A tale of two villas in Italy

Property 907 – Hadrian’s Villa, Italy

Property 1025 – Villa d’Este, Tivoli, Italy

When it comes to Roman Emperors, I am the kind of person who has favourites and keeps lists. I am aware that this makes me unusual.

Near the top of my personal list is Hadrian, emperor in the early 2nd Century CE. He was an interesting character. World traveler, aesthete, and far more Greek than most Romans would have liked, he is near the top of most lists of “good” Roman Emperors.  He was one of the better attested personalities of the ancient world, but despite that we have relatively few sources regarding his life.  Two thousand years tend to leave a skimpy and unbalanced historical picture behind. Those documents we do possess record his inveterate travelling, with a particular fondness for Egypt, and extensive sojourns in what is now northern England, building his eponymous wall.

Unlike his adopted father Trajan, he was never much of a soldier, preferring to spend his time in artistic pursuits, and in romantic obsession with a young man named Antinous. Despite these un-Roman characteristics, he was a superb administrator, managing to organise the empire in such a way that it was stable and prosperous for nearly a century afterwards, despite repeated barbarian threats. Altogether he was a remarkable individual, perhaps best captured in the superb fictionalised “autobiography” of Hadrian, written by Marguerite Yourcenar in the 1950s.

While he doesn’t quite have the philosopher-king glamour of Marcus Aurelius, he was worlds away from the crazed lunatics, military strongmen and other assorted monsters who ran the Empire for hundreds of years. I admire his curiosity about his own realms and his desire to see them all for himself. I respect his taste for art and architecture, and his talent. And perhaps most of all I admire the faint hint that comes down to us of a man who was used to power, deployed it admirably, but seems to have been vaguely bored by the pomp and ceremony. But it’s always hard to tell how much of my perception of Hadrian is based on collected Western tradition rather than any evidence we may have.

Hadrian was an indefatigable traveller, in a time when travel was a nightmare. However all travellers come to rest somewhere, and for Hadrian it was the town of Tivoli, near Rome. He reputedly did not particularly enjoy the City, and decided that he would construct a country residence for his time spent in Italy. Over the years it metamorphosed from a  holiday house to the centre of Imperial government when the Emperor was in Rome. The villa remains there today, ruined of course, and excavated haphazardly by later generations, but still present.

Canopus and the Serapaeum

Hadrian’s itinerant nature was expressed in his design of the villa. It covers a huge area in typical monumental Roman style, but has distinct sections which mimic the architectural styles of other parts of the Empire. There are paired Greek and Roman-style libraries, reflecting Hadrian’s dual character – the Roman Emperor with the Greek soul. Further away the “Canopus”, named after an area of Egypt, features a large pool which is intended to mimic the Nile. Egypt was particularly important to Hadrian as it was there that his lover Antinous died. Recent excavations have revealed that under the entire site is a rabbit warren of tunnels through which slaves and villa staff moved, unseen by the aristocracy lounging above.


After the death of Hadrian his villa was used intermittently by his successors, but eventually fell into ruin and seems to have been largely ignored for a thousand years. But eventually the wheel of history turned and interest in Hadrian’s villa was revived during the Italian Renaissance. The arts and knowledge of the ancient world were resurrected, and the villa was pillaged for raw materials to construct a new villa nearby, the Villa d’Este.

Cardinal Ippolito d’Este was a major player in Church politics of the 16th century, and apart from several unsuccessful candidacies for the papacy, spent his time collecting antiquities. His acquisition of the Governorship of Tivoli suited his ambitions very well, as he was able to closely study the design of Hadrian’s villa in order to construct his own.

A modest and austere little country cottage

Compared to the relatively austere villa of Hadrian, the Villa d’Este is a riot of fine sculpture, jets of water, and carefully manicured gardens. Built on the side of a hill, the gardens cascade down into a small valley. The garden design consciously echoes Greek and Roman sources as an appeal to ancient culture, and includes and sculptures of from classical mythology and grottos which seem suitable for ancient nymphs.

To my eyes the hydraulics of the site are the most remarkable aspect. They have now been restored to their original function after a period of neglect, and every corner reveals a new view of a preposterous fountain or elaborately designed rivulet. Water exits a row of fountains made from human faces and reappears further down the hill cascading off a waterfall and into huge reflecting pool. It’s all completely over the top.

More fountains than I know what to do with

The interior of the villa is suitable elaborate as well. To my eyes it all seems a bit much, mixing frescoes of Greco-Roman mythology, biblical stories, legends of Roman history and more. Other paintings celebrate the pleasures of the hunt and of a pastoral lifestyle. No doubt intended to impress the notables of the period, it must have been stunning for visitors.

The gardens at Tivoli ended up becoming one of the most important inspirations for garden design in Europe after this period, and thence across the Western world. In a way there’s nothing new under the sun, but I find it comforting that a design process that started nearly two thousand years ago has visible, obvious echoes today, even on the other side of the world.

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