The Art of Roman Architecture Discovered at the Villa of Hadrian

Villa Adriana, or Hadrian’s Villa, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by Emperor Hadrian in 117 A.D. in Tivoli. Destined to be the emperor’s home, it was constructed on top of his wife Vibia Sabina’s villa approximately 28 kilometers from the Capital on the Monti Tiburtini.

VillaAdrianaDownsizedAccessible via the ancient roads Tiburtina and Prenestina or the River Aniene, the emperor chose the location based on its proximity to the water, especially the four aqueducts linked to Rome: Anio Vetus, Aqua Marcia, Aqua Claudia, and Anio Nobus. It was also close to the Acque Albule sulphir water springs which the emperor enjoyed.

In terms of size, Villa Adriana is spread across an area twice as large as Pompeii. The 120-hectares-long complex consists of interdependent and inter-locking structures with different purposes: the Nymph Stadium, the Praetors’ (Roman bodygaurds’) vestibule, the thermal water baths, a fishing area, a structure with three exedrae, and a four-sided portico. All are connected to ensure the security and privacy of the emperor. However, none of these flaunt symmetry as builders had to follow the shape of the terrain surrounding the villa. Regardless, the area flaunts a novel form of planning and visual invention that continues to awe Western architects.

Aside from the special sections, certain parts of this complex were named after famous buildings and palaces which the emperor visited. For instance, inspired by his visit to Alexandria, the emperor created part of the villa to match the Egyptian Canopus and named it the same. By doing so, he followed the Roman trend of recreating famous buildings to flaunt culture and knowledge.

The central part of the Villa of Hadrian features a traditionally structured villa overlooking the nearby valley. What makes this area special is the Poecile, a garden surrounded by an arcade with a swimming pool. Surrounding the central region are the Greek and Latin library, certain residential areas of the palace, and the Golden Court a little further away.

The guestrooms, or the hospitalia, were in the northeast of the palace whereas the west was home to Canopus, the bath and a number of administrative buildings such as the Praetoeium Pavilion. Connecting all 30 structures was a network of corridors and underground passages, but these were mainly used by servants to avoid disturbing the royals and official functions taking place at the villa.

Today, visitors can enjoy strolling through the better preserved areas, which include the accademia, the stadio (arena), the Philosopher’s Room, the Greek Theatre, and the Piazzo d’oro. The Teatro Marittimo (Maritime Theatre) is also open to tourists. Known as the Island.

Enclosure, it’s a large circular enclosure with a ring of forty Ionic columns inside. Further inside is an island of sorts which required retractable wooden bridges to reach. There, the emperor would be surrounded with peace and tranquil to think over important matters.  Complementing these structures were thousands of statues, portraits and mosaics.

Unfortunately, these have been stolen over the years. While some haven’t been recovered, a few have made their way from private collections to a number of museums. Bearing the efforts Hadrian put into designing his unique villa, nothing less than unique art and perfection should be expected from the decorative pieces used throughout the whole structure.

As one of the beautiful works of Roman architecture, Villa Adriana has inspired many designers, especially during the Renaissance period. Even Raphael had the palace in mind while creating the designs for Villa Madama on the slopes of Monte Mario near the Tiber valley. Therefore, despite being ruins today, the Villa of Hadrian will continue inspiring and motivating many architects in the future.



Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.