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LA's Getty Villa

Misha Gravenor The new Entry Pavilion at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, designed by Machado & Silvetti

Photo: Misha Gravenor

The star attraction is, of course, the villa. The original structure was inspired by (though it's not an exact replica of) the first-century Villa dei ­Papiri in Herculaneum. The luxurious seaside dwelling, thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law, was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 a.d. "It's an odd building, but a fairly good hypothesis of what a Roman house was like," Silvetti says. Although some of the villa's original details were adapted from the Villa dei Papiri, most were drawn from other houses at Pompeii and Herculaneum, including decorative floor and ceiling patterns and the frieze surrounding the roof opening in the atrium.

Machado and Silvetti continued this ­approach, mining multiple classical sources. "We tried to make the villa even better, improving what we could and making it more classically correct. We tried to be accurate whenever possible." Still, they took liberties—with the dramatic bronze, glass, and yellow-marble staircase linking the Inner Peristyle to the second-floor galleries ("There were no grand stairs in Roman houses," Silvetti admits) and the playful, intricately patterned new terrazzo and mosaic floors in the renovated galleries, which Silvetti calls "pure invention." Because the building itself doesn't purport to be a historically exact re-creation, Machado and Silvetti's informed additions seem an appropriate strategy.

The villa museum's curatorial shift away from displaying a mix of paintings, decorative arts, and ancient artifacts meant that once-dark galleries where fragile canvases and armoires had been displayed could be filled with natural light from windows, which is preferable for viewing classical statuary. Indeed, architectural fragments and marble busts and sculptures—such as a prized marble statue of Faustina the Elder—take on new vibrancy in such daylight. There are no diffusing scrims or other visible controls to reduce sharp contrasts in light and shadow.

One of the most dramatic transformations is in the second-floor gallery surrounding the villa's Inner Peristyle gardens. Machado and Silvetti turned what was a series of dark enfilade galleries with heavy brocade wallpaper and parquet floors into spacious, vaulted, light-filled halls overlooking the courtyard through dozens of new windows. The architects also added windows overlooking the atrium, which they painted in a more appropriate palette—in classical terms—of gold, robin's-egg blue, and brick red, and exposed the compluvium to the sky, as it would have been in ancient times, when the cutaway let in rainwater, which was collected in a cistern, or impluvium, below. (At the Getty Villa, a retractable skylight can be drawn shut in inclement weather.) "In the old building, you never knew where you were—you were always moving through closed rooms. Now you have a very clear sense of orientation," Silvetti explains.

The 23 permanent galleries are organized thematically, rather than chronologically or by cultural or geographic origin. There are now intriguingly titled galleries such as Dionysos and the Theater, Monsters and Minor Deities, and Women and Children in Antiquity. One room, devoted to prehistoric Cycladic art, features stark, surprisingly modern-looking sculptures that could be mistaken for works by Brancusi. On the second floor, five galleries will host rotating and on-loan exhibitions.

Much of the effort and expense involved in the renovation will be ­invisible to visitors, including a complete upgrade for disabled access and a reinforcing web of steel hidden behind the gallery walls and embedded in the floors. "You could hang a Bentley on them," jokes Silvetti about the newly strengthened and shock-resistant walls. Curators are able to suspend heavy marble friezes from the walls and bolt statues to the terrazzo floors through an unseen system of anchors designed to protect these artifacts in an earthquake. Many of the Getty's more delicate treasures, including Hellenistic jewelry, silver drinking vessels from the time of Alexander the Great, and a collection of Greek vases, are displayed in exactingly detailed, German-built bronze and glass vitrines incorporating the latest in antiseismic technology. Every case conceals a ball-bearing base isolator that will allow the artifacts to "go with the flow" during a tremor—that is, slide along with the side-to-side shaking so they won't break while resisting the quake's motion.

The huge cost and care that have gone into the project are invisible in another way: notably, admission to the villa is free. However, tickets must be booked prior to a visit, either on-line or by telephone. (No walk-ins are permitted.) But the planning will be worth it. Though museum officials expect to accommodate about 1,500 visitors a day, entries spaced at 30-minute intervals will allow for smooth circulation of guests. Visitors will be treated to a quiet, intimate experience with these treasured antiquities that so beguiled their collector, J. Paul Getty, in a setting worthy of a Roman emperor yet thoroughly up-to-date. The ancient world has never looked better.

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