In 2013 with Keng Sen I first visited the Villa d’Este before going to the Villa Hadriani. Before that water-garden we had even toiled through another garden, the Villa Gregoriana, the third historical Villa of Tivoli. This last one turned out to be an extravaganza by a modern pope, totally bourgeois, romantic and fake. It may be gracefully saved perhaps by some remnants of a Roman Villa, one that in its time must have looked down on the waters of a free-flowing Aniene. Today the Aniene, regulated by engineering proficiencies of the 19th century, thunders down the cliffs, spectacular enough, but lacking in good taste.
The waters churn by not far from the rock on which two temples are magically lifted up and away from vulgarity. It has been assumed for ages that one of them was dedicated to a Sibyl. We went up there and with due respect had a drink in a kind of disused schoolroom giving out on the temples. As the city as a whole is now on the UNESCO list of world heritage, and protected, we were kept at some distance from these Roman follies by an iron fence. The next morning at the Villa Hadriana we would have a similar experience. The innocent visitor today can no longer claim ownership, however fanciful, to classical antiquity. As a dilettante Yourcenar had been beaten, The curator had won, as she had feared..
The imperial villa had indeed been turned into a museum. With a prescribed route, restricted admissions, warnings against trespassing, because of dangers to the visitor. Nevertheless we also encountered a token of retrieval as only an official institution can organize. It was an exhibition of sculptures figuring Antinous.
Not so much a celebration of friendship was intended, as a formal iconography of the images of Antinous. For the first time the visitor was able to re-imagine the full scope of the cult of Antinous instigated by the Emperor, in situ, with objects excavated there. We were in haste, the airplane was waiting. But even a one-time perusal of the exhibits was enough to imprint the mystery of Antinous forever in one’s memory.
Who had been this young man, this favorite courtier from the shores of the Black Sea, this deified adolescent, this nearly sleepily self-centered Adonis, this suicide? The sculptures did not diminish the mystery, because Hellenistic art was not given to realism, but to myth and the ideal. Yet the opposition of the two lovers was captivating. The portraits of the Emperor, the lover of Greece, and his partner, stirring. The bearded homo universalis encountering the beardless, dreamt youth.
The literary sources though, on which we can rely, are extremely scarce. In her Mémoires d’Hadrien Yourcenar had had to make the most of a few sentences. The Latin history of Aelius Spartianus carries not more than one small reference: Hadrian lost his Antinous when he was by boat on the Nile and he wailed over it like a woman. “His” Antinous. Antinous suum, that is nearly all. In Greek Dio Cassius mentions: he was a favorite of the emperor and died in Egypt. Possibly, as Hadrian writes, by falling into the Nile, possibly as a sacrifice. The last one is true.
Keng Sen needed no more than this, to take ownership of the story.
Antinous had feared that his friend, who was much older than himself, would die before him. Preoccupied by his friend’s destiny, he had wanted to procure him immortality. By the sacrifice of his youth he had wanted to serve the Emperor. The cult of Antinous proclaimed in the temples and cities of the Empire had been only an affirmation by Hadrian the God.
And indeed there was something strange in the explosion of sites, rites and images of Antinous over the length and width of the Empire. As if it was not an expression of personal bereavement, but an affair of state. It was like the creation of a new faith, of which the echo’s transpire in the old texts. It was even said that the Emperor had believed the astronomers telling him that a new star had been added to the firmament.
Moved, I did not contradict my friend.