When we visited the Getty Villa, I was particularly drawn to the Cycladic exhibition of figures and pottery, not only for their artistic merit but also for their age and impact on the Mediterranean world. The Cyclades are an island chain between Greece and Turkey and north of Crete. Along with the Minoans and Mycenaeans, the Cycladic people are counted among the three major Aegean cultures. Cycladic Sculpture therefore comprises one of the three main branches of Aegean art. The first archaeological excavations of the 1880s were followed by systematic work by the British School at Athens and by Christos Tsountas, who investigated burial sites on several islands in 1898-99 and coined the term “Cycladic Civilization”. Interest then lagged, but picked up in the mid-20th century, as collectors competed for the modern-looking figures that seemed so similar to sculpture by Jean Arp or Constantin Brâncuși. Sites were looted and a brisk trade in forgeries arose. The context for many of these Cycladic Figurines has thus been mostly destroyed; their meaning may never be completely understood. What is known is that they were often painted, possibly used as idols and were often included in grave goods. They date to the second and third millennia BCE (3300-2000 BCE), end of the Neolithic and beginning of the Bronze Age.
The first examples of man-made glass date only to the last quarter of the 3rd millennium BC when glass beads were first made in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first ancient glass vessels were made in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt. These were made by molding on a mud or sand core which was made in the shape of the desired vessel. Viscous glass was applied to this core. The surface of the vessel was then decorated with threads of colored glass and teased into decorative patterns. The piece was then rolled on a flat surface and a handle and a base were added. The colours used in this early period suggest that the makers were trying to imitate precious stones such as lapis-lazuli and turquoise. The manufacture of glass vessels began at approximately the same time in Egypt and in northern Mesopotamia but it appears that the core technique was invented in Mesopotamia and introduced into Egypt later. The high-point of ancient Egyptian glass came in the El Amarna period (first half of the 14th century BC). The beautiful glass eye shown above, made of glass and gypsum is among the oldest glass objects in the world.
I have previously written on Roman perfume bottles and the importance of glass in the Roman Empire. Perfume was also central to ancient Greek life. It was so popular that the politician Solon temporarily banned the use of it to prevent an economic crisis. It was at the center of hospitality, wealth, status, daily life and even philosophy. It was seen as erotic, mystical and spiritual. It was linked to beauty which was inextricably linked with divinity. The origins of perfume and perfumery are interwoven with Greek mythology. In Homeric tradition, the Olympian gods taught perfumery to people. The color and scent of the rose is attributed to events surrounding Venus and Cupid. Lekuthos were used for liquid perfume and were slim elegant glass bottles. Aryballes were used for oils and unguents. Alabastron perfume bottles were highly prized, mainly among women and it was common for the craftsmen to brand the bottles to mark their craftsmanship, making them even more collectable. Even so, terracotta vessels, metal or alabaster were the most common materials for scented oil. The exquisite perfume vessel shown above is a exaleiptron (an older name was plemochoa) used for storing large amounts of perfume, possibly for washing and anointing the feet of visitors. The exaleiptron has religious significance in that it was used during the Eleusinian Mysteries when, on the last day they filled two plemochoai and set them up one to the east, one to the west, and then overturned them, saying mystic words as they did so. They were also used as grave goods.
Perfumes have been known to exist in some of the earliest human civilizations, either through ancient texts or from archaeological digs. The word perfume used today derives from the Latin “per fumum”, meaning “through smoke”, probably referring to frankincense and myrrh. Perfumery, or the art of making perfumes, began in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt and was further refined by the Romans and Persians. Scent was also an important factor of beauty. Women who smelled good were presumed to be healthy. Due to the stench of many of the ingredients used in cosmetics at the time, women often drenched themselves in copious amounts of perfume. Perfumes were very popular in Ancient Rome. In fact, they were so heavily used that Cicero claimed that, “The right scent for a woman is none at all.” They came in liquid, solid and sticky forms and were often created in a ground process with flowers or herbs and oil. Deodorants made from alum, iris and rose petals were common. The glass perfume container to the right above was created with glass rods of different colors and then swirled to create this pattern. This would have been a very expensive flask, for an upperclass woman and for me, one of the stars of this post.
The Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy from the first century. The building was constructed in the early 1970s by architects who worked closely with J. Paul Getty to develop the interior and exterior details. Buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, much of the Villa dei Papiri remains unexcavated. Therefore, architects based many of the Museum's architectural and landscaping details on elements from other ancient Roman houses in the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. Gardens are integral to the setting of the Getty Villa, as they were in the ancient Roman home, and include herbs and shrubs inspired by those grown in ancient Roman homes for food and ceremony. It opened in 1974, but was never visited by Getty, who died in 1976. Following his death, the museum inherited $661 million and began planning a much larger campus, the Getty Center, in nearby Brentwood which opened in 1997. The museum overcame neighborhood opposition to its new campus plan by agreeing to limit the total size of the development on the Getty Center site. To meet the museum's total space needs, the museum decided to split between the two locations with the Getty Villa housing the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. The Villa was closed in 1997 for renovations and has only reopened in 2006.