In its setting, landscaping, architecture, and art collection, the J. Paul Getty Museum is unique in America. Outside and inside, the museum is designed to delight and stimulate visitors, especially those devoted to art, aesthetics, archaeology, and history. Nowhere at the Getty is there a trace of eccentricity. Of course, the Getty epitomizes the power of wealth, but everything is so refined that only leftist cynics will find reasons to complain. What to me is utterly commendable about America and Americans is the pervasive spirit of democracy. Although Mr. Getty amassed extraordinary riches, his museum in Malibu, California, remains a monument to all of mankind. Tycoons less philanthropic than he have hoarded their treasures. Except for the name of the museum, there are no reminders (besides Getty’s manifestly excellent taste in art) of whose philanthropy made possible the magnificent Roman villa housing his fabulous art collection.

From its location on a hill overlooking the Pacific, the Getty affords visitors a view reminiscent of that enjoyed from the Neapolitan hill San Martino. From San Martino, the view is perhaps the most beautiful in the entire world: to one side is the end of the Appenines, dotted with an occasional Mediterranean pine; Naples stretches below to where the blue of the Mediterranean gently curves in on the land; and there, in the distance, is Vesuvius. This sight from Naples is the epitome of earth, air, water, and fire. Often a wisp of smoke is seen rising from the Vesuvius. From the Roman Empire to our age, all sorts of people—including Keats, Shelley, and Goethe—have paused in and around San Martino to marvel at this feat of nature: La piu bella veduta, as it is said in Italian. No wonder that when Neapolitan views of Vesuvius appear at auction, they are snapped up instantly. Those who have marveled at the view from San Martino will have a sense of déjà vu while standing at the Getty.

Mr. Getty envisioned such a museum as he trekked all over the Italian Mezzogiorno, the archaeological paradise around Naples that includes Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1892, Getty spent most of his life in Europe, beginning his 30 years of art collecting in the 1930’s. From the outset, Mr. Getty focused his attentions upon three spheres of art—Greek and Roman antiquities, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, and French 18th-century decorative arts. In all these areas, the present-day Getty Museum excels. Before his death in England in 1976, he had painstakingly put together a collection that reminds us of the Borghese, Doria-Pamphilj, Farnese, and de Medici collections. Most of these formidable Italian collections of art are housed in Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo palaces. An infinitely smaller collection of antiquities, also comparable to Getty’s, is to be seen in the restored Villa of Tiberius on the isle of Capri, all of it put together by Axel Munthe, the Scandinavian doctor who made a fortune with his book The Story of San Michele.

The antiquities at the Getty are staggering. In a reception area, for instance, I counted more than a score of Roman marble heads, all very handsome, on three massive shelves. The Getty Bronze by Lysippus is but one of the masterpieces among the antiquities at the Getty. Also on display as one of Getty’s acquisitions is a life-size marble after Skopas, the Lansdowne Herakles, commissioned by Emperor Hadrian for his villa near Tivoli, outside Rome. Equally impressive is the collection of 4th century B.C. Attic stelai (funerary monuments) and Greek and Roman portraits.

Given the fact that the Getty still has an annual budget of $92 million, the visitor can only speculate on what additional wonders will arrive in Malibu, California, in the years to come. So far, the consensus of analysts and art experts is that the Getty is prudent about its acquisitions. When a great work of art appears on the market, the Getty makes every reasonable effort to acquire it, as for instance when it recently purchased Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of Magi for $10.4 million at an auction at Christie’s in London, hi its discreet and decidedly unsensational approach to collecting art, the Getty maintains the personal attributes of its eminent founder. For instance, published sources report that the Getty paid more than $50 million for 144 illuminated manuscripts and leaves from the collection of Peter Ludwig, a German millionaire and celebrated art collector. But the Getty will not disclose the exact terms of the transaction.

Getty made the first moves toward making his art collection accessible to the public in the 1950’s, when he created an educational trust, administered by a board of trustees. In 1954 the Getty Museum opened for the first time in a Spanish-style house, still in existence, just north of the present museum.

But Americans are second only to the Romans in engineering ambition. The trustees, concurring with Mr. Getty that a new home for the museum was needed, decided to erect a new building modeled after the Villa dei Papiri, an impressive Roman villa in Herculancum destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. In its heyday, Herculancum was a fishing village similar to 19th-century Sagamore in Long Island. No more than 5,000 people lived in Herculancum, most devoted to fishing. But here, the affluent Romans built handsome resorts, and Villa dei Papiri was among them. And so, a patrician villa in Herculancum, seen in its ruined state, inspired an equally graceful one constructed in Malibu. Sadly, Mr. Getty did not live to see this new museum. Karl Weber, an 18th-century Swiss engineer, made detailed studies of the Villa dei Papiri, and his drawings—completed in the 1750’s—give us precise ideas of how the new Getty Museum was conceived. The architectural recreation is so authentic and so perfect in its execution that it is difficult to imagine without making a visit to the museum.

The ambience of the Getty is so authentic that while visiting, I constantly forgot that I was in California, or even the New World. The works of art, as well as their physical surroundings, seemed to transport me somewhere in the Campagna. The main peristyle garden leads to the entrance vestibule. From here, the visitor sees an inner peristyle garden. All around on the main level, the Getty collection of antiquities (considered one of the three most important in the United States) are to be found in spacious but unostentatious galleries. In the west galleries is an atrium; to its south the three galleries are the Hall of Aphrodite, Greek masterpieces, and mummy portraits. Attic Memorial Sculpture and Late Classical and Hellenistic Sculpture galleries are to the north.

Just as it is possible to feel inspired by the ancient Grecian and Roman grandeur still manifest in remote ruins—say, the Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily—so too, the visitor is stirred by the Getty. Walking through the Getty Museum, I kept thinking about Croesus, Winckelmann, Gisella Richter, Sir John Davidson Beazeley, and Mary Renault—in just that order. Getty’s fortune, derived from oil, rivaled the fabled wealth of Croesus. The revival of classical studies, spurred by excavations done around Naples, is indelibly linked to the work of Winckelmann, the eminent 18th-century German scholar of Greek painting and sculpture. Among scholars of Greek art, Gisella Richter ranks among the greatest American authorities. No one can seriously discuss Greek pottery without reference to the work of Beazeley. And to find the life of Greek civilization recreated in fiction, 20th-century readers need only pick up any of the last four books of Mary Renault.

The galleries in the north part of the Getty include the Room of Colored Marble, the Etruscan Vestibule, a Basilica, the Temple of Herakles, and finally, the Mosaics. Galleries on the upper level are devoted to Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings, French 18th-century decorative arts, as well as Flemish and Dutch paintings, manuscripts, period rooms, and one gallery for changing exhibitions.

The museum is flanked on east and west by gardens, visible to the visitor through the numerous windows and the atrium. In pursuit of authenticity, the Getty has gone so far as to procure the type of trees, flowers, shrubs, and herbs that might have been growing 2,000 years ago in the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum. I have visited Herculaneum many times: despite the thrill of breathing the very dust of antiquity, this site is today not the most congenial for an average tourist. But the recreation of the site of the Getty Museum affords intense pleasure for those who pause to enjoy the fragrances from the gardens, to listen to the humming bees, and watch the plain-clothed gardeners.

Called “the most challenging architectural project of our time” the J. Paul Getty Fine Arts Center in West Los Angeles is now being designed by the Pritzker Prize winning architect Richard Meier, based in New York City. Once completed, the new center will house the Renaissance paintings and all European works of art now found on the upper level of the Malibu museum. This transfer will leave only the antiquities in the recreated Roman villa in Malibu. Obviously, the reserve collection and much else associated with antiquities, including more Greco-Roman art and new acquisitions, will have a place all their own.

The antiquities at the Getty, especially Greek art, reminded me of Winckelmann’s famous description of classical art: “edle Einfalt und stille Grösse.” Antiquities can instill a feeling of awe within us. No matter where they are located, antiquities—some of the finest of which are now found at the Getty—provide us with a profound sense of continuity with the best of Western civilization. Such treasures restore some of the original significance to Cicero’s declaration: “There is no place more delightful than home.”