Jefferson's Monticello, Hadrian's Villa

Rachel Hall Sternberg

Case Western Reserve University

We are all familiar with the many ways in which classically educated intellectuals in eighteenth-century Europe and America looked back to Greece and Rome not only for political ideas but also for architectural models and standards of civilized behavior and taste. Gentlemen of the Enlightenment consciously consulted ancient history on the grounds that the glorious cause of liberty, the timeless struggle against tyranny and oppression, remained substantially the same. Meanwhile on an unconscious level the aristocrats of both eras, whether republicans or kings, dealt with similar problems -- one of which was how to enjoy their pleasures and privileges to the utmost.

The epicurean Thomas Jefferson, in planning Monticello, hit upon a solution resembling that devised for Hadrian's villa at Tivoli. The architects of both estates sought to enhance their slave-supported luxuries by minimizing the presence of slaves. The Palladian Monticello was laid out with symmetrical L-shaped terraces, attached to the main house; Tivoli had a broad East-West Terrace, traditionally named the Poikile. It is a curious coincidence, perhaps, that beneath the terraces at both Monticello and Hadrian's Villa lay concealed dependencies. Those at Monticello accommodated living and working spaces for slaves as well as carriage bays, while those at Hadrian's Villa held cramped quarters for up to 700 slaves. At either estate, the lord and master, while enjoying his view, would literally be walking on top of his slaves. And then, for the sake of convenience and discretion, slaves carrying on their daily tasks at either estate would go back and forth through all-weather passageways or cryptoportici somewhat like those that Pliny the Younger describes and about which Jefferson could have read in his copy of Castell's 1728 Villas of the Ancients. In sum, then, both builders, the Roman and the American, found an architectural solution to a problem that, for Jefferson at least, was a moral problem – the problem of slavery.

This paper examines the links and parallels between Jefferson's Monticello and Hadrian's Villa, also taking into consideration Jefferson's writings, such as Notes on the State of Virginia, that touched on ancient slavery. The research was supported in part by a 2004 travel grant from the International Center for Jefferson Studies.


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