Saturday Field Trip [Villa Adriana and Villa D’Este, or… Ancient, Spirited and very wet]

I’ve been looking forward to this visit since the late 80s when I first heard about Hadrian’s Villa.  We opted to get a bus and driver to take us which ultimately proved prudent; Rome’s weather over the past couple of weeks has been intermittently glorious, blue skies and sun punctuated by bouts of cool, grey and rainy days.  I checked the weather forecast and advised students to bring rain gear.  At some point, I actually had to purchase a third umbrella because the 2 euro ombrelli I picked up in Trastevere wasn’t quite doing its job (“Dad, My hat is wet. Why is this thing dripping from the INSIDE?).

We met our bus driver Mario (smoking with a cappuccino in his hand) outside the Piazza Ippolito Nievo in Trastevere, across the street from the student residences.  Everyone on time (ahem) today, we set off for Hadrian’s Villa, a short drive out of Rome, on the edge of the Sabine Hills.  It was worth the 20+ year wait, and the rain – like our visit to the Portico D’Ottavia in Rome, was another essential dimension of atmosphere (both literally AND figuratively).  The scale of the Villa and Gardens is still massive, impressive and beautiful.  We had the site almost completely to ourselves, and walked through the baths, the gardens, the Canopus, the Maritime theatre, the Hospital, the Libraries in the quiet, soft rain.  It was, for me at least, one of my top moments from this trip.  Mary McCarthy (who wrote the Stones of Florence) said  that “In Rome, the Eternal City, history is an everlasting present, an orderly perspective of arches receding from popes to Caesars with the papacy guaranteeing permanence and framing the vista of the future – decay being but an aspect of time’s grandeur.”  At Villa Adriana, that decay, that ruin, that sense of time, of spectacle, of wandering surprise, was completely manifest.

Mario dutifully picked us up a little later and we drove into Tivoli proper to get to Villa D’Este.  The deluge truly began and this is where I picked up our third umbrella (“Don’t worry Signore, this one is the BEST construction of umbrellas in all of Italy”  We’ll see.)  We walked into the Villa D’Este to buy tickets (Note:  James bought a sandwich instead of an umbrella.  I salute you, sir!) and spent the afternoon in the Gardens.  Cardinal Ippolito D’Este pillaged much of Hadrian’s Villa (he wasn’t the only one – the villa had fallen into considerable neglect by the middle ages) and had much of the marble and statuary carted off to Tivoli for his estate’s construction, which cost in the realm of a million scudi – a staggering amount at the time. If my math is correct (in the process of fact-checking), Villa D’Este would have cost half a billion dollars to build.  Once you see the gardens, however, there’s a sense of where the money would have gone.  Gravity fed water channels lead to fountain upon fountain upon fountain, decorated with grottos, ships, statuary, pegasuses (Pegasi?), enormous reflecting pools.  The gardens step down from the Villa in lush green waves of carefully tended grass, trees, plantings and manicured flowerbeds.  It was spectacular.

It was great to see the two villas in contradistinction to each other.  Built over 1500 years apart, on two vastly different sites with vastly different landscapes, it was a treat to see how architecture and landscape were considered inseparable components of experience.  Both were landscapes of power; Hadrian’s Villa an attempted re-creation of the great buildings of the empire’s reach and of Hadrian’s love of the Hellenistic world, Villa D’Este a fascinating encounter with an exiled Cardinal’s secular home and estate.

We did an informal tally on the way back; of the thirteen of us, three preferred Hadrian’s Villa over Villa D’Este.  Like Borromini and Bernini’s churches, however, both are breathtaking in their own ways.

Nobody, I think, minded the rain… I hope.


Villa Adriana – A UNESCO Heritage site.


Students (if you squint, you can see them in the distance)


The Canopus


The Maritime Theatre


The Nymphaem-Stadium


“Building with a Fish Pond”


Looking out by the small baths.


The Great Baths


Long view of the Canopus


View of the Tivoli Gardens, from Villa D’Este


The stairs to the Gardens


“The Hunting Room”


View of the Gardens from the Villa


View of the Gardens


Acqua.  Lots of it.


More acqua.


I’m afraid even more acqua.  I’m thirsty.


Seen on our way home.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Highlights | University of Minnesota Rome -Istanbul Study Abroad Spring 2015

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