Awesome, excellent, marvelous, best ever day!
DarkSky app warned me of an 80% chance of rain, starting at 10am. I wasn’t thrilled with the forecast but figured Context Tours had experience with how to tailor an outdoor tour so I wouldn’t drown. I packed an extra pair of socks, my umbrella, and a positive attitude. Scampered up to Termini at 8:15 (no less crowded, dirty and scary to me) to meet my fellow touristas, a couple my age from Berkeley, Ms Barberini the tour leader, and Aniek, an intrepid 19-year-old intern from Holland, in front of the Nike Store. We hopped into a Mercedes van and glided down the road to our first stop, Hadrian’s Villa.
Between Modern Scholar audio lectures, Wikipedia, and Mary Beard, I had brushed up on Hadrian.
He was considered one of the five good emperors. On the plus side of the ledger, he was an administrator par excellence, and fervid builder (he rebuilt the Pantheon). Our docent explained how Hadrian, who came not from Rome but from Spain, worked diligently to lose his foreign accent so he would not be mocked. Our man had something to prove. Architecture on a grand scale was just the ticket. On the minus side, and it’s a very grim mark, he hated the resistance of the Jews to Roman rule, specifically to worshiping Roman gods, and did everything he could to annihilate them. The fact he was a besotted lover so grief-stricken after his lover Antinius died (drowned in mysterious circumstances in the Nile), that he not only named cities after him, he deified his lost boy and had many sculptures made of him. It would be all romance on a grand scale, if he hadn’t been 48 and Antinius 13 when the boy became his favorite, as the museum placards like to say. There’s that pesky issue of consent. But I digress.
The name Hadrian’s Villa is misleading. This was no country home, this was a town, run by an army of workers and slaves, using a warren of underground passages. Water for multiple bath complexes, a library, fish ponds, groves of olives and oranges trees, reflecting pools, an amphitheater. My favorite, after the library, was Hadrian’s private getaway on a man-made island encircled by a moat and high walls. How big was it? My app says I walked five miles, and by no means covered the entire place. Here’s most of a map recreating how it was laid out.And a model, for those of us who think in 3D.
It had more acreage than Vatican City and served something like the purpose of Versailles. It was Hadrian’s way to get out of dirty, noisy Rome (not much has changed there) and still be able to rule effectively with the wealth and power of Rome on display. What is left of all these great structures is bits of the picked-over skeleton, the brick and stone that lay beneath the marble-covered walls, mosaic floors, and wood shaded porticos and walkways. It was first abandoned and later scavenged for parts to build other villas, like Villa d’Este. One good reason to see both places is you can squint at the Villa d’Este marble floors and imagine them beneath your feet at Hadrian’s Villa.
I’ve always heard the phrase ‘ruins’ in connection with dilapidated stone structures, but I never felt the truth of it before today. There’s a difference between something that decays over time, and a place that has been deliberately despoiled. Hadrian’s Villa was pillaged, ravaged by the depredations of men tearing apart the carcass. It may have been in the spirit of recycle, but what it left behind feels ruined.
I asked inconvenient questions about the running of the place. The model of the grounds showed only the main buildings and pleasure gardens. Where were the kitchen gardens? Where did they stable the horses? How was the livestock fed and sheltered? I am always a little more interested in downstairs than upstairs, with how something like this was sustained as well as built. This was a town, not a stately home. Sadly, there was not much information. There were segregated baths for the slave/servant population, the warren of underground passages to keep all human machinery out of sight, and an immense building for the slave quarters. A series of modest rooms with mosaiced floors, marking the space for three bed per unit, was considered the likely quarters of his personal guards. Seeing this makes me want to go home and start laying mosaic in my entrance hall. Sorry Robert!
It was a perfectly gorgeous spring day with birds all atwitter and redbud trees, lilacs and wistera in full flower. Olives in groves just leafing out. Blue skies. A balm to the spirit. So much for DarkSky, though I will say it’s better to be warned for nothing, than not be warned and drenched. I left my umbrella and jacket in the van.
I am so glad I came. Walking around even a small part of the acreage gave me a sense of the vastness of it, a chance to absorb through my senses the scale of a building complex achieved just shy of two thousand years ago. It was a taste of what Rome at the pinnacle of her powers could do. It was also a very pleasant walk in the country. I had almost become inured to the filthiness of the city, until I breathed air that was sweet and pure. I had a strong urge to pack my bags and move to Tivoli. Don’t think I was not tempted.
We had lunch in the insanely charming town of Tivoli, which was the place to go for prophesy back in the day. The place my Context guide knew was closed but we lucked into a wonderful restaurant on a terance overlooking the hills and valley, the medieval streets and houses clinging to the verdant hills. Our table was beneath an arbor canopy of wisteria in full bloom. Yeah, charmed life. Ms Barberini made a remark that has had me thinking ever since. Someone has asked her if the way Italians use their hands when they speak is reflected in the gesturing in renaissance painting, like the hands of Michelangelo’s Christ of the last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Huh. I’ll be looking for that for the rest of the week.
Back through the narrow lanes of Tivoli, which were startlingly clean; oh poor dirty, nasty, trashy Rome and off to Villa d’Este. The rooms were painted in a way that reminded me of Chigi’s Farnesina, as there was a certain Raphael-lite look to the art. I loved this trompe l’oeile of the painter stepping through a door in his doublet and improbably, but perfectly, chained to an ape. But oh, the views, the terraces, the gardens, and the fabulous feats of hydraulic engineering. The water features were situated in a way that each one came into view fresh. They were revealed as you turned a corner, or walked down a stair, or out onto a terrace. Each one had its moment and the cumulative effect was both powerful and enchanting at the same time.
A Rockette lineup of spitting gargoyles faces, A Sybil sculpture above waterfall where meals were served. The sound of water falling was so loud I do not doubt guests could have had private conversations.A wall of sculpture, spitting fauns, and pools that overlooked a magnificent vista.
I’ll end with this little video of the first area of multiple water features, gardens, and yet another version of the wolf suckling the rapacious twins.
Let’s pause and think about this origin story of Rome. Not the benign Kipling-esque Jungle Boy Mowgli spin I’d like to put on it, but the pair of blood soaked feral children. Like Cain and Able, the murderer was the founder of the tribe. They go on to deceive and slaughter guests to steal their women. Invite every thug on the run to come to them. A long tradition of successfully brutal killers. I guess the surprising thing isn’t that they managed to subdue the known world through conquest, but that they managed to conceive of and enforce the Pax Romana. Centuries of peace, for the price of submission. And art, wonderful, wonderful art, that celebrates their conquests and fornications and spiritual ideals. The engineering is pretty impressive too.
Long day of beauty and history, good food and excellent company. Driving back at 4:30 there is lightening in the distance and the thunder rolls. It didn’t really pour until around 7pm, when I was on my way back to my room from getting a slice of pizza to go. Uploaded photos and considered what to do with my final six days. Think I’ll visit a place Ms Barberini recommended as one of her favorite small museums.