Though I have no idea who first penned it, there's an old saying, "The greatest of all works of art are the lives of men." (And presumably women.) Certainly any number of great men and women, from Thomas Jefferson to Bill Gates to Catherine the Great serve to illustrate the truth of this phrase. Evidence of their greatness can usually be seen in what they built, whether it's a great nation or a huge, powerful corporation. Very often too, important insights into the personal character of these individuals can be seen in the physical structures they build for their homes as well. Our own Thomas Jefferson left us Monticello, Microsoft's Bill Gates has his techno-mansion on the shores of Lake Washington, and Russia's Catherine the Great still haunts her Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Each is an indelible, sharply accurate reflection of its builder, whether they actually drew the plans and supervised construction (many did), or merely dictated whims and preferences to professionals. In some ways, we can all identify with this very human trait, albeit on a smaller scale, as we ourselves look about at what we've built with our own hands, heads, and hearts for our own human habitation.
Unfortunately, other reflective architectural fašades have not survived along with their builders' historic presences. Some are known only through legends, contemporary accounts, or through the arts and sciences of the architectural pathologists we call archaeologists. Today, one such reflection of a man lies in ruins near Tivoli, a small town in the Apennine foothills north of Rome, two-thirds the way up the Italian boot. At the height of its glory around 134 CE, it rivalled Rome itself in size, occupying some seven square miles (three-fourths the size of Rome at the time). It was so large; in fact, that area peasants in the Middle Ages thought it was the remains of an ancient Roman city. Today we know it as the country home and principal architectural remnant of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Today, and for the past fifteen hundred years since it was sacked by the Goths, it is little more than a maze of decimated walls covered with ivy among which tourists stroll, trying to picture what once was one of the most beautiful palaces in the world.
Hadrian came to Rome as emperor in 117 CE, upon the death of Trajan, following a lifetime of service in the Roman Army. He had little use for the city of Rome and Rome had little use for him. Hadrian was the son of a provincial Roman family in the far western part of Spain. He'd spent all his life sleeping in tents or temporarily ensconced in borrowed homes from farmers' huts to seaside villas. In a sense, his sprawling complex of colonnades, loggias, temples, waterworks, and gardens was a sort of architectural travelogue, an assemblage of pillars, statues, fountains, and other art and artefacts he had collected as souvenirs during his incessant travels all over the Roman Empire. Even as emperor, he spent the first ten years of his reign on the road. It was only in his later years, as arteriosclerosis set in and he began looking for a retirement home, that his palatial villa began to take on his own persona.
Hadrian was a lover of all things Greek. In style, his home was more Greek than Roman. Beyond this, it had no overall plan. Various structures (28 in all) were built at various times, not in relation to one another, but in relation to the site itself and their various functions. It was still being decorated when he died in 138 CE. The layout looks surprisingly informal even though there appear to have been many formal areas, as in the highly rectilinear garden layouts. But in looking at a model of the complex, one gets the feeling the Medieval peasants were right, it was more like a small city, yet one dedicated to the tastes and whimsy of a single man. At the heart of the palace was a large circular pool, surrounded by a colonnade. In the centre of the pool was a marble island that could be reached only by two drawbridges. It was here, in a sort of open apartment of but nine small rooms, that Hadrian came to be alone - a sort of villa within a villa. Elsewhere could be found long marble pools reflecting landscaped courtyards for gymnastics, ball games, wrestling, and other forms of exercise. There was a huge library, hundreds of sculptures, and flowing waterways used to cool rooms, supply the kitchens, the gardens, the fountains, the baths, and finally to sluice out the latrines before flowing back into a river. Mosaics decorated the floors and walls which were also adorned with frescoes and tapestries.
Even today, as ivy climbs these same walls, stripped of their finery, even of their marble facings, the villa has the lingering ambience of a movie set, its slightly restored panoramas as photogenic now as when men in togas enjoyed the quiet, reflective beauty of the site. Ancient as it is, we feel as if we, as modern creatures of comfort, could be very much at home here, that its mix of formal informality and tasteful luxury would have been surprisingly pleasant even by today's standards. Hadrian was one of history's wisest rulers and one of Rome's better emperors. But recorded history aside, in seeing the wasted walls of his plundered palace, we have the feeling we know this man, and would like to know him better.