Villa dei Papiri Artifacts Buried by Vesuvius on Display at Getty Villa

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The Getty Villa along the California coast is a recreation of the ancient Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, Italy. The original villa, owned by Julius Caesar’s in-laws, was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Now, items from that ancient estate are on display at the Getty.

“Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri” a new exhibit at the Getty Villa  presents many of the most significant artifacts in the 1750s in Herculaneum, which is on the opposite site of the volcano from Pompeii. The Getty exhibition, on view through Oct. 28, also includes recent finds from digs at the archeological site in the last few decades.

Acknowledging that the exhibit has been on Getty’s wish list for many years,Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, noted that only a small portion of the original villa has been explored. However, the limited amount known of the site during the lifetime of oil magnate J. Paul Getty inspired the museum he founded. The basic layout came from a floor plan of the Herculaneum villa drawn up in the 18th century. It plotted where particular artifacts were found and helped Mr. Getty imagine what the original once looked like.

Actually, even though sketches of the grounds exist, no one has seen the actual sight for centuries. An estimated 90% of it is still underground, buried beneath 80 feet of hardened rock and lava. The parts unearthed have featured spectacular frescoed walls, marble and mosaic floors, statuary and the only library to survive from classical antiquity (with thousands of papyrus scrolls damaged by the eruption).


Potts added, “For several decades, we have worked closely with Italian colleagues and institutions in conserving, protecting, researching and celebrating Italy’s extraordinary cultural heritage. “ The Getty collaborated with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, the Parco Archeologico di Ercolano, and the Biblioteca Nazionale “Vittorio Emanuele” di Napoli in organizing the showcase.

Getty Exhibition Highlights

The exhibition features a bronze statue of a “Drunken Satyr,”which was one of the most significant finds salvaged at the site in the 1750s. The reclining satyr, a follower of the wine god, features a pine wreath, pointed ears, horns and tousled hair. He is motioning for another round.

The Getty Villa has long had a replica of the satyr by its outer peristyle pool. It now has the original on display. The ancient “Drunken Satyr,” normally on display in Italy, came to the Getty last fall for conservation treatment. Now completed, the work is part of the exhibition along with other bronze originals of pieces long on display in California (such as two runners normally located by the satyr).

The papyrus scrolls are another important discovery from the ancient villa. This exhibition includes some. Centuries ago, many papyri were opened to study the texts inside. However, the process used damaged them. Others, including those currently in California, are carbonized and unopenable. They look like burnt rocks, but up close the spirals of internal pages are visible. Newer imaging techniques offer hope of digitally unrolling the remaining scrolls and studying their content. As part of their visit to Southern California, the scrolls went to UCLA for imaging and study.

Among the newer discoveries in recent decades on display at the Getty are:

  • Fragments of richly colored frescoed walls,
  • Marble sculptures that show original paint, which has typically faded off other statues from the era due to exposure, and
  • Furniture pieces, including components of a tripod that once held a vase or bowl,adorned with ivory scenes. The pieces are on public display for the first time.

GettyAnyone who has visited Pompeii knows that explicit images can be seen in the brothel. However, the Villa dei Papiriin Herculaneum – a private residence – also featured explicit art. One piece, currently at the Getty, was once locked up by the King of Naples out of public view. That notorious sculpture, which the Getty has displayed in a small corridor (presumably out of site of school children), features an exquisitely carved Pan, god of the wild and flocks, having sex with a she-goat.

Short of visiting Herculaneum and Naples, the ability to view the  treasures unearthed at the Villa dei Papiri is a rare treat. While much of the artifacts buried by the volcano remain unseen centuries later, those recovered and now on display in “Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri” at Getty Villa offer a glimpse at the life of the Roman rich in Julius Caesar’s time. It is well worth a trip to Mr. Getty’s villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean to imagine life along the Bay of Naples back then.

By Dyanne Weiss

Exhibition visit
Getty: Getty Villa Presents First Major Exhibition on the Villa Dei Papiri
The iris (Getty): (Video) Buried by Vesuvius: The Drunken Satyr

Photo of “Drunken Satyr,” Roman, first century BC– rst century AD; Bronze, copper, tin, and bone, H: 137 cm, L: 179 cm; Found at the west end of the rectangular peristyle, B on Weber’s plan, July 10, 1754, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, 5628; VEX.2019.1.6. Reproduced by agreement with the Ministry of Cultural Assets and Activities and Tourism. National Archaeological Museum of Naples – Restoration Office.

Photo of “Three Carbonized Scrolls,” Greco-Roman, second century BC– rst century AD; Papyrus, wood, and volcanic material, H: 6.5-9 cm, W: 6-15.5 cm, D: 6-7.5 cm; Found between October 19, 1752, and August 25, 1754 Biblioteca Nazionale “Vittorio Emanuele III,” Naples, P. Herc. 632; 803; 804; VEX.2019.1.43; VEX.2019.1.44; VEX.2019.1.45; Image: Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali. All rights reserved. All other use prohibited.

Photo of “Woman Wearing a Peplos (“Demeter”/“Hera”),” Roman, rst century AD; Marble with pigment, H: 188 cm; Found in the seaside pavilion, April 21, 1997 Parco Archeologico di Ercolano, 4331/81595 VEX.2019.1.51 . Image: Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali – Parco di Ercolano. All rights reserved.

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