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“Reconsidering "Hyperreality": ‘Roman’ Houses and their Gardens (1892-1974)

Katharine T. von Stackelberg

Umberto Eco’s seminal essay Hyperreality (1986) used the Getty Museum in Malibu, a replica of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, as a paradigmatic example of his thesis that America inherently needed to create sites of historical ‘Disneyfication’ to offset an ingrained cultural alienation. The term ‘hyperreal’ is now generally associated with sites that take anachronistic decorative styles and eclectically recombine into environments that claim to surpass mimicry by creating a fully immersive experience. Hyperreality is therefore a useful lens through which to examine the reintegration of classical tropes into the domestic architecture of late 19th and early 20th America. Specifically, this paper discusses three sites where hyperreality extended beyond the boundaries of the built artifact into the garden environment: the Pompeia, New York (1892); Crowninshield, Delaware (1924); the Getty Villa, California (1974).

The synaesthetic properties of gardens afford these sites a kind of ultra-hyperreality that underscores their appropriation of the past into the present. By their botanical nature gardens are time sensitive (von Stackelberg 2009). Each of these sites uses its greenspace to express different permutations of hyperreality in their architectural appropriation of the Roman past into a contemporary present. The Pompeia, a reproduction of the House of Pansa in Pompeii, emphasizes its verisimilitude by adapting its hortus and viridarium to contemporary tastes. The estate of Louise du Pont Crowninshield superimposes a ‘Roman ruin’ garden onto a 19th century industrial site. The Getty Villa reflects the expansive boosterism of 20th century California by incorporating five gardens into its recreation of the Villa of the Papyri. By taking into consideration the dialogue between built space and grown space, hyperreal spaces such as the Getty Villa demonstrate an ongoing, living relationship with the classical past that stands in opposition to the static and sterile imitation posited by Umberto Eco. All three sites actively engaged with the cultural concerns and tensions of their era: the Pompeia as edutainment that validated American ascendance, the Crowinshield ‘Roman’ ruin as a meditation on America’s industrial-military complex, the Getty Villa lauding the imperial reach of steel and oil in an age of recession and energy-crisis.

Following Eco, encounters with hyperreal environments have to date retained his derogatory implication of an artificial, counterfeit simulation that only exists to compensate for an absence of the real thing. The House of Octavius Quartio in Pompeii was condemned as an example of ‘kitsch Disneyfication’ by John Clarke (1991), echoing Paul Zanker’s unflattering assessment of the site (1979), for utilizing the tropes of the Roman villa, without actually being a villa. That a recreation of the Villa of the Papyri from Herculaneum and a real Roman house should provoke such similar responses indicates that the potential of hyperreal environments to provoke a response their occupants is not determined by objective authenticity. To consider hyperreal the within the spectrum of authentic/fake ignores its function in creating made places and imaginative portals. Instead of assessing modern sites that make use of classical tropes by the success or failure of their authenticity, structures and spaces that partake of the hyperreal might better be considered as a form of enchaînement, a socially anchored process of deliberate breakage and reuse that uses recombined fragments to maintain and generate social networks. The Pompeia, Crowinshield ‘Roman ruin’ and Getty Villa all recombined elements of Roman domestic space to generate encounters and ideas in different permutations, all three sites projected the difficult present onto the less volatile past. They are less an expression of cultural alienation, than of a culture in the process of generating new ways to perceive itself.

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Re-Creating the House of Pansa

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