Among all the ancient Romans who ever lived, an earnest public servant named Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61–113), is one of the few who have offered posterity a glimpse of their personal lives. He has done so in a series of letters, most of them composed between 96 and 113 AD, and addressed to the people who made up his corner of the Roman Empire: his wife, his in-laws, his mentors, his protégés, his friends, and the emperor Trajan, with whom he enjoyed the peculiar kind of friendship an ordinary mortal might have with a person whose titles include “Lord God.”

In his own world, Pliny the Younger was an important man; he once held the consulship, the highest elective office in the Roman state, and he died on duty as Trajan’s special envoy to the troubled province of Bithynia (in modern Turkey), a sign of that sage emperor’s extraordinary trust. Pliny’s friends included the historians Tacitus and Suetonius. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, had been a renowned scholar. What makes his letters such fascinating reading, however, is neither his illustrious connections nor his references to the occasional startling event; it is the disarming immediacy of the man himself.

The limitations that kept Pliny the Younger from true greatness, either as a writer or as a statesman, are what make him such a companionable guide through Imperial Rome. Born in a provincial town of northern Italy, Comum (modern Como), and sent to Rome for advanced rhetorical studies and the beginnings of a career in law and politics, he never seemed driven by ambition, and hence he never suffered the agonies over the recognition of his genius that so mark the letters of another provincial boy who made good in the big city, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Pliny is no common man, yet his letters have a way of distilling situations so as to express their essential humanity, whether he is describing panicky neighbors caught in the eruption of Vesuvius, snooty patricians refusing to clap at a poetry reading, or stubborn Christians who cannot find it within themselves to burn a bit of incense to a statue of the Emperor.

Pliny’s letters are vividly written, and none of them more so than the two in which he describes his two favorite country houses: the Laurentine villa, a winter retreat at the seaside south of Rome, and the Tuscan villa, a remote summer place high in the foothills of the Apennines. We know nothing about when he acquired these properties, or about how many others he may have had (there were at least two others, both along the shores of Lake Como), nor, with one exception, do we have any idea what his role may have been in their design. That exception is a secluded suite at the end of a long covered hall in his Laurentine villa, which he describes as “my favorite, really my favorite…I put it there myself,”1 although it is unclear whether Pliny “put it there” as architect, as builder, or simply as the home-owner who commissioned the remodeling of his house.2 How little we know even this most affable of Romans!3

Pliny describes his villas in a way that is typical of his eminently social approach to correspondence; both letters are really invitations for friends to stay with him and share his delightful quarters. A congenital enthusiast, he tells how it feels to occupy each of the villas’ various rooms, or to move through their rambling successions of chambers, porticoes, courtyards, and gardens.

Deliberate efforts at temptation, Pliny’s letters about his villas have lost none of their charm over the succeeding centuries. His invitation to come and stay with him still holds out the promise of idyllic scenery, physical amenity, and a host who will treasure a judicious balance of companionship and solitude. Ever since the Renaissance, scholars and architects have made various attempts, so far with only partial success, to give Pliny’s villas more concrete form, scouring the countryside around Castel Fusano and Città, di Castello in search of their ruins at places that had acquired the name “Villa di Plinio.” More successfully, they have speculated about the villas in written essays, sometimes hewing closely to Pliny’s text and sometimes striking off into realms of fantasy. Pierre du Prey’s splendid new book traces the impact of Pliny’s villas on the visual imagination of architects from the fifteenth century to the present, acknowledging that few of their drawn ruminations are actually reconstructions in any strict archaeological sense. Hence he prefers to write of “restitutions” to convey the sense that these drawings, plans, and models, both reconstructions and fantasies alike, restore definite form to the suggestive impressions from Pliny’s letters, and sometimes also to the crumbled concrete foundations that may or may not mark the sites of the ancient author’s beloved haunts.


More than an antiquarian exercise, these Plinian “restitutions” get at the heart of what it means for city folk to dwell on the margins of the wilderness. Villas reflect the Romans’ ambiguous relationship with civilization as concretely as their naturalistic wall paintings. They longed to be in the countryside, but they longed at the same time to be surrounded with the comforts of society. In form villas might range from modest farmhouses to miniature cities, with race tracks, hall-courts, and baths. They might hover a few paces from a city wall, like the so-called Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, a working farmstead with extensive storerooms, or anchor the outer limits of the Empire, like the villas of Roman Britain, whose owners may have been Roman in name only. Their point, however, was always the same: to retreat from city life in order to gain perspective on it. Seeking out a property for his friend the historian Caius Suetonius Tranquillus, Pliny remarks:

There is indeed much about this property to whet Tranquillus’s appetite if only the price suits him: easy access to Rome, good communications, a modest house, and sufficient land for him to enjoy without taking up too much of his time. Scholars turned landowners, like himself, need no more land than will suffice to clear their heads and refresh their eyes, as they stroll around their grounds and tread their single path, getting to know each one of their precious vines, counting every fruit tree.4

Pliny’s own standards for a villa were considerably more lavish. His Laurentine villa was a seaside winter retreat situated close enough to Rome for him to reach it by nightfall after a day’s work in the Forum. His Tuscan villa, on the other hand, offered genuine retreat from Rome:

The countryside is very beautiful. Picture to yourself a vast amphitheatre such as could only be a work of nature; the great spreading plain is ringed round by mountains, their summits crowned by ancient woods of tall trees….Below them the vineyards spreading down every slope weave their uniform pattern far and wide, their lower limit bordered by a plantation of trees. Then come the meadows and cornfields….It is a great pleasure to look down on the countryside from the mountain, for the view seems to be a painted scene of unusual beauty rather than a real landscape, and the harmony to be found in this variety refreshes the eye wherever it turns.

Pliny approached the description of his villas as he once must have experienced them: in “harmonic variety” (what the Romans called, in Greek, poikilia), when he wandered from space to space, environment to environment, each stopping place carefully crafted to heighten some particular aspect of nature and art: silence, noise, water, openness, seclusion, trees, columns, flowers. Du Prey adopts the same organized sense of wandering, a bold risk for a scholarly book, but it works. he pursues themes rather than geographies or chronologies, jumping from ancient Rome to the nineteenth-century Crimea to twentieth-century California in search of “The Four Cardinal Points of a Villa” (which belong not to the magnetic compass but to the human psyche, ideas like “openness and movement,” “house and garden”). Pliny’s own wanderings within his country properties played similarly free with space and time, leavened as they were by his thoughts, his readings, and the landscapes his rooms sought to enhance by an infinite variety of framings.

In his villas, Pliny could have it all: his books, his ball games, his friends, and at the same time he could marvel at unspoiled vistas (which to his mind might mean a landscape dotted with other villas), and enjoy them in silence. Country houses brought wealthy Romans a sense of communion with the stern agrarian ancestors to whose conservative morality they attributed the steady growth of their empire. For them, the villa’s moment of balance between nature and culture became all the more poignant because it was so fragile, and so temporary, and their own distance from rusticity was so complete. Pliny remarks that during his leisurely stays in Tuscany,

Some time is given over to the tenant farmers—not enough from their standpoint—whose rustic complaints lend luster to our own literary pursuits and such urbane concerns.5

By “urbane concerns,” this vacationing pillar of Roman society meant a life of enviable literary leisure. He would pass his days in Tuscany by rising at dawn to spend the next three or four hours writing, an activity accomplished by dictating to a secretary. A brisk walk in the garden or along his covered portico would consolidate his ideas, he would dictate again and then go for a drive.6


After a short sleep and another walk I read a Greek or Latin speech aloud and with emphasis, not so much for the sake of my voice as my digestion, though of course both are strengthened by this. Then I have another walk, am oiled, take exercise, and have a bath. If I am dining alone with my wife or a few friends, a book is read aloud during the meal and afterwards we listen to a comedy or some music; then I walk again with the members of my house-hold, some of whom are well educated. Thus the evening is prolonged with varied conversation, and, even when the days are at their longest, comes to a satisfying end.

Ensconced in luxurious surroundings, attended at all times by solicitous slaves, Pliny used his abundant time to participate in public life, to study, and to write. He had been trained all his life to do so. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, had been a fanatic for efficiency, who scolded his nephew for walking when he could have been riding in a litter while a slave read to him; “according to him I need not have wasted those hours, for he thought any time wasted which was not devoted to work.”7 Pliny senior, by the time of his death at fifty-five (he was asphyxiated as he tried to rescue victims during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79), had filled 107 papyrus volumes with his published writings, of which only the thirty-seven that comprised his Natural History survive, a vast compendium of facts about matters animal, vegetable, and mineral.8 Characteristically, the Natural History includes a history of sculpture under its discussion of stone—not quite equating the work of Phidias with that of Spartacus breaking rock in a quarry, but not entirely sensitive to art either.

The younger Pliny, by contrast, nourished some of the artistic sympathies his obsessive uncle lacked. A pupil in Rome of the great rhetorician Quintilian, he had made his real career as a forceful advocate in the law courts, specializing in probate cases, sometimes delivering a speech from memory for six or seven hours on end. As was the case with most Roman patricians, he interspersed this legal career with a succession of increasingly important government posts. In his own life span of fifty-odd years, Pliny junior seems, indeed, to have served ably as magistrate, military officer, and imperial administrator. He began his career under the emperor Domitian (81–96), a vain and capricious man whose plans to arrest Pliny for sedition were happily preempted by an assassin.9 Thereafter it was Pliny’s fortune to pursue his public life under two of the most competent emperors that ancient Rome would ever produce: a seasoned old soldier, Nerva, and his brilliant protégé, Trajan, like Nerva an officer brought up to prominence through the Roman army.

Trajan and Pliny seem to have been rather close friends, an association that shows two instances in which the Roman system worked exactly as it was designed to: these two talented provincial boys reached the highest offices in the state through military service on the one hand, and through the combination of liberal education, the study of law, and the pursuit of elected office on the other. At their best, as the lives of these men make clear, both avenues provided effective training for assuming public responsibility, a training that seems in their particular cases to have been abetted as well by the influence of several strongly principled women. Thus both Trajan and Pliny retained a basic faith in Roman institutions and traditional Roman virtues at a time when other observers, like their contemporary Tacitus, saw little but corruption.

In many respects, this period of the Empire represented one of the high points of ancient Rome, and not only on the political front; classicists used to recognize its merits by the term “Silver Age” to indicate a flowering of verbal exuberance second only to the “Golden Age” initiated by the emperor Augustus.10 Pliny’s letters are filled with the names of contemporary authors, some still famous, some now as clusive as most of the details about Pliny himself. Nine papyrus scrolls of his correspondence, selected and edited by the author, were circulating before the year 111, when Trajan sent him to Bithynia as a caretaker governor. There, somewhere near modern Istanbul, he seems to have died in 113. Posthumously, his widow, Calpurnia, released a tenth scroll of letters containing his official correspondence with the emperor.

Ancient Roman papyrus “books” each contained about the same amount of text as a modern chapter. Readers unrolled them in sections; dropping one section could create a disastrous mess. The texts, whether in Greek or Latin, were written entirely in capital letters without divisions between words, for which reason most ancient readers audibly sounded out what they had before them.11 The elder Pliny employed a battery of readers to edify his mealtimes, his baths, and his journeys; Pliny the Younger gave advance deliveries of his forensic speeches to check them for errors. Aside from attending public readings of new work, sociable Romans might join in reading groups to declaim a text in shifts. Libraries in the bilingual Roman Empire must have harbored a rich background noise of polyglot murmur.

However, even in a modern reader’s private silence, the letters of the younger Pliny seem to speak audibly. They range in length from a few lines to several modern pages, all carefully crafted, yet irrepressibly intimate. From what we know of their identities, we find that his correspondents, by and large, adhere to his own values of hard work, civic devotion, and care of family. They are certainly not Rome’s most glamorous citizens, but they have done well, and under Trajan’s careful administration their outlook is deservedly optimistic. Still, among his friends, the younger Pliny must have been a singularly sunny soul. His letters of recommendation (indispensable for penetrating the Imperial bureaucracy) bubble with the same kind of enthusiasm his more sobersided colleagues deplored in his social behavior—

You say that people have criticized me in your hearing for taking any opportunity for exaggerated praise of my friends…My friends may not be all I proclaim them, but it makes me happy to think they are.12

A letter to his wife, Calpurnia, begins simply: “You cannot believe how much I miss you.”13 Other letters recount gossip, tell ghost stories, comment on literature, explore wonders of nature like the Fountain of Clitumnus or the floating islands of Lake Vadimon. The most famous are the two that describe the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of the Elder Pliny, an exchange with Trajan about how to deal with the Christians in Bithynia, and, of course, the two letters about villas that first provided the inspiration for Pierre du Prey’s monograph.

For the Silver Age of Latin literature was a Golden Age of architecture. Here, too, Trajan and Pliny met on common ground. Trajan’s projects with Apollodorus of Damascus, his Forum, Markets, and Column, still dominate the center of modern Rome; the principles of architecture they explored are evident today in everything from basilicas to shopping malls.14

It is the combination of Pliny’s legacy as public servant and his association with superb architecture that inspired urban magnates like the Medici to create their own villas, patterning their experience of country life on Pliny’s own complex response to city, country, and ancestral tradition. In the twentieth century, the dream of physical comfort coexisting in harmony with nature (and a certain sense of hard work well rewarded with which both Pliny and Cosimo de’ Medici would have empathized) has spawned the Plinian microcosms of suburbia—perhaps even something of the sprawling plan of the modern American ranch-style house. One of the chief subtexts to Du Prey’s book is an exploration of the extent to which the idea of villas, and the Classical idiom in general, apply to architecture in the present day. But his chief objective is to identify good design: structures that make the most of their natural settings, rooms that permit an easy flow of traffic, windows that admit light in the right amounts yet serve effectively to frame the scenery outside. All of these qualities seem to have been developed to an inspired degree in Pliny’s villas. More than a survey of glorious country houses, The Villas of Pliny presents a long view of what it means to build, not only architecture, but society itself.

The imaginative reconstruction of Pliny’s villas began with the Italian Renaissance, inspired by the same terrain that Pliny had evoked with such affection. Roman nostalgia for a rustic past harmonized well with a congenitally longing soul like that of Petrarch, who retired toward the end of the fourteenth century to a villa at Arquà Petrarca, above Padua, which allowed him to end his life as both Plinys had hoped to end theirs: in full rustic retreat from a life of civil service, with his books and his cat for company. 15 The visually imposing ruins of Roman villas, which dotted the countryside from Campania to Como, harmonized no less perfectly with the brash architects of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who put their faith in modern mathematics and archaeological scrutiny to chase down the secrets of classical proportion.

The Renaissance was also an age of manuscript studies, and as it happened, an age-old problem in the copying of Pliny’s manuscript text led to a delicious architectural comedy of errors in the early sixteenth century. Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent and cousin to the reigning pope, Leo X, commissioned a villa on the outskirts of Rome from Raphael, at that time the papal city’s favorite artist. Never a man to say no, Raphael took the commission when he was already deeply involved in two antiquarian projects: a reconstruction of ancient Rome as it had been in Imperial times, and an illustrated Italian translation of ancient Rome’s one surviving architectural treatise, the Ten Books on Architecture of Vitruvius, composed between about 30 and 20 BC. One version of Pliny’s letter on the Laurentine villa noted that the building’s forecourt was shaped like the letter “O,” and a manuscript with this reading seems to have been the one to which Raphael referred when drawing up his designs for the Medici villa, which went so far as to include a hippodrome like that of Pliny’s Tuscan villa. A second manuscript tradition, which is almost certainly more correct, sees “D” rather than “O” as the shape of Pliny’s court (there are several scripts in which a rounded “D” could have been misread and mistranscribed during the Middle Ages). As it happened, Raphael’s plans for Cardinal Giulio were never completed; the circular forecourt was left half-built, and today the Medici villa, known as Villa Madama, exhibits a philologically correct if unintentional semicircular concave façade: a “D” in place of an “O” after all.

It was the very elusiveness of Pliny’s descriptions that so sparked the fantasies of Renaissance artists like Raphael, or Baldassare Peruzzi, who designed a villa in 1511 for another of Raphael’s patrons, the Sienese merchant banker Agostino Chigi, who had taken up permanent residence in Rome. Unhampered, like Raphael, by precise architectural detail, Peruzzi, too, aimed instead for Plinian atmosphere: framed views of the Tiber, the Vatican, and a secluded garden, as well as an unusual entrance through an open loggia, a space which Raphael’s workshop would eventually decorate in 1518. One wonders how the decorous Pliny (or Peruzzi himself, for that matter, hard at work upstairs on a lively trompe l’oeil perspective for Chigi’s winter dining room) would have taken to the fresco that Raphael chose to surmount Chigi’s office door: a naked Mercury, patron of merchants and thieves, holding Fame’s trumpet in one hand and with the other gesturing toward a garland where a phallic gourd plunges into a ripened fig. On the other hand, one of Pliny’s letters mourns the death of the frequently obscene epigrammatist Martial with true feeling. He might have laughed as hard as Agostino Chigi to watch the awkward agonies of a timid visitor approaching the richest man in Rome under so peculiar an image.

Renaissance villa dwellers, even the irrepressible Agostino Chigi, cultivated ancient Roman virtues as assiduously—and with the same incurable anachronism—as their Roman forebears, and in the same terrain. In the late sixteenth century, Andrea Palladio, perhaps the greatest villa designer of all time, flung long Plinian porticoes across the flatlands of the Veneto, and created the four-faceted Villa Rotonda, whose identical façades survey the view from a hilltop site that permits it to “see and be seen” in truly Roman style. Eventually, however, this terrain itself would prove to be interchangeable with that of seemingly inhospitable climes, when the idea of villeggiatura, or villa-dwelling, spread to England, Prussia, the Crimea, Virginia, Ontario (not to mention the Getty Museum at Malibu, which partially replicates the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum). One of the most gifted architects to try his hand at restitution was Germany’s Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Schinkel’s 1838 project at Orianda in the Crimea drew much of its imposing beauty from the architect’s earlier attempts to wrestle in images with revisualizing the Plinian texts. Like most of the architects who have ever tried to bring Pliny’s villas to life, he began his work directly from the sense-impressions recorded in those ancient Latin letters rather than the reconstructions proposed by fellow architects.

Villeggiatura spread as well across class lines. Just as the humble city-bound dwellers of Pompeii and Herculaneum evoked the idea of villa life by painting the walls of their shops with a still life or a garden scene, so, too, in the 1980s, the American architect Thomas Gordon Smith transformed a series of California bungalows into Mediterranean hideaways replete with classical columns, elaborate door and window frames, Greek triglyphs and metopes—but all done up in vivid pinks and blues more reminiscent of Mexico than of ancient Rome. Of Smith’s Richmond Hill house, Du Prey asks:

What does it really achieve? A love of sun, shade, vegetation, views, breezes, freedom of movement, and the artistic will to synthesize all these…

These Plinian retreats in suburban American neighborhoods also manage to achieve a kind of democracy that it would be facile to decry as bourgeois. Smith decorated the living room of the Richmond Hill house with pseudo-Pompeiian frescoes of American gas stations, because the panoramic view from the same room’s picture window takes in the refinery tanks along San Francisco Bay. Pliny drew delight from the sight of neighboring villas in the landscape; in a wry twist on post-industrial Arcadia, Richmond Hill does much the same in twentieth-century style.

With this and a host of other examples, The Villas of Pliny makes a powerful recurrent case for freedom of movement in an imaginative sense, demonstrating without declaring it that the meticulous presentation and narrowly conceived classicism of nineteenth-century French Beaux-Arts drawings often detracted from the creation of workable architecture, whereas the messy sketches of more practical designers have resulted in some truly sublime buildings.

To these sublime buildings the classical idiom per se—at least classical architecture conceived as this kind of column, that kind of doorframe—is often a secondary concern. The book’s penultimate section details an exhibit, first mounted in 1982, of new drawings based on the theme of Pliny’s Laurentine villa. The show’s originator, the French architect Maurice Culot, hoped that an inspired body of contemporary work would demonstrate the timeless veracity of classical architecture in what turned out to be the last days of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s conservative government. A series of drawings, executed by a diverse group of thirteen designers, included the archaeological architect Jean-Pierre Adam, the visionary architect Léon Krier, and the socially conscious architects Treuttel, Garcias, and Treuttel among their ranks. Their entries ranged in form from Adam’s archaeological reconstruction, based on his years of experience with excavating Roman sites, to more unfettered musings (and the attendant tendency of such architects’ fantasies toward self-indulgence).

Adam’s reconstruction of Pliny’s Laurentine villa makes it clear that, to his mind, Roman classicism had rather little to do with producing symmetrical boxes; ancient rooms were often quadrilateral but seldom strictly rectangular, and the plans of the buildings themselves could be sprawling improvisations that still maintained the impression of strictly controlled harmony. Adam thus reveals Beaux-Arts symmetry as an entirely post-classical construct, despite its cramping effects on the study of classical architecture and the practice of postmodern and neoclassical architecture in our own day. Krier’s contribution, a portfolio of drawings, suggests that what holds for villa planning may translate without effort into planning for a contemporary town, proving that urban values are necessarily latent in the world of a man as urbane as Pliny.

Truettel, Garcias, and Treuttel’s reconstruction drawing emphasizes areas of Pliny’s villas that his own description omits: the slave quarters, the kitchen, the stables, with small vignettes showing the miserable lives that made patrician luxury possible. Next to this drawing, the plan of a modern villa built on the same Plinian lines draws inescapable analogies to present-day capitalist society. This admittedly disturbing aspect of villa life has been explored in earnest since the 1970s, with the publication of Bentmann and Müller’s Die Villa als Herrschaftsarchitektur16 and with archaeological excavations like Andrea Carandini’s at the Roman villa of Settefinestre, where the excesses of the ancient Romans were analyzed from a Marxist viewpoint.

But exploitation and social injustice were—and are—only part of the picture. Pliny, for all his considerable charms, was irreducibly unlike us in certain ways. As the Swedish philologist Magnus Wistrand puts it, we are irresistibly drawn to asking our Romans, “How could they?” Pliny held slaves, and tortured them to extract evidence. He approved of gladiator shows in the belief that they inspired their spectators to fortitude. He put confessing Christians to death, “for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.” 17

Du Prey, unlike the team of Treuttel, Garcias, and Treuttel, does not preach when dealing with the difficult aspect of ancient Rome and its artistic legacy. Rather, he presents thought-provoking material in such a way as to encourage the reader’s own wandering freedom of speculation. The Villas of Pliny presents a strong circumstantial case in favor of the real values, both spiritual and aesthetic, that can be found in the unending attempt to realize contradictory hopes: to have the city in the country, a stately home for everyone, and a human race that lives as part of nature without sacrificing its delight in artifice. Postmodern irony is an arid substitute for such rich cases of oxymoron.

In the end, the simple pleasures that Pliny took in his villas involve feelings accessible to all human beings. Housing arrangements on every level of the ancient Roman social scale strive after the same qualities of experience as Pliny’s favorite villas. Most of all, however, Pierre du Prey shows that what Pliny sought and found in his two beloved villas are values of contemporary importance. We may often approach these values now by different means, but light, space, domestic tranquility, and a sense of harmony with nature are no less desirable now than they were in the first century of the Roman Empire.

This Issue

May 11, 1995