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Getty Museum Reopens Villa Amid Controversy


After eight years of renovation, the Getty Museum will reopen its antiquities museum Saturday in a replica Roman villa on the California coastline. The opening comes at the end of a difficult year for the West Coast U.S. art center.

After receiving a $275 million upgrade, the Getty Villa will again welcome visitors to its spectacular site in Malibu, above the Pacific Ocean. The building was conceived by the late oil billionaire J. Paul Getty and first opened its doors in 1974. Karol Wight, the Getty's acting curator of antiquities, says it was modeled on the first-century Roman Villa Dei Papiri, which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

"What was known of the structure at the time this museum was built was only the ground plan. So all of the architectural details that you see, including mosaic floors, column capitals, things like that, those were all borrowed from other buildings in Pompeii and Herculaneum to finish out the details," she said.

The villa is a square building surrounding an open garden, with another large garden on its south side.

The museum has one of the finest collections of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art in the United States, from bronze implements and finely crafted gold and silver tableware to heroic marble statues. Wight says all are important art works.

"There's a wonderful Roman statue, the Lansdowne Herakles. That's a Roman depiction of the greatest of the Greek heroes, Hercules, as he was known to the Romans. And it is an extremely important piece for art historians because it was discovered in the 1790s, and had an immediate effect on the understanding of what Greek and Roman art was at the time," she said.

The Getty continues its research into the classical world in its on-site laboratory.

Amid the celebration of the villa's reopening, the West Coast museum has dealt with unwanted controversy over allegations by Italian authorities that a former Getty curator named Marion True acquired art works looted from archeological sites. She is now standing trial in Italy, along with a Paris-based American art dealer. True and museum officials deny knowingly receiving stolen items, but last year the museum returned several disputed objects to Italy.

Demands by Greek and Italian officials that the Getty and other museums return other disputed objects have raised far-reaching questions in the art world. For Los Angeles residents, however, the scandal has not detracted from the reopening of the villa, which returns a cultural landmark to the local art scene. A new theater and 450-seat outdoor amphitheater will offer performances of classical Greek and Roman drama.

Wight says the classical period is drawing renewed public interest because some recent Hollywood movies offered viewers a glimpse of the ancient world.

"And so we hope that visitors will come with that kind of knowledge in the back of their minds, but fully prepared to learn the real history, not the Hollywood version, and see more of these cultures. You can get glimpses of them in set decorations in movies like Troy or Gladiator, but to actually see the artifacts that were used thousands of years ago, is quite a different experience."

Getty Museum director Michael Brand says the refurbished facility is an important accomplishment. "It's a miracle to be able to bring together a great museum building, a great collection, great landscape, and then great educational, cultural facilities, and bring it all together, and open it up to the public free of charge," he said.

Tickets are free, but reservations are needed and the Getty Villa is already booked up for the next few months.