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06 May 2013

When In Rome...Part I

...or, at least Los Angeles...

One of the frustrations of studying a subject like garden history is not being able to hop in a time machine and visit gardens created thousands of years ago which no longer exist. How I would have loved to have joined the Doctor and Donna* on their visit to Pompeii in 79 AD to see some of the gardens of the ancient Romans.

OK, well, maybe not, since they were there on Volcano Day.

Basically, run.

Among the villages destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on that fateful day was Herculaneum. It, along with four other villages, was destroyed when the mountain exploded, sending 'superheated pyroclastic material'** raining down upon it (Dr. Evil would incorrectly call it 'liquid hot mag-MA'. Yes, you just read that in his voice with your pinkie to your mouth, didn't you!). Buried beneath 20M (50-60 feet) of ash, the town was better preserved than its more famous neighbor. It was rediscovered in the early 1700's and later excavations revealed much of the city still in tact, including the lavish seaside villa belonging to Julius Caesar's father-in-law Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Since its rediscovery, it has been called Villa dei Papiri due to the number of carbonized papyrus scrolls found there.


Plan of the Villa dei Papiri, village of Herculaneum, destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD (attrib)

Fast forward several hundred years to the 20th century California seaside town of Pacific Palisades near Malibu. There, a one J. Paul Getty was amassing a fortune in oil and cultivating a keen interest in art and history. As he traveled throughout Europe, he began collecting art and artifacts from ancient Mediterranean civilizations, displaying them at his own lavish home overlooking the Pacific. Getty's collection continued to grow so in the early 1970's he decided to build a museum that would allow him to showcase it to the public in the perfect context.


The Outer Peristyle Garden at the Getty Villa (2013)

Getty consulted with architect Stephen Garrett on the design of his new museum, which he based on the plan of the Villa dei Papiri as published in Le Antichit√† di Ercolano (The Antiquities of Herculaneum). Nestled in a deep hillside valley, construction of Getty's Villa began in the early 1970's. Although Getty now lived in England, he eagerly oversaw every step of the process. Sadly, he died only two years after it opened, having never seen it.

The Getty Villa, as it's now called, opened in 1974, an exact replica of the peristyle garden from Villa dei Papiri. The overall campus combines architectural elements representing Roman homes from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Aplontis, all destroyed by the volcano. Four distinct plant communities comprising about 300 varieties live at the Villa: native (to Italy), those from similar climates, So Cal and Mediterranean natives, and species that are historically accurate to ancient Rome. All give the Villa a feeling of authenticity that should characterize every historic garden recreation.



According to his architect, Getty 'had very clear views about what he wanted to achieve here. He wanted a person that came here to get some idea of what a villa way back 2,000 years ago would actually have felt like'.

Well, it seems we can travel back in time after all.

The central pool of the Outer Peristyle Garden (2013)


Stay tuned for Part II where I'll talk more about the individual gardens and how they represent the suburban gardens found in ancient Roman cities. In the meantime, enjoy this video about the History of the Getty Villa.




Admission to the Getty Villa is free but timed tickets must be reserved in advance. There is a fee for parking. For more information and a calendar of events, visit The Getty Villa website.

*Leave it to me to include a Doctor Who reference in a piece about Roman gardens! (Doctor Who, series 4, episode 2: The Fires of Pompeii)

** A pyroclastic flow is described by the US Geological Survey as ‘A ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano as fast as 100 km/hour or more. The temperature within a pyroclastic flow may be greater than 500° C, sufficient to burn and carbonize wood. Once deposited, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments may deform (flatten) and weld together because of the intense heat and the weight of the overlying material’.

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