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Friday, April 14, 2017

The Villa Iovis


The ruins of Tiberius' clifftop retreat on Capri, the "Villa Iovis."  The church and statue (upper left) are of course modern.


In AD 27, at the age of 67, the emperor Tiberius left Rome for a tiny island three miles off the coast of Campania.  There he would spend most of days, ruling Rome away from the capital, until his death in AD 37.  Tacitus in his Annals (4.67) reports that Tiberius “so loathed … every place on the mainland that he buried himself on the island of Capri…. The solitude of the place was, I believe, its chief attraction, for a harborless sea surrounds it and even for a small vessel it has but few safe retreats, nor can anyone land unknown to the sentries. Its air in winter is soft, as it is screened by a mountain which is a protection against cutting winds. In summer it catches the western breezes, and the open sea around it renders it most delightful. It commanded too a view of a most lovely bay.… Tiberius had by this time filled the island with twelve country houses, each with a grand name and a vast structure of its own.”  Augustus had acquired the whole island from the city of Naples some fifty years earlier (Suetonius, Augustus 98), and had built villas there.  To judge from the so-called Palazzo a Mare, thought to belong to Augustus, on the island’s north coast, these were not particularly extravagant.  Augustus, after all, claimed to live modestly.

Tiberius made no such claim.  And of the twelve villas on Capri, it is generally supposed that his favorite was the so-called Villa Iovis on the eastern tip of the island.

Twelve villas?  And why the name Villa Iovis?  Suetonius says that after the fall of Sejanus the emperor did not leave the Villa Ionis (sic) for nine months.  In the sixteenth century it was suggested that the twelve villas were all named after the twelve Olympian gods, and that Villa Ionis was accordingly to be corrected to Villa Iovis--not Io’s Villa but Jupiter’s Villa.  This was of course no more than a guess.  The name Villa Iovis is thus perhaps just modern fancy.


The remains of the central vaulted substructure.  The preserved part of the floor (above) of the peristyle courtyard.

The Villa Iovis is perched on a steep cliff that drops nearly 1100 feet to the sea below.  The architect was faced with two limitations.  One was the size of the site.  The other was the lack of a spring.  Yet water would be had from … the sky-god himself!  So the villa was to be built around a core of rain-collecting cisterns in the form of tiered concrete barrel vaults in the center of the structure, covered by a large (100’ by 100’) square platform that may have been adorned with mosaics and even a peristyle of columns.  This central courtyard/cistern system took up fully one half of the surface area of the site.  Surrounding it were four distinct wings connected by staircases and ramps.  The result was quite compact, unlike most luxury villas, which were characterized by sprawl.  Compact, but still interesting: the different levels (there were eight stories in all) made it so.

From the southwest.  Model by Clemens Krause.

The visitor approached from the west, up a steep paved road, with the villa towering above him.  He entered through a vestibule at the southwest corner (shown in the illustration above).  A ramp took him up into a corridor.  To his left was the west wing, where several stories of small rooms housed the servants, some of whom were employed in the kitchen, projecting at ground level.  Turning right, he entered the south wing, which featured a suite of baths.


The north and east wings were for the emperor (mainly on the seventh story).  On the east were larger rooms and the aula, the great reception hall, extending into a semicircular exedra with large windows, behind which were niches to accommodate couches: facing the southeast or northwest, they offered both sun and shade.  


From the southeast.  Model by Clemens Krause.

This east wing and the rooms above commanded spectacular views of Sorrento and Vesuvius.  On the north side were the triclinium, which featured polychrome marble paving, and rooms for the emperor’s personal attendants as well as the quarters of the emperor himself, to which access was of course restricted (via a single corridor).  His rooms opened onto a loggia (terrace) from which he could look down over most of the island and the Bay of Naples.  A long ramp took him down to the ambulatio, a long walkway for physical exercise than extended along the cliff’s edge, with additional rooms opening off it that included a vaulted dining room.

A specularium or signal tower (for communication with the mainland via fire or smoke) and a lighthouse were located to the west and south, respectively.

Was this lofty seaside retreat unique?  No, not even in the vicinity.  Similarly situated was the villa on the tiny Isola del Gallo Lungo, about two miles off the southeast coast of the Sorrento peninsula.  Yet another example was the clifftop villa on the Isola del Isca near Sorrento.  In each case the water supply problem solved by building atop cisterns.

Nonetheless, the Villa Iovis is widely regarded as a special imperial building, partly because of its location, partly because its state of preservation permits a fair appreciation of it, and partly because of its design.

“Few Roman buildings that have come down to us convey such a vivid impression of the personality of the unknown architect and of his skill in wedding the unusual terms of his commission to the potentialities of a magnificent but difficult site.  Here, on a waterless mountaintop, throughout the summer months the emperor could conduct affairs of state or retire into absolute seclusion, enjoying the beauties of nature and as safe as human ingenuity could contrive, and yet maintained by an ample staff and surrounded by every comfort. … The diversity of interest resulting from the loose, spreading layout of most of these luxury villas was here achieved within the limitations of a compact, tightly organized plan by means of a skillful play of levels.  On such a site a more relaxed plan might well have spelled architectural confusion” (J. B. Ward-Perkins, 201).

  • Kleiner, Diana.  Roman Architecture.  Yale Open Lectures.  Lecture 11, chapter 1.  2/17/2009.
  • Krause, Clemens.  Villa Jovis.  Die Residenz des Tiberius auf Capri.  2003.
  • Mielsch, Harald.  Die römische Villa: Architektur und Lebensform.  1987.
  • Sear, Frank.  Roman Architecture.  1982.
  • Ward-Perkins, J. B.  Roman Imperial Architecture.  2nd ed.  1981.



Emily Claire Kibbe

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