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Maritime Theatre at Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli

Maritime Theatre at Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli, Villa begun in 117 C.E. A conversation with Dr. Bernard Frischer and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Harris: This is a place no one would have been unless you were really close to the emperor. We're in the so-called Maritime Theatre, but this is really Hadrian's inner sanctum inside his enormous villa complex. Dr. Frischer: It's a circular version of the Roman house. You have an atrium, even with an impluvium. You have bedrooms off one side. You have a tablinum at the end of the main axis. It's a classic Roman house, but as a circle, instead of as a square or rectangle. Dr. Harris: I'm going to unpack that a little bit. Dr. Fischer: Okay. Dr. Harris: We have the axiality of a Roman house. Dr. Frischer: Yes. Dr. Harris: We have a view from outside into the interior toward the atrium, which would've been open to the sky and would've collected water into a impluvium below, through a slanted roof or compluvium. Then, behind there a tablinum, a kind of office or meeting space, but in the form of a circle. It takes something which was a rectangle and encircles it by a moat. As we look toward the end through the axis that Hadrian aligned for us, our eye moves past a shape that we don't expect in ancient Roman architecture, an oval space surrounded by columns. Dr. Frischer: Hadrian had the idea of having this circle and then breaking the space up into smaller parts. He inevitably generated ovals and we can see ovals or fragments of ovals all throughout. We know that this was seen by Ligorio in the 16th century, who surveyed the site. Cardinal Barberini had Contini publish the notes and plan of Ligorio, so this was known just at the beginnings of the Baroque movement in Roman architecture in the city of Rome with people like Borromini. Dr. Harris: Circular buildings were something that Hadrian loved. This is the same size as the Pantheon and he's building this the same time that he's building the Pantheon. This idea of the totality of the empire, or the totality of the world in the figure of the emperor. Dr. Frischer: The circle, according to the ancient philosophers was the perfect form. There was nothing more perfect than a circle or a sphere. I think that appealed to him and then just the challenge of taking that rectangular form of a house and making it circular must have appealed to him on aesthetic grounds. Dr. Harris: If we look at the floor of the Pantheon or the walls of the Pantheon at the marble revetments, we see circles and squares, these basic geometric shapes - Dr. Frischer: Yes, in a creative sort of conflict giving rise to new forms. Dr. Harris: Hadrian seems to have really wanted his privacy. Dr. Frischer: Yes, looking back at imperial history, he knew that there were a lot of attempts on lives of emperors, but just in general, emperors were always being pestered wherever they went. There's an anecdote about Hadrian while he was traveling. A woman stopped to petition him and he said, "I'm sorry, I don't have time, I'm too busy." Then she said, "Well then stop being emperor." Emperors were expected to be available and here he could get away and he could invite just the people that he wanted to be with, whether for business purposes or social. Dr. Harris: So we have bedrooms here, toilets. There are rooms for bathing that you would step down into, so they'd be at the level of the moat. As you sat in the bathwater, you could look out at the water around. Dr. Frischer: You could push your duck over into the moat. (laughter) Dr. Harris: It's hard to imagine how luxurious this was now, but as we look up, we can see where this place got the name that it has now, because we see relief sculpture with marine figures and mythological figures having to do with the water. Dr. Frischer: There are some pieces preserved here, on the entablature, and even better pieces in the antiquarium on the site. Dr. Harris: It's a modest scale. This isn't enormous. It really feels like a retreat. Dr. Frischer: I think that everything Hadrian did is on the human level. I always say to people when they get to the Pantheon, "Stop on the threshold, hold your head straight ahead, "and you can just see in your peripheral vision "the oculus, the floor, and the sides of the rotunda." It's at the limits of the human. Here this is a more intimate, comfortable space. Hadrian was always dealing in spaces with a lot of pomp and circumstance and very formal and stiff. So here, it was on a scale of a smallish house in Pompeii, a middle class kind of house, so he could really feel, I think, more relaxed. Dr. Harris: So, an informal place for the emperor of Rome. Dr. Frischer: Informal, but we shouldn't say not luxurious, because it's all marble, it's all carved, it's expensive materials, and the workmanship and craftsmanship is of the highest level. The fact that it's small doesn't mean there's any sacrifice in quality. Who knows what sculpture was here and what the fittings were, what the furniture was? He could've trumped the smallness of the space with the lavishness of materials and the craftsmanship of those materials. Dr. Harris: Something tells me that was the case. (jazz music)