Villa de Papyri in … Malibu?
Ericka and I were in LA last week to celebrate her birthday and ring in the new year. As a part of our trip we visited the Getty Villa in Malibu. Built in the early 1970’s, the Getty Villa is a recreation of the Villa de Papyri in Herculaneum, which was buried in ash and mud by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Main Courtyard and Peristyle - Getty Villa, Malibu
We had a fantastic time touring the grounds and watching the sun set over the Pacific. Although the exhibition does not include any information or artifacts from the library of Herculaneum, there is a wide assortment of Greek and Roman statuary, pottery and metal work on display.
Statue of a Muse - c. 200 CE - Getty Villa, Malibu
Visiting the villa puts the manuscript finds from Herculaneum into context and gives you a sense of how wealthy and privileged the owners of the original villa were (Getty was no slouch either!). There is also something compelling about seeing the layout of the building with your own eyes and comparing that image to the maps of the manuscript finds from Herculaneum that is incredibly helpful. Having the opportunity to see some priceless works of art from the Greco-Roman world doesn’t hurt either!
Mosaic of Boxers - c. 175 CE - Getty Villa, Malibu
There were, of course, many objects on display that shed light on the literacy of the times, (i.e., inscriptions on sarcophagi, statues, pottery, coins, etc.), but there were precious few objects that specifically shed light on the writing and book culture of the ancient world. One of the few that did was a relief of the age-old tug of war between myth and science:
Philosophers Plate - c. 550 CE (possibly later) - Getty Villa, Malibu
In the relief above, an Egyptian version of Hermes, (on the right), argues for the merits of myth while his scientifically minded opponent, Ptolemaios, takes notes in a diptych (i.e., a two paneled notebook coated in beeswax). Between the two disputants is a globe and behind Ptolemaios is a woman with a scroll in her hand named Skepsis. Hermes and the mysterious bearded figure at the top of the plate are also holding scrolls, although it is unclear who the latter is meant to represent. Might this be an artistic representation of the scholars of the Museum, the Library of Alexandria’s famous community of literati, or is it simply a generic image of scholarly debate and intellectual inquiry from the ancient world? However we interpret it, the representation of scrolls, a diptych, a stylus, and an intellectual debate, not to mention the writing on the plate itself, serve to illuminate the book culture and literacy of the world being depicted as well as the world of the artisan who created the plate and those who owned it.