Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.54

Valentina Vincenti, Mosaici antichi in Italia: regione quarta. Pavimenti musivi e cementizi di Villa Adriana. Mosaici antichi in Italia, 4.   Pisa; Roma:  Istituti editoriali e poligrafici internazionali, 2017.  Pp. 428; 74 p. of plates.  ISBN 9788862278003.  €495.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Marina De Franceschini, Progetto Accademia ( (

As explained in the Introduction, the aim of this book is to supplement and complete the previous volume by Federico Guidobaldi dedicated to the opus sectile pavements of Villa Adriana, published back in 1994 in the same series, Mosaici Antichi in Italia. The Introduction briefly traces the history of previous studies, more than five hundred years long. Then there is a Catalog with chapters dedicated only to the buildings of the Villa where mosaics were found; for the other ones, reference to Guidobaldi's book is made. In the final part there is an overall Analysis, then the Conclusions and an extensive Bibliography.

The history of the studies and excavations is not the main objective of this book. Rightly, the author has chosen not to to transcribe the data of other scholars 'as a copyist' in the absence of new elements; as in the case of the Accademia, which she has not been able to explore in person, since it is in private ownership.

In the Introduction the author explains that her main source of documentation are the studies of Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti, to whom she relies for the date of the building phases, and often for the interpretation of the function of the buildings—fortunately with some warnings. To the same scholar she relies for the sixteenth century Codices of Pirro Ligorio, without using the excellent work of Alessandra Ten, who transcribed and published the Code of Turin in 2005.1

The history of the studies and the antiquarian documentation is briefly outlined, taking part of the information from the well-documented history of the excavations published by Andrea Paribeni in the previous volume of Guidobaldi.

However, she does not mention the antiquarian plans and drawings by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Andrea Palladio and other Renaissance artists, published by scholars like Ranaldi or Campbell and mentioned by Paribeni himself.2 For chronological reasons, she could not make use of other information provided by my last publication on the history of the studies and excavations at the Villa, which is mentioned at the end of the book.3

At the end of this beautiful volume, Valentina Vincenti hopes that her work "may stimulate other research, and that the investigations still underway will give further results, including the functioning of the complex organization of the imperial Court". This is the same wish I made in my book Villa Adriana, Mosaici, Pavimenti, Edifici, where in 1991 I published for the first time the mosaics, the sectilia, and other pavements of Villa Adriana: "I hope it will serve as a starting point for further studies".

In the Catalog, the author proceeds in a systematic and coherent manner, and I have seen with great pleasure that the book fills some gaps of my book (published in 1991) and adds new data that have emerged in recent years.4 Vincenti publishes the mosaics of the western part of the Vestibule, which at the time of my survey was covered by a thick grove, and some floors of other buildings that were not visible at that time. She publishes an updated plan of the Plutonium, an almost unknown building: it is the result of her thorough survey on the spot; previous scholars simply copied the largely hypothetical plan by Piranesi. She publishes the so called Antinoeion and the paved access road in the shape of a ring, which were discovered many years later. She provides new and excellent color pictures of the mosaics, (in 1991 my editor allowed only B/W pictures, because of high costs). She offers new stylistic comparisons with other mosaics and new insights about chronology and materials used, their distribution and provenance.

The overall analysis in the final part underlines the importance of the study of the walls in order to date the mosaics, and divides them into various classes, based on the size of the tesserae and the type of decoration. There are very interesting observations on the building technique, for example the use of the oblique disposition of the tesserae in the most important rooms; the construction of the floor before the fresco or other wall revetments, contrary to what was usually done. Other paragraphs are dedicated to the stylistic and historical- artistic analysis: the author mentions the archaic taste of Hadrian, who used ancient patterns dating back to the Republican period. There also are new patterns with flowers and stylized vegetal tendrils, which were 'custom-made' for the Emperor and sometimes do not find comparison outside of the Villa. Another interesting section is dedicated to the ancient restorations of the mosaics, about which very little is generally known.

The book by Vincenti confirms what I had discovered in 1991 and has been commonly accepted by subsequent scholars: at Villa Adriana the type of pavement— together with other elements such as latrines—followed a precise hierarchy corresponding to that of the buildings. The most imposing buildings, reserved for the Emperor, had marble floors (sectilia) or polychrome mosaic, prevalence of marble revetment on the walls, and single latrines. The secondary buildings, reserved for high-ranking personnel, had black-and-white mosaic pavements, sometimes with decoration, frescoed walls and multiple latrines. Finally, the buildings for slaves had rustic pavements such as opus spicatum or mosaics without decorations. This hierarchy makes it possible to propose hypotheses on the function of the buildings, which in many cases is still under discussion. In this regard, the author mostly refers to the studies of Salza Prina Ricotti, but her hypotheses are open to new possibilities.

However, there are some remarks to do on the internal organization of the book, whose structure obviously does not depend on the author, but on the editor of the series. It would have been useful to include a general plan of the Villa, to show the position of the single buildings. It is assumed that those who will buy this book already have the one by Guidobaldi, which dates back to 1994. Also, it would have been more appropriate to refer to the general plan of Salza Prina Ricotti of 1982, which is detailed, and to her other plans of individual buildings. Instead, the Pianta del Centenario of 2006 (not included in the book) is often mentioned, but in that plan the single rooms are not clearly visible because of the small scale.

The catalog is consistent and systematical; its structure and the compilation criteria are fully explained on page 20. However, the search for data and its organization are a bit cumbersome and not "user friendly". Once again, this certainly does not depend on the author: as Guidobaldi (editor of the series) writes in the Introduction, it was in fact chosen to "follow the usual pattern for the volume structure, and the individual forms", to have continuity with the other volumes of the series Mosaici Antichi in Italia. But that scheme is a bit outdated, linked to a nineteenth-century antiquarian approach.

1. The rooms are marked with acronyms and numbers, but the mosaics have a different inventory number on their own, so it is difficult to identify them in the plan.

2. In the color plates, one would expect to see the mosaics ordered according to their inventory number and not (for example) to see n. 3 together with nos. 69 and 171, as in plate XXXV. This happens because the pictures of the pavements are grouped together according to their decoration: stylistic comparisons are made easier, but it is difficult to find the single pavement.

3. The Roman numerals of the plates are shown in small print, at the end of the technical section of the forms, and this does not help. Fortunately, the code and number of the room are shown in the plates after the inventory number of the mosaic, and this helps to find the pavements.

4. In some buildings of the Catalog, the building phases and techniques are discussed. For a better understanding of the explanation—as in the case of the very interesting discussion about the building techniques of the Palazzo Imperiale—the different techniques (opus incertum, opus reticulatum etc.) should have been highlighted in the plans.

5. Rightly the author criticizes the choice of Mac Donald and Pinto to give new names to the buildings of Villa Adriana, making identification problematic, and chooses to keep the traditional names. But in the Catalog something similar is done, separating some rooms from others, as if they were a building on their own right. Again, it is not a choice of the author (who had to follow the previous 'format'), but a legacy of Guidobaldi's book, where the so called Ninfeo di Palazzo—which is usually considered a part of the Palazzo Imperiale—became a separate building. For the same reason, the Casa Colonica near Piazza d'Oro became a part of the Piazza d'Oro itself, with which it has nothing to do.

This alteration of the traditional plans is not a problem for scholars who know the Villa very well; but it can be a problem for other scholars, because it makes it difficult to identify the buildings and to find them in a general plan on in other books dealing with the same subject.

Back in 1998, J. Packer had noted how the plans of the same buildings had different features in three different books on Villa Adriana.5 Each scholar proposes his variant, also for the acronyms and numbers of buildings and rooms. A uniform and unique criterion, such as the one in use for Pompeii, is strongly needed.

Regardless of these 'technical' observations, the value and importance of Valentina Vincenti's work remains unchanged. Her book gives an updated and well-documented contribution to the study of the mosaics of Villa Adriana, especially as far as stylistic comparisons, study of materials and analysis are concerned. Therefore it marks an important step along the path of our knowledge of Villa Adriana, and opens the way for new explorations and studies.


1.   Ten A., Libro dell’antica città di Tivoli e di alcune famose ville, Roma, 2005.
2.   Ranaldi A., Pirro Ligorio e l'interpretazione delle ville antiche, Roma 2001. Campbell J., Ancient Roman Topography and Architecture. The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo, London 2004.
3.   De Franceschini M., Villa Adriana, Accademia. Hadrian's Secret Garden. History of the Excavations, Antiquarian Texts and Studies, vol. I, Pisa Roma 2016.
4.   De Franceschini M., Villa Adriana, Mosaici, Pavimenti, Edifici, Roma 1991.
5.   Packer J. "Mire exaedificavit: three recent books on Hadrian's Tiburtine villa", Journal of Roman Archaeology 10, 1998. ​

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