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Judith Hoffberg


The Getty Villa means a great deal to me, since I knew it almost fifty years ago when its predecessor and I were much younger.  I had met the then chief curator and acting director, Ann Jones, in Florence, Italy in 1956, where she was on a Fulbright to study the decorative wood inlays of certain 14th Century choir stalls.  We met in the police station, where we were both re-applying for our "soggiorno," the document which would give us permission to stay in Florence as a foreigner for an extended period of time.  It required a great deal of time spent waiting and then many rubber stamps to make it all official.  The paper was so large that even folded up it reminded me of California absentee ballots, which were huge poster-sized documents that we had to carry with us at all times--just in case.  Having spoken Italian for several months without the luxury of knowing someone who spoke English, I had learned a great deal of the language; but poor Ann was a bit tongue-tied.  We became fast friends from that day onward, and shared trips to Assisi, as we had become enamored of St. Francis of Assisi, his life and his influence on culture.  When I returned to the States, Ann was waiting to meet up in Malibu whenever I wanted to visit.

The Getty Ranch was a sixty-four acre piece of property that J. Paul Getty had bought in 1943, then opened in 1954 as a small museum.  It included the house, which Getty had never occupied.  The place was overseen by Slim, the caretaker, and his family.  There were avocados and oranges, which were sold at times because of the large crop; four bears named after art history professors at UCLA; deer, goats, dogs and a pet cemetery which, being on a promontory overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway, had the finest view of the sea.  There were no other houses around the four acres.  I would sit among the sycamores reading Dante’s “Inferno” for my Master’s exam while delighting in my own Paradise.

Artist unknown, “Faustina the Elder,”
Roman, from Asia Minor (present-day
Turkey), A.D. 140 – 160, marble, H: 82 5/16”.
I had the rare privilege of getting to know the collection quite well, from the cassone top over Ann’s desk which was painted to signify "Chastity" in the Renaissance style, to Marie Antoinette’s small table, to the his-and-her desk in French marquetry that was the gem among the French furniture at the ranch.  At the top of the stairs in the museum was a bust of Mr. Getty, to which we paid homage as we arrived on the landing by patting his head.  There were the Roman mosaic floors and the marble of Antonius Pius’ wife Faustina, the grande dame of her day, looking over the rest of the sculpture, since she was so tall and stately.  Sometimes I left the museum and walked around the grounds, saying hello especially to "Dr. With," one of the bears that was named in honor of a professor of mine whose whose gray eminence was evoked by the creature.  Sometimes I walked to the pet cemetery to view the ocean.  The museum was opened three times a week by appointment.  It was a "boutique museum" in the current vernacular, and it was precious, rare and out of the way.

And then, in 1974, the Getty Villa was no longer a ranch, but modeled after the Villa dei Papiri, an ancient Roman country house at Herculaneum that had been destroyed in the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, and excavated during the 1730s.  Stephen Garrett, formerly the consulting architect to Getty during construction, became the new director.  The opening night was a stellar event with all kinds of guests from all over the world.  Mrs. Garrett (famous for her recipe for carrot cake in the café) catered the sit-down dinner and my old friend, Ann Jones, was there.  No longer with the Getty, she was now a professor (first at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, then at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California) as well as an artist.  She looked for Faustina, and remembered the small buildings and the wide spaces, no longer there.  Here was Getty’s collection of paintings with classical themes, the Roman and Greek sculptures, and the French furniture too.  And for over 20 years, the Getty Villa served as the only location of the J. Paul Getty Museum, until the opening of the Getty Center in 1997.  The Villa promptly was closed for extensive renovation and expansion, both projects undertaken for the sum of approximately a staggering $1.3 billion.  After Getty’s death in 1976, much of his personal estate passed to the J. Paul Getty Trust which, following years of legal wrangling with family heirs, was and remains the world’s richest.

The Villa reopened this year, redesigned by Machado and Silvetti Associates, along with SPF: architects, and the design fuses contemporary elements with architecture from the ancient world, returning the Villa to its classical roots, housing only classical art.  The entrance, still with ancient Roman cobblestones, leads to a parking garage that allows you to see the whole Villa from on high.  With new floors, new skylights and windows on the second floor, newly painted murals, a replanted terraced garden, the Villa is a new experience.  The feeling of a vital link with the fascinating and enticing achievements of the past has been enhanced.

Inside the museum is a new glass collection, the galleries are now organized by theme rather than by chronology, and there is a major focus on public programming.  The Villa has the latter up and running with a series of classical drama and contemporary interpretations of ancient works in the new 450-seat outdoor classical theater, inspired by ancient prototypes, and fit discreetly into the natural slope.  There is also a 250-seat auditorium that is spacious and beautiful.

The Outer Peristyle garden has been completely replanted, now no longer a "green" garden with only acanthus and laurel, but with roses and other flowers.  An additional 1,200 trees including cypress, cedar, oak, sycamore and olive have been added to the 1,500 already on the grounds, plus 100,000 new shrubs, flowers, plants and groundcover, featuring a mix of Mediterranean and native California varieties.  The quiet of the original ranch still pervades the grounds, making any visitor feel removed from L.A.’s urban hubbub.  The decorated walls of the Outer Peristyle, painted by mural artist Garth Benton 30 years ago, have been repainted by the same artist in the same trompe l’oeil style.  But it feels more deliciously exotic and even dazzling.

The East Garden still retains its mosaic fountain, trees have been replanted, and it is mecca for a quiet respite.  This ingoing and outgoing makes for a different kind of rhythm than most museums, and it allows you to reflect on the total experience of the Villa.  One can hear the sound of wind through the trees, or the sound of water from the fountain, and you know you have been transformed.  And you know the number of the gallery in which you stand by the Roman numerals inlaid on the floor.  There is a marvelous staircase in the Villa that divides the first and second floor--a double staircase which seems to hang in suspension.  I was told that it took a crew to set the staircase in place, and I marvel at it each time I see it.

Out of public view, but essential to the Villa’s role as a serious research center, are quarters for Villa Scholars, a Research Library focused on antiquity for use by scholars, state-of-the-art conservation laboratories, and facilities for the new UCLA/Getty Master’s Program on the Conservation of Ethnographic and Archaeological Materials.  

I remember the old ranch house and the skeletal quarters for guests.  Pietro Annigoni, the reactionary portrait painter of Florence, came to finish a portrait of Getty in Malibu, as did the oil baron’s biographer.  They were provided a kind of monastic cell for their residence.  If they wanted to eat anything, they would have to go down to Pacific Coast Highway and a restaurant across the road for food. Nothing so spartan anymore, for scholars and employees are provided with more than adequate rooms and food services.  The public restaurant has seats for 365 people, and the food is remarkable.
Images in and around the
redesigned Getty Villa, Machado
and Silvetti Associates
and SPF: architects.
All images courtesy the
J. Paul Getty Foundation.

View of the Villa from the
path leading to the Museum.

Front entrance atrium and skylight.

The Barbara and Lawrence
Fleischman Theater seats 450.

View of the Herb Garden.

The Outer Peristyle.

The East Garden.

The perfection of this Villa is now complete, since it really houses what it was intended to house--a classical ambience for classical art, accompanied by the scholars and conservators who can study the work and become the future experts in this field.

If I am gushing, for all of the recent scandal surrounding the Trust, the Getty has finally done something very well.  The Villa has come into its own.  Between the high-tech equipment for information and visuals, as well as a daily schedule and many volunteers and employees to answer any and all questions, well, this is a joy to behold.  Just before you enter the parking garage to leave, you’ll see a field of yellow flowers on the roof of the parking structure itself--now there’s a touch that you won’t see everywhere!