Archaeology and Archaeo-astronomy at Villa Adriana
By Marina De Franceschini

Villa Adriana - brief history

Fig. 2 - Aerial view of Villa Adriana (from Giuliani 1988)
Villa Adriana at Tivoli (near Rome) is the most imposing and complex roman villa that survived to our times; it was built by emperor Hadrian starting from 117 A.D., in a place where tufa rock, pozzolana and water were abundant. It was a fashionable place, where the roman aristocrats built their luxurious country estates since republican times (figure 2).

Larger than Pompeii (80 to 120 hectares), the Villa consists of about thirty monumental and scenic buildings, with curvilinear architecture, surrounded by gardens and parks decorated by water basins, fountains and nymphaea. It was sacked by the barbarian Totila in 544 A.D. and then fell into oblivion under the name of ‘Tiboli vecchio’ (old Tivoli). For centuries it became a convenient quarry of building material, where marbles were burned to make clay, while tufa and bricks were robbed and re-used in the houses of nearby Tivoli.

In 1450 the Villa was rediscovered by one of the founders of archaeology, Flavio Biondo, who showed it to the humanist Pope Pius II Piccolomini, who described it in his Commentarii1; from then on the fame of the Villa spread all over the world. This meant the start of five centuries of ‘treasure hunting’, excavations aimed at finding statues, marbles and mosaics which still enrich the Museums and private Collections of the whole world.

Notwithstanding more than five centuries of studies, Villa Adriana - as several other famous roman monuments - still is partly unknown in its function and meaning. Since there never were stratigraphical excavations, many information are lost forever. Only at the end of the XIX century the antiquarian and artistic approach was left aside and scholars began to study the Villa scientifically, looking at its architecture and functionality2.

The Accademia Esplanade

Villa Adriana consists of some thirty buildings that are not located on the same level, but are scattered on a series of artificial esplanades with different heights. It is very difficult to render graphically in a plan the various levels: it is easier to look at the plastic model made by Italo Gismondi, which gives a clear idea of how complex was the spatial arrangement of the Villa (figure 3).

Fig. 3 - Plastic model of Villa Adriana by Italo Gismondi, 1956, with the different levels of the esplanades (photo Marina De Franceschini)

Each Esplanade or artificial Terrace was an ensemble on its own, consisting of retaining walls that surrounded it, and of the buildings that were built on top. There were few access points, which served as security checkpoints and created a system of ‘chinese boxes’: one had to follow a restrained course to go from one level to the other, and from an esplanade to another.

The lower level of the hadrianic Villa in on its north-western side, near the entrance and close to the Greek Theater, while the higher level is in the Accademia, on the opposite side of the Villa, south-west (figure 4).

Fig. 4 - General plan of Villa Adriana. In grey the Accademia Esplanade with the buildings of Roccabruna and Accademia (elaboration from Salza Prina Ricotti 1982)

Starting front the present entrance, the path climbs gradually from the Greek Theater and the Palestra to the Fede Nymphaeum and the Terrace of Tempe, and then to the Terrace of the Libraries. A modern road is now reaching the great artificial esplanade of the Pecile and the higher level of the Maritime Theater, of the Greek and Latin Libraries and of the Imperial Palace, and further on the levels of the Golden Square and of the Winter Palace. Near the Pecile was recently discovered the ancient main entrance to the complex, a paved road in the form of a ring leading to the Vestibule and then to the Large and Small Baths, which are all located on the same level, more or less the same of the Canopus.

Reaching the Canopus we have in front of us a hill covered by vegetation, on top of which are the higher quarters of the Villa. Up left is the Praetorium Esplanade, overlooking the Canopus valley and the Great Baths. Above the half-dome of the Canopus is visible the small tower of a columbarium built upon the roman ruins of the Accademia. Up there is the Accademia Esplanade, the higher of the Villa, its true Acropolis, apparently inaccessible.

Even today it can be reached with a winding and hidden path, which is not easy to be found. Before the Canopus water basin, a path on the right is passing along the Museum in the Canopus Western Substructures, leading towards Roccabruna. The ramp near Roccabruna climbs up to the Accademia Esplanade and to the buildings that were located on top of it: Accademia,the so called Mimizia, and the Odeon Theater.


1 Cantino Wataghin G. "Il rapporto con l'antico fra mito, arte e ricerca" in Memoria dell'antico nell'arte italiana vol. I, 1984, pp. 190-205; Piccolomini E.S. Commentarii, Milano 1984 (L. Totaro ed.), vol. 2 p. 991.
2 For a complete and critical bibliography of Villa Adriana see the appropriate sections of this web site.