Interestingly enough, one of the greatest architectural marvels of the Roman empire in its apical stage (in 2nd century AD), was not actually constructed within the actual city of Rome. We are of course talking about Villa Adriana or Hadrian’s Villa, a grandiosely conceived scope that fused architecture, sculptures, landscaping, and natural resources available in the local area. Situated in present-day Tivoli, the magnificent retreat is located 28 km (17.4 m) away from Rome, and it was originally constructed between 117 – 134 AD.
The Architectural Scale of Hadrian’s Villa
Video Credit: James Wilkinson (YouTube)
Now from the perspective of the sheer area encompassed by the Hadrian’s Villa complex, the term ‘villa’ doesn’t really do justice. That is because by and large, Hadrian’s Villa was an imperial palace (for at least Emperor Hadrian from 128 AD till the end of his life in 138 AD) with Rome’s large court living on the expansive grounds all throughout the year.
And beyond just the size of the palace, Hadrian’s Villa flaunted an assortment of architectural and sculptural specimens that went beyond conventional spatial elements to morph into strikingly opulent displays, ranging from theaters, libraries, round pools, dining halls, baths to even a private ‘island’ of sorts that housed the emperor’s private studio.
All of these translate to over 30 buildings inside a massive complex of around 250 acres (the equivalent of almost 19 American football fields), with the constructions proudly showcasing different architectural orders, including classical Greek and Egyptian styles.
To that end, one of the picturesque architectural elements pertains to the Canopus, a longitudinal pool named after an Egyptian city. However, in spite of its Egyptian moniker, the pool (measuring 119 by 18 meters or 390 ft x 60 ft) represents the very best of what ancient Greek style had to offer – with the array of Corinthian columns and famous Greek and Egyptian statue replicas (along with original Roman pieces).
This is complemented by the Serapeum, an outdoor dining area of sorts, once again named after an Egyptian temple. This curious structure flaunted ‘built-in’ water cascades that were directly connected to Hadrian’s private aqueduct.
One of the other grand arrangements inside Hadrian’s Villa related to the Pecile, which basically constituted an artificial terrace (50 ft high) with lower-level rooms and an expansive upper level. The rooms were accessible from wooden balconies and were used as both storage spaces and quarters for the villa’s service crew.
However, on the upper level, the Pecile boasted a humongous walled garden area with covered walkways and a swimming pool. This entire terrace constituted an area of around 232 by 97 meters (or 760 ft x 318 ft) – thus equating to an area that was more than four American football fields!
As for the impressive verticality of structures, the Hadrian’s Villa also demonstrated its prowess through the Roccabruna (a modern name) temple with its array of Doric columns (as opposed to the more ‘floral’ Corinthian columns). Dedicated to Isis, the goddess of heaven, this temple comprised a rotunda structure that was almost two-thirds the size of the Roman Pantheon.
Intriguingly enough, beyond size and pomp, the Roccabruna has baffled many a historian due to its intricacy. In that regard, the very statue of Isis (now displayed in a museum in Rome) was placed in such a manner (and angle) inside the temple so that it could turn resplendent on days of summer-solstice – thus corresponding to her ancient festival in Rome during the particular time of year.
Reconstruction of Hadrian’s Villa
A series of watercolor illustrations made by noted French archaeologist Jean-Claude Golvin aptly captures the scale of the entire complex at Tivoli.
The fabulously contrived animation below showcases these architectural elements (along with many others) of the Hadrian’s Villa in their crisp 3D rendered details. The video was created by The Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project, an endeavor undertaken by the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory.
This video (using the same animation as the previous) directly compares the then-and-now status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site –
And in case you want even more details on the Hadrian’s Villa, you can also take a gander at the video below (created by Khan Academy) that provides a virtual tour through the various parts of the Hadrian’s Villa compound, accompanied by commentary made by Dr. Bernard Frischer, the overseer of the Rome Reborn project.