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Historical Documentation
Pliny, Letter on the Laurentian Villa
Pliny , Letters on the Tuscan Villa
Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture

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Hadrian’s Villa

Text by John Pinto

Hadrian’s Villa, constructed between 118 and 134 C.E., surpasses all other ancient villas in its scale, architectural originality, and resonance. A passage in the fourth-century Historia Augusta relates that the emperor intended portions of the villa to recall famous places and provinces of the Roman Empire. Thus the Villa came to be seen as a paradigm of what might be termed the landscape of allusion, in which gardens and parks are seeded with references to famous and exotic sites. The site near Tivoli, covering a greater area than Pompeii, contains more than sixty distinct buildings constituting an extended, pavilioned landscape enlivened by the play of water and enriched by the display of sculpture.

The evidence for waterworks is extensive, including more than twelve nymphaea (large, architectural fountains), thirty single fountains, six grottoes, and twelve pools and basins. At the Villa, water was deployed as an artistic medium in its own right, its reflective qualities, movement, and sound vitalizing the static forms of architecture and sculpture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scenic triclinium and canal, where a deep grotto combined with pools, water stairs, channels, and a cascade to produce a highly theatrical effect.

In contrast, the evidence for gardens is much more limited: planting pots on both sides of the scenic canal, beds and cavities in the stadium garden, the small, centered garden of the island enclosure, the large tree-planting pits cut from the tufa underlying the water court. What was planted is thus far unknown, and reconstructions necessarily rely on comparisons to literary sources, such as the Younger Pliny’s letters, pictorial evidence, and the analysis of better-preserved soil and seed samples from other archaeological sites, notably Pompeii. The Villa’s multiple orientations, divergent axes, terraces, and spectacularly sited pavilions offered numerous views and vistas, both within its confines and out over the surrounding landscape. Hadrian’s grand design takes full advantage of the natural contours of the site, while also employing massive earth engineering to reshape the land, effectively reorganizing Nature. Without a center, without connective allées, the Villa revealed itself only as it was traversed point to point. It was—and remains—a place of considerable subtlety.

From its inception Hadrian’s Villa was a pragmatic manifestation of the pastoral. Although Hadrian certainly saw his villa both as an Arcadian retreat and as a metaphorical expression of his culture and travels, it also had to serve as a center of his official duties. The Villa embodies the contradictions of the pastoral mode within itself; it was simultaneously Hadrian’s alternative, rural seat of government and his escape from the cares of Rome and empire. In Hadrian’s design the struggle between the human desire for immortality and the inexorable cycles of nature endures. Generations of artists who visited the site below Tivoli were inspired to see landscape and antiquity as complementary, powerfully allusive forces.

The earliest postclassical descriptions of the Villa, by the humanist Flavio Biondo and his patron Pope Pius II, date from 1461. Pius and Biondo made the connection between the passage in the Historia Augusta and the site below Tivoli, identifying it as Hadrian’s Villa. Closely following the humanists, Renaissance artists and architects began to visit the ruins. Francesco di Giorgio Martini made measured drawings of villa structures, and during the first decades of the sixteenth century Bramante, Raphael, and other High Renaissance architects are known to have visited the site. By the middle of the century, references to Hadrian’s Villa began to appear in guidebooks and architectural treatises, such as those of Palladio and Philibert de l’Orme.

Also in the 1550s, Pirro Ligorio began to excavate at Hadrian’s Villa, recording his findings in the first systematic description of the site. The influence of what Ligorio saw at Hadrian’s Villa may be detected in his designs for the Villa d’Este at Tivoli and the Casino of Pius IV in the Vatican. There is evidence that Ligorio may also have prepared a general plan of the Villa, but his drawings were never published and credit for the first comprehensive survey of the site belongs to Francesco Contini. Long before its publication in 1668, Contini’s plan was available for study by Francesco Borromini and other Baroque architects. Attracted by the numerous departures from Vitruvian classicism on display at the Villa, Borromini drew inspiration for some of his greatest works, especially the Oratory of the Filippini and Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza.

The influence of Hadrian’s Villa became more diffuse in the course of the eighteenth century. A long and distinguished list of artists from throughout Europe were drawn to the Villa, including Charles-Louis Clérisseau and Robert Adam, Jean Honoré Fragonard and Hubert Robert. Giovanni Battista Piranesi emerged as the Villa’s most inspired interpreter, issuing ten printed views of villa structures in his series le vedute di Roma, as well as a great annotated plan of the entire site, issued posthumously by his son Francesco in 1781. In the course of the eighteenth century, statues excavated at the Villa found their way into every major European collection, and today its contents are scattered from Malibu to Saint Petersburg. The influence of the Villa’s pavement, mural, and vault decorations may be discerned in countless interiors ranging from Charles Cameron’s Agate Hall at Tsarkoye Selo to Robert Adam’s Syon House.

In the nineteenth century, Hadrian’s Villa came to be viewed through the twin lenses of Beaux Arts classicism and Romanticism. In 1870 most of the site was acquired by the Italian state, effectively preserving it from further depredation. Much as Piranesi had used the Villa to underscore the creative dimension of Roman architecture and its relevance to architects in his day, Le Corbusier, one of the heroic figures of modernism, particularly admired the way in which the Villa’s architecture was integrated into the surrounding landscape. Architects, scholars, artists, and writers continue to draw and study the relics of Hadrian’s extraordinary retreat, proving that its affective and instructive potential remains undiminished.

Click on the thumbnails below for a full view of the images.

View of the site of Hadrian's Villa

Plan by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Scenic Triclinium

Scenic Canal

Scenic Canal seen from the triclinium

Horace's Villa (Licenza, Italy), excavations in the garden

Stadium garden

Island Enclosure

Water court
East-west terrace with view into the landscape

View from the east belvedere into the landscape

Ceremonial precinct

Circular hall

Title page, Palladio, Four books on architecture

Villa d'Este (Tivoli), Fish pools

Casino of Pius IV (Vatican Palace), Oval court

Plan of Hadrian's villa by Piranesi, detail

Orpheus, originally from Hadrian's Villa, now in the Vatican Museum

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