The Getty Villa as an example of a Roman garden

From Palisades Post

A Garden View of the Villa

August 06, 2008

Libby Motika , Senior Editor

For those of us in Pacific Palisades who enjoy the benevolence of a Mediterranean climate, the influence of Roman garden design on our residential landscapes may be elusive. But looking around at our familiar trees and plants, we may not realize their origins. Pines and bays, boxwood and ivy and a whole salad of herbs’fennel, parsley, and mustard’were indigenous to the ancient Roman world.

To understand the history of Roman gardens, a visit to the Getty Villa is an incomparable resource. Louise du Pont made a gesture toward antiquity by creating a ruined garden in Pennsylvania partly modeled on Roman antecedents, and William Randolph Hearst’s gardens at San Simeon incorporated partial reconstructions of Roman garden features. But nowhere in the United States can you find a more complete recreation of Roman villa and garden than at the Villa.

  J. Paul Getty’s ambitious undertaking in the 1970s drew upon the historical plan of the Villa dei Papiri, a large suburban villa just outside of Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples that was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Papiri was rediscovered in 1750, and at that time a plan was drawn of the house and the peristyle gardens and pools, which have been faithfully recreated on a hillside in Pacific Palisades overlooking the sea.

Getty chose a setting for his villa that the Romans would have approved. While it lies adjacent to the small ranch house the oil magnate used to store his extensive antiquities collection, the Villa takes full advantage of its ocean vista and breezes, and its location on a natural spring.

Water was a distinguishing feature in Roman gardens and accounted for the main difference from their Greek antecedents, says Lynn Lynne Tjomsland, manager of grounds and gardens for the J. Paul Getty Trust. The gardens in Roman villas only had fountains and other water features if a villa was situated near a natural water source, such as a spring, stream or river. Urban gardens were nourished by collected rainwater or by water supplied by aqueducts.

Common to all Roman gardens, whether in the cities or country villas, was the balance between rich and diverse plantings and strong architectural decoration. As visitors enter the Getty Villa, they make a symbolic walk through history’the walls are layered as if exposing geological strata’and emerge through time until landing at Papiri. This march through time, Tjomsland says, reminds us that Roman gardens were influenced by previous civilizations. They borrowed the symmetrical layout, painted pavilions, terraces, and avenues of trees from Egypt; from Greece they not only copied classical sculpture to place in their gardens, but also the idea of the peristyle (covered colonnades) that formed an intermediary between the house and garden.

Roman gardens served several functions. They provided a suitable space for leisure and the arts’the display of sculpture or painted murals. They were also the ancient version of the modern spa, where health and exercise were enjoyed, and they provided space for growing fruits and vegetables, especially new varieties that had been collected from the lands that fell under Rome’s conquest.

The gardens at the Getty Villa illustrate basic Roman design principles in both the enclosed garden in which the buildings surround the garden, and the open garden, which surrounds a building.

The inner peristyle provides a tranquil setting between the atrium, where visitors enter the museum, and the courtyard garden. The outer peristyle encloses the large garden surrounding the pool. The centerpiece of this garden is the long, narrow reflecting pool, whose water is gently agitated by three low-level jets of water. Statues occupy the niches placed along the pool’s length. Sculpted low evergreen hedges, including boxwood and rosemary, line the walkway alongside the pool, while bay laurel, acanthus and ivy topiary are planted symmetrically on both sides of the pool.

The courtyard garden encapsulates a Roman garden on a small scale’water, symmetry and a quiet palette of green and gray-green plants and trees.

  The showstopper at the Getty Villa is the outer peristyle garden, dominated by the azure pool that runs the length of the surrounding colonnade. In Roman times, pools such as these were customarily painted blue or lined with blue tiles and provided the cooling effects of the breezes floating over the water. Romans also enjoyed the reflections that played over the surface of the water.

The garden is laid out symmetrically, interrupted by intermittent benches placed under pergolas, draped with grapevines. Garden sculpture, both in the pool and stationed along the paths, was intended to evoke a mood set by the owner, be it a sacred theme with figures of gods and goddesses, a sense of reflection with ancient philosophers, or just a rustic atmosphere depicting fauns, satyrs and nymphs.

While the Romans enjoyed the luxuries of art and culture, they never lost sight of the fact that the true object of the garden was to display the joys of nature as seen in its plants. And Tjomsland never loses sight of the intention for this garden as it was originally laid out 30 years ago.

‘All the gardens are scripted following the standards of the original landscape design team,’ she says. ‘The garden is an extension of the collection.’ While Tjomsland acknowledges the advantages of our Mediterranean climate in achieving horticultural authenticity, she has taken some liberties with plant material.

‘So we can present a meaningful picture and feel, it has been necessary to substitute certain varieties for others that are more suitable to our climate,’ she says. ‘The boxwood is the Japanese version, not the English variety, the rosemary and thymes in the herb garden are those that are available on the market.’

Tjomsland, who also oversees the Getty Center garden, visits the Villa at least three times a week. Her crew of between 45 and 60 groundsmen manage and maintain the garden ‘at a high level all the time,’ she says. ‘The gardens are very stand-alone and part of the regular docent tour.’

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