Pompeii in LA
Since coming back from Pompeii, I’ve found myself reading a great deal around the lingering impact that visiting the city has had in so many peoples’ imaginations. This is partly a way of prolonging my sense of having had a holiday, but also fits rather nicely with the publication of Ingrid Rowland’s splendid new book ‘From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town’ (Harvard Univ. Press) which has reminded me that plenty of other people have found the place hard to forget.
The most interesting of these, for my money, is surely John Paul Getty (1892 – 1976) whose enthusiasm for all things ancient (and a good many things that weren’t) saw him spend millions of dollars buying up antiquities in the years before and after World War Two. I’ve always felt on some level that art collecting might prove my largest extravagance if I ever become a billionaire (a theory almost certainly destined to remain untested) but what fascinates me about Getty’s collection is his decision that the museum built to house it should be, as close as possible, a recreation of the Villa of the Papryrii in Herculaneum.
The more I’ve read of this tale the more remarkable it seems. The Villa of the Papyrii is largely still underground and only partially excavated, and Getty’s recreation is therefore a very carefully reimagined version based on archaeological surveys as much as architectural design. Still, to bring such a building back to life, to order casts made of the bronze statues found there (the originals in the Archaeological Museum in Naples) and position them roughly where they were found in the original, to plant the gardens with similar flora to that found in the Bay of Naples (the Californian climate rather similar in this regard) all suggest to me a collector with a sensibility that runs beyond simply acquiring the object and putting it on display for himself or others.
Indeed, Getty himself wrote short stories and novellas in which several of his collection pieces appear, giving them back-stories and previous ‘owners’ before they came to be his. This is rather unusual, to say the least, but perhaps it shows Getty wanting to have a deeper connection with the things that had come into his possession and, through them, a link with that lost Roman world.
Most of us, get to go to Pompeii and take photos to go with our memories. Buying objects from antiquity is an expensive and legally fraught business: perhaps even more so now than when Getty’s millions were flowing through post-war Europe’s art markets. All the same, though, the idea of what he did fascinates me, even if the chances of my doing anything similar in East Sussex remain the stuff of daydreams.
For those wishing to know more about the Getty Museum and its collections, the link below takes you to their homepage, and is cheaper than a ticket to Los Angeles, although surely not as much fun.