Strewn across a gentle slope, the Villa Adriana (Hadrian's Villa) was built from 118 to 134 and has some fascinating architectural spaces and water features. Hadrian was an amateur architect and is believed to have designed many of the unique elements in his villa himself. He drew on inspiration from his travels in Greece and Egypt, making the villa an echo of the Empire itself. After the emperor's death in 138, the villa was used by his successors. In the centuries following the fall of the Empire it became a luxury quarry for treasure-hunters. At least 500 pieces of statuary in collections around the world have been identified as coming from this site, and marble and mosaic finds from the villa now make up a significant portion of the collections of Roman art at the Capitoline and Vatican museums. The restored remains lie amid olive groves and cypresses and are still impressive; the model in the pavilion just up the hill from the entrance gives an idea of the villa's original size. The layout of the complex is seemingly haphazard: it's easy to get lost and just as easy to stumble upon charming surprises.
Where the original entrance to the villa lay is uncertain; today the first space you'll encounter after climbing the road from the ticket office is the pecile (or poikile), a large pool that was once surrounded by a portico with high walls, of which only one remains. As it was constructed on land that originally sloped dramatically (the eastern end was 15 metres/47 feet higher than the western), a massive complex of sub-structures (the 'hundred chambers') was built to level things off. The poikile was probably used for post-prandial strolling: seven laps around the perimeter of the space constitute two Roman miles, the distance that ancient doctors recommended walking after meals.
Directly east of the poikile, the Teatro marittimo (Maritime Theatre) is one of the most delightful inventions in the whole villa, and one of the parts generally attributed to Hadrian himself. A circular brick wall (45 metres/150 feet in diameter) encloses a moat, at the centre of which is an island of columns and brickwork; it was a self-sufficient domus (mini-villa) - complete with its own baths, bedrooms and gardens. Today a cement bridge crosses the moat, but originally there were wooden bridges, which could be removed to give the impression of absolute isolation. South of the Maritime Theatre is a three-storey building known simply as the 'building with a fish pond' (peschiera), or the Winter Palace (Quartiere invernale). The highest of the structure's levels, where traces of a heating system are preserved, may have been the emperor's private residence, with a large banquet hall overlooking the Nymphaeum-Stadium and the plains towards Rome. The 'fish pond' is a now-empty rectangular basin in the east side of the structure, beneath which visitors can walk along the perfectly preserved cryptoporticus. Continuing south, locate the Piccole terme (Small Baths), where intricate plaster mouldings are amazingly intact on some of the vaulted ceilings, giving an idea of the grandeur of the entire villa's decoration.
In the valley below is the lovely Canopus. Built to recall the canal that connected Alexandria to the city of Canopus - famous for its temple of Serapis - on the Nile delta, this is a long, narrow pool, framed on three sides by columns and statues, including a marble crocodile. At the far (southern) end of the pool is a structure called the Serapeum, used for lavish entertaining, where sculpture once embellished the apse; despite its Egyptian inspiration, the architectural style couldn't be more Roman. Summer guests enjoyed an innovative form of air-conditioning - a sheet of water poured from the roof over the open face of the building, enclosing diners. The villa also included extensive guest and staff apartments, dining rooms, assembly halls and libraries, a stadium and theatres. The whole complex was connected by underground passages, so that servants were invisible whenever possible.