Tuesday, March 5, 2019


A secret labyrinth of chambers at the end of the Canopus pool at Hadrian's Villa are now open to the public for the first time in decades.

The chambers within the Serapeum pavilion structure had been off-limits for security reasons. No doubt they were also off-limits to visitor in ancient times and accessible only to Emperor Hadrian and perhaps his closest coterie of hangers-on.

The colossal exedra pavilion's labyrinth of rooms (even the imperial lavatory latrine of Hadrian) lead off from the Cyclopean hall of Hadrian's triclinium dining area at the end of the Canopus pool. 

Now, for the first time, tourists can follow in the Emperor's footsteps along mosaic flooring and walls still displaying traces of plaster frescoes and holes in the walls where fittings once held marble cladding in brilliant colors from all parts of the Empire. 

Visitors pass by niches decorated to look like grottoes framed by statues. 

And everywhere there is water ... befitting the Egyptian river-seaside resort of Canopus where Hadrian and Antinous spent many hours in late 130 AD.

That was during their fateful tour of Egypt. They escaped the heat and political turmoil of Alexandria with its rival groups of Jews, Christians and political rabble-rousers, and sought peace and quiet at Canopus.

It was their last pleasurable time before Antinous mysteriously drowned in the Nile in October 130 AD.

When Hadrian returned to Rome in 131 AD ... alone and grieving ... he designed the Canopus pool at his Villa to remind himself of those happy times.

The Villa's Serapeum is crisscrossed with canals ... just as irrigation canals crisscrossed Canopus in Egypt. 

The same canals that re-emerged in the area of ​​the triclinium for distinguished guests, visible on the concave facade. Slaves no doubt drew water from them to wash the feet of the guests who settled onto the curvilinear beds.

Meanwhile, spectacular dishes floated their was on miniature ships loaded with every gastronomic delight. 

Water becomes an ideal symbol of aesthetic magnificence, but also of refined hydraulic engineering that all ennobles and makes divine. 

"Entering the Serapeum means having an experience of light and sound," commented art historian Andrea Bruciati. "Water in profusion maximized the color and luminosity of the Serapeum."

"The Serapeum was the five-star restaurant par excellence, the absolute best from the point of view of the culinary landscape, which had to be shown, exposed, lived as an experience."

The scene must be imagined: Hadrian under his canopy of stars, approachable only by guests of higher rank, while the other aristocrats took their places at a distance along the Canopus perimeter.

"The Serapeum becomes the symbolic representation of the emperor as a divine being, according to the cults of ancient Egypt, land known to Hadrian and reverberating throughout the complex of the Serapeum and the Canopus," the art historian points out.

And it is in the waters of the Nile that Antinous died mysteriously. But sadly, Antinous probably never set foot here, and Hadrian gazed into the waters seeing the reflection only of those happy last days he spent with Antinous in Canopus Egypt.

The new tour route offers new scenarios. From the original stairs of the monument, between mosaics and plasters, you can climb to the Belvedere look-out with a splendid view out across the Canopus pool.

"In history a parallel can be grasped with the palace of Versailles of the Sun King Louis XIV," says Bruciati.

Entering the labyrinth of rooms, tunnels, stairwells, is basically like entering the rooms of a god.

"Until now, the Serapeum has always only shown its façade, offering itself a two-dimensional effect," reflects Bruciati. "Now we can see all the depth, its organic nature and complexity."

Hadrian traveled the length and breadth of his Empire, for a few years with Antinous at his side. His Villa is a microcosm of his travels ... and the Canopus Serapeum is the place where he spent his happiest hours with Antinous.

Check out these photos:

1 comment:

  1. Grazie mille for sharing you photos. I used to sneak back into Hadrian's private dining room when it was roped off. With the cooling water falls it must have been fantastico!