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Rome and Hadrian’s Villa

New Delhi,

Antonino Cardillo wrote on the Hadrian Villa (Rome) in Design Today magazine

Design Today VIII-5

Two architects from the world’s ancient civilisations-Roman & Indian-share their thoughts on the rites of passage in contemporary architecture. Does history validate a new vocabulary or is it a mere spectator? Antonino Cardillo takes cues from the Hadrian Villa (a Roman archaeological complex) while Suparna Bhalla questions the premise of an Indian identity.


In the history of man the more intelligent, ambitious and idealistic the vision of the powerful is, the more architecture is capable of cutting into the canvas of a city, enriching it. These qualities, which are first of all cultural ones, appear missing from the Italy of today and therefore it is foolish to expect a ‘contemporary’ Roman architecture. That said, the reader would be mistaken in the belief that the city and contemporary sensibility are two separate, disjointed entities, if not actually clashing. But history, we know, is guided by chance, and this mediocre chapter in the tale should not distract us from the masterpiece that preceded it. It appears to us in the form of a paradox, but this complex, contradictory organism called Rome, even if it is devoid of skyscrapers, curtain walls, exposed concrete and other fetishes of modernity, offers the attentive reader a story that is exceptionally in line with contemporary feeling.

More than any other city in the world, Rome offers a fragmented narrative to the visitor. It reveals itself through a multiplicity of meanings presented in a disorganised and not very classical fashion. Visitors enjoy the city through ever-new sequences since the route of each individual is unique, thus it sets off multiple relations in the perception of each person. The diverse perceptions of places and of urban episodes in sequence are realised in the memory, following the brilliant intuition of William MacDonald and John Plinto on Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, “re-integration into collage-like images that resemble early Cubist compositions of Braque and Picasso”.⁠[1]

The 1978 book Collage City by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter identifies in the fragmentary method an alternative way, pluralistic and democratic, for contemporary design. In the authors’ analysis ancient cities are the result of an incessant process of fragmentation, collision and contamination of heterogeneous ideas, progressively stratified by different generations that have succeeded one another in the city. In the book, Hadrian’s Villa, is described as a “miniature Rome, a nostalgic and ecumenical illustration of the hybrid mix which the Empire presented”,⁠[2] provides the model.

Heir to an antique tradition dating back to the Persian parks and perhaps to the Egyptian villa-gardens, the Villa at Tivoli was constructed between two valleys on about 120 hectares of land. Conceived and built by the emperor Hadrian during his years of governance, it represents a complex and extraordinary compendium of the different cultures of the Empire. Hadrian, a relentless traveller, went from one end of the Empire to the other during his reign, gaining direct knowledge of the frontier provinces such as those of the Rhine, the Danube, Greece, Asia Minor and the near East. This extraordinary, versatile cultural exploration found a magisterial synthesis in his Villa at Tivoli, whose progressive rediscovery in modern times has decisively influenced the history of Western art and architecture.

Even Le Corbusier’s recherche patiente was linked from the outset to the Hadrian site. In the autumn of 1911, at the age of 24, during his Voyage d’Orient he visited the Villa, gathering impressions, lessons and suggestions, which, maturing through time, would come to characterise the mature phase of his artistic research. Again, William MacDonald and John Plinto, in their contribution on Hadrian’s Villa, justly affirm that “Historians of modern architecture have overlooked the crucial role played by Hadrian’s Villa in stimulating Le Corbusier’s poetic vision of architecture”,⁠[3] and identify a fascinating affinity between a structure of the Villa and the magical currents of light of the chapels of Ronchamp: “Le Corbusier made several sketches of the Scenic Triclinium that reveal his fascination with the illumination of its axial extension. In one, he captures the dramatic contrast between the light streaming down on the terminal apse and the dark shadows of the vaulted corridor in the foreground. The caption suggests that he was attracted not merely by this play of light and shadow but also by the resulting quality of mystery. On the facing page he drew an analytical diagram of this vertical light shaft, to which he returned forty years later in designing the pilgrimage church of Nôtre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp. There the side chapels are illuminated by hooded shafts that rise to gather the sun’s rays and direct them downward, suffusing the dark, cavernous interior with light”.⁠[4]

Architecture always expresses its true nature with the fewest of means. It is not made of gold, precious stones or fine fabrics; neither is it made of steel, cement or brickwork; nor, even, are cantilevers, shells, tiles, skins or great arches, architecture. The essence of architecture resides in its narrative, which structures time in space: great architecture, the city in fact, is like an endless novel, in which the personal experience of the protagonist, seen from his viewpoint, continually modifies the sense of the work of time.

The 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form[5] by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, exchanging ‘illusion’ for ‘allusion’, compares the chaotic Las Vegas ‘strip’ to a Roman piazza. But Rome is much more than an assemblage of signs. It is a labyrinth that climbs down through history, made up of real and perceived places. Sometimes the perception itself becomes the city, but the historic dimension of places means that the semantic confusion is not simulated as in Las Vegas. Rather it speaks, to those who know how to listen, of the passions, crimes, loves and betrayals of all the men who have experienced it and who have written and rewritten infinite times on the same stones their dreams and misfortunes. This cannot happen in Las Vegas, because there the signs are illusory and refer to lives already lived, surrogates of existence that illude that visitor into reliving a life that is not their own.

It is probable that places without names do not exist although memory is more truthful than physical space. Perhaps it is more real, and reality, therefore, is not merely physical space. But the memory of a historic city, as opposed to the ‘illusory’ one of Las Vegas, is, thus, also manipulation and alteration. Maybe the city is a gigantic pack of cards, a corrupt deck, and if history were linear, clear and intelligible, the art within it would have no reason to exist. Beauty always has a bastard quality and sometimes the most profound, the truest art lies in the distortion of reality.

Thus Rome is made up of original as well as altered places, yet one becomes lost trying to distinguish the alteration from the origin, which perhaps has never been. Maybe Rome is just an immense alteration of the collective memory and in this decadent and perennial metamorphosis lies its fascination, its sovereign being, and equally its essence as a victim of Time.

Teatro marittimo, Villa Adriana

Maritime Theatre, Hadrian’s Villa. Photography: Antonino Cardillo


  1. ^ William L. MacDonald, John A. Pinto, Hadrian’s Villa and Its Legacy, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995, pp. 323.
  2. ^ Colin Rowe, Fred Koetter, Collage City, Cambridge, 1978, p. 90
  3. ^ MacDonald-Pinto, op. cit., pp. 322.
  4. ^ MacDonald-Pinto, op. cit., pp. 321-322.
  5. ^ Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1977, pp. 192