Interesting Details at Getty Villa

For those who do not know, Getty Museum hosts a world-class collection of Western Arts in two locations, one is the sleek and modern Getty Center overlooking the Los Angeles basin, and the other is the Getty Villa, the original musuem on the Pacific coast in Malibu. A few weeks ago, I visited both, with the latter being the first time.

Getty Villa Outer Peristyle
Center View of Pool Corridor

Getty Villa is modeled after Villa dei Papiri, a first century Roman villa that got buried during the same Mt. Vesuvius eruption that engulfed Pompeii. The most iconic view of Getty Villa is its outer Peristyle with a long reflection pool wrapped by columned porch. While taking these photos, I congratulated myself for signing up for an early arrival as the garden is very tranquil and magical in the soft morning light with only a few tourists. What I was not prepared for, however, were the following architectural details that reminded me of similar treatments in traditional Chinese gardens.

For example, the walls are lined with open windows of various lattice designs. In China these are called “Leaky Windows” (漏窗) since they let in rain and air. These do serve a functional purpose of ventilation, but the lattice work elevates them to artistic garden features. Here are some photos from The Getty Villa (top row) and The Surging Waves Pavilion (沧浪亭) in Suzhou, China (bottom row):

Window 1 Window 2 Window 3
Suzhou Win 1 Suzhou Win 2 Suzhou Win 3

The ceilings at Getty are also well decorated with two styles of carved flowers alternating, as shown on left below. To its right is an example from the Summer Palace (颐和园) in Beijing. Why are the floral theme and square grids so similar?

Ceiling decor at Getty Villa Ceiling Decor in Summer Palace

The most surprising similarity is these trompe-l’oeil murals covering the top half of the walls. Getty’s murals have uniform composition and a lot of common elements, yet there are also fine details that are unique to each panel, such as little birds and small lizards.

Mural at Getty Villa Mural Detail

Here is one mural from the Summer Palace in Beijing:

Summer Palace Mural 2

What I find amazing is that both Roman and Chinese artisans chose to incorporate images of antique vases in their murals. My guess is that these vases add a sense of age and elegance and their simple forms were perfect for demonstrating 3-D shading and perspectives.

Now what about all these similarities? Believe it or not, there is active study on the trades and connections between the Roman Empire and the Chinese Han Dynasty. Chinese silk and Roman glass did manage to reach the other party via land and sea. A lot of the Chinese architectural details I showed can be traced back to that era, although very few hard evidence still remain since the Chinese built mostly with wood that did not last as long as the Roman’s stone works. It is quite likely that these design ideas were shared among the two greatest civilizations of that period, but who first came up with the ideas may have lost in history forever. Those ideas might have been independently developed after all, similar to convergent evolution in plants. For us it is just simple joy to happen upon these parallels.