Villas and Vias

Reading about Rome and Italy in a book is one thing, but it’s quite another to turn a corner and see the Colosseum. My second week in Italy has been absolutely amazing. Wednesday was a day trip to Tivoli, a small hill town home to two of Italy’s most amazing villas. The older one is Hadrian’s Villa, a massive complex half the size of Pompeii. In its own day it would have effectively been a city. The villa is a work of art in itself; even as a ruin it’s possible to see the splendor that this emperor lived in back before the marble and bronze were stripped from the bricks. Pools and green spaces still dot the complex, inter spaced with bath complexes and the remains of buildings.  Hadrian’s Villa is also incredibly important to the history of art. The Greeks preferred to work in bronze, almost all of which was melted down in the Middle Ages, but the Romans, inspired by the art, made marble copies to decorate their own landmarks. Many of these survived and those close to Rome provided examples for the Renaissance artists who would not have been able to travel to Greece. 

Hadrian’s Villa was also the prime inspiration for Villa d’Este, in the same city though constructed in the 17th century.  Ippolito d’Este had tried unsuccessfully to become a pope but ultimately decided to content himself with being Governor of Tivoli instead, using his family’s funds to construct what is essentially a palace.  His architect was inspired by Hadrian’s Villa and so built a similar sprawl of gardens in a more modern style, decorating them with statues taken from the older villa. Nowadays the statues in both are modern copies with the originals in museums, but a trip to Tivoli really isn’t complete without seeing at least one of these villas. Villa d’Este is especially spectacular in its 16th century recreation of Hadrian’s ruins, and it provides breathtaking views of Umbria and it’s own fountains that are true to the times in that the rig landowner destroyed buildings that were previously on this land in order to build the villa. The Renaissance produced beautiful things, but it’s patrons weren’t always the nicest people (cue funding churches and donating to the pope to atone for their sins).


As I write this, I’m on the train back from my weekend trip to the Eternal City: Rome. We took a bus with the school on Friday morning, but unless you’re Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, you really need more than one day to see this magnificent city. In fact, even in three days there were things we didn’t see like the Farnese Palace or Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy. But every bit of Rome is marked with some piece of history or art. As for Bernini, well, Pope Urban VIII said he was made for Rome and Rome for him. Even if you don’t know who Bernini is, you’re guaranteed to see his work at some point. From the Fountain of the Four Rivers to the baldacchino in St. Peter’s, this Baroque master is everywhere.

On Friday, however, we saw the ancient stuff, before moving forward in time on our own. Upon driving into Rome, it looks at first like any other city with assorted apartment complexes. The city seems distinguished only by the occasional embassy. But suddenly you see the Flavian Amphitheater (A.K.A The Colosseum) and it hits you that this is Rome! This is the city that dominated the world for hundreds of years and remains an influential metropolis for the country’s politics. This is the Eternal City, mentioned in books and glimpses in movies but unbelievable until it is seen.

Starting with the Capitoline museums we took Rome’s history all the way to the beginning with the famous statue of Lupa Capitolina and the infant twins Romulus and Remus. The facade and piazza of the museums were designed by Michelangelo, with the intent that the buildings would function as a city hall. You climb a high flight of stairs to crest one of Rome’s fabled seven hills and are welcomed into a marble piazza all centered around Marcus Aurelius. This of course is a copy as the original resides within the museum, but it is still impressive. This marvel statue is one of the few remaining from antiquity; because early Christians believed it to be a statue of Constantine, they let it stand though today it’s been properly identified. Walking through the museums you pass innumerable treasures – pottery and marble busts, even the remains of a colossal statue of Constantine. As you pass through these ancient wonders though, nothing quite beats the view of the Forum. Here you stand on an brick walkway with massive arches to look over what was once downtown Rome.

After lunch, this was where we went. It seems pointless to try and describe what it’s like to walk down the Via Sacra and gaze at massive arches and Julius Caesar’s deific memorial. There are three main arches in the forum and though each is magnificent, I love the engravings on the Arch of Titus which depicts the conquests of Rome. The sculpting here is a masterwork that shows just how well the ancients could ply marble. The figures are cut in close at the ends but come fully into the viewers space in the middle, and the image itself is of historical importance as it depicts the conquest of Jerusalem, represented by a menorah. The Arch of Constantine, while also lovely to see, provides a further step in the history of art. Here the figure have more similar features and are not nearly so three-dimensional. This was Roman denaturalization, the period in which the so-called Classical period began transitioning into the art we think of as medieval.

Above all of this though, there is the ancient palace on the Palatine Hill. Though one facade had been reconstructed to give visitors an idea of the majesty, it is for the most part in ruins, overlooking a weed-filled Circus Maxima. I loved walking through the ancient halls of this palace, knowing it was once covered in marble and precious metal, while today the underlying bricks crumble and anyone can walk through for a few euros. It’s like a comment on the passage of time, how even this magnificent empire fell, and yet it is still remembered. The ruins still stand and are still revered by those who visit the Eternal City. Perhaps the emperors would be disappointed, but for the rest of us, it seems more like a testament of the sorts of things humans are capable of – for better or for worse. In a more modern way, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican are the same – the triumph of an era, open to the public for 17 euros. But once you get a peak inside the Vatican, it’s worth every penny and, in my opinion, this masterwork of human skill is something everyone should see at least once. But more on that Wednesday.

Until next time ~

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