Monday, July 1, 2013

Escape the heat and get away

Seaside resorts, with their climate tempered by ocean breezes, have been popular with the elite as early as the 18th century, when the French Riviera became fashionable.

And why not? A temperate climate, tropical gardens, the blue sea and picturesque ancient Roman ruins made it a great place to relax when the weather heats up.

Here in Southern California, our own coastline mimics the Mediterranean - in climate, of course, but also visually. Our early 20th century real estate developers created communities that mimicked the picturesque seaside resort towns and villages of Southern France and Italy. Castellammare, in Pacific Palisades, was an Italian-themed development that attracted Hollywood superstars like John Barrymore, Joseph Cotten, and Thelma Todd.

It also attracted millionaires who weren't celebrities, and in 1954, wealthy oil man J. Paul Getty bought some 60 acres just up from the beach so he could build a proper gallery to house his growing collection of ancient Greek and Roman art.

He designed the place after the Villa di Papyri at Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town that was destroyed, along with its neighboring town Pompeii, by the A.D. 79 eruption of the volcano at Mt. Vesuvius.

When we moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, the Getty Villa Museum was closed for renovations, and embroiled in a contentious dispute with its Castellammare neighbors. It finally opened in 2006 - a jewel of a museum nestled amid Roman-style gardens, operating under a strict and rigid Conditional Use Permit that makes the "Visit Us" page of its website read like the rule book of a boarding school.

Is it this formidable reputation that made us avoid visiting the place for so many years? It's our loss - and we redeemed ourselves this weekend. The Getty Villa is a the perfect place to escape the heat on a gorgeous summer day in Los Angeles.

Admission is free, although you have to get a reservation for a pre-determined arrival time. This is easy with their on-line ticketing system - on Saturday morning we easily made reservations for Sunday afternoon. Parking is a whopping $15 per car, but the free admission makes up for it.

To mollify the neighbors, the Getty Villa's visiting rules are rigid - you may only arrive by car or by public transportation - walk-ins are only admitted if the Metro bus driver has stamped your ticket. No walk-ins allowed, to eliminate visitor parking on the nearby streets. You can only drive onto the property from the northbound lanes of Pacific Coast Highway, making Topangans like us have to U-turn and double back.

You present your papers to a phalanx of guards on arrival, but once through the arched gates, the place welcomes you. We parked in a structure nestled into the hillside, then came out into a garden that overlooked the sea.

The villa itself is exquisite, its Outer Peristyle a gracious arcade, cooled with ocean breezes, where visitors can sit on comfortable benches and enjoy the garden. The walls are painted with murals that include Roman designs and trompe l'oeil garlands of flowers, with charmingly realistic depictions of birds and insects.

Beyond the Outer garden, the villa with its galleries enclosed an Inner Peristyle courtyard - yet another pretty space to sit and contemplate.

Standing in the doorway of the villa, you could feel the gentle ocean breeze funnel through - a testament to the wisdom of its design.

The collection is displayed in small rooms that open off the Inner Peristyle, so that viewers move through the classically-inspired architecture as they enjoy the art. The classical aesthetic imbues the whole experience - you may view an ancient marble sculpture behind a glass case, and then wander into a Pompeiian atrium flanked by bronze gods or satyrs, then pass the trickling fountain of the sunken garden, through a tiled arcade.

The collection is awesome. Just being close to these ancient marble artifacts and seeing the artistry that shaped them is amazing.
Venus statue, marble, Roman A.D. 100 - 200
To think that someone carved this statue of Aphrodite over 1900 years ago.

Fresco, Roman, A.D 100 - 200
Or that this mural once graced the walls of a home destroyed by a volcano thousands of years ago?

Victorious Youth, bronze, Greek ,300 - 100 BC
Or that this bronze statue languished beneath the sea until its discovery two thousand years later?

One of the pieces I loved the most, though, was this early Bronze Age figure from 2800 B.C. in ancient Anatolia, or present-day Turkey. A teardrop shape, with three simple cuts to make it alive - elemental. Yet it nevertheless depicts human femininity as compelling and alive as the contoured and coiffed Roman Venus from two thousand years later, above.

These wonderful pieces make you think about the way human beings have been compelled to recreate the human form since the day we learned to take a burnt stick and scrawl figures on flat rocks or smoothed sand.

What better thing to do, on a hot summer day in the modern megalopolis of Los Angeles, than to contemplate the origins of human art?

The hummus plate at the cafe ain't bad, either.


Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Thanks for the tour! Looks so lovely. Add it to my every growing LA list!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

What a beautiful place! I can imagine spending many hours there.

shrink on the couch said...

I've heard this is a stunning place, both architecturally and artistically. Like the Biltmore Mansion in NC this is the kind of place that produces so much ambivalence. On the one hand, ridiculous wealth of the .001%; on the other hand, amazing feats of architecture and landscaping that we would not experience otherwise.

smalltownme said...

So beautiful! I visited there for the first time last fall (when I saw you too!).

Glennis said...

One of the nice things about it is that it is free admission. Yes, you have to pay for parking, but if you come on the bus it's totally free. The other Getty Museum is the same. I guess even though they were .001% 'ers, at least they make their collections accessible to almost anyone.