The city of Tivoli, formerly known as Tibur, had been a popular retreat for important individuals and especially senators since the Republican era, thanks to the abundance of water and the beautiful hilly landscapes. Indeed, Hadrian created his Imperial residence on the site of a small Republican villa, possibly built on land owned by his wife, Vibia Sabina (see a map of pre-existing Republican and Augustan structures here). Occupying a low plain on the slopes of the Tiburtine Hills, Hadrian’s Villa was the richest and largest villa of the Roman Empire, generously spread out over 120 hectares (an area larger than Pompeii). The number of buildings and the originality and complexity of the architectural forms makes the complex a unique monument in the history of ancient architecture.
The Emperor travelled frequently, and whenever he returned to Italy, Tibur was his preferred residence, away from the heat and bustle of Rome. The initial construction of the villa began a year after Hadrian’s assumption of power when he initiated the renovation of the existing structures into something magnificent. The monumental project was completed about ten years later, in AD 128, when the villa became Hadrian’s official residence.
Designed for both business and pleasure, the villa contained many rooms that could accommodate large gatherings. A large court lived there permanently, and many visitors and bureaucrats were entertained and temporarily housed on site. The servants lived in hidden rooms and moved around the site through a series of service tunnels which allowed them to transport the goods from one area to another, well out of sight of the emperor. The vast residential complex was, therefore, almost always teeming with people.
Archaeologists have identified some 30 buildings, including palaces, thermal baths, a theatre, libraries, living quarters for the elite, lodgings for the servants, extensive gardens, and fountains. Because Hadrian wanted to surround himself with reminders of his travels throughout the vast territories of the Empire, many structures had features and decorative sculptures copied from the various places the emperor visited.
His villa at Tibur was marvellously constructed, and he actually gave to parts of it the names of provinces and places of the greatest renown, calling them, for instance, Lyceum, Academia, Prytaneum, Canopus, Poecile and Tempe. And in order not to omit anything, he even made a Hades. Historia Augusta
Named after the ancient city near Alexandria in Egypt, the Canopus is believed to represent the Nile Delta that Hadrian visited in AD 130, where his lover Antinous drowned that same year. The colonnade of the Canopus was supported by caryatids like those of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens. Greek and Egyptian culture and architecture were reflected in his villa. Since Hadrian was very interested in architecture and was himself a capable architect, he likely took part in the design and planning of the villa.
A detailed study of the buildings, especially the brick stamps, allowed the reconstruction of the chronology of the Hadrianic buildings. Two phases of construction, marked by the travels of Hadrian, have been identified. The first phase of construction, which witnessed the greatest amount of building activity, extended until AD 125 when Hadrian returned from the first of his great journeys in Greece and the East. Hadrian resided at the villa in the summer of 125 and probably stayed there until he embarked on his second journey in 128.
Phase I (AD 118-125): Maritime Theatre, Hall of the Philosophers, Heliocaminus Baths, Pecile, Nymphaeum Stadium, Small and Large Baths.
Phase II (AD 125-134): Greek and Latin Libraries, Academia, Hundred Chambers, Piazza d’Oro, Canopus, Antinoeion.
After the death of Hadrian in AD 138, the villa was occasionally used by his various successors. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the villa fell into disrepair. It was taken apart piece by piece over the centuries, with one local cardinal stripping off marble in the 16th century to build his own Villa d’Este located nearby. Proper excavations only started in 1870 by the Italian government and continue even today in part by the Italian archaeological authorities and in part by the various foreign academies in Rome.
Many beautiful artefacts have been unearthed at the Villa, including marble statues, frescoes, mosaics and ornate architecture. Most statues have been removed from the villa, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, and are now displayed in major antiquities collections elsewhere in Europe and North America.
One of the most recent discoveries made in Hadrian’s Villa was the remains of a temple complex devoted to Antinous (the Antinoeion), which consisted of two small twin temples facing each other in front of a semi-circular collonaded exedra.