Orange County School of the Arts

Getty Villa: Living Mythological History

Getty Villa Pool

The pool itself is painted 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 delicious. There’s simply no place quite like the Getty Villa here in Southern California. A balcony overlooks the road that winds up here, and from the top of the hill, I can see the ocean. The Getty Villa is a replica of an ancient upper-class Roman house. Though it accommodates fewer paintings and more sculptures than the Getty Center, the Villa still makes for relaxing yet enlightening summer fun as it focuses on one of my favorite time periods, the era of the Greeks and Romans.

J.P. Getty was inspired to build the Villa based off of the Villa of the Papyri. Though the building itself is only a replica, the Villa is home to actual pieces of pottery and shreds of fabric from that time. Spending a summer day at the Villa is more than just blindly traveling back in time–there’s a sense of pride when I’m able to recognize the story behind 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. The culture is alive as I recall what I’ve learned from Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and Sophocles’ “The Three Theban Plays” (as well as the very enjoyable Percy Jackson series).

I gaze at the Greek and Roman coins, stamped with the faces of the gods and goddesses. There’s a coin of Athena seated on her throne holding a little winged creature and another featuring a 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 as the Greeks would have done. 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 displayed in the nude.

Statue of Hercules

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. I am well aware of the tragedy that happened to the princess, the prophet of disaster and seductress of men–I suppose I just want to hear the tale again. The myths are tangible here in a different perspective and 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 at sculptures and paintings and tapestries even though I already know the stories behind them. Seeing it firsthand at the Villa is a priceless experience where real, living pieces of history embody the ideas of the deities–or perhaps it is the other way round.

Statues of Hermes in the Villa garden