Villa d’Este in Tivoli

The Villa d’Este  is  a stunning Renaissance palace and garden set in the little town of Tivoli some 20 miles away from Rome.

Tivoli was the  ancient Latin city of Tibur which by  the  4th century b.C.  fell under the Roman control. Surrounded by a lush countryside and abounding in  water streams the Tivoli area was  soon chosen by many wealthy  roman families  as the place for their villeggiatura (holidays ). Emperor Hadrian  built here his magnificent residence  away from Rome’s intriguing politics, and where he could practice his favourite sport: hunting.

Today before arriving to Tivoli and driving through an unattractive countryside dotted with ugly industrial buildings we are tempted to think “where  the heck am I going ?” but the doubts are soon dissolved when we arrive at villa d’Este. Unfortunately Tivoli suffered hard bombing during World War II  so some of the town architecture was hastily rebuilt  at the end of the war. Also the idyllic  Campagna Romana (Roman countryside) as narrated by the 18th/19th century  writers and painters does not exist anymore: erased  and violated by modern industrialization.

Once we cross the gate of Villa d’Este is like entering in a different world or century especially after the recent restorations.

fountain of the dragons

This Villa is the brainchild of the cardinal Ippolito II d’Este and his architect Pirro Ligorio.

The Cardinal d’Este was the son of the duke Alfonso I of Ferrara and  Lucrezia Borgia (the pope’s daughter ). He was one of the richest men of his age driven by an overpowering desire to succeed to the papal throne which he never did.

In 1550 he was appointed by pope Julius III as Governor of the hill town of Tivoli. Many would have despised such an assignement but the cardinal d’Este found the climate of Tivoli particularly salubrious and  the territory also offered him the opportunity of satisfying his passion for antiquities since the area in his control  was littered with ancient roman ruins.

The governor’s palace at Tivoli  consisted of an old medieval benedictine  monastery attached to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The cardinal, being a very refined man, could never accept such a modest dwelling and this is why he spent 22 years in refashioning the palace and creating his own garden of Eden.

Pirro Ligorio was probably the architect who inspired the whole project to which participated a large number of artists, gardeners, craftsmen,   painters and sculptors.

An enourmous quantity of water was needed for all the fountains so two acqueducts were to built to ensure enough water supply.

250 water jets, 50 fountains, 100 basins, 35.000 sq.metres of gardens: these are some of the impressive numbers of Villa d’Este.

Visitors enter nowadays  through the former side entrance  of the villa.  After the ticket office you’ll find yourself in a large courtyard with a small fountain of Venus.

The palace is on two levels: the level of the courtyard is where the private quarters of the cardinal where; below was the Appartamento Nobile where the guests would arrive from the garden.

Furniture pieces and scuptures  are all long gone. The wall and ceiling  decoration instead is still visible and particularly interesting is the one of the appartamento Nobile which was carried out by artists such as Girolamo Muziano, Livio Agresti e Cesare Nebbia . In the  1980’s during the floor renovation of the rooms some mosaics of a roman villa  on which the medieval convent had been built were found and now are visible through a plexiglas floor.The main Salone was the dining hall, on the ceiling Federico Zuccari painted the Banquet of the Gods where  the trompe l’oeil columnade   on the vault  and the  the side walls fake views of the villa and  other cardinal’s properties all contribute to the illusion of being in an open loggia.

Exiting the dining hall is a loggia with a panoramic view of the villa, just descend the loggia steps and the visit of the  garden will begin.

In the past the cardinal’s guests would arrive from the entrance located at the foot of the hill and then slowly they would climb up so to gradually enjoy the delights of the garden.

The extreme symmetry of the garden plan  is typical  of Renaissance Italian gardens: a series of  terraces run up the hill along  a central axis.

Here water was moulded  to express a variety of  visual forms, but it was also controlled to convey a variety of sounds.

Just choose the itinerary you prefer, take one of the many alleys that run perpendicularly, simply enjoy the delights of  this garden and abandon all  worries : the fountain of the Ovato is one of the most spectacular with its roaring waterfall and the oval basin and certainly it refers to the Tivoli territory. From this fountain, one of the earliest, water is conveyed to  many other fountains of the villa.

Fountain of the Organ, it originally housed and hydraulic organ now completely rebuilt which plays late renaissance music! Normally concerts are every two hours (check times at the ticket office).

Alley of one hundred fountains: a long  basin with three levels of water jets, the moss and vegetation growing on the stucco panels have  left very little of the former stuccoed bas relief decoration, but they certainly add a picturesque patina .

The fountain of the Rometta is a symbolic reproduction of the antiquities of Rome.

fountain of the Rometta

The fountain of the Owl,   had once twenty little bronze birds tweeting but  suddenly an  owl would arrive and scare the little birds which would cease singing . The birds tweet was created by a complex hydraulic  mechanism. The original decoration is all lost now  and instead is a modern reconstruction.

The Peschiere are  three large pools some 12 ft deep which  were built to house fish and fowl

The fountain of the Neptune is probably the largest and most spectacular though it was created in XXth century only by remodelling  the former Bernini’s Waterfall.

A visit to Villa d’Este can surely be satisfying, especially in the summer when it gets sweltering in Rome. The only drawback  being there’s only one exit so once you arrive at the bottom of the villa you will have to work your way up again, but you will agree it was really worth it!

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