In this series, we travel the world's greatest museums and galleries through the eyes and minds of Cabana Curators, asking just one question: if you only had an hour to spare, what would you see? This week, historic collections researcher, Mila Wolpert, is at The Getty Villa in Malibu.



A fountain in the Outer Peristyle at the Getty Villa © Cassia Davis, 2023 J. Paul Getty Trust.


On the Malibu coast, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, lies the Getty Villa, the part of the J. Paul Getty Trust dedicated to ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art. The Villa is a full-scale model of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, a luxurious Roman residence on the coast of the Bay of Naples buried by Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Still today, the ancient villa remains under volcanic debris. Although Jean Paul Getty visited Herculaneum many times between 1912 and 1971, he never got to see the villa, which remained buried under lava. Getty made it a point to celebrate this historic site, and built a reconstruction in Southern California.

Since opening in 1974, the Villa has welcomed and inspired visitors. J. Paul Getty’s collections and legacy left an incredible gift to Los Angeles, and to all those who visit. As he wrote in his book, The Joys of Collecting, Getty hoped to convey “the romance and zest—the excitement, suspense, thrills and triumphs—that make art collecting one of the most exhilarating and satisfying of all human endeavors.”


Frescoed Panels

Unknown (Roman), Panels from a Black Ground Frescoed Room with Architectural Decoration, A.D. 1–50. Photograph by Mila Wolpert.  


My favorite room at the Getty Villa is upstairs on the second floor, where Roman art is exhibited. The room is dedicated to frescoes from the Villa of Numerius Popidius Florus at Boscoreale, underlining their significance. They continue to impress me, even after being in their midst several times. The room is a space for contemplation, one that lets you imagine the splendid interiors of ancient Roman villas.

This Villa was one of Boscoreale's wine producing country estates, and richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics. These three frescoes portray ornate architectural compositions on a black background. The middle panel with its vibrant yellow color is believed to depict a philosopher of the Cynic school with a woman, most likely a courtesan. The two outer frescoes depict slender candelabras topped with a swan and each have a circular shield decorated with ribbons and garlands. They represent a spectacular balance of subtlety and ornamentation.


Marble Statue of Jupiter

Statue of Jupiter (Marbury Hall Zeus), 100–1 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California. 



Admirers of Villa d’Este in Tivoli will appreciate this ancient Roman statue from the first century AD. It was discovered on the imperial estate’s grounds in the 1500s. This colossal statue of Jupiter was carved in a Roman workshop, but inspired by a Greek sculpture of the 430s BC. The inspiration for this statue was the towering gold and ivory statue of Zeus created by the sculptor Pheidias for Zeus’ temple at Olympia. Pheidias’ sculpture was celebrated in antiquity as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, praised by many ancient writers.


Bronze with Gold and Pearl  

Head of Venus, about A.D. 100, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California.  


In stark contrast to the previous monumental sculpture, this tiny bronze head of Venus can easily pass you by. I am thankful it caught my attention. I was struck by the pearlescent shine emanating from the one and 3/4 inch object, and could not believe that this tiny figure was embellished with an earring (once a pair). Getty’s Curator of Antiquities, Kenneth Lapatin, explains that pearl is an appropriate adornment for Venus, or Aphrodite, born of the sea.

Due to their shine and luster, pearls were highly valuable. Lapatin asks what I thought when I first laid eyes on this head of Venus: why was such a small statuette accessorized? He clarifies that statues in antiquity were not collectibles, as we think of them today. Generally, they were representative of beings that were not present. Having one surviving gold and pearl earring reveals how luxurious this small object was, and shows how statues were somewhat similar to people or gods.


Attic Black-Figure Dinos

Attic Black-Figure Dinos and Stand, 520–510 B.C., Attributed to the Circle of the Antimenes Painter (Greek (Attic), active 530 - 510 B.C.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California.  


Today, this Attic Black-Figure Dinos and Stand are placed at the center of the Villa's Athenian Vases gallery. In antiquity, this object would have also been at the center of a room lined with couches, with reclining men enjoying an after-dinner party called a symposium. The mixing vessel has battle scenes and ships depicted on the top of the rim, portraying the heroism of mythical warriors.

The function of this vase determined its decoration, and I am so fond of what this object would have looked like while in use in the sixth century BC. Ancient Greeks would have used this large vessel to dilute their wine with water. When the bowl was full during a symposium, or male drinking party, the four ships would have looked as if they were floating on water. If you notice the scratch on the interior of the bowl, you can see where the ladles or other utensils have scratched at the inside of the vessel where wine was served. This is a truly evocative piece.


Marble Harp Player

Male Harp Player of the Early Spedos Type, 2700–2300 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California.  


For me, this Bronze Age Cycladic sculpture is the most moving piece in the Villa. Also displayed in the center of a room, it emanates such pure, heartwarming energy. The Cyclades were a distinctive culture that developed on the islands in the Aegean Sea from around 3000 BC. to 2200 BC. Illustrations of musical performances are rare in Cycladic art, and this harpist is one of few examples.

This harpist statuette may represent a human rather than a deity. Musicians were important to preliterate societies, such as this one, for providing entertainment as well as passing on common history, mythology, and folklore through their storytelling and singing. The male harp player’s tilted head - as if lost in the beauty of his music - is most likely the reason why I find the object so touching.


Gold Diadem  

Diadem, 225–175 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu.  


This diadem is part of an assemblage of Ptolemaic gold jewelry, dating from the Hellenistic period, known as a time of considerable artistic innovation. Royal patrons during this period encouraged the production of magnificent luxury objects, including jewelry. The diadem, which is of Greek origin from Alexandria, consists of two leaf-shaped sides with a torch ornamenting each of them.

The tips of the flaming torches point towards the diadem’s central Herakles knot, popular during the Hellenistic period. In antiquity, torches generally portrayed religious symbolism or were symbolic of many divinities. The opulence of this object is extraordinary, and even more impressive as a part of a greater assemblage of Ptolemaic gold jewelry, especially next to a rare, magnificent hairnet.  


Marble Head of a Young Woman 

Head of a Young Woman from a Grave Naiskos, about 320 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California.  


I conclude on a piece that was meaningful to J. Paul Getty himself. Getty acquired this marble head in 1956, when it was incorrectly attributed to the studio of renowned Athenian sculptor, Praxiteles (active about 375-340 B.C.). Getty’s advisor, Jean Charbonneaux, still strongly praised the work of art, and its image was chosen for the cover of Getty’s book, The Joys of Collecting (1965).

This head of a girl was originally part of a funerary monument and is depicted with facial features and a hairstyle typical of Athenian sculpture in the late 300s BC. Her oval face, small, bow-shaped mouth, and deep-set, thick-lidded eyes were made popular in previous decades by the sculptor Praxiteles. Displayed in a small room, her gaze leaves a dramatic effect on the viewer.

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