Mirabilia Urbis: Rome Walking Tours

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Hadrian's Villa

An ancient writer described the Emperor Hadrian, "He could be severe or silly, serious and playful, hardly precipitous -- yet sometimes hasty -- both stingy and generous" The biographer continues, "He was tall, elegant… and his thick beard hid the battle scars on his face. From robust stock, he loved horseback riding, walking, swordplay, and javelin throwing."

If architecture can express a patron’s personality, then Hadrian's Villa is a portrait of its owner. Hadrian’s love of physical fitness shows in different sections of his palace. Although modeled on a 5th century B.C. edifice in the agora in Athens, Hadrian's Pecile was essentially an outdoor track for strolling or jogging. Near it, an inscription was uncovered; it stated in Latin: "the walk around the portico is 1450 feet, seven times around is 2030 steps." This was the ancient Roman equivalent of 2 miles or 3 kilometers. The Pecile was a fitness program translated into grandiose architecture.    

The extremes in Hadrian's temperament are expressed throughout his Villa. The so-called Maritime Theater, renown in most guidebooks, speaks of Hadrian's contemplative or retiring nature. Sumptuous living quarters in miniature occupied an island entirely surrounded by water – in the midst of a palace bustling with staff and visitors. Here Hadrian could hoist up the walkways and enjoy a degree of solitude. Meanwhile, the al fresco dining area commonly referred to as the Canopus tells the opposite story: it was the scenic backdrop for boisterous meals with high-ranking personnel and good living in the company of friends.    

 Hadrian was an insatiable traveler.  If ancient Roman literature did not describe his tours of inspection of the Empire, archeologists could have guessed at his peregrinations, based on the monuments he ordered built.  His Canopus, the delight of all visitors, is an excellent example.  An outdoor pool which measured almost 120 meters, it imitated the Egyptian channel that connected Alexandia with the city of Canopus, world-famous in antiquity for its Temple of Serapis, its banquets, and orgies.  To perfect the illusion, the pool was once fit out with crocodile sculptures in veined-green Grecian marble.  Meanwhile, in other section of his estate, he order an Academy built. This was inspired by the school, which Plato opened in the 4th century B.C. in Athens.  Approximately a kilometer from the central corps of the palaces, there is archeological evidence that this is the adjunct the Emperor built for Sabina Vibia, his long-suffering wife.  

 

 

Given the size of Hadian’s Villa, it is best to dedicate a long half-day to the site (about five hours).  For travelers with the interest and the stamina, Hadrian’s Villa can be paired up with the Renaissance Villa d’Este and its unforgettable fountains.