FUNCTION AND MEANING OF HADRIAN'S VILLA

Contents
1 - Pavements
2 - Wall revetments
3 - Building classification
4 - Building phases and chronology of the Villa
5 - Conclusions
2. Wall revetments

They are far less preserved than the pavements, and have been classified in five different groups:


Fig. 12 - Garden Stadium, room NS12: surviving fragments of the original fresco.
  1. Plaster and frescoes
  2. Marble revetment
  3. Mosaic
  4. Stucco
  5. Tartari (pseudo-grotto imitating stalactites)
1 - Plaster and frescoes

Many rooms in Hadrian's Villa were decorated with frescoes, but very few are preserved. The best one is in room NS3 of the GARDEN STADIUM (n. 21) (fig. 12): it is one of the few times when it is possible to reconstruct the whole drawing, with large panels and different colours.

Many fragments of fresco, which urgently need cleaning and restoration, are visible almost everywhere in the Villa: in the Cryptoporticus of the IMPERIAL TRICLINIUM (n. 7) still survives part of a checker pattern,

Fig. 13 - Small Baths, corridor PT13-14: fragments of fresco with red bands matching the pavement in fig. 8
while in the Cryptoporticus of the WINTER PALACE (n. 22) the decoration was more complicated, and has never been studied.

Fig. 13a - Fresco preserved in one of the rooms of the West Substructures of the Canopus
In the SMALL BATHS (n. 24) (fig. 13) on the ceiling of a corridor are still visible large red stripes which followed the scheme of the marble revetment of the walls, that we can reconstruct from the holes left by the grappe. Other fragments of fresco were visible in the Cryptoporticys CA11 of the CANOPUS (n. 28), before they were removed in the 1950's. Frescoes with colour stripes and fantastic animals typical of late antique age (fig. 13a) are visible instead in the WEST SUBSTRUCTURES OF THE CANOPUS (n. 28a). In the ACCADEMIA (n. 30) a small fragment of fresco with traces of colour is still preserved in the hay-loft.



Fig. 14 - Casino with Semicircular Arcades, hall TE20: traces of a great marble panel at the center of the wall, surrounded by the holes for the 'grappe' supporting marble revetment

2 - Marble revetment

Many rooms in Hadrian's Villa still bear the traces of the holes for the 'grappe', nails which held in place the marble revetment, often reaching up to the ceiling (only in noble buildings). Marble wall revetment probably was the prevailing type of wall decoration, as opus sectile was for pavements, but its percentage is still unknown. These traces are particularly well preserved in the CASINO WITH SEMICIRCULAR ARCADES (n. 20) (fig. 14). In its main hall TE20 are visible large hollows in the walls, which were meant for marble reliefs; all around we can still see the holes for the grappe, which draw the contours of several other panels.

Holes for the grappe are also visible in the rooms of PIAZZA D'ORO (n. 15) which surrounded the main exedra PO20, and in other rooms of the SMALL BATHS (n. 24), and of the CANOPUS (n. 28). In the ACCADEMIA (n. 30), there is a room which was never photographed before, and had hollows for

Fig. 15 - Accademia, room AC45: hollows left from marble panels and traces of wall marble revetment
marble panels (fig. 15) and traces of the 'grappe' outlining larger panels. The room adjoining the so-called Apollo's Temple, where apparently was found the Dove mosaic, also featured large hollows for marble panels. A reconstruction of their decoration has never been attempted.

It also seems that the shape of the rooms determined the use of a certain type of revetment. In narrow niches or apses it was difficult to fix marble panels without cutting them in many pieces. In those cases, fresco was usually preferred, and the painter could simulate marble panels with an amazing trompe l'oeil effect.


Fig. 16 - Cryptoporticus with Mosaic Vault, n. 3a: mosaic ceiling with shells and glass decoration belonging to the cryptporticus and the basis villae of the ancient repubblican Villa, age of Sulla. Engraving by Agostino Penna, 1836.


3 - Mosaic

It is very rare, and the most outstanding example is the ceiling with mosaic, shell and glass decoration in the CRYPTOPORTICUS WITH MOSAIC VAULT (n. 13) (fig. 16). This ceiling dates back to the age of Sulla and belonged to the previous republican Villa. The Cryptoporticus originally was a basis villae, which later was enclosed in the hadrianic structures.

Fragments of mosaic decoration, mainly using glass tesserae, were found in other buildings of Hadrian's Villa: in the GREEK LIBRARY (n. 10), in the LATIN LIBRARY (n. 9), in the nymphaeum of the COURTYARD OF THE LIBRARIES (n. 11), in PIAZZA D'ORO (n. 15), in the dome of the CANOPUS (n. 28) and in the SMALL BATHS (n. 24).

Almost nothing is known about mosaic revetment in Hadrian's Villa, which has never been studied. As we can see in Pompeii and Herculaneum, mosaic revetment was used in the niches and apses of nymphaea, fountains or thermal buildings, where the presence of water discouraged the use of stucco o frescoes.

Fig. 17 - Great Baths, hall GT20: vault with fragments of the original stucco decoration


4 - Stucco

The most famous stucco ceiling is the one preserved in the GREAT BATHS (n. 26) (fig. 17), which decorated the vault of a vast hall and was reproduced by many Renaissance artists. Centuries ago it was much better preserved, as we can see from the drawings of Piranesi or Giovanni da Udine.

Unfortunately it seems that english noblemen used to shoot at the stucco to make it fall and get a beautiful souvenir of their Grand Tour. Some round stucco panels were cut away in ancient times, and probably are in some private collection.

Another fragment is visible in a small room underneath the Casino Fede, and has been recently restored (fig. 18), bringing back traces of colour. Ponce and later Gusman published a series of drawings of stucco ceilings, but it seems that they are fakes and modern creations. Other ceilings were inexplicably neglected, such as those in the Palestra: two rooms later enclosed in a Casale of the XVIII century still have part of the stucco ceiling, but we have no ancient drawing of them, although they were easily visible. They have been recently studied by prof. Mariette de Vos with the University of Trento. Caterina Ognibeni reconstructed their decoration.


Fig. 18 - Ninfeo Fede, in a room underneath the Casino: stucco ceiling

Quite well preserved is another fragment of stucco ceiling located in the so-called Hay-loft of the ACCADEMIA (n. 30) (fig. 19), which was reproduced in an ancient drawing now in the Royal Library of Windsor, when it was in a much better state of preservation.

In the drawing we can see the central part of the ceiling, which today has completely disappeared. The trellis drawing of the outer part of the ceiling is still visible, but needs to be restored and cleaned; some traces of the original colours could probably come out.

Fig. 19 - Accademia, room AC17: fragment of stucco ceiling


5 - Tartari (pseudo-grotto imitating stalactites)


Fig. 20 - Inferi, a view of the artificial grotto, inherited from the previous republican Villa
These fake stalactites were usually made with sponge-like fragments of travertine o limestone, and were used as wall revetment imitating natural grottos. Starting from hellenistic age, the grotto became a topos, a 'must' in the gardens of the imperial palaces, and later of the domus and villae of roman times. The most ancient example in Hadrian's Villa are the so-called INFERI (n. 33) (fig. 20), a former quarry which in republican times was transformed in a nymphaeum with a grotto on one end. The tufa rock of the quarry was worked with a chisel to simulate a natural grotto, and some 'tartari' were added. Then there is the so-called Stallone, located in the lower floor of the TEMPE PAVILLION (n. 6): its walls were reveted with tartari and fake rocks and a good part of them is still visible and preserved (fig. 21). Since in the 'Stallone' was found a statue of Heracles, its grotto-like decoration was hinting to the Underworld linked to his myth.

Fig. 21 - Tempe Pavillion, so-called Stallone: ceiling and wall revetment in tartari (pseudo grotto) and fake rocks

Tartari were often used to decorate fountains, as we can see in the nymphaeum with semicircular steps at the southern end of the GARDEN STADIUM (n. 21), or again in a niche of the CANOPUS (n. 28). Tartari will be used again to decorate fountains and nymphaea in the great renaissance villas which imitated the roman ones: firs of all, the Villa d'Este at Tivoli.


As far as wall revetments in the Villa are concerned, we have to acknowledge that very little is left. All ancient drawings, mainly of the XIX century, which pretend to reproduce ancient frescoes are not reliable, but it is possible that some frescoes are in a private collection, even if there is no written record about them. The drawings of the stuccoes as we said mostly were fake reconstructions. A study of the frescoes still surviving in situ at Villa Hadriana has never been done. Interesting results will surely come out from a graphic restitution of wall marble revetments, based on the holes left by the nails or 'grappe' supporting the panels.




Section 1 - Pavements | ^ Back to top | Section 3 - Building classification