The Landscape Guide

Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli

Although the individual remains of Domitian’s villas are so impressive, we cannot get a connected view of them. A very different idea is given by the villa, built several decades later by Hadrian, at the foot of the Tivoli hill. The whole extent of it is not yet fully known, although it has been explored most studiously from the days of the Renaissance to the present time. The ground stretches from north to south on a rise of about forty metres, starting from the foot of Monte Arcese, at the top of which is Tivoli (Fig. 76). 

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The chief approach was no doubt from the north, for the great road from Rome was on that side, as were also the façades of the palace. The place was not really unsuitable for a grand entrance with terraces and stairways, but the object most in favour was to attain the chief point of view by a very gradual ascent, and there to build the main palace. The emperor must be able to get to every part of his villa by easy ways, and probably they led by beautiful gardens: of these no trace is preserved, and instead of an explicit account, there is nothing but what Spartianus has to say, namely, that the emperor had made certain parts of his villa in memory of his own travels, and called them after important spots, such as Lyceum, Academy, Prytaneum, Canopus, Poikile, Tempes and had even made an Underworld. All this was to serve him as a symbol, in his dream of re-establishing the glory of Greece.

These varied tales, casually thrown together by Spartianus, were destined to act as a bone of contention among later inquirers. The first person to take action was Ligorio, and he was quick to bestow these names on what was left of the ruins; they remained, and we have only advanced to-day in so far as doubt has been thrown upon all Ligorio’s design. Garden sites are attached to most of these places, but by reason of the destruction and looting that went on for hundreds of years, their traces have utterly vanished at this villa, and the hope of finding any light later on is now very weak.

To a visitor who enters from the north, the first imposing sight (if he has passed over the theatre and the various colonnades) is no doubt the portico, two hundred metres long, that Ligorio calls Poikile (No. of the plan, Fig. 76). It is above a xystus, extremely well preserved, and forms the north side of a great double hall, whose huge dividing wall is still standing at its whole height (Fig. 77). 

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On the south this wall forms the long side of the great hippodrome (5), which has its usual form with similar colonnades on all four sides. It must have taken a great deal of digging and undermining to make this ground level on the south-west. In the middle of this hippodrome, which is rounded off on both sides, there is a basin that suggests an extension; and on the eastern narrow side there is a charming summer-house, and in the middle of the long side on the south an exedra.

The ground-plan is similar to that of the Palatine, and we should think of the plantation as like that of the hippodrome at Pliny’s villa. But it is hard to imagine the immensely high halls joined on to the wall—which is all we see—and mentally to cover it with its own proper decoration. It is not easy for us moderns, whose buildings, however imposing, are in their first intention meant for utility, to grasp the idea of these monumental erections of antiquity; in the later days of the empire great and luxurious buildings were erected for purely decorative purposes. One door only unites north and south halls, and these pillared halls were evidently two stories high: the rounded corners of the walls, and the circular shape, show that people could drive round in light carriages. But one question remains unanswered: how were these gigantic walls covered? It is quite possible that they had frescoes on them, and in that case the name Poikile would not be so ill applied. But there is no doubt that the so-called Canopus was a garden site. This name was used for it even in Renaissance days, because a number of Egyptian statues were found in it; at the same time it is less like the fine bathing-place near Alexandria (which is commonly compared with Baiæ) than the Poikile is like its Athenian model.

On the south, embedded rather deep in the ground of the valley, on both sides, there is a very large exedra, larger than any of the others of which the emperor was so fond. It has a great many alcoves, and a fountain in each. A narrow bath evidently led from a reservoir, and there were several rooms on each side. A small terrace passes to the bottom of the valley, enclosed with corridors that have now disappeared, and which, according to Piranesi, descended by steps. The condition of the excavation does not permit us to tell whether or no there was a large basin here. If there was, the name Canopus might be more defensible, as it would remind one of rowing on the lake at the bathing-place.

A curious building on the north-east of the hippodrome seems to be some kind of garden architecture, although it does not look very promising for vegetation—the so- called Natatorium (Fig. 78). 

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It is a circular edifice (7, Fig. 76), surrounded by a strong wall, inside which is a portico supported on pillars, and within it is a canal with a draw- bridge. This goes round a building that consists of little rooms, grouped about an atrium,  which stands on a pillared foundation, following a wavy line. In front of the north side is a hall, whose portico opens out on a garden terrace. This puzzling building cannot be a miniature house, nor can it be an imitation of some famous island; very probably it is a pleasure-house, erected for some special purpose.

Varro describes a place which does not completely explain our building, but does throw more light on it. Varro’s place is an aviary, put up to amuse him at his villa: it has often been imitated. The whole place, enclosed by a wall, consists of two main parts, one square and one round. The first has at the entrance two porticoes covered with nets to serve as bird-cages, then two piscinas, and between them a way leading to the Tholos (round building). This circular part begins with a colonnade that goes round it,. its outer pillars made of stone, and the inner ones of wood; these are also used for cages. A narrow stone path divides the colonnade from the canal which runs round inside, and. is connected with the piscinas. Its waters encircle a covered house on pillars, that encloses a kind of triclinium. At the time of the Renaissance an exact reconstruction was attempted after this description (Fig. 79).

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 If one compares the picture with Hadrian’s round building, the similarity is obvious: in both we find colonnade and canal, with house in the middle. But the place at Hadrian’s villa cannot have been used for the same purpose as Varro’s aviary. The outer colonnade with enclosing wall would be quite unsuited for birdcages, and the inner house has a great deal of masonry work on the walls. The peculiar little rooms might be supposed to hold birds and other creatures, if the floors were strewn with sand.

There are many examples in Renaissance times of masonry used in aviaries, such as those at the Villa Borghese and the Farnese Gardens; and very often drawbridges were made, crossing a canal, not only for the look of the thing, but to give a free run to the waterfowl. It is no objection that the masonry was ornamented inside; perhaps this is the vivarium of the emperor’s villa. We know how specially beloved such rooms were, and that (as Varro says) they were used as pleasure-houses.

This building, which stands alone, turns a little out of the axial line in a south- westerly direction towards a great group of buildings, which is broken up into several disconnected sets, rightly believed to be the main home of the emperor. For many years he avoided Rome, and conducted the world’s business from this villa. The great desire of the ruler, weary of wandering, was to make his own home beautiful and bright with gardens and pleasant waters. The south-eastern group of the palace must have been a masterpiece among garden villas, the so-called Piazza d’Oro: on a pillared court there opened a large oddly curved hail with a dome, in the middle of which stood a basin, pointing to the fact that there was an aperture in the roof, as in the Pantheon of the same date at Rome. This room with its alcoves for fountains was a real home of the waters, which is further suggested by a frieze of turkeys riding on the backs of fabulous sea- beasts. A series of rooms in various groups open into this large hail. The court has a double corridor all round it, and to right and left is flanked with a covered way. This peristyle was arranged as a pleasure-garden with flowers and shrubs. A tank ran the whole length, with Hermes statues on either side, and at the north end was a curving vestibule, with niches and fountains, and two small rooms at the side: this corresponded with the domed room at the other end. These are doubtless private apartments, not the emperor’s entertainment halls and gardens, where gay festivals took place.

On the east (although not actually attached) there is an informal garden terrace, over one side of the so-called Vale of Tempe. By unimposing steps at one side we reach a suite of rooms; on the other side is a colonnade with a great exedra. On the lower terrace there remain traces of a huge basin, but without any connection, though the view into the valley is peculiarly fine and lovely. But this place must have been joined on with some stairway, if the owners had any use for the garden. The view into the valley can be had from a pavilion also (2), which is set up at the north end of the terrace that lies in front of the two groups of buildings.

For the purpose of the present book, it would be going too far to describe all the separate groups; and in their similar characteristics we always find the same picture: a suite of rooms round a more or less large court, and each group independent of its neighbour. The exedra, with niches for fountains or statues, is conspicuous; occasionally there is dominant instead of it a rectangular room with alcoves, as in the case of the unusually small site of the north group (beside the triclinium, 13): the room with alcoves opens on an attractive peristyle with a basin and flower-beds. This is above a crypto porticus, and is dark; for it gets no light except from above; but it has such fine traces of grotto work and mosaic that it must have been a place to stay in when the weather was very hot, like the garden-room at Livia’s house. It was probably the same at the “ cryptoporticus subterranea “ in Pliny's villa, Tusci, which, he says, “ in the midst of summer heats retains its pent-up chilliness, and, enjoying its own atmosphere, neither admits nor wants the refreshment of external breezes.”

Wherever we look, there is this great regard for water, in gardens and indoor rooms —even in halls we find it in fish-tanks, wells, and fountains, There is a specially artistic water arrangement in the northern group of the chief palace, beside one of the large state-rooms (Fig. 80). 


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Here again is an exedra, with a pillared hall in front used as an entrance; the pillars were probably in two stories, to allow of the height. In front of the hall lies a flat piece of ground with two round basins, no doubt complete with fountains and flower-beds. On the opposite side this ground rises in steps like an amphitheatre; and very probably this was a waterway, and the stream flowed down into a basin that extends the whole way across. To anyone who entered by way of the exedra, this rushing waterfall, with fountain, flowers, and greenery, must have shown a very charming picture. Ligorio calls the place a nymphæum, in the fashion of the Renaissance, when every room with water running in it was so called: whereas it is a covered—though perhaps only partially covered—inner room. But in order to grasp the plan of these marvellous garden-courts, we must again turn our attention to their beginnings.