Alone in the valley
One of the best spots for a daytrip from Rome is the ancient hilltop town of Tivoli. Among other sights, Tivoli is home to the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa. The Emperor Hadrian was apparently not fond of the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, and was also known to enjoy his solitude, a hard thing to find in the metropolis. He fancied that he could build himself a better home elsewhere – and he certainly did.
Hadrian chose the valley below Tivoli as the spot, and built his elaborate palatial estate with a wide range of inspirations from Greek and Egyptian architecture in the design. The result was an enormous site of about 30 buildings, including temples, baths, private rooms, guest quarters, dining halls, libraries and a huge underground network of tunnels and rooms where his retinue of slaves lived and managed the Villa behind the scenes. These remarkable underground slave quarters were called the Cryptoporticus.
Upon entering the site the first remains you will see are of the Pecile, a courtyard once surrounded by colonnades intended to resemble the Painted Porch of Athens, the debate hall of the stoic philosophers. From here the Philosopher’s Hall leads to the Maritime Theatre, Hadrian’s private bath and exercise space surrounded by a moat. Close by are the Stadio, where Hadrian enjoyed athletic games and entertainment, and the larger shared thermae (heated baths).
An eclectic legacy
Some of the most beautiful ruins on the site are the Canopus gardens. The Canopus, named and modelled after the famous canal in Alexandria, is one of the best examples of the Alexandrian garden left to us, with its pool of green water surrounded by columns and copies of Greek and Egyptian sculptures. The Serapeum, an adjacent artificial grotto (named after the Egyptian goddess Serapis) contains a raised platform that may have functioned as an extravagant dining area. After the discovery of new archaeological remains in 1998, it has been suggested that Hadrian had the tomb of his cherished lover Antinous brought back to his Villa after he mysteriously drowned in the Nile, but this remains unproven.
The Villa was occasionally used by some of Hadrian’s successors, but fell into ruin after the fall of the Empire. Much of its remaining marble and sculpture was pillaged by Cardinal d’Este for his own lavish villa
nearby in 1550. Many important sculptures found here can now be seen in the Capitoline
and Vatican Museums
. Only approximately one third of this magnificent space, which is a World Heritage Site, is visible today, emerging from the olive groves and fields which have engulfed it. While the ruins are impressive enough in themselves, one can imagine the huge splendour of the Villa in its heyday; gilded and full of colourful mosaic, paintings, statues, and furniture, and home to one of the most learned and versatile leaders in Rome’s history.