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View of the Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli. Photo  ©  Sally-Ann Ashton, 2003The Emperor Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli lies in the foothills of the Tiburtine mountains, about 30 km to the east of Rome. The site resembles a small city rather than what most people would think of as a ‘villa’. It extends over more than one square kilometre, although much of it remains unexcavated.

The villa site today is a beautiful and romantic ruin, and even the most detailed plans and scale models cannot evoke its original grandeur and magnificence. In the range, scale, number of buildings and the variety of architectural styles they embody, the villa is quite astonishing. Recent research suggests that the general layout of the villa was based on a complex master plan that was decided at the start. A vast army of architects, engineers and above all manual workers must have been needed, first to construct the five terraces on the naturally sloping ground, then to erect the buildings, streets and colonnades, and finally to landscape the grounds that formed an integral part of the site.




Detail of etching by Giovanni B. Piranesi, ‘Plan of the Existing Buildings at Hadrian’s Villa’, 1781-1789.


The style of the buildings ranged from the conventionally ‘classical’ - such as open squares lined with shady stoas or colonnades - to daring new structures involving domes and semi-circles that showed off the possibilities of new building materials and techniques, notably the use of concrete. Interior decoration was lavish, with wall paintings, stucco, floor mosaics and different coloured marbles all used to brilliant effect. Many masterpieces of sculpture have been found there, decorating various parts of the enormous complex.

View of the Maritime Theatre at Hadrian’s Villa,Tivoli.

Marble head of AntinousThe head of Antinous now in the Fitzwilliam Museum was found at Tivoli in 1769 and sold to the Marquis of Lansdowne in 1772. Antinous, the young lover of the Emperor Hadrian, had drowned in the Nile in AD 130. Hadrian was inconsolable; he clearly felt a need to surround himself with images of the dead youth, and at least ten marble images of Antinous have been found at Tivoli. In the year 2000, excavators found a structure that has been identified as a shrine or perhaps a cenotaph for Antinous. It consists of two small, facing temples linked by a semi-circular colonnade, along with hieroglyphic inscriptions and fragments of Egyptian and Egyptian-style sculpture.

Hadrian’s villa has been excavated and studied for several hundred years. From the fifteenth century it began to attract the attention of antiquarians and architects, but it was the eighteenth century that saw large-scale excavations as antiquarian dealers hunted for sculpture to sell to their clients. Many of the ancient sculptures discovered remained Italy in the collection of the Pope, and are now in the Vatican Museum, but most of the remainder were exported to England to satisfy the demand for ancient sculpture to decorate the homes of wealthy Englishmen. The head of Antinous is one such example, but other objects from Tivoli have arrived in the Fitzwilliam from several sources and are now on display in Gallery 21.

Further reading

Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven, 1981)

I. Bignamini and C. Hornsby, Digging and Dealing in Eighteenth-Century Rome (New Haven, 2010), 2 volumes.

John Pinto and William MacDonald, Hadrian’s Villa and its Legacy (London, 1995).