Discovering the ancient Tibur, including water shows and monumental villas
The Via Tiburtina, in its first part, followed the ancient paths of transhumance; subsequently, after the foundation of Carseoli and Alba Fucens, it was extended to the Adriatic Sea with the name of Tiburtina Valeria. Coming out of the Aurelian walls through the well-preserved Porta Tiburtina, the road continued through the early Christian basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls dating back to Constantine’s age, Ponte Mammolo on the river Aniene, the statio at Aquas Albulas, the great thermal complex coinciding with the modern Tivoli Terme and the travertine quarries (lapis tiburtinus) already used in the 3rd century B.C.
Tivoli rises where the upper Aniene basin ends, giving rise to spectacular waterfalls. The emperor Hadrian was fascinated by the flat countryside below the ancient Tibur, so much so that he wanted to build his 120 hectares villa between 118 and 128 A.D. Surely the emperor participated in the design of the entire complex by calling the different wings with the names of the most famous places of classical Greek-inspired culture: Lyceum, Academy, Pritaneo, Canopus, Pecile, Valle di Tempe. The visit of Hadrian’s Villa starts from the Pecile, a monumental arcade destined to the gestatio, the healthy walk that Roman doctors advised to do after lunch. It is inspired by the Stoà Poikile of Athens, a sort of arcade-museum that housed the works of the most important Greek painters. Proceeding on the north-south axis, after the imposing thermal complex of the Small and Large Baths, there is the Canopus, a large rectangular basin that evoked the canal that led from the city of Alexandria to Canopus, in the delta of the Nile. One of the short sides of the pool ends in an exedra nymphaeum, called Serapeo (named after the god Serapis, once embellished by a scenographic sculpture). It seems that the area was dedicated to the memory of Antinous, favorite of the emperor, drowned in the waters of the Nile and then deified. On a small hill to the west, there are the remains of the Imperial Palace, placed side by side to a lively arcade with a central garden.
The part of the villa that best reflects the character of Hadrian, however, is the Maritime Theatre, perhaps the proven office of the emperor who could isolate himself from the rest of the world. It is a small artificial island surrounded by an annular canal and reachable through a mobile bridge.
At the end of a series of hairpin bends, there is the town of Tivoli, inhabited since the 8th century B.C. and later a Roman municipium. Among the most important monuments, there are the two temples on the acropolis: the temple of Vesta, with a circular plan and Corinthian columns, and the temple of the Sibilla, with a rectangular plan. The most revered cult, however, was that of Hercules near the homonymous sanctuary, consisting of a set of buildings comprising a temple and a large courtyard arcaded on three sides.
The fame of Tivoli is also due to Villa d’Este, named after cardinal Ippolito d’Este, governor of the city in 1550 and designed by Pirro Ligorio. The waters of the Aniene were channeled to supply the splendid fountains: the one hundred fountains, the Bicchierone, the Organ (still operational), the Ove and the Dragons. A riot of games in which nature and artifice weave subtle dialogues, as an example of garden architecture.
Three hundred years later, the story of Villa Gregoriana, named after Pope Gregory XVI, was very different. After a disastrous flood that overwhelmed the city in 1826, the pontiff decided to intervene by diverting the water through two tunnels under Mount Catillo and thus giving rise to the evocative landscapes of the villa.
The continuation of the road is scattered by small villages, such as Vicovaro, known for the monastic Convent of Saint Cosimato. The monastery was built on the remains of a Roman villa, whose cisterns are still visible in the basement. Then, under the monastic complex, there are some suggestive caves excavated in the rock face of the cliff, where the first hermits retreated to meditate.
A short detour leads to Licenza and to the remains of the villa that Mecenate donated to the Latin poet Horace and whom he often mentioned in his Odes. The villa was worthy of a wealthy and educated Roman, with numerous rooms, a large arcade and a balneum. The villa had to be essentially a resting place, where to practice the famous otium (idleness), dedicated to the activities of the intellect, to domestic care and property.
From Tivoli, a secondary branch then headed to Sublaqueum, now Subiaco, known for the Nero’s villa, consisting of several pavilions around three artificial lakes, and its monasteries. In the 5th century, in fact, the young Benedict, horrified by the infighting of the Roman Church, withdrew in the mountains and here lived in complete solitude inside a cave. After beginning his preaching to the shepherds of the area, he founded thirteen monasteries based on the Benedictine rule “ora et labora” (pray and work).
Nowadays, the Saint Scholastica and the Holy Cave Monasteries remain magnificent examples of the spirituality of this territory, immersed in a still wild nature.