The globe-trotting Emperor Hadrian spent the last 3 years of his life in the grandest style. Less than 6km (3 3/4 miles) from Tivoli, between 118 and a.d. 138 he built one of the greatest estates ever conceived, and he filled acre after acre with some of the architectural wonders he’d seen on his many travels. Hadrian erected theaters, baths, temples, fountains, gardens, and canals bordered with statuary, filling the palaces and temples with sculptures, some of which now rest in the museums of Rome. In later centuries, barbarians, popes, and cardinals, as well as anyone who needed a slab of marble, carted off much that made the villa so spectacular. But enough of the fragmented ruins remain to inspire a real sense of awe. For a glimpse of what the villa used to be, see the accurate plastic reconstruction at the entrance.

The most outstanding remnant is the Canopo, a recreation of the town of Canope with its famous Temple of the Serapis. The ruins of a rectangular area, Piazza d’Oro, are still surrounded by a double portico. Likewise, the Edificio con Pilastri Dorici (Doric Pillared Hall) remains, with its pilasters with Doric bases and capitals holding up a Doric architrave. The apse and the ruins of some magnificent vaulting are found at the Grandi Terme (Great Baths), while only the north wall remains of the Pecile, otherwise known as the “Stoà Poikile di Atene” or “Painted Porch,” which Hadrian discovered in Athens and had reproduced here. The best is saved for last—the Teatro Marittimo, a circular maritime theater in ruins with its central building enveloped by a canal spanned by small swing bridges, said to have been Hadrian’s private “studio”.

For a closer look at some of the items excavated, you can visit the museum on the premises and a visitor center near the villa parking area.