Built as a private summer retreat between AD 118 and 134, Hadrian's Villa was a vast open-air museum of the finest architecture of the Roman world. The grounds of the Imperial palace covered an area of 120 hectares (300 acres) and were filled with full-scale reproductions of the emperor's favorite buildings from Greece and Egypt. Although excavations on this site began in the 16th century, many of the ruins lying scattered in the surrounding fields have yet to be identified with any certainty.
The grounds of the villa make a very picturesque site for a picnic, with scattered fragments of columns lying among olive trees and cypresses. For an idea of how the whole complex would have looked in its heyday, study the scale model in the building beside the car park. The most important buildings are signposted and several have been partially restored or reconstructed. One of the most impressive is the so-called Maritime Theater. This is a round pool with an island in the middle, surrounded by columns. The island, reached by means of a swing bridge, was probably Hadrian's private studio, where he withdrew from the cares of the Empire to indulge in his two favourite pastimes, painting and architecture.
There were also theatres, Greek and Latin libraries, two bathhouses, extensive housing for guests and the palace staff, and formal gardens with fountains, statues and pools. Hadrian also loved Greek philosophy. One part of the gardens in thought to have been Hadrian's reproduction of the Grove of Academe, were Plato lectured to his students. He also had a replica made of the Stoà Poikile, a beautiful painted colonnade in Athens, from which the Stoic philosophers took their name. This copy enclosed a great piazza with a central pool. The so-called Hall of the Philosophers close to the Poikile was probably a library. The most ambitious of Hadrian's replicas was the Canopus, a sanctuary of the god Serapis near Alexandria.
For this a canal 119 metres (130 yards) long was dug and Egyptian statues were imported to decorate the temple and its grounds. This impressive piece of engineering has been restored and the banks of the canal are lined with caryatids. Another picturesque spot in the grounds is the Vale of Tempe, the legendary haunt of the goddess Diana with a stream representing the river Peneios. Below ground the emperor even built a fanciful recreation of the underworld, Hades, reached through underground tunnels, of which there were many linking the various parts of the villa. Plundered by barbarians who camped here in the 6th and 8th centuries, the villa fell into disrepair.
Its marble was burnt to make lime for cement and Renaissance antiquarians contributed even further to its destructions. Statues unearthed in the grounds are on show in museums around Europe. The Vatican's Egyptian Collection has many fine works that were found here.