Hadrian's Villa is one of two small companion pictures featuring scenes around Tivoli, the other being Maecenas' Villa (Tate N00303). The present picture has also been titled View in Italy with an arched ruin and Strada Nomentana, owing to the similarity of the ruin to one which appears in another picture by Wilson, also belonging to Tate (Tate N00301). However, if the present picture does feature Hadrian's Villa, near Tivoli, there can be no link with the Strada Nomentana, which runs to the north-east of Rome, and in a quite different direction.
The present picture is closely based upon a small, on-the-spot, chalk drawing made by Wilson made during his time in Rome, around 1752-3, and now in the collection of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, Swansea (Constable, p.201, plate 81b and Solkin, pp.161-2, reproduced). As David Solkin has noted, in relation to this compositional drawing, Wilson was attracted to Tivoli during his years in Italy not only because of its classical associations but also as the sketching-ground of several great seventeenth-century artists, notably Gaspard Dughet (1615-75) (Solkin, p.161). Even so, the relatively simple composition of the present picture, concentrating upon the ruin in the foreground at the expense of a broader vista, does not adopt the customary format of seventeenth-century classical landscapes that Wilson reserved for his larger, more ambitious, canvases.
As Solkin has affirmed, Hadrian's Villa is not a mere topographical vignette, Wilson's picture being 'a variation on one of his favourite themes - that of "sic transit gloria", a statement concerning the tragic collapse of a once mighty Empire' (Solkin, p.217). Wilson appears to have quite deliberately focussed upon the ruins of the villa in order to contrast its venerable history with its current state of dilapidation, it having been used by the local population as the foundation for a humble cottage dwelling. The rickety wooden fence above the arch strewn with washing highlights this point.
Versions of Hadrian's Villa and Maecenas' Villa, Tivoli may have been the same pictures exhibited by Wilson at the Society of Artists as 'A small landscape with a ruin'and 'Ditto; its companion'. Certainly, there is no doubt that these little pictures were very popular because Wilson repeated them over and again during the early to mid 1760s. Other artists, including John Constable (1776-1837) also copied them. In 1836 Constable acknowledged the importance of Wilson to his own art: 'To Wilson … may justly be given the praise of opening the way to genuine principles of landscape in England … He looked at nature entirely for himself (Hamlyn, p.66).
Sir Robert Vernon (1774-1849) acquired Hadrian's Villa and Maecenas' Villa probably in 1835. At that time they were known respectively as 'An Italian Hut Built on the Ruins of a Roman Acquaduct' and 'Ruins of a Roman Bath'. Vernon presented both works to the National Gallery in 1847. They were subsequently transferred to the Tate Gallery.
W.G. Constable, Richard Wilson, London 1953, pp.200-2, plate 81a
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1982, pp.217-8
Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon's gift. British Art for the Nation 1847, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1993, p.66