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Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

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Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

I went to the “Last Days of Pompeii” exhibit at the Getty Villa the day before Thanksgiving. Pompeii has intrigued me for years. I knew from the website that this was not mainly a collection of ancient artifacts but a showing of modern (18th century on) art works interpreting the story of the 79 A.D. Vesuvius eruption and the destruction of Pompeii and its neighbor towns. There was a cabinet of artifacts that had been presented to one of the popes in the 19th century: lava fragments and articles of terra cotta, glass, and metal. But the vast majority of pieces were 18th and 19th century portrayals of what people knew (or thought they knew) of the town, its ancient life, and its destruction.

Those centuries were a time when Europe was enamored of everything classical; the era of Shelley and Keats, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Napoleon’s forays into Egypt and the raiding of pyramids for mummies and artifacts. So when the ruins of Pompeii were found in 1748, they captured the world’s imagination. Some artists were able to go there. Some who couldn’t go used reports from travelers or archaeologists and generous doses of imagination and artistic license. Painters, sculptors, and writers created fanciful romantic images of the city before, during, and after the calamity.

The exhibit is divided into those periods: Before, During, and After, which also constitute its subtitle: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection. “Decadence” refers to some people’s belief that God punished Pompeii for its immorality, hedonism, division among rich and poor, abusing slaves, and rejecting Christianity. Some of the art shows opulence, indolence, gladiatorial combat, and “Cupid sellers” that symbolize prostitution. “Apocalypse” refers to the eruption itself, with depictions of the eruption, chaos and commotion, and folks fleeing toward the Bay of Naples. Interestingly, “Apocalypse” also has records and pictures of damage to Pompeii from WWII U.S. and British air raids. “Resurrection” is about the rediscovery of the ruins in the 18th century and the worldwide fascination that has never really died down.

Some of the paintings and sculptures are almost epic. I had to back from many of them to get the scope of their portrayal of the volcanic fireworks, the grand buildings (in “Decadence”) and grand ruins (“Resurrection”). I didn’t recognize all the artists—I’m more familiar with American 19th century landscapists; but some of the paintings vaguely put me in mind of (English-born American) Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire” series.

Maybe the most recognized object from Pompeii is the dog that was engulfed by ash and toxic vapors. Nothing organic survived the centuries, but the hardened ash preserved the dog’s shape, curled up in mortal agony. The exhibit contains a cast made from the original mold taken from that cavity in the ground. The eruption lasted about 6 hours, and it’s estimated that 2,000 people died from injuries, superheated sulfurous vapors, or suffocation. The cast of the dog in the exhibit was offered as a symbol of all the victims of Pompeii, and most modern people can identify with a small animal and use it as an object for their sympathy for all the victims.

If you’re looking for scads of artifacts, this isn’t it. I would have liked to see more. But it was fascinating to see different ways the world has envisioned Pompeii since people stumbled on the ruins in the 1700s. The exhibit pointed out factual mistakes in some of the art, or instances where people just made it all up and did the best they could. Still, Pompeii and what we know about it is the only existing “day in the life of” snapshot of ordinary life in the Roman Empire, and I’m one of the countless people who is happy to see even imperfect interpretations.

After you see the exhibit, you can go to the museum store and pick something to take home: books about Pompeii and Vesuvius and about volcanoes in general, postcards of some of the paintings, model volcanoes, and more. I have attempted to read the famous 19th century novel “Last Days of Pompeii” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but the style and verbosity are almost impossible for modern readers to wade through, so I was glad to find an abridged version among the offerings.

The Getty Villa is a perfect setting for exhibits related to ancient cultures. It contains the home of its founder, J. Paul Getty (not open to the public) and buildings he had designed to house the museum. The style is neo-Classical, with Corinthian columns, marble floors, fountains, an herb garden, and inner and peristyle gardens bordered by the building, whose walls are painted with faux columns and tall vases. There is a small pool with carp—hopefully not meant to evoke the pools of vicious lamprey eels that some of the richest, cruelest, most depraved and self-absorbed Pompeiians kept for pets, for food, and for a kind of “sport” that isn’t fit to mention on a family website. The Villa location is spectacular, on the east side of Hwy 1 overlooking the Pacific. Pompeii was near the coast but not right on it, but maybe some of the ancient hillside homes of the rich and famous around the bay of Naples had similar views.

The Pompeii exhibit ends on January 7. Among the other temporary exhibits, I saw the epic Roman sculpture of the Lion Attacking a Horse and a collection of ancient glass called “Molten Color” that was exquisite. I didn’t have enough time to see all the temporary exhibits, and only sampled some of the permanent ones.

Visitors need to reserve a time spot in advance on the museum website or by phone. (This is not the same procedure as the Getty Center). There is a $15 parking fee and no entrance fee to the museum. http://www.getty.edu/visit/

There is no left turn from Hwy 1 (the PCH) into the Villa. Approaching from the north, pass the main coastal business area of Malibu and watch for the Getty Villa sign on your left, on the hillside. Continue to the next traffic light, where you can turn left and maneuver your way back to Hwy 1 north. From Hwy 101 southbound, the most direct way to this part of Hwy 1 is either Las Virgenes (which becomes Malibu Canyon) or Topanga Canyon.

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1. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

Wow, wonderful report! Thank you.

Thousand Oaks...
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2. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

Agreed. Very nicely written report. I will be definitely checking this exhibit out!!

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3. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

Thanks to an earlier post on this forum, I am planning a trip to see this in a couple of weeks! What a great report, it sets the scene so clearly!

By the way, any tips of where to stay, eat, stop, etc?

>>I have attempted to read the famous 19th century novel “Last Days of Pompeii” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but the style and verbosity are almost impossible for modern readers to wade through,<<

This isn't surprising, given that Bulwer-Lytton is the original source of "It was a dark and stormy night..." and is so known for his overblown, florid writing style that there is an annual bad writing contest named for him.

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4. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

Thanks, all. I hoped other people might be interested in seeing it.

I stayed in Dr. Z's territory, Thousand Oaks. If it hadn't been a holiday weekend, I'd have looked up the good doctor and asked for his recommendations about the best candy and cookies.

I've stayed at the Motel 6 at Newbury Road and Ventu Park Drive a couple of times in the past and it's several notches above a typical Motel 6; in fact, I reviewed it here a few years ago. It has nice sitting areas and landscaping, and the surrounding neighborhood is safe for evening walks. It’s near 101 and traffic can be heard (and seen from parts of the motel), but it isn't as noisy as some Motel 6s. The Stagecoach Inn Park (local park with a historical museum and a replica village with a wikiup, wooden cabin, and adobe house) is a short walk away. A strip mall is next door with In-and-Out Burger, Chili's, Holdren's Steakhouse, other businesses, and a post office.

There are other motels and hotels in the area. La Quinta is across the street, Courtyard by Marriott is by the strip mall, and Palm Garden Hotel is about a quarter mile away.

This was a good location to get to the museum and also to parts of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. I decided to make a weekend of it since I had driven almost 400 miles, so I spent Thanksgiving Day exploring historic sites in the NRA including Paramount Ranch, Peter Strauss Ranch, and the park headquarters and King Gillette Ranch. The historic buildings were closed, but I enjoyed seeing them and walking around the grounds. There are some beautiful natural areas preserved by the park, and if I’m away from home and everyone I know on Thanksgiving, being out in nature is the best way to spend the day and feel grateful for what I have.

Traffic was decent most of the time; I think the worst real commute I saw was on Tuesday afternoon from about Santa Barbara south. I did have one problem on Wednesday getting to the Getty. I took Las Virgenes to Malibu Canyon, not realizing there had been an accident overnight that knocked down a tree and a power line, and the repair work required Malibu Canyon to be single-tracked. I didn’t know until I happened to turn on KNX and hear that I should have taken Topanga Canyon, and by then I think I was past Mulholland so it wasn’t worth turning back. But I had given myself extra time, because I had never driven those roads and didn’t know what they were like, so I made my time slot at the Getty. The museum was not terribly crowded even for a holiday week. I went at opening time, spent over 4 hours there, and it was not mobbed when I left; I think this is the reason for assigning times and spreading people over the day.

I came home on Friday, and it was quite foggy as far as Santa Barbara. But it was not dangerous like tule fog. I had fretted a bit about Black Friday, but I never saw any huge traffic jams, just some crowding through bigger towns. Even when I got to San Jose and then San Francisco, traffic wasn’t horrendous. Maybe everyone got it out of their systems on Gray Thursday, while I was enjoying the 70º weather and trees and birds.

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5. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

Susan, I'd be interested in hearing what you think of the exhibit when you get back.

Thousand Oaks...
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6. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

Frisco-

Glad you enjoyed your stay out here.

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7. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

>>so I spent Thanksgiving Day exploring historic sites in the NRA including Paramount Ranch, <<

Tell me about this... could we see the Western Town part without too much walking? Anything else viewable from in or near the car (Strauss Ranch, Gillette Ranch) that is worth the effort?

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8. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

Hi, Susan--I replied to your post on the Santa Monica forum.

As you're probably aware, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is named for the mountain range that runs along the south-facing coast of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and consists of several parcels of land in several towns. I'm not even sure any of it is actually in the city of Santa Monica.

9. Re: Pompeii Exhibit at Getty Villa

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