In ancient Rome, wealthy and powerful citizens enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle. They built large and lavishly decorated palaces on Palatine Hill, the city’s elite neighborhood. The Roman emperors led perhaps some of the most lavish lifestyles in the city. As expected, their imperial palaces were among the most beautiful and luxurious residences on the hill. One of these emperors was Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138 AD.
Emperor Hadrian was not like most of his predecessors. He did not settle in Rome and wait for his subjects to come to him. Instead, he spent much of his time traveling through the vast Roman Empire, from Britain to Egypt and Syria, interacting with his subjects in person. Hadrian was also a great architect, building temples, aqueducts, and roads through Roman territories. As much as he admired all the different cultures he saw, the Emperor was mostly fascinated by Ancient Greece.
Emperor Hadrian was not very pleased with the existing imperial palace in Rome and wanted to build a new one in the suburbs. For this ambitious project, he chose the area then known by its Latin name of Tibur, the famous Tivoli of today. His wife, Vibia Sabina, owned a small villa in Tibur, and the Emperor decided to build his magnificent residence on the same property.
The pre-existing villa was not demolished but renovated and extended. The architect of the new villa, which resembles a small town more than a residence, was Emperor Hadrian himself. The residence has 30 buildings, of which the most beautiful and famous is the Maritime Theatre. The round structure with a small island in the center resembles the Pantheon and is believed to be the Emperor’s private studio, where he would paint or design new architectural structures.
A notable feature of the Maritime Theatre is the remarkable set of columns, a characteristic element of Ancient Greek architecture. Every room in the villa has its own purpose; for instance, the Imperial Triclinium was reserved for discussing political matters, the Hospitalia served as a guest room, and the canopy was where the Emperor hosted many parties.
Emperor Hadrian was, as Tertullian described him, “Omnium curiositatum explorator,“ or an explorer of everything interesting. In ancient times, the interior of his villa in Tivoli was decorated with frescoes, sculptures of gods and goddesses, and wall paintings inspired by the different cultures he had encountered during his voyages. The villa also had many colorful mosaics, but unfortunately, only the black and white ones are preserved today.
The emperor did not randomly choose Tivoli as a construction site for his villa. Many of his friends were already building villas in Tivoli and it was connected to the ancient roads Tiburtina and Prenestina. But most importantly, the Anio Vetus, Anio Nobus, Aqua Marcia, and Aqua Claudia aqueducts passed through the area and large quantities of water were exactly what the emperor needed for creating his remarkable gardens and Roman baths.
After the death of Emperor Hadrian, the villa was turned into a summer residence. All the emperors that followed after him preferred Rome and the villa was never again a permanent residence of any other emperor. Constantine the Great is believed to have transferred many of the precious arts from Hadrian’s Villa to his capital, Byzantium. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the villa was abandoned and its remaining artworks destroyed or stolen.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the villa was rediscovered by Popes Pius II (Aeneas Silvius) and Alexander VI. The Italian cardinal Ippolito II d’Este sponsored the excavations and incorporated many of the villa’s designs in his own villa in Tivoli. The design of Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriana) was imitated by Renaissance architects and landscape designers. It also influenced the development of the Classical Revival style. Archeological excavations on the site continue to this day and most of the relics are part of the exhibitions at the Vatican Museum. Hadrian’s architectural masterpiece has been a part of UNESCO World Heritage List since 1999.