An Emperor’s Country Retreat

From Ninfa, it’s an easy hour drive to Rome, even for an unabashedly cautious Canadian driver.  I had been to Rome a few times before, but having spent my formative years, as far as all things Italian go, in Tuscany, among Tuscans whose attitudes towards Rome are best left undescribed, Rome was a hard sell for me.  The traffic.  The noise.  The Romans.

Poppies and cypresses along the country lane to the villa entrance.

If you come by bus, as I did after driving there once, it’s a short walk to the villa entrance along a lovely country road.

This time, in the hopes of seeing the Città Eterna in a new light, instead of the onslaught to the senses of sudden immersion, I was going to take the inching-into-the-water, one-toe at-a-time approach.  I would acclimatize myself in the countryside north of the city, with a visit to the ruins of one of the most extravagant, grandiose Imperial Residences of the Roman Empire.

This may not seem like the obvious first choice for someone looking to ease her way into the Eternal City, but keep in mind that these ruins were the inspiration for one of the most important movements in the history of western civilization, and one that is very dear to all lovers of Tuscany (which is not the same thing, I would like to point out, as ‘Tuscan lovers’) – the Renaissance.


The long, cypress-lined avenue at the entrance would become a standard element of the Classic Renaissance Garden.

In the 2nd century AD, around the same time he was building a wall across what is now northern England, Emperor Hadrian decided he needed a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of Rome.  He commissioned a retreat in the countryside about 20 kilometres  north-east of the capital city.


I visited Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este nearby in one day.  From the comfort of home, it had seemed like a good idea.  It is not.  Hadrian’s Villa is enormous – 120 hectares. That’s about 250 acres.  And despite having been subjected to centuries of sacking, plundering and neglect, there is still an astounding amount of stuff to see.


After the fall of the Roman Empire the villa was abandoned and essentially forgotten for a thousand years – throughout the ‘Dark Ages’ as the period was called during my High School days.  Erroneously, as we now know, but that’s another matter.  What was, however, truly dark was that it was not just the villa that was forgotten, but so were all the formulas, practical engineering skills and expertise that had enabled the ancients to build their spectacular monuments and buildings.


When the ruins were discovered at the beginning of the 1500’s, the leading scholars, artists and architects of the time – the likes of Michelangelo, Raffaello, da Vinci, Andrea Palladio – flocked to the site, hoping to uncover the long-lost secrets of the ancient Romans.

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Piazza d’Oro.  The Golden Piazza.

Armed with this knowledge, their goal was not just to copy the architectural wonders of the ancient world, but with the enormous self-confidence that characterized the Renaissance spirit, surpass them.


And what, you may well be wondering, does any of this have to do with gardens?  Well, as those scholars and artists explored the ruins, looking for engineering formulas and practical skills, they stumbled across a great deal of information about daily life in Hadrian’s time.  And when the rich and powerful of the 16th century learned that their rich and powerful predecessors had considered luxurious villas and magnificent gardens essential to the pursuit of the ideal life, they immediately set about commissioning villas and gardens modelled on what they found at Hadrian’s Villa.

Water, a symbol of power and wealth – it may have been a country retreat, but it was still the country retreat of an Emperor – was used on a grand scale at Villa Adriana.   Although not the largest water feature, for me the Teatro Marittimo (Maritime Theatre) was the most striking.  High circular walls enclose a pool, a perfect circle, and in the middle of the pool is an island, another circle.  On the island was a luxurious, miniature Roman villa, complete with atrium, library, dining room and small bath.  This was Hadrian’s ultimate retreat.



Access to the island was across a wooden bridge that could be pulled up, so that no-one could intrude on the emperor’s privacy.

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A hypothetical reconstruction of Hadrian’s island villa.

Centuries later, from the Isolotto in the Boboli Gardens to the little islet at Villa Gamberaia, the island theme would be replicated in gardens throughout Italy and beyond.

I knew there was no way I would have the time, or energy, to explore the whole site, so I decided to focus on water.  On my way to another water feature,  I came across a  museum. Very small, but fascinating.  And very frustrating.  Because of the sign posted at the entrance.

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But it did make me laugh.  In the Italian version, the use of cameras and videos is severely prohibited, both professional and amateur (amatoriale).  But in English, it’s OK as long as your photos stink?  I had a little chat with the custode.  She was very friendly and I eventually decided to mention the glitch in the translation.  She still wouldn’t let me take any ‘unprofessional’ photos.

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As military commander of the Roman Empire, Hadrian travelled extensively.  And when he was back home, he wanted to have momentos in the gardens surrounding his country retreat that reminded him of the places he had visited.  Just like us.


The Canopus recreates Hadrians’s favourite part of the Nile.


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Hadrian had seen Caryatids, columns sculpted into female figures, at the Acropolis.


Quite a few have been spirited away since Hadrian’s time.

To make sure visitors got the point.

Along one side of the Canopus.  Just to make sure visitors got the point.

At one end of the enormous pool, in an elevated alcove, Hadrian would dine, in splendid isolation, bathed in the golden candle light reflected off the marble-covered walls, like a god on Mt. Olympus, overlooking his guests.


Dining al fresco became a must-have feature of the 16th century garden.  Except that unlike Hadrian, the 16th hosts sat together with their guests.

Obviously, although there is still an over-abundance of things to see, a lot has gone missing over the centuries.  The period following the discovery of the ruins was particularly grim.  Those 16th century Romans didn’t just take ideas from the ruins.   Unencumbered by any of our notions of archeology or site preservation, they – along, it must be said, with other visitors from further afield – also helped themselves to things, things which were spirited away to museums, art galleries and private estates across Europe.  It’s a wonder there is anything left.


However, looking on the bright side, a lot of those things ended up conveniently close by, in the next garden I was going to visit – Villa d’Este.