How Ancient Romans Kept Their Cool


Outer Peristyle at the Getty Villa. Photo: Tahnee L. Cracchiola. © 2018 J. Paul Getty Trust

Airflow, water fountains, and shade.


By Julie Jaskol
Assistant Director, Media Relations
J. Paul Getty Museum


Dark green leaves flutter in the breeze; water splashes in a fountain; the shade deepens along a covered colonnade. It might be a hot day, but it feels like the temperature has fallen a few degrees.

That’s how a summer afternoon feels at the Getty Villa—and that’s how it might have felt to ancient Romans lucky enough to spend time at a Roman country house.

During the first century, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote a 10-volume treatise on architecture. De Architectura covered in detail the materials, colors, proper exposures to signs of the Zodiac, and other issues of concern when building a home.

He also examined the impact of climate: “In the north, houses should be entirely roofed over and shel­tered as much as possible, not in the open, though having a warm exposure,” he wrote in Book VI. “But on the other hand, where the force of the sun is great in the southern countries that suffer from heat, houses must be built more in the open and with a northern or north­eastern exposure. Thus we may amend by art what nature, if left to herself, would mar.”

He recommended the placement of different rooms for different seasons. “Summer dining rooms to the north, because that quarter is not, like the others, burning with heat during the solstice, for the reason that it is unexposed to the sun’s course, and hence it always keeps cool, and makes the use of the rooms both healthy and agreeable,” he advised.

The ancient architects of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, after which the Getty Villa is modeled, no doubt had similar aims, providing many of the cooling features that soothed Romans who escaped from the city to their country homes along the coast or in the hills that caught the breezes. And since coastal Southern California’s climate is similar to that of the Bay of Naples, the Villa benefits from those cooling strategies too.

Tav. XXIV, from La villa ercolanese dei Pisoni, 1972, Centro internazionale per lo studio dei papiri ercolanesi and Domenico Comparetti and Petruzzelli. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (85-B13214)

“The Romans were very attuned to the seasons, and those who could afford it would escape Rome, which was notoriously hot and stuffy in the summer, to their seaside villas,” said Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities.

Senior Education Specialist Shelby Brown said an ocean view would have been a plus: “Special spots for viewing the coast were aspects of the coolest villas.”

If a far-off sea view was a luxury, the sight and sound of flowing water nearby was a necessity; every garden at the Getty Villa features pools and fountains.

Open walkways linked rooms and gardens. “The covered walkways of the Villa’s inner and outer peristyles provide shaded areas to walk and talk while looking at the greenery and cool water that rich Romans appreciated on hot days,” she said.

Long sight lines in ancient villas were not just pleasant; they helped control air flow. The Villa also adopts this cooling strategy. “The views from the front door of the Villa to the East Garden and from the Hercules gallery to the end of the Outer Peristyle are not only impressive but useful,” said Brown.

Many Southern Californians take for granted the advantages of “indoor-outdoor living,” but it was an integral part of ancient Roman Villa design. “Folding doors would open certain rooms onto gardens or colonnades that were open to the breeze,” said Lapatin. Shades opened up to luxuriant green gardens and fountains with flowing water that not only cooled things down but also provided fresh fruit and produce, and the pools and fountains could be used for raising fish and seafood—or for swimming.

“Really wealthy Romans could transport ice from the mountains in the winter and store it underground, both to keep drinks and luxuries like shellfish cool in the summer, and as a luxurious, evanescent topping for hors d’oeuvres,” said Lapatin.

This summer, due to the pandemic, visitors are not at the Villa to enjoy the cool breezes and an icy drink, or marvel at the ingenuity of first-century designers. We miss you, and hope you’re staying cool—and healthy—wherever you are.

But, it turns out, those first-century designers also had solutions for warding off chill. So when the days get shorter, and we are able to welcome back visitors, we look forward to sharing how the Romans invented central heating…


Originally published by The Iris, 09.03.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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