An international perspective

Roman villas

Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli

Copyright: Bernard Cox / RIBA Library Photographs Collection


Across their expansive empire, the Romans built country villas. From Syria to Spain, Tunisia to Britain, their extensive archaeological remains continue to intrigue. However, two examples, in particular, have inspired architects and their patrons. 

Tivoli

Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli is one of the most famous and best preserved Roman archaeological sites. Created in the early 2nd century AD, it served as a retreat from Rome for the highly-cultured emperor-architect Hadrian.

As such it follows one of the key definitions of a villa: a place to relax in which is close to, but removed from, busy city life.

It does, however, deviate from the norm in terms of its size. In keeping with a villa fit for an emperor, it is a vast complex of over 30 buildings, including a natatorium or swimming pool as illustrated here.

Unsurprisingly, for centuries architects and patrons have visited Tivoli. This included Palladio, as surviving drawings in the RIBA Library Collections attest. A stop on the Grand Tour, this was a place to retreat from modern Rome, and imagine the might of the Ancients.

Laurentium

Compared to Tivoli, Pliny the Younger's villa at Laurentium seems modest. Nevertheless, this was a still grand building, worthy of a Roman senator.

Pliny was a senator and governor of the Roman province on Bithynia and Pontus in the early second century. A great letter writer, we are fortunate to still possess his description of his villa. Writing to his friend Gallus, Pliny described his coastal home at Laurentium as being 'made for use, not for parade.'

Like Tivoli, the villa was a conveniently close to Rome. Pliny created a picture of an idyllic lifestyle and setting, labouring the importance of location and climate.

Unfortunately, the villa at Laurentium no longer exists, but architects and patrons have long been captivated by its description, including Palladio. He directly referred to Pliny, using the very same criteria of the importance of location and climate when writing about villas in book II of I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura

Subsequently, Palladio fired the enthusiasm of eighteenth-century British architects and patrons. Laurentium's legacy, therefore, is immense.