Sunday, August 10, 2014

Travelogue: Getty Villa

Where: Getty Villa, Los Angeles
When: Saturday, July 26, 2014


Don't get me wrong, I love museums. I'd visit the Getty any day, just 'cause. But when I discovered they were having a special exhibition on Byzantine art running through the summer (ends on August 25th), I was determined to go see it. After all, my Three Floating Coffins novel ostensibly takes place in a fantasy version of Byzantine Greece. This could be "research."

But before I could research Byzantium, first I had to research The Getty.  The art collection started by J. Paul Getty is so big it needs two separate complexes to house it: The Getty Center and The Getty Villa. Both museums are free, but charge $15 parking per car. The Getty Villa also requires tickets. These are free. You can reserve them online and print them at home, which is what I did.

I invited fellow writers Debra and Michelle, but Michelle had an Alaska trip (grr!!!), so her friend Ken stepped in. My aunt made up the fourth member of our party. On Friday, I baked butterscotch chip cookies and packed water bottles. At 8:00 AM Saturday morning, we crowded into the Ken's car and braved the LA highways in our quest for art.  

(Please Note: I'm not an expert on anything. I'm just a curious soul listening to tour guides, reading signs, and making up conjunctures in my head.)


In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius exploded. That day, the city of Pompei was in the middle of celebrating a feast to Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanos. Well, they must have offended him pretty badly, for he showered the city with ash, killing everyone inside, but perfectly preserving their homes. The neighboring city of Herculaneum met a similar fate the very next day.

It's this second, less famous (but equally smothered) city that J. Paul Getty went poking around in when he decided that his red-roofed ranch house was no longer suitable for his growing art collection. He dug up a Roman manor called Villa dei Pampiri but decided that excavating it was too much hassle. Instead, he recreated it best he could in the hills of Malibu. The museum and garden is sunken, so as to represent the excavation site. Striped gray stone resemble the original layers the archeologists had to dig through in order to find the villa.

Not that I notice. It's just after 10:00, and I'm at the cafe, drinking coffee, skimming through pamphlets and trying to decide which tour to go on. I've come for the Byzantine art, but it's my first time at the Getty, and there's no reason not to soak up as much as possible. My aunt and I decide to go on a garden tour. Ken wants to go on a tour of the Main Collection and Debra decides to browse. We will meet for lunch at 12:00.

The garden tour begins at 11:00. That gives me a good hour to kill.

The entrance is decorated with the white Corinthian columns and red-tiled roof one might expect from a Roman Villa. Less expected, but more interesting are the painted ceilings: red roses, yellow daisies, and white lilies floating within a pale blue circle. These pastel colors and painted ceilings will become a theme. The so-called "dining room" has cornucopias and grapes, while the ordinary walkways boast blue panels with yellow flowers.
Corinthian Columns and Yellow Flowered Ceiling
I step inside. My map informs me that this is the atrium, the main public room in a Roman house. A man informs me that food and drinks are strictly prohibited. I stare at the black and white mosaic floors and the lion heads surrounding a skylight, or compluvium, as my map calls it. There's an impluvium, or sunken fountain, just underneath the skylight, to collect rainwater. On an ordinary day, the sound of trickling would soothe a tourist. Except that California's in the middle of a drought and the fountain's been drained to conserve water. Still, the black statues at each corner of the basin are kind of cool.

I had planned to stride from room to room, as leisurely as any Roman Emperor, but unfortunately, my time is cut short when my camera dies and I have to beg my aunt's phone as a replacement. I glance at a few displays, while furtively checking my cell phone clock every few minutes.

Creepy Bust of a Young Girl
There's a creepy bust of a young girl. Her skin and hair are waxy black, and her thin tight curls remind me of pencil shavings, too fine and rigid to ever have been hair. Her eyes are white and inlaid with glass. They stare out in horror, as though her soul has been cursed to reside forever in this prison.

It's cool.


So I'm a bit of a mess. I've come as a scholar, and I'm trying to juggle a yellow notepad, a pen, a camera phone, and a portable listening device. The little green box clips to my pants. A plug-in earpiece amplifies the voice of the tour guide, so she doesn't have to shout and we don't have to crowd around her. 

California has a Mediterranean climate, she tells us, which means that plants that grow in Greece and Italy, will grow just as well here. As we walk through the herb garden, she  proceeds to throw out the names of the trees: olive, fig, plum, pomegranate, peach, pear, and citron. (The citrone currently looks like an avocado and smells like a cucumber but will one day resemble an orange and lemon mix.) I'd like her to tell us more than just names. I know that olives were sacred to the goddess Athena and important as a food and fuel source, and I know that pomegranates played an important role in the myth of Persepone's abduction. I'd like to hear stories like that.

Carp pool in herb garden
But no, we whip through the herb garden, faster than I can scribble notes. We pass a sad plot of dried-out wheat and patches of marjoram, thyme, oregano, and lavender. There are trellises of fat, tempting Cabernet grapes. The guide tells us she sampled some, and they were sour. She plucks a green fuzzy leaf called Lamb's Ear and lets us rub the fuzz between our fingers. Romans use to pack these with salve and stick them on wounds--the band-aids of their day, I imagine.

The Romans were big on mastering nature and imposing order on the world, which is how they got such roads and aqueducts. They were equally strict on their gardens. The herb garden is a grid of rectangles, three rows wide, with fountains in the middle, for beauty and irrigation. (Some even have been allowed to keep their water. Makes it easier for the carp.) For such a practical thing as a herb garden, I don't mind. But as we come to the vast Outer Peristyle, the "show-off garden," I find the order a bit tiresome. 

Outer Peristyle Fountain
A wealthy Roman would bring his guests to the Outer Peristyle, for pleasant walks and conversation. On one side of the path lies a long pool with statues sunbathing along the edges. On the other side sits busts of famous philosophers and great men--a conversation piece that the host could use to show off his knowledge. They'd pass under grape trellises and around blocks of carefully manicured flowers, hedges, and bay trees. 

This is what we do, minus (in my case) the leisure and pleasant conversation. I'm trying to take pictures on the phone and getting annoyed with having to re-type my aunt's password every few minutes. We go up the right side of the pool and keep going straight to the Inner Peristyle, leaving the whole left side unexplored. Not that it matters. Custom dictates gardens must be symmetrical, one side mirroring the other

The smaller, more private Inner Peristyle, strikes me as more interesting, for a couple reason. First, one of the creepy black fountain maidens has been stolen, ruining the perfect symmetry. Second, several birds chirp and dart about the four perfectly round trees that stand at each corner. This adds charm and surprise that the grander garden lacked.

Mosaic in East Garden
Last is the small East Garden, for family use only. I don't notice any relentless symmetry, because I'm too busy staring at a colorful mosaic arch with twin white masks on either side. Then the guide casually mentions the strawberry tree, and I'm all over it. It's the most peculiar-looking fruit I've seen: yellow-orange puffballs that remind me of Nerf toys. The guide says it's edible and, if enough sugar is added, can pass for a decent jam. I wonder if modern strawberries were domesticated from these paltry fruits.

Fruit of a Strawberry Tree

It's noon. Time to meet up with Ken and Debra and exchange notes.

I'm tired of the juggling act. Thus far, I've barely even stepped foot in the museum itself.  I'm resolved. After lunch, I'm going straight to the Byzantine exhibition, no more tours, no more delays. It's time to focus on why I came here.

Peasant's bread and pizza
We eat outdoors and the waiter brings our food. I dine on a thick, chewy peasant's bread with an apricot-peach spread. It's the kind of thing I imagine a Roman might eat. But I'm pretty sure they wouldn't eat my Margherita pizza, if for no reason than tomatoes came to Italy from the New World.


Rome fell. That's what the historians say. Problem is, the people living at the time didn't realize this. Emperor Constantine thought that by moving the capital to the city of Byzantium (present day Istanbul, Turkey), he was ensuring Rome's continuation, not starting a whole new Empire.

When I step foot into the Byzantine exhibition (no pictures allowed!), I see signs of this transition. The room is painted in bright classical blues with white accents. I see Romanesque busts and inlaid chests of Bellerophon slaying the chimera. The plaque I read explains that between 4th-6th centuries a hybrid of pagan-Christian beliefs permeated the culture.

Roman Bust.
This hybridization is best displayed by a plain marble slab chiseled with leaves and a flower: the gravestone of Athenodora. "The earth received and now owns this young mother, while her children crave for milk," the inscription sadly states. A cross before her name indicates she was Christian but her name ("lover of Athena") and her education were pagan.

By the next room, I'm definitely in Byzantine territory. The walls are red with dark brown panelling. The first thing I see is a photograph of the insides of the Monastery of Hosios Loukas (1000-1025 AD), tall enough to take up most of the wall. Domes painted with religious imagery spark my imagination.
Icon of St. Michael. From sign.
When people think of the Byzantine art, they think of two things: icons and mosiacs. A portrait of the Virgin Mary and child combines both. Bits dull blue glass make up her robe, peach rock chips her face, and gold-plated tesserae her halo. Time has cracked the mosaic, splitting the mother's face and the child's hand. I can see the red wood underneath, where the tiles were laid.

Another icon shows a red-clothed Virgin Mary gazing at the angel in the corner with a "grief-stricken visage," as though suddenly overcome with a premonition of her boy's death. Meanwhile the tiny, odd-looking Christ baby makes a peace sign. On a communal cloth, an older Christ holds an urn while two silver seraphim stand as guard. (These seraphim are literally nothing but interlocking wings.) This is an example of a woven icon. Down the hall good old Bellerophon has been replaced by a curly-headed Saint George who slew dragon in place of a chimera.

I see jewelry and chandeliers and tiled bathing floors and many more things. I cannot write down everything, but I feel satisfied. My goal was to see the exhibition and now I have: a fleeting glimpse of life in another age.

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