramarine double image, makes Getty Villa an enchanting location.

Figure 4: Bordighera, 1884, Claude Monet

In the series of three photos below, I captured the contrast between organic and linear forms and strong diagonal compositions that the architecture create. I think good architecture or design in a broader sense create excellent photographs at any angle.

Figure 5: Photo taken by me of the entrance structure

Figure 6: Photo taken by me of the Greek theater

Although the day of my visit was not the busiest, it was certainly not a solitary experience. As I walk along the courtyards and rested on the benches (figure 7), I would imagine myself lounging there with a good book in hand. I would also imagine how J. Paul Getty felt when he walked through these halls, and even how the owner of the Villa dei Papiri felt as they looked towards the sea.

Figure 7: Picture taken by me of the view

The infinite details of the mosaic fountain, the frescos on ceilings and walls, the marble tiling, are a feast for the eyes (figure 8). They are the marriage of geometry and symmetry with art.

Figure 8: Photo taken by me of mosaic fountain (left) and transitional structure (right)

Figure 9: Photo taken by me of lily pond and staircase

Here, I find that the fresco creates a space that sinks into the wall like a shelf housing two naturalistically painted vases (figure 10). This illusionary effect extends the space of the hallway, combining the depth outside the window with the the perceived depth of the wall.

Figure 10: Photo taken by me of the different window designs


Villa dei Papiri was one of the most luxurious Roman houses, located in Herculaneum (modern day Ercolano, Italy). Like many of the well preserved works we have today, it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 BC (which also destroyed Pompeii). The original villa housed masterpieces of bronze statues and a library of literature and philosophy. At the time of Getty Villa's construction in 1972-74, the Villa dei Papiri was not evacuated, and thus the museum we see today is based on a number of different Roman houses.

Figure 11: Photo taken by me of cobblestone path (left) and

Figure 12: Photo taken by me of mosaic

Interesting Finds

The bookstore at the Getty Villa is also rich with titles. They have books on Greek and Roman art as well as entire series of classical plays, literature, and philosophy. As I am writing this article, I noticed a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy with an enjoyable cover illustration (bottom right corner of figure 13).

Figure 13: Photo taken by me of bookstore

Figure 14: From left to right, Seeing The Getty Villa, Electra and Other Plays by Sophocles, Gardens and Plants of the Getty Villa by Patrick Bowe and Michael D. Dehart, and The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece by Maria Michela Sassi

Seeing The Getty Villa:

A pamphlet of mostly pictures taken of different sections of the villa, a pleasant flip-through experience.

Electra and Other Plays by Sophocles:

Electra complex is a term in Neo-Freudian psychology that I have heard of, and I wonder if this phrase comes from the play by Sophocles. The Greeks are known to have invented theater, so I wanted to begin my inquiry into Greek plays here.

Gardens and Plants of the Getty Villa by Patrick Bowe and Michael D. Dehart:

An extensive collection of all the plants cultured in the Getty Villa, their mythological associations and medical functions. As seen on the cover, pomegranate was the fruit that Persephone ate in the Underworld that began her annual sixth months stay.

The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece by Maria Michela Sassi:

The ancient Greeks are renowned for their philosophy, yet the process they took to get there is a lesser known one.

Visiting the Getty Villa was a entirely novel experience that opened windows and doors for further exploration. Although the Getty Villa is not a convention museum, nor did I spend the day looking for world-renowned paintings, I was challenged to look to another time period in art history. My aspiration for my second visit is be able to identify the various Roman structures and art forms and to look with more contextual understanding.

Works Cited

"Features of Chinese Gardens, Layout of Chinese Gardens." China Travel Agency, Tour with China Highlights - Since 1998!, Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.

"Villa of the Papyri." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 5 Aug. 2004, Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.

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