Villa Adriana

(Photo: Stephanie Sepulveda CC by 4.0)
(Photo: Stephanie Sepulveda CC by 4.0)

Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa)

“Hadrian fashioned the Tiburtine Villa marvelously, in such a way that he might inscribe there the names of provinces and places most famous and could call [certain parts], for instance, the Lyceum, the Academy, the Prytaneum, Canopus, the Poecile, the [Vale] of Tempe. And, in order to omit nothing, he even made an Underworld.” – from Historia Augusta


Before Hadrian came to power Trajan was Emperor, and he was especially keen on expanding the reaches of the Roman Empire. However, things changed once Hadrian became Emperor—it became less about expanding, and more about strengthening his existing territories. To keep an eye on his land, Hadrian did what we all wished we could do, he traveled to all corners of the Empire, and as he did, buildings and monuments were erected in his honor. These travels inspired Hadrian, and he brought that inspiration with him to his villa in Tivoli. Remember, the Roman Empire was massive, and stretched well beyond modern-day Italy; as you walk around the villa, you’ll notice the influence of other regions, including Egypt and Greece, in addition to the already-familiar Roman style.


Take the Line B to Ponte Mammolo. Once at the station, purchase two bus tickets to Tivoli: one to reach the town and a return ticket. If not, then you’ll have to purchase a return ticket in Tivoli (and hope that the store isn’t closed).

To find Villa Adriana ask the bus driver at the Ponte Mammolo station if one of the stops is near Villa Adriana. Chances are it will be. Once you’re dropped off, follow the signs.

1. Pecile

(Photo: Stephanie Sepulveda CC by 4.0)
(Photo: Stephanie Sepulveda CC by 4.0)

The Pecile is probably the first thing you’ll think about when someone mentions Hadrian’s Villa. It is the large pool you’ll first see when entering. We told you before that Hadrian took inspiration from other cultures, and this especially true for the Pecile. It’s based on the Stoà Poikile in Athens (some historians believe), and it was part of a larger portico that consisted of long, colonnaded hallways that surrounded the pool. Take a moment to picture what this looked like way back when—Wherever you see a short, cylindrical tree, imagine a large column in it’s place, one of many that held up a roof that covered the walkway underneath. Here is where Hadrian and his honored guests would relax and and discuss important issues and ideas. To top it all off, the Pecile was also beneficial to one’s health; walking around the pool a certain distance was doctor recommended after a meal. Whether the distance was one lap around the pool, three laps, or seven, historians still can’t agree.

2. Canopus

(Photo: Corey Ryan CC by 4.0)
(Photo: Corey Ryan CC by 4.0)

The Canopus is the large pool found at the far end of Villa Adriana, surrounded by Greek-influenced statues and references to the Nile, including a crocodile. In fact, the name “Canopus” comes from an island located on the Nile. Foreign influence again— are you starting to see the trend yet? What’s unique about this in particular, is that Hadrian’s purpose in constructing it had to do with the loss of a loved one. Thought it was his wife? Think again. It was actually the loss of his lover, Antinous, a boy from Bithynia. Now that we got your attention, here’s the story: while touring his Empire, Hadrian went swimming in the Nile, only to start drowning. Antinous, hearing his lover’s cries for help, jumped into the water to rescue him. Tragically, Antinous drowned while Hadrian was saved. For the next eight years, until his death, Hadrian honored Antinous by erecting shrines and monuments in his honor. He even deified his lover, which was a controversial political move at the time. The Canopus, which references the Nile, is said to honor Antinous. Talk about true love.

3. Roccabruna

Hadrian was what we would consider a Renaissance man before the Renaissance began, and way before the term was even used. A military leader, a politician, an architect, a thinker, a traveler, Hadrian did it all. That even included studying the night sky. Near the Canopus is a small trail that leads to the Roccabruna, what historians believe was Hadrian’s observation tower. Offering spectacular views of the Italian countryside, this would have been a prime spot for Hadrian to observe the stars.

4. Large Baths


Villa Adriana contains two large, private, bath buildings, complete with an exercise court just outside. These are no regular baths, they put your regular-old shower at home to shame. The towering groin vaults and large pools help visitors grasp Hadrian’s ambition: these baths are massive!  The baths were complete with: an apodyterium (a Roman changing room), a frigidarium (cold pool), a tepidarium (warm room with a tepid pool), and caldarium  (hot pool). Also, look for the ventilation that surround the caldarium used to heat the water.

5. Imperial Palace and Peschiera

Located just behind the Pecile is what many believe to be the Imperial Palace. The centrality of this building (within the villa), the marble flooring, and the wall decorations suggest that this is not only where Hadrian resided, but also where he would welcome his guests. Directly behind the Imperial Palace is the Peschiera, what would have been a covered portico with a central pool. The name of this area comes from the fact that the pool was full of fish, which Hadrian and his guests would catch.

6. Piazza D’Oro

(Photo: Stephanie Sepulveda CC by 4.0)
(Photo: Stephanie Sepulveda CC by 4.0)

In the northern part of Villa Adriana you’ll find the Piazza d’Oro, or the “Piazza of Gold.” This area consists of a vast, open court that would have been filled with flower-beds, fountains, and water basins. The name of the Piazza comes from the decadent ornaments and works of art that would have also been found inside. Historians believe this was used as a banqueting area specifically because of this luxurious reason.

7. Hall with Doric Columns

(Photo: Corey Ryan CC by 4.0)
(Photo: Corey Ryan CC by 4.0)

Near the Piazza d’Oro is the Hall with the Doric Columns, recognizable from the six remaining Doric columns tucked away in a corner of the hall. This area would have consisted of a portico lined with Doric columns surrounding an open area. Although it’s difficult to know for sure what the the exact function of this hall was, mainly because so few ruins remain, many historians believe the location and an open air garden would indicate this being a passageway to the Imperial Palace.

8. Greek and Latin Libraries

The libraries at Villa Adriana are split into two categories based on language: the Greek library and the Latin library. Although it’s unknown exactly how many books were housed in these libraries, knowing Hadrian’s stature and power, he would have had plenty to fill these rooms. The remaining niches in both libraries would have been used not only for statues, but for books as well.

9. Hospitalia

(Photo: Corey Ryan CC by 4.0)
(Photo: Corey Ryan CC by 4.0)

No it’s not a hospital, but we can see why you could be confused with the name. The Hospitalia is actually thought to be the guest rooms of Villa Adriana. Take special notice of the original, black-and-white mosaic floors in each room, as they are all unique. Fancy, right?

10. Temple of Venus

(Photo: Corey Ryan CC by 4.0)
(Photo: Corey Ryan CC by 4.0)

The Temple of Venus at Villa Adriana is actually a replica of a Greek original located in Knidos. What is important to consider is the representation of the female figure of the time. While obviously paying tribute to the Goddess Venus during Hadrian’s time, when viewed today, offers one the opportunity to reflect on our own notions of beauty and nudity. Rather than conceal the human figure, Romans celebrated the body, both male and female, for what it was: natural. But how is the human body celebrated now? In particular, how do we view the female body? And how is nudity viewed where you live, in your community?

11. Maritime Theatre

Hadrian was not only a ruler, but he was also an intellectual. Aside from being a brilliant military leader and Emperor, Hadrian was also interested in the arts and philosophy. The Maritime Theatre would have been Hadrian’s private escape from the everyday stress of ruling an Empire where he could go to study and think. It consists of a round portico encircling a small island. The island, surrounded by a moat, would have been accessible by wooden drawbridges. If Hadrian fancied some more alone time, he would have been able to raise the drawbridges, making him virtually inaccessible. Although the Theatre has been undergoing severe renovations over the last few years, this villa within a villa is a testament to Hadrian’s architectural abilities and worldliness, plus it beats a generic lock on the door right?

Hidden Treasure

After the Roman Empire fell, Villa Adriana fell along with it into disrepair. Looting and general lack of upkeep led it to become a ruinous villa slowly reclaimed by the surrounding nature. In the 18th century, many writers and artists visited what remained of the once great Empire, including Villa Adriana, as inspiration for paintings, writings, and drawings. Among them was Giovanni Piranesi, a well-known Italian artist who was famous for his etchings of Rome. Villa Adriana was a place Piranesi would frequent, capturing the decay of the ruins. In the Imperial Palace, tucked away in a stairwell, one can find a remnant of Piranesi’s presence: his signature or “tag”, dated and everything.

AUTHOR(S) AND LAST UPDATE Corey Ryan, John William Bailly, and Stephanie Sepulveda 21 May 2016

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