Getty Villa: Living Mythological History
The pool itself is painted an ocean blue, so the water in the main fountain glitters an impossibly luminous light cyan. The architecture is simply gorgeous, especially the miniature dome that houses the statue of Hercules, or Herukles (meaning glory of Hera). The tours are in-depth and the food at the cafe is scrumptiously delicious. It’s my first time at the Getty Villa, and like the McDonald’s slogan, I’m lovin’ it. There’s a balcony that overlooks the road winding up here, and from the top of the hill, I can see the ocean. As I trip over my own feet in trying to keep up with the tour guide, who is showing us the highlights of the Villa, I realize the difference between this replica of an ancient upper-class Roman house, and the Getty Museum. Aside from the obvious in accommodating fewer paintings and more sculptures, this Villa specifically focuses on one of my favorite history cultures and pieces of literature, the era of the Greeks and Romans.
Of course, J.P. Getty built the Villa from his inspiration of the Villa of the Papyri, and so the history I feel resonate deep inside of me from the sights of the columns and arches is merely conceived, existing only in my brain. However, the actual pieces of pottery and shreds of fabric are truly from that archaic time. I experience a sense of pride when I’m able to recognize the tour guide’s explanation of a carving that stems from tales of the Odyssey, and even more so when I can explain to my father about the three goddesses’ fight over the golden apple in The Judgment of Paris. I’ve read Homer’s The Odyssey as well as the Percy Jackson series, both of which have given me a strong foundation in the Greek version of Mount Olympus, but I’ve only barely begun to dive into the Roman version of the gods. They’re harsher, less compassionate, and more brutal than the Greek gods.
At the front of the pool/fountain, a statue of greets us—it’s Hermes, I know this because of the wings attached to his ankles. I start up a competition with my brother to see who can find the most pieces of art depicting a god or goddess. We move from room to room, and I’m fascinated by the jewelry, with their extensive golden chains and heavy bangles. A delicate ring that seems to have golden embroidery catches my eye, and for a moment, wild caper plots run through my mind. Could I pull a heist and escape with that beautiful necklace around my neck? I gaze at the Greek and Roman coins, stamped with the faces of the gods/goddesses. I want the one with Athena seated on her throne holding a little winged creature, or even better, the tortoise minted on the island Aegina. During the tour, I relive the stories of the Trojan War, Orpheus and the sirens, Hercules and the 12 labors, Leda and the swan, and the “origin” story of how Earth and the Universe came to be. The tour guide teaches us how to “read” art—back then, the Greeks did not read traditional words and letters—they read through symbols of art. So much can be interpreted from a simple carving of a man with a crown and scepter on the side of a loutrophoros (vase used for washing purposes). The man is Zeus, of course, because only gods could sit on thrones (the Greeks didn’t have furniture) and only figures held in very high esteem were shown nude.
When the tour finishes, I ask the tour guide if she’s ever heard of Cassandra. She nods yes. “Cassandra was the daughter of Priam, the King of Troy,” she says. “She had the gift of prophecy—” “Curse of Apollo,” I add. The tour guide looks at me appraisingly. “She predicted the Trojan war, but nobody listened to her. Then Clytemnestra, wife of King Agamemnon and her lover, Aegisthus, killed both Cassandra and Agamemnon. It’s quite a sad story. That’s why I usually don’t tell it,” says the tour guide. I tell her my name is Cassandra and she says it’s a beautiful name. Certainly, I had already known the tragedy that happened to the princess, prophet of disaster and seductress of men. I suppose I just wanted to hear the tale again from a different perspective, in a different location where I can look upon the statue of Apollo and curse him for cursing Cassandra with that blasted gift of prophecy. It’s the same reason that I return to museums and look upon sculptures even though I already know the stories behind them. It’s real, living pieces of history that embodies their ideas of the deities, and seeing it first-hand at the Villa is a priceless experience.