"To understand the religions, philosophies and politics of ancient civilizations is also important. However, to stare into the face of an art form, which was created by the hands of one who participated in that culture, is a different experience altogether."


williamsUniversal Truths from Ancient Beauty
Troy Turner

trunerBased in Venice, California, Troy is the Senior Editor of the modern industrial design blog Yanko Design, and Studio Director of the creative digital agency The Branding Farm.

My feelings ranged from apathy to concern upon entering the gates to the museum. I have been to the Getty Villa three times already in the past three years; therefore, the inspirational power of the architecture and gardens was endangered by repetition.

I had to find the voice of the past through other media that, deny as I might have, did not speak to me with a voice as clear as those of the murmuring fountains. I had to face the lifeless bodies, the contours of marble and bronze, which compose the statues and busts of Greco-Roman life. A Picasso can give new life to my sense of perception. A building designed by Gerhey challenges my static imagination. But what do these faces and forms say? They are a representation of everything physical, and therefore everything ephemeral. What are those people really staring at from beneath the feet of these broken figures? Where are the ideas communicated? In the variance of shape, detail, and emphasis? A heavy red brushstroke speaks worlds of ideas to the soul. What was it that was missing in my approach? Certainly not the desire to be affected, since that would be contrary to my nature. So my apprehension arose not from a fear of misunderstanding the message of those ancient artists, but rather from an impending realization of my own inability to feel. This was my dilemma, as it has been before every visit, and as it will be probably for many more; however, I did not anticipate that this latest visit to the Getty Villa would change my perception, bring me a step closer to that aesthetic appreciation for the Villa and its artworks that I yearned to feel.

The main garden is powerful without words. It extends beyond the limited bounds of simple opulence (a refreshing change from the architecture found almost everywhere else in Malibu). Sitting on the bench at the end of the long corridor in the garden, I found the meaning to the hackneyed expression "balance." Balance means more than equality in arrangement (a column for a column, a bench for a bench, a line for a line). Balance is found in the sensory experience and the abstract terms we apply to describe those sensations. Therefore, it is a balance of abstractions: The space is enclosed (surrounded by walls), yet completely open. The actual Villa is assimilated with the landscape (especially the surrounding trees); however, by definition a building is the separation from the open land. But the Villa’s repetition of shapes and sizes is strictly enforced, yet it is free in its application. Inside, the artworks’ perfection of arrangement leans toward the ideal, but paintings along the walls are beautifully realistic. The display of various artworks is planned, yet whimsical. A perfect metaphor for this balance evident in the architecture of the Villa can be found as you sit on a bench along the sidewall of either corridor. The building controls your perception. What it allows you to see is a backdrop of various trees mixing randomly up to the sky. Below are the columns of the opposite wall from the sections of the building. Below that, the garden returns to the color green with even more accentuated curves and entangling. Throughout the center of this whole scene of static balance runs a blue pool, constantly moving, separating, and bringing together the separate halves as well. Intricacies of construction and perception imply grandeur. The ability, or for that matter the desire, to capture such complexities in a mansion or a simpler place to live can be attained for those who have the money. Roman society, like all societies, suffered from a social stratification more complex than one simply based on wealth. Patricians, descendants of the "true" early Romans, asserted their social superiority over plebeians—who were basically everyone else. This system was based on birth rather than wealth, and held out for a while until gradual peaceful change encouraged a greater sense of equality.

Daily life for a patrician who may have occupied a villa such as the one reconstructed here in Malibu would have varied from the common man. The emphasis on detail and simplicity of design parallels the opulence of life and the simplicity of living for a wealthy aristocrat in the Ancient World.

I tried to imagine a typical day for those living in a grand home such as the Getty Villa. The men would have business and social affairs in the city during the day, and would consider this opulent home as a place to return to, a place to rule as their own, and a place to symbolize their social importance. While Roman women enjoyed more liberties than the women in many other cultures, it was hard for me to imagine the daily life of the wives and daughters of the wealthy men who would live in the Villa. What did they do all day long in that house, which displayed elegance on a far greater scale than comfort? I imagined walks in the garden, many of them. I imagined prayers offered to the gods in the home. I imagined a peaceful life echoed by the sound of the fountains. Then I imagined excess. I looked into one of the rooms off the center courtyard and saw an elaborate meal, with people reclining, laughing, drinking wine and experiencing the fullness of a decadent life. I felt the Roman vigor and individualism in a new way, without actually knowing what the Villa’s occupants did in that great house in a day.

During my perambulations, I found a mixture of three types of columns in the Villa. Along the length of the main pool run the Doric columns. At the front entrance and the rear to the front room are a limited number of Corinthian columns. I thought these contrast nicely with the more diminutive, plain Doric columns, which are found in a greater number. The Doric columns establish the strict lines of the two corridors that lead to the main building. They also mimic the restrained masculine appearance of the whole main garden in contrast to the surrounding landscape, which seems lushly feminine. The Corinthian columns' more massive size and greater detail set off the entrance to the main house. They establish the grandeur of the building; however, their reserved use keeps them from becoming overwhelming. Ionic columns surround the center garden, and also contrast with a few Corinthian columns on the backside of the entrance.

Ionic columns, which are named for Greeks from Ionia, are more feminine than the strict Doric column, also named for their inventors. The ancient Egyptians, who first established fluted columns, interestingly, influenced all Greek architects. The Ionic column is further influenced by the culture of Asia Minor, focusing on a more refined, slightly more elaborate column. Doric and Ionic columns side by side reveal the accomplishment of the Greeks. The Greek concept of excellence sought a similar balance between the masculine and the feminine, the warrior and the tender man, reason and inclination, order and chaos. The ability of the Dorians and Ionians to live together in Athens was a result of this search for balance, of which the Athenians were proud.

The Greek concept of excellence is also evident in the statue of “The Victorious Athlete Crowning Himself,” which looms large despite the athlete’s diminutive size. In studying this one piece I felt the message of the artist in a way I had not before for most Greco-Roman statuary art, as I stated earlier. As I confronted the figure, I looked at his body. What was there? He seemed realistic to me, although I knew he was an example of Greek idealism in art. The very subject of an athlete establishes the main idea. Athletics in Greece was important for men because athletics requires dedication and determination. Not only would it form, in physical terms, a more ideal body, but also a more ideal life. Young men took the task seriously and incorporated it into normal social life. Their humanistic faith in themselves was exercised in their athletic achievements.

I found the message of excellence in the statue’s essence. I saw in his face the eternal expression of victory and also something between humility and happiness. He was by no means humble, but there was gentleness in his expression, which provided balance to victory in a completion of excellence. His mouth revealed a quiet satisfaction in the beginning of a smile, which arises from a balance in Greek life. Even his posture was balanced in the contrasting triangles formed by bent arms against a crooked body. The body was in a fixed pose, which carries with it these ideals of physical triumph and assurance. The artist did not capture the athlete in some dynamic action as a Hellenistic sculptor may have done. Rather, this artist found most significance in the completion of the task, and the rewards of not only victory in the competition, but also the rewards of a balanced life.

However, I was, perhaps, most interested in the artifacts from daily life of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Particularly a small skeleton pin made of bronze from the 1st century CE. The museum description read: "Images of skeletons reminded Greeks and Romans that life was short and should be enjoyed." I found this notion particularly fascinating because it reveals a difference of perception and custom from the ancient to the modern world. By the person who wrote the description, it is assumed that the pin would have been worn as an "amusing charm." But the Greeks and Romans’ shared attitude toward death, represented in this little comical skeleton, seems to me to be either scientific models or scary reminders of death or demons. Today a skeleton charm would be worn on Halloween; however, it would be considered strange on any other day of the year. If it was a reminder of the impermanence of life, the skeleton also says something about the idea of death. We fear death. We have prolonged life and made revolutionary developments to protect it from the foe: death. Today, we seem to see death in more scientific terms, just as we see the representation of death in a skeleton.

The humanism of the Greeks and Romans put more emphasis on the accomplishments of man here on this earth. While we have faith in many things including religion, country, science, and so on, our faith in man as the measure of all things may not be so immense. The comic little face of the skeleton seems to laugh at death, or perhaps it was death, which was laughing at life, which continues despite the inevitability of death. Whichever, it reminded them of the importance of living while there is life.

The Roman portrait sculpture that attracted my attention above all of the rest was the Portrait of an Antonine Woman (150 CE). She stood (on a pedestal—not feet, of course) in the back corner of the portrait gallery peering out from behind a myriad of much stronger, much more dominant faces and figures. She caught my eye because she possesses a quality which none of the other portraits seem to possess: delicacy. While she does not portray the strong Roman qualities of liveliness and action, she does embody the Roman interest in personalization and opulence. Ironically, she can be easily contrasted with the idealistic sculptures of the Greeks, while maintaining an overwhelming sense of idealism of her own. She is idealistic because her beauty is realistically captured. The sculptor used different textures for the skin, hair and clothes to create a greater sense of reality.

To me, the greatest realistic accomplishment is the capturing of the female face. Other portraits of women in that same room reveal more masculine features, as if the artists used the bone structure of a male face and simply changed some features to make a female. The Antonine woman has a delicacy to her face, which uniquely captures her femininity. The lines are softer along the face, the lips seem softer, and the eyebrows are inlayed with specific detail. The expression is dramatic yet realistic. As a result, the overall affect is, somehow, one of affluence: luxury.

The Lid of a Cinerary Urn from Volterra (110-80 BCE) is one of my favorites of the Etruscan works. The figure is carved out of limestone. It is used as a cover for the ashes of a deceased man. It depicts a male (although later changed into a female by adding different clothes) reclining on a couch with a pomegranate in his hand. Etruscan funerary practices resemble those of the Ancient Egyptians, in that the Entruscans buried the deceased in a mound of earth raised over a grave, which formed a necropolis. Inside the grave the Etruscans left everything a soul would need for its next life. The man on the urn is depicted in a comfortable position, just as one would want to be in the next life, and in this position, the Etruscans believed they could be ready for that next life, if they were sufficiently prepared.

The miniature stature of this man is a perfect example of Etruscan art. The man is not at all ideal. He is disproportionate. His head and facial features are larger than his body. His figure is heavy and not athletic. He is the opposite of what was being produced in Archaic Greece, and he was a precursor to what would come in Rome. The Etruscan art is more dynamic, lively and realistic than Greek art. The man has an animated quality, which contrasts with any form of idealism. Perhaps he is meant to ensure happiness in the next life, because his animism has a lighthearted quality, especially for a funerary statue. He seems jovial, and viewed from the side, his smile is apparent. His disproportions also support this comic, lighthearted quality.

The figure also embodies the Etruscan element of energy and movement. The figure is apparently in the process of enjoying a meal, reclining on his couch. Energy can also be less literally found in the form. The lines of his robe flow with greater movement than the stricter lines of Greek statuary. They are less exact, but that is their identifying quality—they are dynamic, animated and full of life.

I became hypnotized by one particular mosaic in the Villa. It was a Roman floor mosaic from the 2nd century CE. The mosaic was composed of stone pieces. It depicted a scene from the Trojan War described in Homer's Iliad. It is interesting that the Romans in the 2nd century were still concerned with the old Greek legend and continued to be for so long.

The stones depict a scene from The Iliad, in which the hero Achilles mourns the loss of Briseis, his captured lover. The sad-faced Achilles leans on his lyre with his tutor above him. The mosaic is ornate because it is so intricate, but not too elaborate. It is realistic (as realistic as a mosaic may be); however it has abstract shapes in the background that I am not familiar with in other Roman art. It uses earth-tone colors, and in many different shades. It served for the owner as a floor covering. This shows the elaborate function of art in the Roman world. The Romans were concerned with appearance, perhaps even more so than content. Romans covered concrete with marble veneers as opposed to using solid marble because they were practical, yet concerned with outer appearance. That someone had the time and money to have his floor covered with such intricate mosaics says something about Roman lifestyle and custom.

The mosaic further reflects the importance of legend in Roman life. Homer, if he even composed The Iliad at all, composed it around 750 BCE. Almost a thousand years later people of different civilizations are still concerned with the same oral traditions and legacies. To the Romans legend was important because it fulfilled their curiosity concerning history, and served as an explanation for their lives. Perhaps it was more important to them than history is to a modern man. I can't say that I have ever seen a floor depicting a scene from Waterloo.

I accomplished the task I set out to do in my visit to the Getty Villa, and this was not simply to gather information or even bask in the peace and quiet. I found in the face of the “Victorious Athlete Crowning Himself,” in the smile of the Etruscan man, in the delicate expression of the Antonine woman, the meaning and essence of an art form, which for some unknown reason had evaded me previously. In the past, I could stare at a statue for an hour, and during this time actually be sensing something more than mere representation of physical form. And of course, during this time, I was fascinated with the lines, the choices that the sculptor made in forming every part of the figure, and ultimately the ability to express ideas and create specific sensations through a lifeless body. However, the meaning and essence of art forms eluded me. Now, it did not. Perhaps my new knowledge of the intent of artists from specific time periods aided in my discovery, but I came to understand, during my visit, that art speaks without understanding of intention. And it speaks, remarkably, across a sea of centuries.

The visit exceeded my admittedly low expectations. My new understanding of Greco-Roman life has now been joined with an understanding of perception and ideas. To study a culture from a text is important. To understand the religions, philosophies and politics of ancient civilizations is also important. However, to stare into the face of an art form, which was created by the hands of one who participated in that culture, is a different experience altogether. Can I, as a modern man, truly understand the art of Ancient Greece or Rome? Is my perception so inalterably different as to confuse complete understanding? Probably. However, I may learn something about myself in the process. I may see my own perception of life when trying to understand the perceptions of others, of people from a world that has been buried by centuries of change. In discovering the ancient conception of truth and the world, through their art, I am simultaneously discovering the roots of my own perception.