FUNCTION AND MEANING OF HADRIAN'S VILLA

Contents
1 - Pavements
2 - Wall revetments
3 - Building classification
4 - Building phases and chronology of the Villa
5 - Conclusions


1. - Pavements

The pavements of Hadrian's Villa have been classified in five main groups:

  1. mosaic
  2. opus sectile
  3. opus spicatum
  4. coccio-pisto
  5. white marble revetment
1 - mosaic

Mosaics were classified according to their decoration and workmanship, that is the measurements of the tesserae and their number in 100 square centimeters (a 10 x 10 cm. square).

Mosaic drawings

1 - entirely white, without decoration
2 - white mosaics, with one or more black frame, and no decoration
3 - white mosaics with one or more black frame, decorated with marble crustae or tesserae
4 - black and white mosaics, with geometric or vegetal decoration
5 - polychrome mosaics and vermiculatum mosaic panels
6 - mosaics made of rectangular tesserae, with basketweave texture
7 - mosaics made of rectangular tesserae, with herringbone texture

Workmanship values in mosaics

1 - very low: from 9 to 28 tesserae in cmq. 100
2 - low: from 33 to 44 tesserae in cmq. 100
3 - medium: from 62 to 98 tesserae in cmq. 100
4 - high: from 100 to 198 tesserae in cmq. 100
5 - very high: beyond 200 tesserae in cmq. 100

A statistic study of the mosaics and their distribution within the Villa outlined the following relationships and connections:

1 - a connection between type of decoration and the workmanship values: mosaics without decoration had lower workmanship values, while polychrome ones had much higher values. 2 - a connection between workmanship values, decoration of the mosaic and function of the room: mosaics located in corridors had lower values compared to the mosaics in the main rooms, as can be seen in the HOSPITALIA (n. 8) and IMPERIAL TRICLINIUM (n. 7).
Mosaics without decoration were used for roofing, in open areas such as porches or courtyards, in corridors, and in general in secondary rooms. Mosaics with geometric or vegetal motives were used in the main rooms, never in corridors. Polychrome mosaic panels - as the vermiculata - were always used in main halls, never in corridors and only in the noble buildings, which were mainly paved with opus sectile marble pavements (see below).
3 - Connection between workmanship values, mosaic decoration and prevailing pavement type of the building where it is located: according to the prevailing type of pavement, the buildings of Hadrian's Villa can be classified in three main groups:

  1. noble buildings, mainly paved with opus sectile, or polychrome mosaic, with wall marble revetment.
  2. secondary buildings, mainly paved with black and white mosaic, where polychrome mosaic or opus sectile was never used.
  3. servant's quarter, usually set in substructures, mainly paved with opus spicatum or coarse mosaic.

Fig. 1 - Imperial Palace, room PI23: polycrome mosaic with 3D lozenges, belonging to the previous republican Villa

In Hadrian's Villa we have some mosaic pavements inherited from the previous republican Villa, which was enclosed in the hadrianic structures of the IMPERIAL PALACE (n. 12). The small villa featured the traditional repertoire of the the republican age: to the mid 1st century B.C. can be dated a polychrome mosaic with three-dimensional lozenges, found in the IMPERIAL PALACE (fig. 1). This motive belonged to the hellenistic repertoire, and was quite common during the republican age. We know other similar examples in Pompeii, in Oplontis (now Torre Annunziata) in the Villa of Poppaea, in the roman Ager in the villa of the Cecchignola and near Rome at Fiano Romano, in the Villa of Volusii at Lucus Feroniae.


Fig. 2 - Imperial Palace, porch PI28: mosaic with polycrome crustae, belonging to the previous republican Villa

To the late republican age belongs another mosaic employing a republican motive, which has white background decorated with colored marble crustae, and was found in the IMPERIAL PALACE (fig. 2). This type of mosaic was frequently used in porches, is typical of the republican age, and appeared in some villas of the roman Ager, such as that of via Pollenza, of via del Quadrato or on the via Prenestina at Torre Spaccata. In the the Villa of Volusii at Lucus Feroniae, near Rome, we have a similar mosaic with black background and crustae.


Fig. 3 - Hospitalia, room HS19: black and white mosaic with vegetal stylized drawings

Fig. 3a - Mosaic of the sacellum HS2 of the Hospitalia, with the new motive of interlaced circles outlining hexagons

In the hadrianic age appeared a new repertoire with vegetal and arabesque drawings, such as those visible in the HOSPITALIA (n. 8) (fig. 3). The Hospitalia had ten cubicula, each one with three alcoves for the beds. Since the beds were hiding their pavement, the alcoves had mosaics with simple geometric patterns. More complex and decorative drawings were used instead in the visible part of the pavement, the central one, where we can see an explosion of fantasy and creativity. Stylized arabesque or calligraphic motives create a new style, using vegetal elements such as palmettes, garlands or leaves to build squares or circles, decorated with rosettes or other flowers. This new repertoire will be used elsewhere in the roman empire, especially at Ostia. Another new drawing appeared in the sacellum HS2 in the HOSPITALIA (n. 8) (fig. 3a): its interlaced circles outline curved hexagons, and this is a development of the old drawing with interlaced circles outlining curvilinear squares. The new hexagon pattern appears in this same period in the re-decorations of the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta or the Villa of the Cimitero Flaminio, both located in the Ager surrounding Rome.


Fig. 4 - Maritime Theater, room TM35: mosaic with larger black tesserae

The creation of a new repertoire of calligraphic mosaic patterns did not mean that the old and traditional drawings had to disappear. A typical feature of Hadrian's Villa is looking back to previous tradition, as far as architecture or decoration were concerned. This is why we see a revival of ancient mosaic patterns of republican age, as in the porch of the MARITIME THEATER (n. 18), entirely white, with black larger tesserae (fig. 4). This simple but elegant pattern appeared during the republican age in Pompeii (I, 9, 13), at Rome in Livia's House on the Palatine, in the villa of Livia at Prima Porta near Rome, and also in the roman Ager in the villas of the Marcigliana or on the via Tiberina (km. 0,850).

Fig. 5 - Vestibulum, porch VE25: basketweave mosaic with colored tesserae
This type of mosaic could have white or black background, with larger tesserae of the opposite colour. The motive appears also in the ACCADEMIA (n. 30), in some fragments visible on a wall in the garden of the Casino Bulgarini.

Also in the porch of the VESTIBULUM (n. 25), there was an 'old fashioned' mosaic, with basketweave texture made of rectangular tesserae, and colored marble fragments (fig. 5), it was found during the restorations of Jubilee year 2000. A similar basketweave mosaic is in the Greek Library. The pattern is known in republican age in the villa of Livia at Prima Porta near Rome and also in Pompeii.

Another revival of an ancient pattern can be observed in the main corridor of the Hospitalia (n. 8): small crosses made of four black tesserae, set in a white background. In republican age this drawing was widely used in Pompeii, Herculaneum and in the Ager surrounding Rome.

Fig. 5a - Mosaic of porch PD10 in the Hall with Doric Pillars, imitating republican mosaics with crustae of the nearby republican villa enclosed in the Imperial Palace
We also can see an hadrianic revival of republican mosaics with crustae in the Hall with Doric Pillars (n. 14) (fig. 5a), where the porch PD10 features a white mosaic decorated with polychrome marble fragments.

Black and white mosaics were located in secondary buildings, mainly paved with mosaic: in the HOSPITALIA (n. 8), in the IMPERIAL TRICLINIUM (n. 7), in the FIREMEN'S HEADQUARTERS (n. 22A), in the GREAT BATHS (n. 26), in the WEST SUBSTRUCTURES OF THE CANOPUS (n. 28a), and in the FARMHOUSE NEAR PIAZZA D'ORO (n. 15b). Workmanship values were low and medium.

Polychrome mosaics were used only in the noble buildings, mainly paved with opus sectile: in the GREEK LIBRARY (n. 10), in the IMPERIAL PALACE (n. 12), in the CANOPUS (n. 28), in ROCCABRUNA (n. 29), in the ACCADEMIA (n. 30), and in PIAZZA D'ORO (n. 15). Most of them are small panels, whose quality and preciousness are outstanding:

Fig. 6 - Accademia, room AC53: mosaic panel with Doves drinking from a golden basin, Rome, Capitoline Museum (vermiculatum emblema)
their tesserae measure one-two millimeters, and this type of mosaic panel is called vermiculatum. Thousand of small tesserae and incredible accuracy are visible in the famous Dove Mosaic of the Capitoline Museum (fig. 6), which was found in 1737 by Cardinal Alessandro Furietti in the ACCADEMIA (n. 30). It is one of the world masterpieces of mosaic art in all times, and many scholars believe it is hellenistic. Donderer thinks that it could be the famous Dove Mosaics by Sosos which ancient sources described in the royal palaces of Pergamon.


Fig. 7 - Imperiale Palace, room PI46: mosaic panel with scenic Mask and attributes of Dionysus, Rome, Vatican Museums, Gabinetto delle Maschere (vermiculatum emblema)

Another outstanding group of vermiculata mosaics was found by Cardinal Marefoschi in the IMPERIAL PALACE (n. 12) (fig. 7). They represent scenic Masks and some of them are now in the Gabinetto delle Maschere in the Vatican Museums of Rome. Another mosaic with Centaurs is now in Berlin. Workmanship values were high or very high, with hundreds or thousands tesserae in ten square centimeters. In Hadrian's Villa we can see that ancient republican mosaics, belonging to the previous republican Villa, survive as 'fossils'; we also see a revival of those ancient patterns that were used together with new calligraphic patterns, typical of hadrianic age. There is a continuity with the past and at the same time a renewal of the repertoire, with brand new designs.


2 - opus sectile

It was the prevailing type of pavement in most of Hadrian's Villa (approximately 60-70% of its pavements were in opus sectile), and used a variety of marbles coming from the whole world - a beautiful collection is visible in the 'Didactic Museum' at the Villa. This wealth of different and expensive types of marbles is another sign of the opulence of the Villa.

Opus sectile drawings have been classified in three main groups (for the different drawings, see also Section: Opus Sectile Repertoire):

1 - simple patterns: simple geometric forms - triangles, squares, rectangles, hexagons, octagons, lozenges.
2 - reticular patterns: a main square, flanked by two rectangles and a smaller square set in the corner between them.
3 - mixed patterns: all other patterns using two or more geometric figures grouped together, such as squares and octagons or lozenges and triangles and so on.


Fig. 8 - Small Baths, corridor PT13-14: opus sectile marble pavement with simple pattern of rectangles outlined with red marble listels

Unfortunately, very little survives of the original opus sectile pavements; in ancient times, marble tiles have been stolen and burnt to make lime. Quite often the pavement concrete still bears traces of the tiles, and if they are not too much weathered it is still possible to reconstruct the original drawing of the pavement. (For a discussion on the method of reconstructing patterns from imprints see the following link: Droit de Reponse Aiema and Bryn Mawr College Review)

It is very important to point out that the marble tiles, if the measurements are made using roman feet, always showed to have perfectly 'round' measurements: one roman foot (cm. 29,6), one foot and a half (cm. 44,4) or two feet and one quarter (cm. 66,6) and so on. This is very important in order to verify the reliability of drawings, when marble tiles are not preserved and we have to rely just on their imprints.

There was a hierarchy in the choice of patterns: simple drawings were mainly used in corridors (fig. 8) and secondary rooms. Since these rooms usually were squared

Fig. 9 - Garden Stadium, room NS2: opus sectile marble pavement with mixed pattern
or rectangular, the opus sectile patterns employed simple drawings, which easily followed their shape, were less expensive and could be made in a short time.

More complex drawings, employing a great variety of colours and different marble types - and therefore extremely expensive - were used in the main halls and rooms, where the utmost elegance and luxury was requested (fig. 9). One of the preferred stones was red porphyr, which as we said was the imperial stone par excellence, hinting to the purple imperial colour.

There also was a connection between the shape of a room and the drawing: mixed patterns with one or more geometric figures were used in rooms which had an irregular shape, such as the porch on the northern side of the GREEK and LATIN LIBRARIES (n. 10 and 9). Mixed pattern drawings were better suitable for the complicated plans of the hadrianic buildings, which preferred curved shapes, lines and apses.


Fig. 10 - Imperial Palace, room PI57: coccio pisto pavement with lozenges and meander border made with white tesserae, belonging to the previous republican Villa

3 - Opus spicatum

It was used in secondary buildings, mainly paved with mosaic, such as in the courtyard of the GREAT BATHS (n. 26), or in the servant's quarters as in the HUNDRED CHAMBERS (n. 16). In the noble buildings, opus spicatum was used for roofing, as can be seen in the CASINO WITH SEMICIRCULAR ARCADES (n. 20).


4 - coccio-pisto

Two coccio-pisto pavements were inherited from the previous republican villa enclosed in the IMPERIAL PALACE (n. 12): one has the typical meander and lozenge drawing outlined with white tesserae (fig. 10). This type of pavement is typical of the republican age, very commonly used at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but also in the roman Ager, for example in the villa of the Volusii at Lucus Feroniae (now Fiano Romano, near Rome).

Fig. 11 - Small Baths, frigidarium PT5: imprints of the marble slabs of pavement and wall revetment in the water basin.
In late republican times coccio-pisto pavements were replaced by black and white geometric mosaics. Within Hadrian's Villa, this is a true 'fossil'; there was not a revival of this technique, as we have seen for some old republican mosaic patterns. Coccio-pisto pavements without decoration were consistently used in the servant's quarters as the HUNDRED CHAMBERS (n. 16), the FIREMEN'S HEADQUARTERS (n. 22a), and in general to waterproof cisterns, roofs, water basins or other hydraulic devices.


5 - White marble revetment

White marble was consistently used for all kind of finishing, from doorsteps to stairs and most of all in water basins, fountains and nymphaea scattered all over the Villa. The large basin of the WINTER PALACE (n. 22), the so called Peschiera or fishpond, was reveted with white marble, as were the large basins of the PECILE (n. 16) or PIAZZA D'ORO (n. 15), and also the Euripus of the CANOPUS (n. 28), the fountains of the GARDEN STADIUM (n. 21), and the circular basin of the MARITIME THEATER (n. 18). White marble also reveted all basins for hot or cold water, in the four thermal plants of Hadrian's Villa: the GREAT BATHS (n. 26), in the SMALL BATHS (n. 24) (fig. 11), in the THERMAE WITH HELIOCAMINUS (n. 19), and also in the small private therma of the MARITIME THEATER (n. 18).




^ Back to top | Section 2 - Wall revetments