Hadrian became emperor on the death of Trajan in 117 and soon after he started
building a residence for his otium (rest/leisure, but also introspection)
on a piece of land near Tivoli owned by
the family of his wife Vibia Sabina.
Hadrian spent twelve years travelling through almost all the provinces of the Empire from Britain to Morocco, from Greece to Egypt and in the design of his villa he introduced elements which reminded him of the sites he had seen in his journeys.
Villa Adriana (as the residence is called today) was not much utilized after the death of Hadrian. Its existence was already forgotten when the Roman Empire was still alive and for more than a thousand years it was used as a quarry and a location where goats would graze.
Ruins of Villa Adriana at sunset
In the XVth century Villa Adriana was "rediscovered" and Pope Pius II briefly described it in his Commentarii (Book V - p. 38): Extra urbe ad tertium circiter milliarum, Hadrianus Imperator nobilissimam villam aedificavit. Extant adhuc templorum sublimes. (..) Vetustas omnia deformavit (..) nunc hedera vestit. (Emperor Hadrian built a very noble villa three miles from Tivoli. It had beautiful temples. (..) Time has deformed everything (..) now ivy covers it.)
First excavations aimed at finding statues and coins were conducted at the time of Pope Alexander VI. In the second half of the XVIth century Cardinal Ippolito d'Este searched the ruins for marbles and construction materials for the villa he was building at Tivoli.
And now we returned to Rome from Tivoli. By the way, we were showed, at some distance, the city Praeneste, and the Hadrian villa, now only a heap of ruins; and so came late to our lodging.
John Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence - 1645
Musei Capitolini: Mosaic of the Doves
In 1737 Giuseppe Alessandro Furietti, a prelate, conducted more careful excavations and found a fine small mosaic which fit a description by Pliny of a famous work by Sosus at Pergamum: There is a dove also, greatly admired, in the act of drinking, and throwing the shadow of its head upon the water; while other birds are to be seen sunning and pluming themselves, on the margin of a drinking-bowl.
Pliny the Elder - Historia Naturalis - Book XXXVI:60 - Translation by J. Bostock and H. T. Riley.
Furietti in 1752 published De Musivis, a book on ancient mosaics and the first plate was dedicated to that of the doves. This had a great impact on raising the general interest in mosaics. Another mosaic mentioned by Pliny was found in 1833 in Rome at Horti Serviliani, perhaps made by order of Hadrian. Furietti found also some very fine statues and this led to a new wave of excavations.
Graffiti by XVIIIth century visitors. Augustin Pajou was a French sculptor who studied at Accademia di Francia
(he is known for having completed the reliefs which decorate Fontaine des Innocents in Paris)
This too conspicuous beauty has been exposed even to worse enemies than time. Adrian's invidious successors neglected or unfurnished it. The Goths sacked it. The masons of the dark ages pounded its marbles into cement. Antiquarian popes and cardinals dug into its concealing continents, only to plunder it. Even the traveller's penknife attacks the stuccos, or the stripes painted on the vaults, and thus lays open the whole succession of "coria".
Joseph Forsyth - Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, and Letters in Italy in 1802-1803
Villa Adriana became a "must see" for XVIIIth century Grand Tour travellers and an inscription celebrates the visit made by Austrian Emperor Joseph II and his brother Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany in March 1769. Other less famous visitors are remembered by their signatures on the stucco vaults of some buildings.
The Fede family, to whom most of Villa Adriana belonged in the XVIIIth century, gave it its current appearance; they cleared the weeds and planted olive and pine trees and a long alley of cypresses. Although Hadrian had designed formal gardens, these trees induce the right spirit for visiting the villa; the ancient buildings, fountains and porticoes were not aimed at impressing, but more at eliciting feelings of harmony and peacefulness.
In 1924 Marguerite Cleenewerck de Crayencour, a young Belgian lady, visited Villa Adriana for the first time. Nearly thirty years later, under the nom de plume of Marguerite Yourcenar, she wrote Memoirs of Hadrian, a novel about the life of the Emperor which she first thought of during the mornings she spent at Villa Adriana. You may wish to see a page with excerpts from that novel and late autumn views of the villa which complements those in this page.
(left) Terrace of Poecile (aka Poikile), the name of a decorated porch in the Ancient AgorÓ of Athens, where Stoic philosophers used to meet;
(right) Cento Camerelle (One Hundred Small Rooms)
On approaching it, I saw ruins overgrown with trees and bushes - mixt-reticular walls stretching along the side of a hill, in all the confusion of a demolished town. (..) On proceeding, however, its extent and its variety opened before me - baths, academies, porticos, a library, a palestra, a hippodrome, a menagery, a naumachia, an aqueduct, theatres, both Greek and Latin, temples for different rites, every appurtenance suitable to an imperial seat. Forsyth
Villa Adriana is not a royal palace, but rather a university campus. Its terraces have different orientations; some have a view towards Rome, others towards Tivoli or the Castelli Romani. There is not an evident hierarchy among the buildings: the smaller ones are not aligned in order to emphasize the larger ones.
It is evident by the many porticoes which flanked the terraces that Hadrian enjoyed wandering along them with his friends, as Aristotle and the other peripatetic philosophers used to do in Athens.
At first sight one does not realize that the terraces are to a great extent artificial and are supported by imposing substructures which were used to house the many servants who worked at the villa.
(left) A curved wall projecting from Philosophers' Hall (you may wish to compare it with the fašade
of Borromini's S. Maria dei Sette Dolori); (right) detail of the Doric Atrium
Trilithon (three stones - two vertical stones supporting a horizontal one) is a characteristic of the early architecture from Ancient Greece to Stonehenge and it applies in a more general sense to all buildings erected by placing large stones one upon the other. Trilithon was not much employed at Villa Adriana which is a celebration of Roman masonry skills and in particular of opus reticulatum, a thick wall made up of small blocks of tufa or bricks arranged along diagonal lines. Even where the design follows the Greek trilithon pattern, pilasters and entablatures have a brickwork inner structure.
(left) Temple to Venus of Cnidus (a lost sanctuary to Venus in Caria), housing a famous statue of the goddess by Praxiteles); (right) the Canopus, a reference to an Egyptian harbour
in the outskirts of Alexandria which housed a temple to Serapis
According to the reconstructed model of Villa Adriana, some buildings were preceded by a small porch having on top the traditional Greek triangular tympanum. As a matter of fact all these porches do not exist any longer, so that curved shapes definitely prevail on straight lines. In the Canopus even the classic entablature is disrupted; the new resulting shape is known as Serliana, after the Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio who described it in a treatise. It can be noticed also in a temple dedicated to the Emperor at Ephesus.
Overall view of the Canopus
(left) Marble columns in the Naval Theatre; (centre) granite columns near the Greek Library; (right) cipollino
column near the Latin Library and view of Tivoli
Some of the buildings are decorated with white marble columns, but in most of them Hadrian (who regarded himself as a talented architect) departed
from Greek canons as he made use of coloured stones: grey and pink granite from Egypt
(as he did in the Pantheon) and green cipollino
from a Greek island
(as he did in the Library of Athens).
Coloured marbles as well as curved shapes have led modern art historians to define the architecture of Villa Adriana as Ancient Roman Baroque as it anticipated some of the features of the XVIIth century style.
(left) Corinthian capital in a Triclinium (dining hall) of the Imperial Palace commanding a view over Tempe, a small valley near the villa which
Hadrian named after a gorge near Mount Olympus; (right-above)
Ionic capital in the main hall of the Great Baths; (right-below) base of a column in the Building with Three Exedrae
Previous images of this page show Doric capitals in the Temple to Venus, Ionic capitals
in the Naval Theatre and Corinthian capitals in the Canopus; Hadrian however did not limit himself
to the standard three orders: he combined elements of the Corinthian capital
with the lotus leaves of Egyptian capitals.
In the XVIth century Antonio da Sangallo developed a new design for the capitals which decorated his buildings, based on those he saw at Villa Adriana, e.g. at S. Maria in Porta Paradisi.
Domes of the Philosophers' Hall (left) and of the Serapeum of the Canopus (right)
Most of the main buildings were covered by domes and the passages between them had barrel vaults. For this reason Renaissance architects came to Villa Adriana to study this sort of real life catalogue of construction techniques; the gigantic dome of the Serapeum is a precursor of the rib vaults which are typical of medieval cathedrals (most likely Borromini had in mind this dome when he designed the interior of S. Ivo alla Sapienza).
Dome of Heliocaminus (solar furnace, an early heating system based on exploiting solar rays)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was another artist who fell in love with the domes of Villa Adriana; he was the first to draw an accurate map of the site and several of his engravings show views of the site, e.g. the Philosophers' Hall (it opens in another window). He reconstructed marble pieces of furniture from minute fragments which he found at Villa Adriana; some of them were bought at high price by British travellers.
Coloured statues from Villa Adriana at Musei Vaticani
Its magnificence is gone: it has passed to the Vatican, it is scattered over Italy, it may be traced in France. Any where but at Tivoli may you look for the statues and caryatides, the columns, the oriental marbles, and the mosaics, with which the villa was once adorned, or supported, or wainscoted, or floored. Forsyth
More than 250 statues and reliefs which decorated Villa Adriana are in other locations, from museums around the world to Renaissance and Baroque palaces and villas.
Hadrian was born at Italica in Spain, into a family of Roman origin, but he was fascinated by Greek and Egyptian cultures and several statues at Villa Adriana portrayed classical figures in Egyptian attire.
Musei Vaticani: (left) head of Isis/Sothis/Demeter which was placed at the top of a fountain in the Serapeum; (right) small basalt statue portraying Osiris/Serapis/Canopus
The deities which Hadrian wanted to be portrayed at the villa were a blend of different cultures to which the Emperor added his own philosophical interests. Sothis is the Greek name of the star Sirius; its yearly rising above the horizon in July marked the beginning of the Nile floods; the fountain caused the overflowing of the Canopus in a re-enactment of these floods. Demeter was the Greek goddess of harvest. A large mosaic which was found near Palestrina depicts the Nile from its source to its mouth; it most likely decorated another villa belonging to Hadrian.
At Canopus Osiris/Serapis was worshipped in the form of a vase with a human head which explains the peculiar aspect of the small statue portraying the god.
In 123 Hadrian visited Nicaea, a town in Bithynia which had been struck by an earthquake.
In the course of that visit or soon after the Emperor met Antinous, a youth of great beauty, most likely of a very humble origin.
For seven years Antinous followed Hadrian in his travels through the Roman Empire. He drowned in the Nile in 130, under mysterious circumstances.
The grief of the Emperor was such that he wanted Antinous to be deified, a honour which was reserved to members of the imperial family only.
He ordered busts and statues of the young man to be sent to all the main towns of the empire to be worshipped in temples,
thus Antinous has become an icon of ancient sculpture.
In 2005 archaeologists have found evidence of a temple to Antinous (or perhaps a cenotaph) near the Canopus and they believe that the obelisk now at Pincio was erected at Villa Adriana.
After WWII archaeologists found some other statues which presumably decorated the gardens of Villa Adriana. Copies of some of them were placed at the Canopus whereas the originals are on display at a small museum inside the villa.
Palazzo Barberini - Main staircase: relief from Villa Adriana
Musei Vaticani: (left) Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy (found at Villa di Cassio, outside Tivoli); (right) Annia Faustina, wife of Emperor Antoninus Pius (found at Villa Adriana)
Musei Capitolini (from Villa Adriana): (left) "Furietti Centaur" which is signed by sculptors from Afrodisias; (right) drunken faun found in 1736, most likely made at Afrodisias
Archaeological Museum of Naples - Farnese Collection: the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton (Roman marble copies of the Athenian bronze originals which were found at Villa Adriana)
British Museum - Townley Collection: busts of a Homeric hero (left) and of Perikles (right) from Villa Adriana; the Homeric hero was perhaps a companion of Ulysses because the head resembles that of a wineskin-bearer in a famous group found at Sperlonga depicting the blinding of Polyphemus
Musei Vaticani: mosaics from Villa Adriana: (left) perhaps the Emperor as a gardener; (right)
Abduction of Ganymede (see other mosaics portraying this subject in Tunisia) or Apotheosis of Antinous
Overall the decoration of the walls, ceilings and floors of the buildings of Villa Adriana was based on geometrical motifs. However a few emblemata, small mosaics portraying figures, were found "hanging" on the walls of some buildings as if they were paintings or at the centre of geometric mosaics on the floors.
The floors of the most important buildings were in opus sectile, an inlay made up of relatively large pieces of coloured marbles. Yellow and red marbles from Simitthus (in today's Tunisia) were utilized in addition to green cipollino and pavonazzetto, a stone with veins of different colours. Similar marble inlays can be seen at Villa dei Quintili which was built a few years later.
The use of mosaics for decorating floors was relatively limited with the exception of Hospitalia, a complex of small rooms where guests (not of the highest rank) were housed. Each room was decorated in a different way with mosaics made up of a central floral section surrounded by geometric motifs.
Ceiling stucco decoration in the Great Thermae (Baths) and enlargements showing some details
Ceilings were all plastered; those of the underground passages were utilized by visitors for graffiti (until a few years ago). Those of the most important buildings were decorated with stuccoes based on geometric motifs and very small figures, similar to what was done with painted decoration which is almost entirely lost at Villa Adriana, but can still be seen at Villa di Livia.
(left) Praetorium; (centre) an arm of the great Cryptoporticus (underground passage); (right) latrines outside
the Firemen's Barracks
To run such a large complex of buildings required not only a crowd of servants and
guards, but also well designed facilities and in particular a network of underground passages to ensure that these people performed their duties without interfering with the life of the Emperor and of his guests.
The servants and the guards were housed in the substructures supporting the terraces or in buildings which were hidden by one of the many nymphaeums (large fountains) placed in the courtyards or the terraces.
Villa Adriana could rely on an ample supply of water as it was located near the aqueducts which supplied Rome.
Sadly Hadrian did not enjoy for long the villa he had so carefully designed;
due to health problems he spent most of his last years in the imperial residence of Baiae near Naples, where he died in 138.
The image used as background for this page shows a bust of Hadrian found at Villa Adriana and now at Musei Vaticani.
Other pages on Tivoli:
Medieval and Renaissance Tivoli
Villa d'Este - the Palace
Villa d'Este - the Gardens
Villa d'Este and Tivoli in the 1905 paintings by Alberto Pisa
Move on to the next step in your tour of the Environs of Rome: Palestrina.