Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.43

Marina De Franceschini, Giuseppe Veneziano, Villa Adriana: architettura celeste: i segreti e i solstizi. Accademia Villa Adriana, 1.   Roma:  L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2011.  Pp. xxi, 231.  ISBN 9788882656133.  €80.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Bernard Frischer, University of Virginia (

The reviewer begins by disclosing that he is currently collaborating with one of the authors of this book, Marina de Franceschini, on a project to create a 3D model of Hadrian’s Villa.

The book begins with an Introduction (“Notes on finding solstice secrets at Roccabruna”) written in English by American architects Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray. They give a personal account of an important, if little- known, architectural and photographic survey of the most of the site of Hadrian’s Villa which they conducted from 1985 to 1994. The project was pursued for the sake of assembling objective documentation of the state of the site, but Mangurian and Ray also brought to Villa Adriana an interest in solar alignments inspired by earlier visits to pre- Columbian sites such as Monte Alban and Chitchen-Itza. In 1987, while studying Roccabruna, a two-storey round tower with a Doric tholos on top and a rotunda with cupola below, Mangurian and Ray had a flash of inspiration. This structure might have been designed with alignments to important solar events such as the summer solstice.

Enter De Franceschini and Veneziano with the first volume in a projected series about the part of the villa known as the Accademia.1 The former is an accomplished scholar of Hadrian’s Villa, about which she has published a major book and created a useful web site.2 The latter is Director of the Astronomical Observatory of Genoa. Part I of the book is written by Veneziano and deals with general and specifically Roman issues of pre-modern understanding of the relationship of the earth to the heavens. Part II, written by De Franceschini, is an archaeoastronomical account of Hadrian’s Villa in relation to pre-Hadrianic and Hadrianic buildings in the city of Rome. In Part III, the two authors write sections in which they present their conclusions.

Veneziano begins Part I with some considerations about the nature of man and his place in a universe in which the sun, moon, and stars provide a context for human activities as well as a source of wonder about nature and creation. “It is not possible to understand the universe if we do not first understand ourselves” (p. 3). This part of the book is aimed more at the general reader than at scholars. Veneziano succeeds in laying a solid foundation for appreciating the link between the gods and celestial features in cultures all over the world, including ancient Rome.

Like her co-author, de Franceschini begins Part II of the book by sketching the relevant background. In her case, the topic is archaeoastronomy, a subject that she rightly states (p. 63) has not yet made major inroads into the field of Classical archaeology. For Roman archaeology of the capital and its hinterland, the exceptions are the Horologium Augusti, the Domus Aurea, and the Pantheon, all of which have been the subject of recent archaeoastronomical investigation (p. 64). De Franceschini thus begins with a review of the work on these sites (Horologium Augusti: pp. 64-72; Domus Aurea: pp. 72-77; Pantheon: pp. 78-83) before getting down to her real business: the parts of Hadrian’s Villa known as the Accademia and Roccabruna. After briefly reviewing the history of scholarship on the villa (pp. 84-87), describing the Accademia (pp. 88-93) and quoting previous descriptions of it (pp. 94-99), she presents her own interpretation (pp. 99-110). She correctly notes that the site has been little studied and poorly published. The one recent account that has a new idea—Salza Prina Ricotti’s suggestion that the area was Sabina’s part of the villa3—is rejected because it lacks any supporting evidence (p. 99). She rightly contests the recent support given the theory by Chiappetta, who claims that the complex must have been used by women since it lacked a latrine and Roman women preferred to use mobile toilets.4 But, as de Franceschini correctly notes, the Accademia had at least two latrines, and Chiappetta’s claim about women’s toilet habits is dubious. The way is thus clear for a new approach.

De Francheschini explains the personal circumstances that led her in 2006 to find an alignment to the solstices in the area of the “Temple of Apollo” (her room AC78). She was perplexed by the fact that the adjacent rooms AC79 and AC80 were not oriented E-W but were rotated 27o from the cardinal points. She consulted astronomer Pietro Planezio who told her that this rotation in the latitude of Tivoli indicated an alignment toward dawn on the winter solstice and sunset on the summer solstice (pp. 100-101). Since AC78 has the same alignment as AC79 and AC80, this meant that it, too, and the entire terrace from the Accademia to Roccabruna had a solar alignment (p. 102). In particular, the line of rooms along the north side of the central courtyard was oriented so that the sun could be seen rising on the winter solstice and setting on the summer solstice. The first room in which the sun would be visible on the winter solstice was A89; the second was AC88, the so-called “Zooteca” (the place where Ligorio thought animals were kept for use in sacrifices in the adjacent “Temple of Apollo [AC78]); the third was AC78 (the “Temple of Apollo”); and, finally, the two short porticoes AC60 and AC41 to the NW. The order was the reverse at sunset on the summer solstice (p. 102). All along the axis through the viewshed there are doors and large windows which would have permitted the sunlight to penetrate from one end of the complex to the other. De Francheschini reports that Veneziano observed the expected solar effects on the standing remains on December 18 and 19, 2009 and on June 20, 2010 (the photographs he took are reproduced in figures 85-88 on pp. 104-105).

De Franceschini next discusses the function of the Accademia. Its latrines, bedrooms, and ceremonial rooms are positioned off a large central courtyard. Hints about the use of the ceremonial rooms (the Temple of Apollo and the so-called Belvedere) come from the solstitial alignment of the complex and from the fact that works of art with Dionysiac themes were found in or near them, including the two famous Furietti centaurs as well as the Red Faun and the Doves mosaic (all in Palazzo Nuovo of the Capitoline Museums). On the function of the Belvedere, she notes that since so little remains standing, study of its solar lighting effects must depend on development of a computer model —something she promises to do in the future (p. 108). The Temple of Apollo was a circular space that served as “the fulcrum of the [solstitial] ceremonies.” The adjacent rooms, decorated with pavement and parietal opus sectile, were also used for the solstitial ceremonies. Flanking the Temple of Apollo were two rooms with alcoves for beds (AC75, AC77); nearby was a small latrine. This area may have been a bedroom suite for the priests who presided here. The terrace from the Belvedere to Roccabruna has the same orientation as the Accademia and so must be considered a sacred landscape used for religious processions (pp. 109-110). In summary, the Accademia, along with its terrace and Roccabruna, should not be considered a part of the villa that was isolated from the rest and reserved for use of Sabina. It was the “true acropolis” of the villa (p. 110).

Roccabruna is a well-preserved part of the villa and is situated at the NW corner of the Accademia terrace, which it abuts. De Franceschini begins her discussion by giving a detailed description of this two-storey building, well illustrated by a series of plans, sections, elevations, and photographs (pp. 111-115). The focus of her interest is the lower level. The main entrance was on the NW side, which had a wide doorway. The interior is covered with a dome, which is pierced by five conduits with the odd feature that they are wider on the façade than on the cupola. Three are placed high up in the center of the three facades of the building. The fourth side, which is the one abutting the terrace of the Accademia, has the remaining two conduits; they are positioned off axis to the left and right because the area on this side corresponding to where the conduits are set on the other sides is blocked by a staircase leading up to the temple structure on the upper level (pp. 111-112).

There follows a long review of the previous interpretations of Roccabruna (pp. 115-126). Only the most recent work can be mentioned here. Castellani (2006) studied and ruled out a possible alignment of the structure with the dies imperii of Hadrian (August 11, 117 AD); at the same time he affirmed the tower’s alignment with the summer solstice. He also advanced the thesis that a heavy object such as a planetarium or armillary sphere was suspended from the cupola of the lower rotunda (p. 124). The five conduits of the lower rotunda functioned to anchor to the wall the beams supporting the armillary sphere or small planetarium (p. 125).5 This idea was then developed by Cinque and Lazzeri (2008), who think that the conduits could not have functioned to let light enter into the building because the two on the south side would never had been aligned with the sun. They published a rendering showing the armillary sphere above with an opus sectile floor below, in the middle of which is a tondo showing the armillary from the mosaic of the House of Leda at Solunto.6 De Franceschini notes that in Appendix I at the end of the volume D’Amico has excluded that there was such a tondo in Roccabruna (p. 126; cf. D’Amico on pp. 189-190). De Franceschini presents an important critique of the thesis of Cinque and Lazzeri, which is justly characterized as “absurd” by de Franceschini (pp. 128-130).

De Franceschini’s own interpretation takes its point of departure her confirmation of the validity of the observation of Mangurian and Ray (2008) that light from the SW conduit (conduit B) enters the interior of the rotunda at sunset on the summer solstice (p. 134). From this she concludes “conduit B was neither a vent nor a support for a beam. It was a ‘light conduit, which even today creates luminous magic, a hierophany…The blade of light signals one of the four most important astronomical events of the year, the summer solstice” (p. 135 [my translation]). The upper sanctuary was oriented toward both the solstices (p. 136). Veneziano and astronomer Elena Salvo confirm that in Hadrian’s lifetime the light effects seen today would have also been visible (pp. 135-136). In contrast, conduits D and E, which are located near rooms de Franceschini interprets as bedrooms of the priests, served to transmit sound, not light. Hidden above, the priests could emit “divine words” or sacred music to be heard by those in the rotunda below (p. 139). Given how time-consuming it is to calculate the alignment of the sun with the other two conduits, de Franceschini reserves for a future study an interpretation of their purpose (p. 139).

De Franceschini next discusses the solstitial alignment in relation to the Isiac and Egyptianizing features of the décor of Roccabruna (pp. 143-144) and concludes that the divinity honored here was Isis, a thesis consistent with Adembri’s earlier compilation of evidence that somewhere at the villa there was a cult center of the goddess.7 De Franceschini speculates that the festival of Isis would have been on the summer solstice, a date holy to Fors Fortuna, to whom Isis is assimilated in the Roman world as is attested by an altar from Aquileia dedicated to Fors Fortuna and decorated with a figure of Isis (p. 146). It would have been more compellling to cite a statue of Isis-Fortuna from Hadrian’s Villa that is now in the Gregorian Egyptian Museum of the Vatican Museums (inventory nr. 22799).

De Franceschini and Veneziano make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the part of Hadrian’s Villa that stretches from Roccabruna to the Accademia. They succeed in integrating precise archaeological, architectural, and astronomical observations with relevant small finds, deep historical research, and wide-ranging cultural interpretation. If the book has a weakness, it is in organization. We do not an expect a book entitled Villa Adriana: Architettura celeste to discuss in detail the Horologium Augusti, Domus Aurea, Pantheon, Tomba Ildebranda di Sovana (at Grosseto), or the Mausoleo o Sepolcro degli Equinozi (Rome). These studies might well have been published as separate articles in relevant peer-reviewed journals. It is odd for Veneziano’s detailed studies of the solar alignments to be placed in the Conclusioni (pp. 172-184): these are not conclusions but the very foundations on which the interpretation of de Franceschini is built and so should have been placed earlier in the book, for example in Part I.

Formal criticisms apart, this is a book that all students of Hadrian’s Villa will want to read and ponder. It may well open a fresh approach to understanding the layout and design of other areas of the Hadrian’s Villa, especially as computer technology makes it easier to simulate celestial events in relation to the built environment.


1.   De Franceschini describes the scope of the project on p. 87 as follows (my translation): “The project is divided into five phases: (1) collection and cataloguing of the earlier documentation, both written and graphic. (2) New survey of the visible remains with a Total Station and laser scanner. (3) Survey of the parts not visible and of the underground passageways with geophysics, in particular with georesistivity. (4) Remote Sensing, aerial photography, and LIDAR to identify hitherto undetected buried structures. (5) Processing of the data, ceration of a GIS database, 3D virtual reconstruction, print and online publication of the results.”
2.   M. De Franceschini, Villa Adriana – Mosaici, pavimenti, edifizi (Rome 1991);
3.   E. Salza Prina Ricotti, “Villa Adriana nei suoi limiti e nella sua funzionalità,” Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia di Archeologia 14 (1982) 25-55, at p. 36.
4.   F. Chiappetta, I percorsi antichi di Villa Adriana (Rome 2008) 182.
5.   V. Castellani, “Tivoli: Villa Adriana, Rocca Bruna e astronomia,” Rivista Italiana di Archeoastronomia 5 (2006) 9-18. Since the book of de Franceschini and Veneziano appeared, Castellani has published another article on the topic: “Roccabruna: indagine archeoastronomica,” Lazio e Sabina 8 (2012) 43-47.
6.   G. Cinque and E. Lazzeri, “Fra cielo e terra: la grandiosità di un’architettura adrianea,” in Mensura Caeli, Atti dell’8o convegno S.I.A., Ferrara 17-18 ottobre 2008 (Ferrara 2010) 116-130. Since the book under review appeared, a related article on this topic has appeared: B. Adembri and G. Cinque, “Nuove indicazioni per lo studio e l’interpretazione dell’edificio di Roccabruna a Villa Adriana,” Lazio e Sabina 8 (2012) 31-42.
7.   B. Adembri, “Iside a Tivoli,” in Iside, il mito, il mistero, la magia. Exhibition at Palazzo Reale, Milan, 22 February-1 June 1997, edited by E. Arsland (Milan 1997) 326-331 at pp. 326, 329n13, 331.

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