Getty Villa: An Oasis of Greek Civilization in America

A picture containing building, property, real estate, haciendaDescription automatically generated

Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades / Malibu, California. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Prologue

The modern dream for the Getty Villa caught fire in Herculaneum or Herakleion, a small Greek polis on the outskirts of Neapolis (Naples) and on the lower slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum was part of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece), for several centuries of political and cultural Greece in Italy. Magna Graecia was Southern Italy, including the regions of Calabria, Apulia, Basilicata, Campania, and Sicily.

No less a hero than the Greek superhero Herakles founded Herculaneum. The Greeks and Romans who lived in Herculaneum worshiped Herakles and cultivated Greek learning. They had a large and beautiful library full of Greek books in the form of papyrus rolls.

Epikouros

One of those books included works by the Athenian philosopher Epikouros (Epicurus), 341 – 270 BCE. Epikouros appealed to the founder of the Villa dei Papiri and to those reading the papyri books. He wrote and spoke about pleasure (hedone, hedonism) and peaceful tranquility, happiness (eudaimonia) and the avoidance of pain (aponia). He and his followers lived self-reliant and simple lives.

Epikouros arrived in Athens in 306 BCE from the island of Samos. He was not satisfied with the ideas of Plato, so he developed his own “apolitical” philosophy that went beyond eudaimonia. It made the individual invisible and unnoticed to the authorities. Epikouros did not find any satisfaction with the many Greek gods, though he did not deny their existence and neither did he preach against them.[1] Rather, he accepted the atomic theory of Demokritos (Democritus) and used it to explain the world. Lucretius, a Roman poet of the first century BCE, was so spellbound with Epikouros and his ideas, especially his core teaching of the atoms and the void. He wrote an entire book, On the Nature of the Universe, immortalizing the work of Demokritos and Epikouros. But Lucretius’ hero was Epikouros. He said Epikouros’ genius “outshone the race of men and dimmed them all, as the stars are dimmed by the rising of the fiery sun.”[2]

Vesuvius buries the Villa dei Papiri

In 79 of our era, Vesuvius erupted, and its lava destroyed and covered up Herculaneum and Pompeii nearby. The Getty Villa reports how Italians discovered the Villa dei Papiri:

“The Villa dei Papiri was a sumptuous private residence on the Bay of Naples, just outside the Roman town of Herculaneum. Deeply buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, it was rediscovered in 1750 when well diggers chanced upon its remains. Eighteenth-century excavators battled poisonous gases and underground collapses to extract elaborate floors, frescoes, and sculptures—the largest collection of statuary ever recovered from a single classical building. They also found more than one thousand carbonized papyrus book rolls, which gave the villa its modern Italian name…. The rooms and gardens of the Villa dei Papiri were populated by approximately ninety sculptures in bronze and marble. Busts and full-length statues depicted mythological figures, athletes, rulers, statesmen, poets, and philosophers.”

J. Paul Getty and the Villa dei Papiri

A person in a suit sitting in a chair Description automatically generated with medium confidence

J. Paul Getty. Courtesy Getty Villa.

J. Paul Getty, the American billionaire, “a symbol of oil, wealth and power,” discovered Herculaneum and the Villa of the Papyri early in the twentieth century. He started buying Greek and Roman antiquities in the 1930s. But the Villa of the Papyri impressed him so much he eventually reproduced it in the Pacific Palisades / Malibu, California. It is known as the Getty Villa. The Getty report I cited explains why J. Paul Getty was so much attracted to the Greco-Roman Villa dei Papiri:

“Re-creating the Villa dei Papiri appealed to Getty because of its association with Julius Caesar through his father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the villa’s supposed owner. Getty often compared himself to ancient Roman rulers, writing in his autobiography, “I feel no qualms or reticence about likening the Getty Oil Company to an ‘Empire’—and myself to a Caesar” (As I See It, 1976). He also fancied himself the reincarnation of the emperor Hadrian, a fellow art collector and villa owner. Although Getty, unlike Hadrian, did not live in his villa, his reconstruction was a key component in his attempts to refashion himself from a Midwestern businessman into a European aristocrat.”

However, there’s much more than the glitter of European aristocracy that pushed Getty to the realms of Greek culture. Yes, he imagined his oil company was an empire, but he lived through violent times. America and Europe went through the savage World War I, 1914 – 1918, the dreadful economic depression of the 1930s, and the cataclysm of World War II, 1939 — 1945. Democracies and tyrannies were responsible for that collapse of civilization. Similar changes happened during the late first century BCE when the Romans fought each other for decades, destroying the crude Roman republic and establishing the Roman empire / tyranny. Julius Caesar was a major factor in that violent era. He was involved with the last Greek queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII. He probably was thinking of a union of Rome and Egypt with Cleopatra becoming his wife. That was too much for his enemies in the Roman Senate. They assassinated him. They feared his excessive power and would not put up with Cleopatra. The result was Gaius Octavius (Octavian), 27 BCE – 14 of our era. He abolished the ruined Roman republic for empire / tyranny. Octavian was the great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar.

Getty probably knew this history and its parallels to the events of his time. Romans who loved Greek culture had found ways to protect and assimilate it. Getty must have had similar ambitions. Yes, he had imperial dreams, even fantasizing he was a resurrected Philhellene Emperor Hadrian. Yet he could see the failure of America and Europe to maintain standards of civilization like those of Greece. He probably built his Villa in the Pacific Palisades / Malibu to open the eyes of some Americans to the beauty and culture of Greece. The Romans who built the Villa dei Papiri in 41 BCE, only three years after the assassination of Caesar in 44BCE, had seeing the troubles of Rome and tried to educate their fellow Romans to the virtues of Greek civilization.

The treasures of the Getty Villa

A statue of a person holding a spear Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Hercules (Lansdowne Herakles). Unknown artist, sculpted about 125 AD. No copyright in the United States. The marble statue was found in 1790 in the ruins of Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli close to Rome. Lost Greek original was probably from the school of Polykleitos of the fourth century BCE. The Herakles statue was Hadrian’s prized possession and Paul Getty’s most prized acquisitions. Gallery 8, Getty Villa. Temple of Herakles.

Once in California, I started visiting the Getty Villa, admiring its Greek and Roman treasures, and even attending a couple of performances of Greek plays. Then the pandemic spread its sickness and silence for more than 2 years.

I returned to the Getty Villa on May 24, 2023. I took my time to observe and admire dozens of masterpieces of Greek art, dating from about 5,000 BCE to about 400 of our era. The Getty collection of Greek art starts with the Neolithic Age of 5,000 years BCE. Some exquisite artifacts come from the Bronze Age, 3,100 – 1,000 BCE, which flourished spectacularly in the Cycladic islands between Crete and Peloponnesos, as well as in Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Peloponnesos and in the rest of Hellas. Late Bronze Age includes the Argonaut expedition to the Far East (modern state of Georgia) for the Golden Fleece and the Trojan War and Homer.

However, the most beautiful of Greek antiquities in the Getty Villa date from the second half of the last millennium BCE. They climaxed in the Classical Era, 480 – 323 BCE, and the so-called Hellenistic Era, 323 – 31 BCE.

The Classical period of Greek history starts with epic victories of the small and disunited Greek poleis (city-states) against the invading large Persian army and navy. Athens and Sparta were the leaders and backbone of the Greeks in their fight against the Persians. Athens, in particular, went through an unprecedented flowering of democracy, power, and the arts. The Parthenon of Athens was emblematic of that renewal. The temple honored Athena, daughter of Zeus and Metis, goddess of intelligence. The Parthenon and the other smaller temples on the Acropolis became an eternal landmark of the Athenian Greeks. The beaty, sophistication, and power of the Acropolis monuments speak to all civilized people – to this very day. They tell the visitor how high humans can climb in the virtues of sculpture and architecture, making marble a component of civilization, reflecting the good and the beautiful.

That was also my emotional and intellectual engagement with the Greek antiquities at the Getty Villa. I was looking at another Acropolis of Hellenic culture. Each artifact in the Getty Villa has its own history, but together, they create an attractive and pleasant sensation that, in fact, people are capable of creating greatness. Merge enormous craftsmanship and a virtuous dream, and you fly to heavens, you create art that becomes immortal. That’s the message of the Greek treasures at the Getty Villa. The inspiration is lasting, hence the significance of the Getty exhibitions of Greek treasures.

Looting of antiquities

Being lost in the concentrated beauty of the Greek treasures, I could not completely dismiss the reality of how these rare Greek treasures travelled from Greece to America. Certainly, the Greeks did not donate them to the Getty Villa. I can understand the passion but also the greed and illegality behind the buying and selling of valuable archaeological treasures. In a detailed 2005 report, the Los Angeles Times says that Italy charged Getty Villa curators of art for “conspiring to traffic in looted antiquities.” The Getty, of course, denied that it ever knowingly purchased a looted artifact.

Clearly, not merely Getty, but the rest of large American and European museums want Greek treasures. Looting of those treasures started with the Romans. And depending on the fortunes of Greece, the trade in illicit artifacts went up and, sometimes, down but it never ceased. Greek Political independence made archaeology visible in the new country. The “great” European powers, England, France, and Russia, and eventually Germany and the United States, speeded up their looting of the treasures hidden among the ruins and soil of the ruined Greek temples. The British never wanted an independent Greece. In the early nineteenth century, one of its looters, Lord Elgin, cut off the heart of Parthenon. This was the frieze of the temple showing the Panathenaea, Athenians’ athletic and cultural celebration of their divine protector, goddess Athena. The stolen Parthenon treasures are still in the British Museum and the British government refuses to return them to Greece.

Looting reached its climax during the occupation of Greece by German troops. This should have made German archaeologists unacceptable to Greece. The Germans’ looting of Greece revealed their mania to destroy Greece, ancient and Modern. Vassilios Petrakos, a Greek archaeologist and scholar who is also curator of antiquities and general secretary of the Archaeological Society of Athens, accused the Germans of barbarism. In January 2022, he said to a reporter that German “Army officers… were not only excavating and looting antiquities for personal wealth but they were also responsible for the destruction of antiquities, in Crete, Macedonia, Tiryns, Assini and Samos.”[3]

The German looting of Greece may be exceptional, but not unique. As I said, looting continues. I am not suggesting that all the Greek treasures of the Getty Villa trace their provenance to looting. But some of them must have been purchased from robbers that excavated the antiquities without regard to laws, ethics, or any other virtue. Looting is extremely profitable, so the temptations are huge.

The future for the Getty Villa

We already spoke about J. Paul Getty’s inspiration from the Villa dei Papiri for building the Villa in Malibu. But an equal and more apt source of inspiration for what the Getty Villa has become and does is the Mouseion-university of Alexandria, which flourished during the Hellenistic (Alexandrian) Age, the five or so centuries of Enlightenment that followed the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great.

A statue of a person's head Description automatically generated with low confidence

Head of Alexander the Great. Unknown artist, about 320 BCE. No copyright in the United States. Getty Villa, Gallery 111, the Hellenistic World.

Alexandria, Egypt, became the center of that commonwealth of knowledge. And the Mouseion-university and the great Library of Alexandria were the prototype for the Roman Villa dei Papiri. They remain the real models of what the Getty Villa does and, primarily, what it could do.

Start by educating America on the life-saving Greek civilization: respect for the rule of law, democracy, science-based government and business decisions, respect for the natural world, democratic family farming, and wider appreciation of Greek art. Establish an institute for advanced studies devoted to the wisdom of Greek civilization for its own sake and for the sake of America, preventing the country from following the violent steps of the Roman empire.

In addition, the twenty-first century is the century of climate chaos. The United States is one of the largest engines of climate chaos. Greek wisdom can inspire a course for fighting climate change by replacing fossil fuels with the eternal energy of the Sun. The Greeks worshipped Mother Earth. We need to follow their example.

Notes

1. Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 197.

2. Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe 3.1044–1045, tr. R. E. Latham (Penguin Books, 1994).

3. Milton Esterow, “New Research Tracks Ancient Artifacts Looted by the Nazis,” New York Times, January 18, 2022. See Petrakos’ article on the history of archaeology in Modern Greece: “The stages of Greek archaeology,” in Great Moments in Greek Archaeology, ed. Panos Valavanis (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007), 18-33. Petrakos is the author of a 5-volume study of the looting of Greek antiquities during WWII, The Past in Shackles (Athens: Archaeological Society of Athens, 2021, in Greek).

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.