Every time I go to the Getty Museum
i see something that lights up some part of my brain with "aha!" or "wow!".
So this weekend when I went to the Getty Villa, which is where the antiquities are kept, in a huge villa styled after the home of Gaius Julius Caeser's father-in-law's house in Herculaneum. It's on the site in Malibu where the Getty ranch was, the original site for Getty's museum of art in his home, open to the public. It's just as remarkable as the other Getty architecturally - and perched on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific. One enters, climbs stairs then comes back down through an ampitheatre to get to the villa's main entrance through a Roman style forum. The entire journey entails a lot of up-and-down, which I discovered today is intentional. The architects wanted people to "experience the site as an archaeological excavation, every perspective offering new discoveries." Mostly I was really tired and foot-sore and didn't like all the damn climbing. I didn't have any particularly strong "wow!" moments (though the detail that ancient gem-cutters would carve scenes into the faces of rings was pretty impressive) - but I had a few "Aha!" moments. For one, Christianity was a disaster for art. Roman portraiture had followed the Greek model - in its most archaic incarnation paintings and busts were remarkably life-like, not idealizing the subjects at all, and having an almost photo-realistic quality that expressed the subject's character very clearly - with both beauty and flaws, like real people have. (Note - please remember me like this, as I am, not with all the flaws burnished off. Shit, what would you have left?) But as Christianity spread throughout the Empire, portraiture and statuary became less and less realistic, and more idealized. At first it was still realistic, but with the subject's attractive qualities smoothed over their flaws. Eventually it descended into flat, dimension-less idealization that looked nothing like real life and became almost cartoon-like. One can see the process of realistic dimensions and perspective disappearing from art - until finally there's the Middle-Ages where artists completely forgot perspective and had to re-learn everything.
The history geek in me was also interested to see Roman mummies. Roman centurions were often rewarded with land - but when land ran out in the Italian peninsula, they were granted lands in various fertile places where it would serve Rome to have steely-eyed veterans living in largish numbers. One of those places was Egypt - and after a hundred years or so, the Roman ex-pats adopted Egyptian burial practices, having themselves mummified. They kept the Roman practice of making death portraits though - and had their faces painted onto wood which was put over their mummified faces. When the linen wrappings were covered in red wax ( unique to Romans) the covering was scraped off the portrait. After about 300 years though, Christianity took hold and the idea of preserving the body for the afterlife fell out of favor. In the mean time, there are a lot of death portraits still extant, and they stylistically draw a clear relationship between Roman portraiture and the religion icons of the Byzantine empire.
Still, I was underwhelmed - but maybe it was just because I was incredibly tired. I certainly learned some stuff - seeing a timeline with the alleged time of the "Age of Heroes" - and then realizing that Homer and co. were writing about it 800 years later made visceral what I had previously only known academically. I mean, imagine someone were to write epic stories about crusaders, and hold them up as modern-day ideals to model one's life and political aspirations after. That would be madness, right? No one is THAT crazy...