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Tivoli

The Villa Adriana

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    The Villa, situated just below Tivoli, was built between AD 118 and 134 by the emperor Hadrian on the site of a villa of Republican or Augustan date as a country residence. It is considered the epitome in architecture of the opulence and elegance of the Roman world. Covering approximately 7 square miles (18 square km), the sumptuous complex was more an imperial garden city than a traditional villa, with parks and gardens on a large scale. It incorporated many exotic buildings which replicated those that Hadrian had seen in the east Mediterranean, such as the Canopus in Egypt and its temple of Serapis (Serapeum), lined with statuary including caryatids like those on the Erechtheum in Athens. All the buildings are Roman in style and method of construction, though bear Greek names.

    From his first visit to Tivoli on 18 June 1831 Berlioz was captivated by the Villa Adriana, and he probably returned to it more than once on his subsequent visits to the town. A letter to his family dated 24 June tells in detail of his first visit (CG no. 232):

[…] I also visited the Villa Adriana, and these sublime ruins stirred in me so many thoughts and feelings that I thought they wanted to make up for the lack of impressions left by all the ruins of Rome. Imagine a country house with a perimeter of one and a half leagues, in which the emperor Hadrian turned his dreams into realities. At the entrance there was a Greek theatre; two columns and a few arcades is all that is left of the amphitheatre, and in the middle there is a patch of cabbages. At least you must give credit to the owner, as this is the only area that is cultivated, while all the rest is in a state of splendid abandon. The imperial palace, the baths, the Library, the resting quarters, the courtyards, are all reasonably well preserved as ruins go; in the barracks of the emperors guard’s sparrow hawks and kites build their nests. The Vale of Tempe (an imitation of the Greek original) is now a cane forest. I was not able to see Tartarus, or the Elysian Fields, nor many other places whose names escape me; you just lose your way. Everywhere you see walls six feet thick of prodigious height, covered with stucco and fresco paintings, and towers, vaults and columns, but no statues because some Pope, I cannot say which, had them removed to make lime. On entering this monument I came face to face for the first time with the grandeur of Rome, I felt overwhelmed, shattered and annihilated. If only I had been on my own!… But patience, it is only half and hour from Tivoli, and once I have settled there I will allow myself to spend a day there from time to time. […]

    The Memoirs describe a later visit towards the end of October, on the way back from Naples when Berlioz made the journey with two Swedish companions, Bennet and Klinksporn (Chapter 41):

[…] Below Tivoli, on the edge of the plain, I guided these gentlemen through the labyrinth of Villa Adriana; we visited what was left of its vast gardens, the vale which the caprice of an all-powerful emperor wanted to turn into a miniature replica of the Vale of Tempe, the barracks of the guards, where now swarms of birds of prey keep watch, and finally the site where the emperor’s private theatre stood, which is now occupied by a patch of that most ignoble of vegetables, the cabbage.

How time and death must laugh at all these bizarre transformations!

The Villa Adriana in pictures

All the modern photographs reproduced on this page were taken by Michel Austin in May 2007; the 1836 engraving is from our own collection. © Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.

The Villa Adriana in 1836 – the Canopus 

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The Villa Adriana Tivoli in the distance

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The Villa Adriana – Tivoli in the distance

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The Canopus and temple of Serapis (Serapeum)

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The Canopus from the other end

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The Villa Adriana – Tivoli in the distance

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The Poikile

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© Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb for all the pictures and information on this page.

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