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Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Latium, Italy

Let’s forget about ice storms and head to the Roman Campagna, the hills to the northeast of Rome, where at the base of the mountains that rise up to Tivoli lies the ancient ruins of Hadrian’s Villa. I also realized it had been a long time since I had added to the Architectural History category, which is where I look to archetypes that have influenced St. Louis architecture.

Hadrian created a series of thematic areas in his villa, based off of different parts of the Roman Empire. The first place you are seeing is one of the most famous, which is his private retreat, located on a round island in the middle of the complex. The villa was adorned with an assortment of sculpture, the majority of which found its way to the Vatican Museums, but some other pieces are scattered in other famous institutions around the world. This website is a great place to see what these influential works of art are.

Supposedly the the round house was a microcosm of a patrician’s domicile, and it was where the emperor could go to get away from the activity of what was really a small town, and much less like a rustic country agricultural estate. A cryptoporticus, or hidden passageway system underground, allowed the servants to move around the villa without disturbing the more important inhabitants and visitors.

Above, this ridiculously long wall, made in the opus reticulatum, or fishing net, pattern of brickwork, which supposedly diffused the shockwaves of earthquakes, enclosed a copy of the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, in the agora of Athens. Hadrian was a Grecophile, and much of his villa was inspired by the Greek world.

Next up were a series of vaulted rooms which made of the thermae of the villa, which were the giant bathhouses. Nowadays, the process of what we call Turkish baths was actually invented by the Romans.

While many of the beautiful columns, like the sculpture, were harvested by the Papacy starting in the Renaissance for building projects in Rome (it’s a fun game spotting reused ancient marble in churches in the city), there are still some originals left in the villa.

It’s important, likewise, to realize that most of the brick would have been sheathed in marble, hiding the structure of these buildings. The stone was carted away as building material after the end of the Ancient Era in the Fifth Century.

While there is much collapsing of the vaulting, we can still see how influential this architecture is to the Western World. This area would have been largely uninhabited in the Renaissance with sparsely settled villages and pastures.

A half dome below shows how the extent of engineering mastered by the Romans. Note the regularly placed rows of holes in the drum, or base of the half dome; these were the bracket holes for the marble sheets that once covered the exterior walls of these buildings.

Next up is one of the most iconic and famous of all places from the ancient Roman world; the Canopus, named after one of the branches of the Nile River in Egypt. The sculptures are all replacements of the originals, including a crocodile. I did not include a picture because it is looking very sad nowadays, its concrete replacement of the original splitting into pieces. Here is a picture of the original.

But not to exaggerate, just about any elaborate garden you’ve seen in the Western World after about 1500 is in some way indebted to the Canopus section of Hadrian’s Villa.

Imagine the peristyle continuing all the way around the long pond.

Down at the far end is a surprise, as well.

We see the first appearance in Roman architecture of a “pumpkin-dome,” which is also very strong, where a Serapeum is located. Serapis was a Hellenistic god created in Ptolomeic Egypt where the gods Apis, a bull, and Osiris, were combined together in what we call syncreticism. It’s a long story. But it goes along with the theme of the Roman practice of polytheism and Hadrian’s adoration of the Greek world, and the continuing fascination of the entire Egyptian world. We could call this the original “Egyptian Revival” building, in some ways, even though it looks nothing like Egyptian architecture.

3 Comments

  1. I mentioned this in passing to my students. Now I have a good resource! Thanks! Chris, And thanks for the variety on your site. Always gets me thinking. I also just looked up Queen Anne style. I live on Queen Anne place and never really wondered why she’s referred to in various places.

  2. Hello Chris. My roommate and I toured these ruins three years ago. They are nothing short of amazing, You can just imagine what they looked like in their hey day. Hadrian designed these pumpkin shaped domes and liked them a lot. One of his architect made fun of them, So Hadrian had him executed.

    • Oh that’s right! It was Hadrian’s predecessor, the emperor Trajan’s favorite architect, Apollodorus, who had designed the Forum of Trajan, who said that. I had not heard he was put to death however. He would go on to design the Pantheon for Hadrian, but yes, he mocked the emperor’s pumpkin domes, according to the late Imperial historian Cassius Dio.

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