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Hadrian's Villa and Its Legacy

By Yegul, Fikret | The Art Bulletin, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Hadrian's Villa and Its Legacy

Yegul, Fikret, The Art Bulletin


Hadrian's Villa and Its Legacy New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. 404 pp.; 417 color and b/w ills. $55.00

"While antiquity exists for us, we, for antiquity, do not.... This rather peculiar state of affairs makes our take on antiquity somewhat invalid." Joseph Brodsky's brooding observation is enough to give pause to our best efforts to study the past. Nonetheless, we have before us a new and major work of interpretative history that makes a valiant stab at this practically daunting and philosophically doubtful task. If any monument of antiquity could challenge us to take on the past and tempt us to engage in a bout of "solipsistic fantasy. . . a vision,"' the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli would be a likely candidate.

Spreading over an area roughly twice the size of Pompeii (about 300 acres), Hadrian's Villa, located southwest of Tivoli, is the largest and most elaborate of that popular and privileged genre of architecture that spotted the Roman countryside from the late republic to late antiquity Unique even within a type that encouraged novelty of approach to design, Hadrian's Villa represents Roman architecture at its creative best; it summarizes much of its past and projects some of its future. Yet it remains a monument specific to its time and place, an intensely personal statement by its educated, imperial patron.

Scholarship on Hadrian's Villa has intensified in the last twenty years or so, producing a number of specialized studies on its major architectural parts, its decoration, and its landscape features. Some of these more recent works-those by E.S.P. Ricotti, C. F. Giuliani, A. Hoffmann, M. Ueblacker, M. De Franceschini, and W. F. Jashemski2-are worthy followers of the past major archaeological publications of H. Winnefeld, P. Gusman, C. Huelsen, H. Kahler, S. Aurigemma, and F Rakob.3 Hadrian's Villa and Its Legacy by William L. MacDonald and John A. Pinto has broader concerns: it is an overview of the planning and architecture of this remarkable complex and of its study, reception, and influence over the centuries down to our time. Although a certain amount of data and hard facts describ ing the physical remains are included, the approach is intentionally nonarchaeological. 'hile the book gives occasional references to past and current excavations, it includes no section (nor even an appended list) that methodically covers scientific archaeological work at the villa. In their own words, the authors' primary goal is "to appraise the Villa as a major monument to Greco-Roman culture and an abiding artistic force in later times" (p. 3).

The book is divided into twelve chapters. The first five deal with the description and analysis of the layout and architecture of the villa in its Roman entity. Chapter 6 seeks to recapture the sculpture and decoration against this background. Chapter 7 provides an overview on the use of Roman villas in general and Hadrian's Villa in particular. Probing comments and suggestions concerning the nature and meaning of this complex in the context of Western classicism conclude the study of its ancient phase. Chapters 8 to 10 review the villa's postclassical history. Chapter 11 revisits the theme of decoration and sculpture, tracing the fascinating story of the large volume of art dispersed from its original setting, as well as the modes and manners of its collectors and dealers. The last chapter focuses on the discovery of the villa by modern archaeologists and architects in the 19th and 20th centuries and its recognition by and influence on generations closer to our own. A useful appendix fully reproduces Piranesi's Commentary to his celebrated plan of the villa. Although the villa's ancient and postclassical history (its "legacy") make a continuous, seamless whole, the two parts could easily exist independently. The authors do not distinguish their respective contributions, and there appears to be genuine integration of thought and effort; yet, it would be logical to assume that MacDonald was primarily responsible for the first half, and Pinto for the second.

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