Sex, Satyrs and Scandal: An Afternoon at the Getty Villa

By Tucker Neel

First published in The L.A. Alternative Press, Vol. 5, March 03, 2006, 8

photo by Tucker Neel

I’m a sucker for classical Greco-Roman art. Who doesn’t love ogling naked youth, elegantly preserved in stone, clay, metal and glass? Add in some good old-fashioned drama and you’ve got me hooked. Such is the sexy and sordid state of affairs at the newly renovated Getty Villa in Malibu.


photo by Tucker Neel

Former Getty curator Marion True is currently awaiting trial in Italy on allegations that she knowingly procured looted Italian artifacts from unsavory dealers. She denies these allegations, but the museum has handed over the disputed artifacts to the Italian government for further investigation. Notable scholars, governmental authorities, and the Getty’s own director Michael Brand have called into question the authenticity and provenance of more than 50 of the over 40,000 artifacts in the Getty’s antiquities collection. What’s more, Barbara Fleischman, wife of deceased antiquities collector Lawrence Fleischman, recently removed herself from the Getty’s board of directors amid controversy over her financial relationship with True and allegations that she and her husband donated and sold plundered artifacts to the Getty.

The museum itself is a marvel, however, despite these scandalous circumstances. Maybe it was the perfect weather, my willingness to hop on the Villa’s “Pirates of the Mediterranean” ride, or simply my fondness for depictions of sensuous muscles and sleeping satyrs, but I found the newly renovated museum endearing as well as visually and mentally stimulating.

To actually get to the Villa one must endure a few Sisyphean challenges. First of all, reservations are required and tickets are booked until July. So either plan to call the Getty to see if same day tickets are available, or, if you want to play dirty, simply find a “friend” who has made reservations, steal his or her identity, and head on out to Malibu. But be prepared to shell out seven bucks in cash for parking. Consider this a trifle because the museum itself is free.

Once inside, you are faced with the results of a nine-year, $275 million facelift. Machado and Silvetti Associates and SPF:architects have reconfigured and refurbished J. Paul Getty’s old Villa, which itself sought to imitate the Villa dei Papiri, an ancient Roman home in Pompeii. The current renovation upgrades the entire space to more accurately reflect the “original” Roman estate. The architects have overhauled security features, reoriented the gardens, redesigned the tile work (a particularly awe-inspiring element), and added a cafe, gift shop, offices, learning and research spaces, an outdoor theater and many other improvements.

While I usually don’t go for museum tours as they tend to make one feel more bovine than human, I did enjoy the Getty orientation tour and I recommend it to anyone interested in the museum’s architecture. If you are as fortunate as I was, you will stumble upon a guide who has taken a personal tour of the Villa with the architects themselves. Asked which part of the renovation he likes best, my tour guide, Patrick, told me he appreciates the addition of the outdoor Grecian style theater. “Its perfect for L.A. This city is all about entertainment,” he says with a triumphant smile. The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater (yep, the same Fleischmans mentioned above), faces the Museum and puts it on stage, making it both actor and backdrop for the Getty’s series of outdoor performances.


photo by Tucker Neel

Upon entering the Atrium, the first room in the Villa, I was struck by the compluvium, a skylight opening to the crystal clear heavens above. It’s closed when it rains which is a shame because I’m sure it would be quite a sight to see the raindrops falling into the impluvium, a small basin in the floor below. The Inner Peristyle, an open courtyard in the center of the museum, contains an enchanting fountain orbited by reproductions of five female statues originally found in the Villa dei Papiri. One statue is missing because, according to Patrick, “They can’t find it. But they’re having it remade”-an apt decision for this, a museum remade to look like a re-imagined Roman home. Continuing into the East Garden at the back of the house, my jaw dropped at the sight of a polychromatic mosaic fountain which itself was worth the trip to Malibu.

After perusing the reproductions of gorgeous nude athletes, Gods, and satyrs in the Outer Peristyle gardens, I surreptitiously ran my fingers over the exquisite trompe l’oeil paintings ringing the walls of the portico. These luscious, almost ostentatious, walls need some dirtying up. Seriously, the cleanliness and newness of the entire Villa is eerie. So much so that any intrusion of the “present day,” like a plastic yellow cone warning a careless visitor not to slip and fall (and sue), jolts one back into the 21st Century, the equivalent of art-historical whiplash.


photo by Tucker Neel

It takes more than two hours to really see the entire collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts housed in the museum. While I might debate the curatorial decision to divide the museum up into theme rooms, each containing didactic displays about various aspects of ancient life, it’s nevertheless heartening that the overall cohesiveness of the collection has been brought into the light with more windows, better display features and accessible and informative texts.

photo by Tucker Neel

During your visit make sure to glance behind every terracotta vessel, because this is where they hide the naughty stuff. I spent many painful minutes standing on my tiptoes, pressing my face into a 90-degree angle of glass and wall with hopes of glimpsing hidden fornication. Why they don’t just put mirrors in these display cases is beyond me. I guess when Aunt Mabel jaunts up to the Villa on a Sunday after church the last thing she wants to see is her own reflection as she stares at a chorus line of erect penises. Well, for those of us who revel in the libidinal, here are a few places to look.

In the “Men in Antiquity Room” hop on someone’s shoulders to see the back of the “Wine Cup Fragment With a Drunk Man” and in the “Athletes and Competition” room allow your face to become intimate with the wall and look behind the bowls and cups in the “Athletes Cleansing” display case. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

For those of you burdened with children, take them to the “Family Forum” room where they can draw cute pictures on vases and perform for you with swords, shields and helmets in a somewhat disturbing shadow theater. They’ll love it and when they’ve puttered out you can head to the “Luxury Vessels” room, a temple to opulence, with diverse collections of marble from around the world and Tiffany-like display cases containing ornately decorated silver. Also, the current exhibition, “Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity,” delivers breathtaking rainbow-patterned perfume bottles, and is a must-see for those interested in the decorative arts-or anyone who loves the ceiling of the Bellagio hotel in Vegas. I particularly enjoyed the “Prehistoric and Bronze Age Arts” room, whose collection of Minoan statuary is a refreshing contrast to the idealized classical figures, battle scenes, and “in situ” installations prevalent throughout the museum.

Just before the Villa closed and the guards kicked me out, I took a second to inhale the picture perfect view of the Pacific Ocean from the top floor overlooking the Outer Peristyle gardens. I found myself caught in a moment of total enchantment.

What happened here? Had I been duped? Was I going to totally ignore the constructed nature of this Villa in Malibu, the questionable artifacts, and the alleged curatorial improprieties? Certainly not. These problems still persist. But I did smile, reassured that this, the only museum dedicated to Roman, Greek, and Etruscan art in America, is, after nearly a decade, open to the public once again. Despite all the scandal it will surely please countless visitors who yearn for an escape from the traffic and daily grind of Los Angeles, providing the constant simulacra and suspended disbelief that we Angelenos hold so dear.

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