View Article: Hadrian's Villa: A Roman Masterpiece
University of Washington Honors Program in Rome

Hadrian's Villa: A Roman Masterpiece
Section One 1 of 7

Hadrian's Villa
Here's a model of the grounds.
Publius Aulius Hadrianus
Here is a marble bust of Emperor Hadrian.
Set among the rolling hills in the countryside of Campagna, Hadrian’s Villa graces an area larger than Pompeii with its many pools, baths, fountains and majestic classical architecture. The Villa’s chief architect, the Emperor himself, reinvented the idea of classical Greek architecture in Roman society. But before we examine the scope of Hadrian’s influence we must first become familiar with Rome and her faithful Emperor, Hadrian.
In 117 AD, Rome’s power and grandeur stretched further than ever before. The expansionist emperor Trajan led Roman armies across the Danube in the North and the Euphrates in the East. This is the climax of the Pax Romana, and during these years the Roman Empire enjoyed peace and order throughout its far-reaching states. Innovation and invention were at peak levels with the introduction of new marbles, gems, and other raw materials.
Now enter Emperor Hadrian, a successful army general, learned scholar and philosopher. As commander of the Eastern Army, he came to power after the son-less and dying Trajan adopted him. Though controversy predictably erupted among senators, it was quelled by Hadrian’s unanimous military support and fear of civil war.
Born Publius Aelius Hadrianus in AD 76, Hadrian quickly showed an aptitude for academics. He had an incredible memory that allowed him to learn geometry, arithmetic, literature and art at their highest levels. He had a fascination with all things Greek and was said to speak Greek more fluently than Latin, and in some cases demanded that his servants speak in Greek. Said to write speeches for Trajan, he was an eloquent and convincing speaker trained in the art of rhetoric – a quality that brought him success and political influence.
As Emperor, Hadrian spent almost half of his reign travelling the empire. From Britain to Syria, from Athens to Alexandria he founded cities, built roads and temples, erected monuments and heard the concerns Roman populace. This was tremendously important for our purposes. These travels shaped the way Hadrian wanted his Villa to take form.
In AD 118, building and remodelling began on a Republican Villa thirty kilometres outside Rome. While Hadrian was away, intense construction took place until about AD 125 when he returned. We know Hadrian moved his official residence to the Villa at this time based on letters he wrote, and was there until AD 128 when he left for his second major trip. More building took place once again and the Villa was completed in AD 133 or 134. Hadrian would remain at the Villa until he passed away in AD 138.
The Villa was probably inhabited for some time after Hadrian’s death based on the discovery of portraits of Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). But sadly, as with many of the ancient Roman ruins, the Villa was quarried for the following fifteen hundred years. The twelfth century church Santo Stefano beyond the Villa’s southern boundary was almost entirely constructed with Villa marble, as was the church of San Pietro in Tivoli. Today almost no original art or statuaries remain, centuries of looting by treasure hunters has scattered it all over the world.
Fifteen hundred years of quarrying and almost two thousand years of weather leave the modern viewer struggling to imagine how Hadrian’s Villa would have stood and functioned. But fortunately for us, modern scholarship and research has been able to recreate an accurate picture of this ingenious Emperor’s awesome Villa.
Section Two 2 of 7

The Maritime Theater
A nice picture of this innovative structure.
Piazza d'Oro
In the middle, one can see the remnants of the central fountain and pool. Just beyond this is the semi-circular nympheum where water would have been spilling out.
The Canopus
Notice the alternation between semi-circular and flat on top of the columns.
Central Vestibule and Grand Baths
This picture shows the central vestibule, the meeting place between the Grand and Small Baths at the Villa. Just behind the vestibule are the Grand Baths where slaves and servants bathed.
Set in the valley below Monti Tiburtini, Hadrian’s choice of location is interesting. Traditional villas, even through the renaissance, were located up on hills where the climate is cooler and the elevation gives the owner perspective as well as protection. Hadrian’s Villa would have been brutally hot in the summer, wet in the winter and without any sort of sweeping view. So why would he choose this site?
Opinions vary, but the most accepted view is that Hadrian’s architectural plans were plain too ambitious to fit on a hillside. The more than thirty massive buildings if placed on a hillside would render walking cumbersome and construction near impossible. The Villa’s tremendous water consumption also meant it had to be close to and below an aqueduct. In fact, Hadrian’s strategic and abundant use of water would more than make up for the warmer temperatures. The site also boasts numerous important building resources including travertine, lime, pozzolana (a type of sand) and tufa. Also worth noting is that the Villa is only 17 roman miles (28 kilometres) from Rome, much closer than had he decided to build up on a hillside.
Two southeast-northwest valleys, almost parallel and five hundred meters apart, define the length of the site. The valleys’ streams, now dry, are bordered by red tufa cliffs, giving the Villa separation and privacy. Between streams, the land is variable and irregular as is common in the Campagna region.
The irregular land therefore dictated the layout of Hadrian’s Villa. Unlike most villas of his age, there is no main or central axis. Rather, the uneven terrain forced the creation of several axes and though most buildings are symmetrical and some buildings are orthogonally related, there appears to be no central organization. Thus, if one were to look at just an aerial overview of the site, it would appear confused and poorly planned. But this was not the case.
To physically describe a site larger, and in some ways more complex, than Pompeii is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, we will focus on the Villa’s most innovative or unique structures, thereby capturing the importance of Hadrian’s Villa.
The first building we will discuss is the Pecile. It was built to represent the Greek Stoa Poecile in Athens which hosted the greatest Greek paintings. Hadrian’s Pecile probably served the same purpose with its dimensions measuring 232 by 97 meters. If one were to walk around the quadriportico seven times, he would walk two roman miles. This is in accordance with the rules of ambulatio, defined as the doctor recommended distance one should stroll after lunch. It was originally surrounded by four, nine meter walls with a colonnaded interior. These columns, along with the outer walls, supported a wooden roof. Installed in the center of the quadriportico lies a large rectangular pool measuring 100 by 25 meters. It is important to realize that while visiting the Pecile, there would have been four isolating walls, creating peaceful solitude for residents or guests.
Exiting the Pecile in the Northeast corner, one will walk into the Philosophers’ Chamber used for large meetings. This apsidal structure was once covered by a large vaulted ceiling, still somewhat intact today. Underneath the vault are seven niches, each one hosting a different philosopher’s statue. The entire structure was faced in marble, none of which remains today. Also lost, is the coffering that once decorated the ceiling.
Leaving once again to the northeast, we will enter the most famous structure at the Villa: the Maritime Theatre. According the Epistles by Pliny the Younger, it was quite common to build a Villa within a Villa. The Maritime Theatre, also descriptively called the Island Enclosure, is exactly that, only on a grand and revolutionary scale. No comparable structure had been built before this. The large circular enclosure, forty-four meters in diameter (very close to Hadrian’s Pantheon at 43.5 meters) has its main entrance facing north, just as the Pantheon. Just inside the outer wall and surrounding the moat is a ring of forty unfluted Ionic columns. To cross the moat in Hadrian’s day, one would have stepped over wooden draw bridges that could be retracted, now we step over on a cement bridge. Running on a north-south axis, the island contains twenty-two defined spaces. The Room enclosures alternate beteen a semicircular plan and a square plan, an innovative layout unique to Hadrian’s villa. The island includes such facilities as: a lounge, a library with symmetrical side rooms, heated baths with a frigidarium, three suites with heated floors, washbasin, a subterranean art gallery, and a large fountain down the long axis. Connecting the baths to the moat is a stairway suggesting that the moat was also used as a natatio, or swimming pool. Researchers are confident that Hadrian himself designed the island based on his love for architecture, its similarities with the Pantheon and Pliny the Younger’s writing on the subject.
The Hospitalia and Imperial Triclinium form the heart of the Villa, housing and containing offices necessary for imperial business. The white and black mosaic tesserae paving, though some of the best preserved mosaics in the Villa, suggest that this was not in any way occupied by the emperor himself. However, the large atrium suggests that this was the main entrance to the Villa. Central to the function of the Villa, this area contained a library, rooms and many meeting rooms for the many magistrates and bureaucrats.
Just east of the Imperial Triclinium is the Piazza d’Oro. As the name suggests, this is one of the most elaborate and ornate complexes on the grounds. Though centuries of looting and quarrying left it almost bare, during the 18th Century it was here that some of the most important art was found. Imperial portraits, meticulously carved friezes and intricate marble flooring were all found here. Most impressive however was the extensive use of water. At the rear is a large semicircular nympheum from which water poured out of seven niches. The water flowed out of yellow marble set upon purple marble platforms. The water then flowed into the fountains of the central chamber and then flowed down into more minor fountains below. Here in this court, one would be surrounded by lush gardens, impressed by fine statuary and refreshed by the sound of running water.
Just beyond Piazza d’Oro is the Canopus. This long pool, measuring 119 by 18 meters, was built to remind Hadrian of the Canal built between the Nile and Alexandria, one of his favourite cities. The pool was colonnaded and each column was structurally linked to the next with alternating straight and semicircular marble (see picture titled Canopus). At the end is a large nympheum in the form of an exedrae called the Serapeum and would have been used as a dining room. Hadrian’s Villa was known for the parties thrown at the Canopus; it was the place to be.
And, finally, the all-important Roman baths. There are the Small Baths and the Grand Baths, however, again the nomenclature is misleading. The grand baths were larger, less refined and thus used by servants, guards and other middle class workers. The Small baths were sophisticated and one of the most luxurious areas of the Villa. Let us further examine.
The façade is a Republican vestige incorporated into Hadrian’s new Villa. Oriented north, a common theme for Hadrien, one enters into an obviously atypical Roman structure. The octagonal chamber with walls that alternate between flat and concave surface continue Hadrian’s architectural theme. Overhead is a dome ceiling and below are the remnants of opus sectile mosaic. The divergent curvature of this room and the surrounding rooms create an artistic rather than functional environment. The circular planning of the baths is consistent with the other Hadrianic structures, such as the Maritime Theatre, but again is unique. We have no knowledge of any other Villa during this time of similar style. In fact, if one compares the layout of the Villa with its many divergent axis and pools to the floor plan of the Small baths, he will discover that they are strikingly similar, almost as if the baths were a model of the Villa itself.
Left out of this section was Hadrian’s art collection. Thousands of statues, portraits, mosaics, and frescoes have been completely destroyed or stolen from the site. From what we have regrouped into museums today (a good chunk of it’s in the Capitoline!), it is apparent that Hadrian boasted one of the most extensive and varied private art collections of all time. No original art remains at the site today, thus when visiting the Villa, one must keep this in mind and try to imagine the grandiosity of Hadrian’s Villa.
Section Three 3 of 7

Hadrian, the most powerful man in the world, needed a Villa worthy of his title.
A proper villa is a place for restful leisure, or otium. Based on Pliny the Younger’s extensive writing on the ‘proper villa’, we have a good idea of what a wealthy Roman would expect from his Villa. Key to a villa is the setting. Mountains, sea, climate and seasonal winds all come in to play. Nature is sculpted by gardeners, watermen and architects, transforming the raw into the refined. Villas can for the most part sustain themselves, with farmlands (which interestingly, both commoners and aristocrats worked), ample firewood, cattle, wineries and granaries. Jet fountains and pools, distinguishing and sustaining features of any villa, are artfully incorporated into the landscape and design of the Villa.
The overall layout of a villa, contrary to renaissance villas, is asymmetrical. Each buildings function will determine its relative position. Baths face south-west to capture the heat of the day. Temples often face north. Residential areas will open up in the direction of the summer breeze. Libraries and work areas capture an intended view. Every detail is taken into consideration and each building deliberately placed. Indoor activity takes place on the ground floor, although there are usually upper levels, as is definitely the case in Hadrian’s Villa. Every room is designed for a specific purpose, suites for reception, dining rooms, bathing rooms, reading rooms, and working rooms. All rooms have their associated staff and kitchens. Courtyards provide light and space for gardens and fountains. More secluded satellite areas are reached by colonnades. Theatres and Gladiator arenas provide entertainment for all. If one’s wanting an isolated contemplative area, step into the quadriportico, or into a satellite courtyard. No surface goes undecorated. Frescoes cover dining room walls often painted to give the feeling that one is outdoors. Mosaics cover the floors. Statues, carvings and portraits are placed throughout the villa.
Hadrian’s Villa in terms of its function is not very different from other imperial villas. Functionally, Hadrian needed a Villa from which he could run the empire. What sets Hadrian’s Villa apart is the unique architecture and enormous size.
Section Four 4 of 7

Emperor Hadrian, the patron, wanted a Villa as impressive as his empire was. Because he conducted official business from the Villa, many guests of stature and leaders from other states would need to visit the Villa. Thus, Hadrian needed the Villa to impress not only himself, but the many guests. Taking advantage of his newly strengthened lines of communication, he was able to acquire rare and valuable materials from all over the empire. Artisans, watermen, gardeners and architects were all kept on the Villa as full time staff. Hadrian no doubt completed his goal of creating a powerful impression on all his visitors; his visitors are today still amazed by the size and grandeur of the Villa.
Section Five 5 of 7

Hadrian’s Villa had an enormous impact on the design of renaissance villas. During the renaissance, the villa as an architectural conception was revived. The only problem for the renaissance architects was that in their search for otium they did not have many examples of Roman villas. They were forced to draw on writings by Pliny the Younger, Cicero and Horace. The extraordinary influence exerted by Hadrian’s Villa on renaissance villa and landscape design derives from the fact that its owner and creator was known through these surviving writings.
Many prominent renaissance architects visited and sketched the Villa. Bramante and his design for the Belvedere Court is an obvious example. Known to have visited Hadrian’s Villa, he designed the magnificent Belvedere Court for Pope Julius II. The Belvedere court with its gardens, fountains, areas for spectacles, accommodations for the display of statuary, and long passages linking separate structures all remind one of a peaceful roman Villa. But more convincing still is Bramante’s interplay of straight and curved lines, a unique feature to Hadrian’s Villa but certainly not to renaissance architecture.
Another good example of Hadrian’s renaissance influence is Raphael’s design of Villa Madama. Set on the slope of Monte Mario, this villa enjoys a wide view of the Tiber valley. Raphael, like the Romans, worked with the land to produce a seamless intersection between nature and buildings. This villa had a circular colonnaded courtyard, entrance facing north with passages to a secret garden. Circular courtyards were unprecedented in fifteenth century architecture. What makes this courtyard even more unique is that it was colonnaded. Among the available ancient sources for these renaissance architects to draw from, there are two at Hadrian’s Villa: the Island Enclosure and the Circular hall.
Thus, because of the lack of written history and surviving roman villas, Hadrian’s villa became a key resource for renaissance architects. From the above examples and the many more, we can see that Hadrian had a disproportionate influence on renaissance architecture.
Section Six 6 of 7

  Personal Observations
In researching this topic I had to do general research on Roman villas. The amount of thought, time and a resources that went into just designing a villa blew me away. The way Roman’s respected and incorporated nature into their villa experience, with water, gardens, views, and even down to the direction of seasonal winds, really gave me an appreciation for their architecture.
Section Seven 7 of 7

Adembri, Benedetta. "Hadrian's Villa". Electa: Milan, 2000.

MacDonald, Willam. "Hadrian's Villa and It's Legacy". Yale University Press: New Haven, 1995.

MacDonald, Willam. "Hadrian's Circles".

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