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Ancient Rome Rises From The Ashes at the Mythical Getty Villa

At the Getty’s off-the-beaten path antiquities museum, lush courtyards and marble statues transport you to the summit of Mt. Vesuvius.

Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai/J. Paul Getty Trust

Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.

There is a simple breeze, light at first, coming off the ocean that churns about a half-mile down the hill. It carries the scent of…sage? Chamomile? Lemon? There’s something in the mix that’s at once harmonious and unfamiliar—a sharp, herbaceous smell that seems to belong to a different place entirely, perhaps a different time. It is an admittedly small thing, but something no Hollywood blockbuster can recreate, much less match.

The interplay of Pacific breeze with the trees and herbs that border the Getty Villa may be among the first elements that conspire to make a visit to the meticulously recreated 2,000-year-old Roman vacation house and antiquities museum a profoundly transformative experience.

The Getty Villa is a spare-no-expense reimagining of the so-called Villa dei Papyri, the Italian home believed to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso (aka Julius Caesar’s father-in-law) which had been partially excavated from the volcanic ash that engulfed it when Vesuvius erupted some 2,000 years ago.

It is tucked into a canyon up a winding path and far off the road. Which is to say the building that dangles over the highway that people have pointed at for years and called the “Getty Villa” is not the Getty Villa. That structure is not even owned by the Getty Trust; the home commonly considered the Getty Villa by most PCH commuters is in fact a private residence built 50 years earlier called the Villa De Leon.

No, the Getty Villa requires a bit more exploration than what a mere drive-by lookie-loo affords. In many ways, the place is a monument to the very idea of exploration.

Built in the early 1970s when modernism was all the rage in museum architecture, the villa is a manifest of oil magnate J. Paul Getty’s positively retrograde idea: Why not house the incomparable collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities he had spent most of his adult life acquiring in a place that precisely resembled the kind space you would have encountered in ancient time?

“Hollywood has virtual reality. This is physical reality,” says Kenneth Lapatin, the Getty Museum Associate Curator of Antiquities. “You come here and you get to feel and experience something like how an ancient villa actually operated.”

Indeed, as both a perfectly realized reconstruction and also the third largest antiquities-only museum and the only one dedicated solely to ancient Mediterranean art, the Villa is a mind-bending combination of Hollywood stagecraft and absolute authenticity.

As you walk the outer peristyle gardens filled with ancient herbs and fountains (the largest one empty due to California’s drought) you will notice how few people are compelled to whip out their phones. They seem content instead to quietly observe and talk amongst themselves about art, architecture, and philosophy the way they would in ancient times. “Time slows down here,” explains Lapatin.

When you reach the Villa, you will want to search out the Lansdowne Herakles (Hercules if you aren’t feeling ancient Greek), a marble representation of the club-wielding, lion-hide-carrying hero that was originally found near the villa of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Getty purchased the masterwork for a mere $10,218 in 1951 during a period when the British Lordship who owned it had fallen on hard times. (The Villa is, among many things, a temple to J. Paul’s shrewd dealmaking).

Like many of the statues at the Getty, Herakles is nude. If you are traveling with kids, prepare for anatomy lessons alongside historical ones. But really it is mythology that’s most at play here: seeing a raucous Dionysian adventure play out across the carved marble of an ancient sarcophagus can be just as breathtaking as anything playing in 3D IMAX.

The second floor was completely redone when the Villa was renovated in 1996 and now its main corridors flood with natural light. Its galleries shift from ancient Greek gold and silver work to ancient Egyptian death portraits and a fully intact mummy.

While the museum is free to the public, you do have to pay for parking—a cost of $15 a vehicle. (This is non-negotiable as they don’t allow walk-ups unless you take the bus, not that there is street parking nearby anyway). Your visit will take a bit of planning: the Villa requires a parking reservation, which depending on the season may take a few day of planning.

Try booking a day during one of those more sweltering weeks in late August or early September and beat the heat the way they did in 49 A.D.: under a grapevine pergola, with the help of an ocean zephyr that carries with it a dizzying array of undefinable scents.