Brief History of the Villa and of the excavations


One of the statues of Caryathids flanking the Canopus
Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli (Rome) was built by Emperor Hadrian, starting from 117 A.D., as an imperial palace far away from the city of Rome. It is the most extensive ancient roman villa, covering an area of at least 80 hectares, more or less as Pompeii.

   In 1999 Villa Hadriana was appointed one of the Human Heritage Monuments by Unesco; as many other archaeological sites it is very famous, but still very little known in its essence, notwithstanding more than 500 years of excavations. A more scientific and modern approach to its study is a recent novelty.

   Villa Hadriana lived until late antiquity, was sacked by the Barbarians of Totila, and during the Middle Ages became a quarry of building materials for the city of Tivoli and its bishop; her identity was lost, being renamed Tivoli Vecchio (Old Tivoli). At the end of the XV century, Biondo Flavio identified again the site as the Villa of the Emperor Hadrian described by the Historia Augusta; at the same time, Pope Alexander VI Borgia promoted the first excavations in the Odeon theater, discovering several statues of seated Musae, now in the Prado Museum of Madrid, Spain. Later on, Pope Pius II Piccolomini visited the Villa and described it in his Commentarii, making the site very famous from then on.


During the first excavations in the Odeon were found several statues of seated Musae, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid
   Starting from the XVII Century, Villa Hadriana was continuously excavated and explored, in search of treasures - mainly sculptures and mosaics - which enriched the private collections of Cardinals and Popes and, subsequently, of roman and european noblemen, especially the English.

   The first extensive excavations date back to the middle of the XVI century, and were ordered by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (the son of Lucretia Borgia) who was at the time the powerful Governor of Tivoli. He enrolled the great architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio, who redesigned for him the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, transforming the old bishop’s residence in a renaissance ’luogo di delizie’ (place of delight), a palace set in a garden with spectacular fountains, for which he spent more than a million of golden scudi, an enormous wealth even at that time.

   Pirro Ligorio excavated in many sites of Villa Hadriana, looking for statues and precious marbles which he later used in the decoration of the Villa d’Este. He has left three precious Codes where he describes his explorations and discoveries, talking about the statues and the subterranean roads, together with roman legends and myths. Ligorio’s Codes became one of the most important antiquarian texts of the Renaissance, desired in all european courts, and the fame and beauty of Villa Adriana became worldwide reknown. So did the legends about its treasures, and the excavations multiplied.


The famous statues of Centaurs in gray marble, by Aristeas and Papias, were found in 1737 by Cardinal Furietti in the Accademia, and are now in the Capitoline Museums of Rome
   In the XVII century there were many small private excavations, and also the Bulgarini family - which still owns the area of the Accademia - was very active. Cardinal Bulgarini discovered the so-called Barberini Candelabra, now in the Vatican Museums of Rome. In the XVIII century Simplicio Bulgarini gave permission to carry on excavations to Cardinal Alessandro Furietti, who after few days found the famous statues of Centaurs by Aristeas and Papias and of the Red Faun, now in the Capitoline Museum of Rome.

   During the XVIII century, a good part of Villa Hadriana became the property of Count Giuseppe Fede, who planted the wonderful cypressus trees still extant today. He excavated and found several statues, but unfortunately his collection was dispersed soon after his death. At that time, Villa Hadriana became one of the sites that ’could not be missed’ in the Grand Tour of many english noblemen. They were willing to spend any sum of money to buy statues or other objects found in the Villa, which later were exhibited as treasures in their palaces. The english antiquarian and art dealer Gavin Hamilton worked in the Villa together with Domenico De Angelis: their excavation at the Pantanello found an enormous amount of sculptures.


Beautyful stucco decoration on one of the vaults of the Great Baths (Grandi Terme). During the XVIII and XIX Centuries, english noblemen who visited the Villa used to shoot at the stuccoes to make them fall and get some souvenir of their trip
   At the end of the XIX century, Villa Hadriana finally became the property of the Italian kingdom, and thus begun new restorations and excavations.

   At Villa Hadriana never was carried out a stratigraphical scientific excavation, most of them were simply treasure hunting. In recent times there have been only small explorations and cleanings. Nothing is known about the finds, there is no information about the last phases of its life and decay, even if there are signs of late antique alterations. We do not know the exact finding-spot of the greater part of its sculptures and mosaics; other finds have been lost, and there is an enormous amount of research to do just in studying and tracing back the statues.


(For a detailed history of the excavations see below in Bibliography: Gusman 1904, Winnefeld 1895, De Franceschini 1991, Guidobaldi 1994, MacDonald-Pinto 1995)