The Imperial Residence within Villa Adriana


Fig. 1 - In this picture can be seen the axiality linking the Casino with Semicircular Arcades to the Garden Stadium and the Winter Palace. In the foreground exedra TE17 of the Casino and in the background room PE6 of the Winter Palace.

The complex that in my book I have identified as the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE of Hadrian's Villa had a central position within its plan. It consisted of a series of buildings tightly connected one to the other. Each one had its own meaning and function: the CASINO WITH SEMICIRCULAR ARCADES (n. 20), the GARDEN STADIUM (n. 21), the WINTER PALACE (n. 22), which were linked to the QUADRIPORTICUS (n. 23), to the SMALL BATHS (n. 24), and further on with the VESTIBULUM (n. 25) and the PRAETORIUM PAVILION (n. 27). (see Plate 9 general plan, and Plate 10 plastic model)

The idea that these buildings belonged to one monumental complex is supported by several elements: their symmetry, the way they were linked together (fig. 1), the access paths and the check-points which provided security and privacy to the Emperor.


Let us see how each one of these buildings corresponded - on a monumental and imperial scale - to one of the traditional elements of the roman domus or villa.

From the descriptions of Vitruvius and other latin sources, and from the archaeological evidence of the Vesuvian region, we know that in the domus and in the villas of roman antiquity there was a series of rooms, each one with its own function and meaning. A narrow passage, the fauces, led to the entrance, the atrium, usually of rectangular shape. The atrium was surrounded by a porch and had a water basin at its center, the impluvium. On the atrium opened the tablinum, where were exhibited all the memorabilia of the family and the gens of the owner. On its other end, the tablinum usually opened on an inner garden, the peristylium, which gave access to the other rooms of the house: the triclinium, the cubicula, the thermae, the latrinae, the kitchen and the wing devoted to the production of oil or wine. This kind of arrangement can be seen in many monumental villas of the Vesuvian area, such as the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii or the Villa di Poppea at Oplontis.



Fig. 2 - Casino with Semicircular Arcades. In the foreground the monumental fountain TE1, then the exedra TE17. In the background is visible the upper floor of the Winter Palace.

Within the imperial context of Hadrian's Villa, the traditional language and iconography of roman architecture were still used, building in the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE an atrium, a tablinum, a triclinium and so on. But at the same time the old iconography was transformed to create something different, monumental and spectacular, in order to underline and enhance the imperial status of the Villa.

Following Vitruvius, we can identify the atrium of the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE in the CASINO WITH SEMICIRCULAR ARCADES, which was the main entrance for those coming from the PECILE (Plate 11). Its western wing, featuring three exedrae (the 'semicircular arcades') is the evolution of the traditional roman atrium surrounded by a porch, but on an imperial large scale. The great fountain in room TE1 (fig. 2) can be considered a quotation of the impluvium and of the water that decorated roman atria. The porch surrounding the impluvium, which usually was rectangular, here is curved, because curved lines are one of the main features of hadrianic architecture. The curving porches surrounded three semicircular gardens, decorated by small fountains.


Fig. 3 - Casino with Semicircular Arcades. Hall TE2o with large rectangular hollows for marble panels and traces of the 'grappe' supporting the marble revetment.

In the eastern part of the CASINO OF SEMICIRCULAR ARCADES we can identify the tablinum in the great hall TE20, which had a large window overlooking the inner peristyle of the GARDEN STADIUM and the private part of Hadrian's Villa. Hall TE20 was the largest room of the building, was located at its center, perfectly axial to the central porch NS15 of the GARDEN STADIUM, which we can identify as an internal peristyle (Plate 12). The walls of hall TE20 were completely reveted with marble panels, which originally reached up to the ceiling; at the center of the side walls are still visible large rectangular hollows meant for marble reliefs (fig. 3). The hall had a monumental character, and its decoration probably was linked to the Emperor's life and accomplishments, as happened in the tablina of the roman domus.

There was not a direct passageway from hall TE20 and the GARDEN STADIUM: one had to follow a complicated path, reaching the side rooms TE22 and TE25, which were linked to the porches of the GARDEN STADIUM. This was another of the many checkpoints created for security reasons within the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE.


Fig. 4 - Garden Stadium. The northern part with exedra NS2 and water basin NS9-10-11 in front of it. In the background on the left the apse of the Philosopher's Hall and the half dome of the Thermae with Heliocaminus.

The CASINO WITH SEMICIRCULAR ARCADES belonged to the group of noble buildings, as shown by the opus sectile marble panels and the outstanding wall decoration: under a suspensura were recently found several fragments of a beautiful marble 'guilloche' and a panel portraying a Charioteer with his horse. They have been shown by the Soprintendenza Archeologica del Lazio in an exhibition connected to the Colloquium "Rileggere l'Antico", recently held in Rome (december 2004). The existence of a winter heating plant is another sign of the imperial luxurious status of the building.

The inner perystile of the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE can be identified in the GARDEN STADIUM (Plate 12), whose shape is a quotation of the garden-stadium in the Palatine imperial Palace at Rome. This garden had a more complex outlay compared to its roman twin, and consisted of three different parts. The northern one had a central exedra NS2 (fig. 4) while rooms NS1 and NS3 had two checkpoints leading to service corridors (n. 4-5).

Fig. 5 - Garden Stadium. The southern part with the nymphaeum NS20 with semicircular steps. Before it are few remaining fragments of the triclinium NS17.
The area in front of these rooms was a garden with water basins and a pavilion with fountains (n. 9-10-11). The central part of the GARDEN STADIUM was the garden NS15, which can be identified as a peristyle, and was flanked by two porches NS14 and NS16: they connected the CASINO WITH SEMICIRCULAR ARCADES with the lower floor of the WINTER PALACE. At their eastern end, these two porches reached three stairs, meant as security checkpoints and leading up to the lower floor of the WINTER PALACE. Near this peristyle there must have been a triclinium, according to the vitruvian rules: and in fact the southern part of the GARDEN STADIUM featured a monumental open pavilion NS17, with columns supporting a roof: it was a summer triclinium, located inside the private and closed garden of the GARDEN STADIUM. On its southern there was a semicircular nymphaeum NS20 (fig. 5), with large curved steps from which water flowed down to small canals surrounding the triclinium.


Fig. 6 - One of the four corridors of the Cryptoporticus in the Winter Palace.

The rooms belonging to the lower floor of the WINTER PALACE were located at an higher level compared to the GARDEN STADIUM, over which opened with large windows (Plate 13). They probably had a winter heating system with suspensurae, as we can see in the upper floor of the same building, (the lower floor rooms have never been explored to find out if they were heated). It is possible that the large hall PE6, which had a central axial position symmetrical to the hall-tablinum TE20 of the Casino with Semicircular Arcades, was a sheltered winter triclinium overlooking the garden.

From the lower floor of the WINTER PALACE, staircase PE12 led to the intermediate floor: another security checkpoint (stair PE1 was never excavated, probably led to the Thermae with Heliocaminus). In the intermediate floor was located one of the best preserved structures of the Villa, the great Cryptoporticus with four corridors, with openings in the ceiling for lighting (fig. 6). The great Cryptoporticus PE29-32 was originally decorated with frescoes and we can see the signatures of ancient visitors, among which Piranesi. This subterranean porch was meant for comfortable strolling at all times: it was (and still is) very cool in summer and warm in winter. Similar cryptoporticoes are visible in the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis, which also belonged to the Imperial House.


Fig. 7 - The water basin of Peschiera in the Winter Palace.

The Cryptoporticus was another traditional feature of roman architecture, here enlarged to an imperial size: it was a basis villae supporting the eastern part of the upper floor of the WINTER PALACE, embellished with the large basin (fig. 7) or Peschiera (PE37) (which gave the italian name to the building). The western part of the intermediate floor had a series of rooms connected with the winter heating plant of the upper floor (Plate 14).


Fig. 8 - The fishpond of the Winter Palace. In the background the Firemen's Headquarters, on the upper left the Hall with Doric Pillars. In the center the upper floor of the Winter Palace, overlooking the Garden Stadium.

Once again there was not a direct link between the intermediate and the upper floor, but two security checkpoints. The stair PE34 started from the southern corridor of the Cryptoporticus (PE32) reaching up to the Peschiera, while a second stair PE26 came out in room PE58, located in a secluded corner of the building (Plate 15). The upper floor of the WINTER PALACE had a series of monumental and vast rooms and halls PE38-61, with large windows overlooking the GARDEN STADIUM and the rest of the Villa (fig. 8). All rooms were decorated with precious marble wall revetment, reaching up to the ceiling (as shown by the holes left from the nails) and had marble opus sectile pavements. They also featured a winter heating plant, another sign of imperial status. There also was the latrine PE52, with four single seater latrines.


Fig. 9 - The Octagone Hall in the Small Baths.

The upper floor of the WINTER PALACE had one entrance only, a door located in the south-east corner of the porch surrounding the water basin PE37 (the Peschiera). Then there was a small path coming from the HALL WITH DORIC PILLARS, which reached the intermediate floor and the stair PE26, at the level of the Cryptoporticus. Two more access checkpoints.

An IMPERIAL RESIDENCE must also have a thermal plant: the SMALL BATHS (Plate 16). They had a luxurious marble decoration with opus sectile pavements employing red porphyr, the imperial stone par excellence. The SMALL BATHS are an architectural masterpiece, with their Octagone Hall (fig. 9) featuring a dome supported by curved and convex walls, and had a complex outline with rooms seeing through one another, in order to achieve perspective surprise.


Fig. 10 - The republican Nymphaeum, built in opus reticulatum, re-used as southern wall of the Quadriporticus.

The QUADRIPORTICUS (Plate 17) was another closed garden surrounded by a porch: it was designed to link the SMALL BATHS to the CASINO WITH SEMICIRCULAR ARCADES and the GARDEN STADIUM. In this area of the Villa there was a change in the bearing of the buildings: while the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE had an east-west main axis, the VESTIBULUM and the CANOPUS had a north-south main axis. The keystone of this change of direction was an ancient republican Nymphaeum (fig. 10), built in opus reticulatum and inherited from the previous republican Villa; it was re-used and transformed in the southern side of the QUADRIPORTICUS. At the two sides of this Nymphaeum, two doors gave access to the SMALL BATHS, following the usual pattern of the double security checkpoint.

Fig. 11 - The Cryptoporticus of the Great Baths. In the background the stair leading to the upper level and the Praetorium Pavilion.

Those who wanted to reach the SMALL BATHS coming from the upper floor of the WINTER PALACE, and in general from the area of the IMPERIAL PALACE or PIAZZA D'ORO, could use another path, a stairway descending to the CRYPTOPORTICUS OF THE GREAT BATHS (n. 26a) (fig. 11): from there, another stair led up to the PRAETORIUM PAVILION, while a corridor linked it to another very important building of the Villa: the VESTIBULUM (Plate 18).

Recent excavations confirmed what has been transmitted by the plans of Contini, Piranesi and Penna, that the VESTIBULUM originally was the main and monumental entrance to the Villa.

Fig. 12 - The paved ring of the main entrance to Hadrian's Villa. In the background the stair leading up to the Vestibulum; on the left, the Hundred Chambers (Cento Camerelle).

In year 2000 it was discovered a double access path: one with a monumental character, while the other was meant for slaves. The first access was a great paved ring (fig. 12), which bordered the imposing substructures of the HUNDRED CHAMBERS and finally reached the stair of the VESTIBULUM (VE29), leading up up to the main porch (VE26). The paved ring worked as a sort of revolving door, easing the traffic of chariots reaching the Villa. Then there was the secondary access, which was built near the first one and is visible in the picture.

Fig. 13 - In the foreground garden VE12 of the Vestibulum and in the background the tunnel leading to the Cryptoporticus of the Great Baths.
A narrow paved road ran in front of the rooms of the HUNDRED CHAMBERS, and reached the entrance of the system of subterranean tunnels and cryptoporticoes located underneath the VESTIBULUM and the SMALL and GREAT BATHS. It was a secondary access, meant for the slaves and the personnel of the Villa, smaller than the other and separated from it by a partition wall, which also served to hide it from view.

On the eastern side of the VESTIBULUM there was the small garden VE12, from which, as we said, a corridor (VE11) led to the CRYPTOPORTICUS OF THE GREAT BATHS, thus creating another secondary access to the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE (fig. 13).

The complex of the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE was also linked to the PRAETORIUM PAVILION (n. 27), with two different paths corresponding to the two different levels. The first path was located on the lower level (the same one of the PECILE and the GARDEN STADIUM), and it was designed to by-pass the GREAT BATHS, which belonged to the group of secondary buildings. To do this, they excavated inside the hill the CRYPTOPORTICUS OF THE GREAT BATHS, which at its southern had a staircase leading up to the PRAETORIUM PAVILION (n. 27). The second path corresponded to the upper level (the same one of the Fishpond of the WINTER PALACE)

Fig. 14 - The Praetorium.
  1. Cryptoporticus of the Great Baths;
  2. upper level, terrace leading to the left to the upper floor of the Winter Palace;
  3. stair climbing to the Pretorium Pavilion;
  4. Praetorium substructures;
  5. upper floor, Praetorium Pavilion.

and consisted of a panoramic trail leading to the PRAETORIUM PAVILION, nested on the top of the building, from which there was (and is) a spectacular view over the CANOPUS and the rest of the Villa.

Under the PAVILION we can still see the PRAETORIUM SUBSTRUCTURES, very similar to the HUNDRED CHAMBERS and equally built as slaves' quarters (fig. 14). Near the substructures it has been excavated a small building, finding a large amount of discarded fragments of marble decorations: it was a workshop for the handicraftsmen that endlessly worked for the Villa.

Therefore, the IMPERIAL RESIDENCE was a self-contained complex, located in the very heart of the Villa in a prominent position, featuring all the traditional elements of a roman domus, but enlarged to achieve an imperial and monumental scale, and reinvented in order to show the status and luxury of a royal palace.