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Friday, January 27, 2006 - Page updated at 02:58 PM


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Getty Museum reopening its much renovated villa

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Eight years and a $275 million facelift later, the J. Paul Getty Museum is ready for its close-up.

The Getty Villa reopens its doors Saturday. Perhaps as famous for its stunning view of Malibu's shimmering Pacific coastline as it is for its art collection, the museum closed in 1997 when the bigger, flashier Getty Center opened 13 miles away on a hilltop overlooking Los Angeles.

When it was the Getty's only museum, the villa housed a wide collection of art including drawings, Renaissance and Old Masters paintings and other items. Now it is dedicated only to antiquities, including sculpture, silver works, jewelry and coins.

The remodeling comes at a particularly troubled time for the Getty, whose former antiquities curator, Marion True, is on trial in Rome on charges of trafficking in looted artifacts. Also, a trustee of the J. Paul Getty Trust, whose donated collection to the museum included a stolen ancient Roman sculpture, resigned from the board this week.

The Italian government believes the Getty possesses dozens of stolen artifacts, and Michael Brand, the museum's new director, said this month that he believes the status of about 52 of the approximately 44,000 pieces in the museum's antiquities collection is being reviewed.

"Like any other museum, we've always returned works of art when they've come into question," he said. "One of the objects we returned recently turned out to be stolen from a private collector. We returned that as soon as that information came out, actually, during the course of our own research."

Although it still houses an extensive Roman, Greek and Etruscan antiquities collection, the Getty received a top-to-bottom makeover that award-winning architect Jorge Silvetti said was designed to shake the senses of visitors as they round a corner and first see the complex with its main building, plaza and new 450-seat outdoor amphitheater.


Getty Villa:

"I would hope there is a sense of wonder that really surprises in a very, very happy and positive way," Silvetti said as he sat in the plaza's courtyard on a recent sun-dappled day. "Our vision of the project was very deliberate — to create surprises."

The centerpiece of the museum complex is still its main building, where 1,200 exhibits dating as far back as 6500 B.C. are on display. Among them is the renowned Lansdowne Herakles, the larger than life statue of the Greek god that is believed to date to about 125 A.D.

The building itself was constructed in 1974 to resemble the Villa dei Papiri, a first century Roman country home that is believed to have been the residence of Julius Caesar's father-in-law. Silvetti and his partner, Rodolfo Machado, have redone it, installing nearly 60 windows and a skylight to allow natural light and air to circulate through the building. As a result, sensitive exhibits are now sheltered in darkened galleries.

For those who can't keep their hands off pottery, of which the Getty has numerous priceless examples, there is now a family section where children (or adults) can draw designs on large vases just as the ancient artisans did. Other amenities include a skylight that will allow both sunlight and rain onto a pool, just as those in elaborate Roman homes once did.

The architects wrapped large concrete walls around part of the villa grounds to make the entire site more closely resemble the archaeological dig that inspired its main building. Doing so allowed them to correct a historical inaccuracy. While the original entrance to the villa was through the Getty's lush gardens of papyrus and other plants, ancient Roman homeowners always placed their gardens behind their houses.

"We had the building in the wrong place and it was very hard to put it in the right place," laughed Silvetti.

They couldn't move the garden, he explained, because the villa sits in a narrow canyon that rises above the Pacific Ocean. Instead, they created a series of walkways that lead visitors high above the museum complex to a spot that provides views of both the ocean and the villa.

The new entrance also brings into better view the old ranch house that J. Paul Getty began filling with art after the late billionaire oil magnet bought it in 1945. He opened it to the public nine years later, having decided, according to museum officials, that everyone else had as much right to see great art as he did. Admission was free then and remains so today.

The ranch house, meanwhile, now houses the villa's research and educational centers and its 20,000 volumes of research materials. The museum has partnered with the University of California, Los Angeles, to offer a master's degree in ethnographic and archaeological studies.

Brand plans to bring in exhibitions that will expand the scope of the Getty, whose focus has always been on Western art. He also hopes to work with other prominent area museums on future projects.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company





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