Hadrian’s Villa

The astonishingly grand 2nd-century AD Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa), 6 km (4 mi) south of Tivoli, was an emperor’s theme park, an exclusive retreat below the ancient settlement of Tibur where the marvels of the classical world were reproduced for a ruler’s pleasure.

Hadrian, who succeeded Trajan as emperor in AD 117, was a man of genius and intellectual curiosity, fascinated by the accomplishments of the Hellenistic world. From AD 125 to 134, architects, laborers, and artists worked on the villa, periodically spurred on by the emperor himself when he returned from another voyage full of ideas for even more daring constructions (he also gets credit for Rome’s Pantheon).

After his death, the fortunes of his villa declined. It was sacked by barbarians and Romans alike; many of his statues and decorations ended up in the Musei Vaticani, but the expansive ruins are nonetheless compelling.

It’s not the single elements but the peaceful and harmonious effect of the whole that makes Hadrian’s Villa such a treat. The vast estate is a fascinating succession of baths, theaters, temples, libraries, guest pavilions, nymphaeums, and open-air gymnasiums. The most famous “sight” in the Villa is the Canopus, an artificial valley with a long pool modeled after an Egyptian canal on the Nile, surrounded by colonnades and sculptures. Hadrian did not live long enough to enjoy his creation. He fell ill and retired to Baia near Naples, where he died in AD 138.

Oleanders, pines, and cypresses growing among the ruins heighten the visual impact.

Villa d’Este

Villa d’Este, created by cardinal Ippolito d’Este in the 16th century, was the most amazing pleasure garden of its day and still stuns visitors with its beauty.

Inspired by the recent excavation of Villa Adriana and a devotee of the Renaissance celebration of human ingenuity over nature, Este (1509-72) paid architect Pirro Ligorrio an astronomical sum to create a mythical garden with water as its artistic centerpiece. To console himself for his seesawing fortunes in the political intrigues of his time (he happened to be cousin to Pope Alexander VI), he had his builders tear down part of a Franciscan convent, then divert the Aniene River to water the garden and feed the fountains – and what fountains: big, small, noisy, quiet, rushing, running, in which sunlight, shade, water, gardens, and carved stone create an unforgettable experience

There are fountains of all shapes and sizes, from the tiny cascades that line the stone staircases leading down to the fish ponds at the bottom of the garden to the massive organ fountain that once played music. To this day, several hundred fountains cascade, shoot skyward, imitate bird songs, and simulate rain. The villa is listed as a Unesco world Heritage site.

Suggestions: Confortable shoes, a hat, sun cream in Summer. It can get very hot in Summer, it is better to visit Hadrian’s villa early or in the afternoon.


Photo reference: Paliano, Jastrow, Szilas et al., Wikimedia Commons and Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via flickr

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