Architecture and image

    Hadrian's Villa is one of the most complex and significant examples of the builing genius of the Romans. It is a complete sample of architectural creations, stemming out in domes and in the shapes of the buildings; their disposition does not follow a rigid symmetry but was conceived to amaze the visitor, creating surprise perspectives, following and dominating the natural curves of the ground.

    The Villa is one of the most remarkable examples of imperial and dynastic palace. The most ancient buildings of this kind are known only from the ancient literary sources, which describe the legendary palaces of the persian kings, set in the middle of luxuriant paradise-gardens. Later on, came the palaces of the hellenistic kings, archetypes of a tradition made of magnificence, enormous dimensions, monumental and scenographic architecture.

    When Rome became the greatest power of the Mediterranean and conquered Greece, the romans were seduced by the luxury and beauty of greek and hellenistic art. Roman aristocracy and, later on, roman emperors, copied the hellenistic palaces, and together came the passion for Villas. Emperor Augustus owned the first imperial villa at Prima Porta, near Rome; Nero built himself a villa in the very heart of Rome, the Domus Aurea, and another villa in Subiaco, with an artificial lake. Domitian created magnificent villas in Castelgandolfo and Sabaudia, not very far from Rome. Trajan, too, had a villa in Arcinazzo, and so on. The luxury villa set in an extensive estate became a 'must' for every roman emperor.

    In hellenistic and roman times triumphed a well defined iconography of power, an 'image' which concerned not only the way the emperor was dressed and the cerimonies to which he took part, but included the palaces where he lived.

Hadrian's Villa was conceived as a fortress, surrounded by high walls such as these near the Palestra
In these imperial residences, as pointed out by prof. Eugenio La Rocca, luxury was an expression of wealth and power. Villa Hadriana is one of the most significant examples of this idea: its extension speaks by itself, as do its complexity, the great number of different levels and orientations, the bizarre shapes and grandiosity of the buildings. And, moreover, the magnificence of the decoration, the marbles coming from quarries scattered in the whole Mediterranean, the statues, friezes, frescoes, mosaics; the secluded internal gardens, the vast artificial esplanades which created an enormous park surrounding the different pavilions, whose architectural outline was reflected by spectacular water basins.

    Besides luxury, security was a top priority in the Villa. It is completely false that Villa Hadriana had no protection because nobody would dare to attempt the Emperor's life. Walking around the Villa, it is self-evident that it was built like a fortress, with high wallings such as the Hundred Chambers (Cento Camerelle) or the containment walls near the Palestra and the Valley of Tempe, or again the long containment walls on it western side, running for more than three hundred meters from Roccabruna to the Accademia.


The high walls on the western side of the Cento Camerelle
    There was a limited number of access roads, which were severely and constantly patrolled; within the Villa, a series of passegeways and check-points, easily watchable, linked one level to the other, a quarter to another. Studying these check-points it is possible to identify a public part of the Villa, completely separated from its private part. And it is possible to single out three hierarchical levels: the noble imperial quarters, reserved to the emperor and his entourage, the secondary quarters for high ranking personnel, and finally the servant's quarters, for slaves and soldiers.

    Very little is left of the magnificent decoration of the Villa, after centuries of treasure hunting excavations and the consistent thefth of building materials such as brick and marble. Throughout the centuries, all marbles were meticolously taken away and burned to make lime, so just very few fragments survive.Therefore today's visitors do not realize that the Villa was almost entirely paved with luxury marble pavements (opus sectile) and also the walls were completely reveted with marble panels, reaching up to the ceiling.

    The opus sectile was the distinctive mark of the emperor's presence, especially when red porphyry - the imperial stone par excellence - was used: it hinted to the purple colour, another sign of imperial power. In the most imposing buildings of the Villa, together with precious marbles were found beautyful mosaic panels with very small tesserae (1-2 millimiters) called vermiculatum.

Opus sectile pavements used a great variety of precious marbles, coming from quarries of all the Mediterranean. This one, in the Small Baths (Piccole Terme) is one of the most colourful.
These two types of pavements occur only in the 'noble' buildings.

    Black and white mosaics, infinitely less precious, had charming vegetal motives such as those of the Hospitalia, or simple geometric patterns. They were used in buildings which had a secondary location and smaller dimensions.

    Then there was a third hierarchical level: the servant's quarters, with coccio pisto or opus spicatum pavements, as can be seen in the Caserma dei Vigili or in the Cento Camerelle.
(For a detailed analysis on the hierarchy of the decoration and architecture, see M. De Franceschini, Villa Adriana, Mosaici, pavimenti, edifici, Rome 1991. Conclusioni p. 619-630).

    Even if they are almost two thousand years old, the ruins of the Villa are still very imposing, and have fascinated architects and artists of all times: they visited the site in search of inspiration, copied the shapes of the domes and tried to master their technical building secrets. Villa Hadriana was visited and studied by Andrea Palladio, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonard, and also by Borromini, Piranesi, Canova, Quarenghi (who later became the architect of Catherine of Russia). Other artists such as Antonio da Sangallo, Pier Leone Ghezzi and Giovanni da Udine (just to name a few) left sketches and drawings of the ruins, and tried to reconstruct the plans of the most unusual buildings, such as the Teatro Marittimo or the Canopus.

    The great number of famous visitors shows that Villa Hadriana was one of the highlights of roman architecture, but also a model and archetype for the great architecture of the Renaissance, in monuments, churches and villas. It is not by chance that one of the first and most ancient Renaissance villas, Villa d'Este, was built nearby in Tivoli. It is not by chance that during the historical period that saw the rediscovering of antiquity and of classical art, the roman architectural and artistic language learned at Villa Hadriana was re-used in new magnificent monuments and in many imposing villas, belonging to the most important families, linked to the nobility or to the Church. The idea of the Villa as image and expression of power and wealth revived in those prestigious estates.