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Garden Remembrance

February 15, 1987

Spring is showing in the gardens of the J. Paul Getty Museum--daffodils, bearded iris, flax, anemones, sweet peas, stocks and calendulas in flower, Madonna lilies putting up new spikes. The scene must be much as it was in the spring of the year 79 at the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, the last spring before Vesuvius erupted and buried Herculaneum and Pompeii.

The museum building was inspired by that villa, and the museum garden is as faithful a reproduction of the villa garden as scholars have been able to contrive--not an easy task, according to Denis L. Kurutz, who did the job. He is with Emmet L. Wemple and Associates, landscape architects.

Among the most helpful sources that he found were the writings of two who lived at the time of the disaster, and a fresco painted a century before. Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption from across the Bay of Naples, maintained a detailed narrative of his work with his gardener in maintaining his own garden. Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician and pharmacologist who served with Nero's troops, completed a formidable treatise on about 600 plants of the Mediterranean just two years before the eruption. And of particular utility was the fresco from the garden room of the villa of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Emperor Augustus. The fresco is now in the National Museum in Rome, showing in masterful detail and elegant color the fruit trees, shrubs and flowers of the period.

"We're a little foggier than Herculaneum," Kurutz explained as he reviewed some of the compromises that went into the planting. Japanese boxwood rather than European boxwood is used in the main garden. Steven B. Cutting, assistant grounds superintendent in charge of the gardens, has reluctantly replaced most of the Pompeii roses, Rosa damascena bifera, whose rank growth threatened to take over the entire planting area, with an equally historic rose, Rosa gallica officinalis, that dates to the 12th Century BC. But the commitment to authenticity remains, illustrated by the quick removal several years ago of Japanese azaleas introduced by one gardener seeking to bring a little extra color to the gardens.

Kurutz makes at least one tour of the garden each year to monitor the effectiveness of the plan, but he is no longer concerned about the introduction of inappropriate exotic material because of the seriousness with which Cutting takes his task as head of the operation. Cutting himself delves into the literature to check before making elaborations of the plantings. He has some problems that were unknown at Villa dei Papiri, however. The main peristyle garden at the Getty Museum is constructed on the roof of the garage, with as little as 12 inches of soil for the plants in some areas. There may be a historic paradox in the fact that he is now trying to improve the water and oxygen penetration of the Malibu hillside soil by introducing volcanic cinders.

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