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Adam Caruso on Memoirs of Hadrian
11 March, 2021
My cousin Perla gave me Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, I think after a not so easy trip we took together to a freezing Rome over New Year’s. We also visited Hadrian’s Villa, which is one of her favourite places. Although I have been to the villa a couple of times, I remember it as a place that intrigued me, more than moved me – the idea being stronger than the reality of the place for me. For a while it was the same with the book which sat on my shelf, unread. Eventually I picked it up, and the difficulty had disappeared. I cannot think about the book without thinking about the villa, or at least what people say about the villa, that it is a kind of built atlas constructed by the emperor to remind him of, and evoke the emotions from his wandering life defending the empire. It’s a monument to events and relationships that with time were relegated to an inaccessible past. I know that the book is not about architecture, and that it is not so unusual for writing to draw upon pathos. It is more unusual to build through loss and regret. What stays with me most powerfully from the book is the overwhelming sadness, perhaps natural for the memoirs of someone at the end of their life, but also its caution against vanity and worldly power; that even for a Roman emperor, this didn’t amount to much. I wonder if it is this caution towards hubris that makes this book so popular with architects and artists?