Botanica Atlanta | Landscape Design, Construction & Maintenance


Atlanta Garden Design

Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli

Posted by Author on December 15, 2014 at 6:45 PM


Image: Bob Cates


A few decades after the dust had settled over the city streets and gardens of Pompeii, work began on a villa in the hill country east of Rome. Hadrian, emperor of the expansive Roman empire, had teams of architects, artists, and laborers set to work on a sprawling, flat property downhill from the village of Tivoli. For twenty years - starting in 118 CE and concluding only with Hadrian's death - the resulting complex stretches the definition of the word "villa." Growing to about a third of Central Park's acreage, "Villa Adrianna" went far beyond a residence with pleasure grounds. Hadrian established this new estate as his personal seat of power; effectively a new center of the Roman Empire was built from scratch.


Image: Gordon Haws


The most recognizable single image of Villa Adrianna is often a photograph like the one above. This unique outdoor space is known to modern scholars as the "Island Enclosure" or sometimes the "Maritime Theater." Worth noting though, is that the Island Enclosure is just one small fragment of the overall complex; the Villa had multiple banqueting halls, apartments, theaters, gardens, baths, grottos, and pools. In terms of finish and decor, the ruined bricks and marble that can be seen today are just a shadow of what once was.

Images: Een Ar, Bjørn Breimo & Hadley Paul Garland


At the time of Hadrian, the Roman Empire had quite a reach - land from Spain to Greece and Egypt to Britain fell within its boundaries. Reportedly, even during his travels through the empire, Hadrian continued developing parts of the Villa in his mind; the Villa contained copies of Greek artwork and garden spaces that alluded to real landscapes in Egypt.


Like only a handful of other places on the planet, the Villa is a testament to what happens when unfettered power and wealth is let loose on a landscape. Landscape historian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers describes Villa Adrianna as Hadrian's "laboratory of architectural innovation," a landscape complex that "was its own allusive, experiential place of history and cultural memory." Rogers believes it "can be read as the summation of imperial Roman architectural expression."


Images: Bob Cates & Francis Norman


When studied in plan or aerial photographs, my first surprise is the scale of the landscape: entire cities have been built in less space. But as a landscape architect, the second (and more puzzling) reaction is one of layout. In a way that I believe speaks of its age, Villa Adrianna is composed of scattered axial and geometric reflecting pools, lawns, and gardens, none of which seem to be "resolved" with the other by modern standards. The geometry of Villa Adrianna, like its features, is quite eclectic.


Images: Amelia Marra & Jeff H.


Even more the case than when looking at Pompeii, it is important to remember that after 2000 years, all modern eyes can see today are the bones of Emperor Hadrian's grand villa. Rogers describes that the "connective elements that knit these parts into a comprehensive framework - colonnades, pergolas, paths, and planting - can only be guessed at today." After the fall of the Roman Empire, the complex endured generations of ransacking and outright robbery. Time has weathered ornate masonry arches, vaults, and domes into (quite interesting) geologic forms.


Looking through images of Hadrian's Villa, it is easy to draw analogies to landscapes and garden spaces that we see more regularly around the world. (At a glance, the long reflecting pool, for example, is reminiscent of Versailles or Washington, D.C.) Given the age of Hadrian's Villa, it is interesting to realize that it is significantly more likely that any similar landscape we see today is evocative of something at Villa Adrianna than the other way around.


Image: Tom and Louisa

Categories: Garden History

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