If you’d like to live like a Roman emperor (and really, who wouldn’t?), living in a villa once occupied by an actual Roman emperor might be a good place to start. As luck would have it, just such a villa hit the market a few weeks ago. Called Castiglione, it’s one of twelve villas on the Italian island of Capri built for Tiberius, second emperor of Rome early in the first century AD. The asking price, a mere 45.5 million dollars, includes the 6,921 square-foot fortified villa, a swimming pool overlooking the Mediterranean, a 9.8-acre terraced garden, and slave, er “staff” quarters.
You might be surprised that Castiglione isn’t a museum or a protected monument, given the structure’s cultural and archaeological significance. But as far as I can tell, no one has ever advocated preserving Castiglione as a heritage site. There are a number of good reasons for this, but the greatest contributing factor may be that cultural heritage – the idea that certain places are of such historical and cultural importance that they should be preserved and made accessible to the public – didn’t become popular until the 20th century. And in Europe, where a continuous cultural tradition stretches back thousands of years, many historically significant places like Castiglione remain privately owned simply because they’ve always been privately owned.
The sales listing for Castiglione refers to the villa as “one of the twelve villas of Tiberius” but, to be fair, not much of Tiberius’ original villa remains. It isn’t clear when the villa was abandoned, but at some point between Tiberius’ death and the fall of Rome it was left at the mercy of the elements. By the Middle Ages, the villa had gone the way of indoor plumbing and literacy in Europe – very little of it remained. Centuries of neglect reduced the once-opulent structure to a few crumbling walls and battered marble floors. Adding insult to injury, the site was thoroughly looted by a series of enterprising, medieval treasure hunters. Even the marble floors were eventually sold off to be used in the construction of royal palaces elsewhere in Europe.
Sometime around the year 1000, a small castle was built on top of the original villa ruins. In 1283 Charles of Anjou, a French noble who managed to become King of Naples through an improbable combination of papal grant and military conquest, restored and reinforced the castle. Perched atop a limestone crag overlooking the town of Capri and the Gulf of Naples, the castle remained an important military outpost in later centuries. The British occupied Capri in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars and used the castle in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to defend the island against Murat and his French and Neapolitan troops. The castle was damaged during the battle and was later abandoned. By 1950, when it was purchased by an Italian duke, it had once again fallen into ruin. The duke, who at the time seemed to be more interested in the property’s killer sea views than its history, restored the castle walls and built the modern residence within them that is for sale today.
If someone were to begin the process of designating Castiglione a piece of cultural heritage and preserving it for future generations, they would face a great deal of uncertainty. Who’s to say future generations will value the villa in the same way we do? And what would Tiberius think of all this? Would he want his villa preserved as a monument, or would he rather it continue to be used for its original purpose: as an extravagant private residence? Does it even matter what Tiberius would have wanted? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but these are the sorts of things people consider before conferring protected status on a place.
There’s also the question of resources. Castiglione is one of twelve Tiberian villas concentrated within Capri’s 4-square-mile land mass. There’s only so much money, time, and effort set aside for the preservation of cultural heritage, and in situations like this, governmental and private organizations must use the resources available to them to the greatest effect. It’s not hard to see how Castiglione, a 45-million-dollar mansion, could have escaped consideration as a heritage site.
Several of Capri’s other Tiberian villas remain ruins and are protected and open to the public. The largest and best-preserved of these ruins is Villa Jovis, which is thought to have been Tiberius’ primary residence on the island. Archaeologists excavated the site in the early 20th century, and the villa ruins have been open to the public since 1937. Unlike most of the island’s Tiberian villas, Villa Jovis wasn’t completely covered over with layers of later construction. So if the goal is to preserve structures from the time of Tiberius, the ruins of Villa Jovis offer a more complete picture of an original Tiberian villa than Castiglione, which more closely resembles a heavily modified, 13th-century castle. Of course, the choice to preserve structures and sites associated with the Roman Empire is deeply subjective, and in a broader sense, the places we designate cultural heritage sites say something about which parts of our history we value most.
History has conspired to make Castiglione a private residence. This means that the property, which has been home to a Roman emperor, a strategic fortification, and a battlefield, among many other things over the last 2000 years, is now owned and maintained by a single person. If I were this person, I would feel a crushing sense of responsibility to maintain the property and honor the history of the place. Tiberius is remembered as a stereotypical, hard-partying-binging-and-