Tivoli Gardens Travel Guide
The Villa d’Este and its famous Tivoli Gardens is located in the Piazza Trento, in the Italian region of Lazio, adjacent to the town of Tivoli, and a mere 34 km east of Rome. It is lauded as the finest example and a masterpiece of renaissance Italian gardens in the mannerist and baroque styles, and in 2001, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Villa and its gardens as we know it now are actually the work of two cardinals, the first of which was Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. He was the son of Lucrezia Borgia and the grandson of Pope Alexander VI, and after failing to be elected pope in 1550, he was instead appointed governor of Tivoli by Pope Julius III. Unfortunately, he felt that the governor’s residence, which happened to be a section of a Franciscan monastery, was severely lacking for someone of his status, and he then set out to create a villa and garden suited for “one of the wealthiest ecclesiastics of the sixteenth century” (himself).
The work for Villa d’Este was immediately started, and he hired the painter-architect-archeologist Pirro Ligorio, who ended up working seventeen years designing the garden, and court architect Alberto Galvani. Meanwhile, Thomaso Chiruchi worked on the hydraulics, while the famous manufacturer of hydraulic organs from Burgundy, Claude Venard, worked on the Villa d’Este’s most spectacular achievement which is the Fountain of the Hydraulic Organ, or the Fontana dell’Organo Idraulico. As for the villa itself, its rooms were decorated by famous artists such as Livio Agresti, Federico Zuccari, Durante Alberti, Girolamo Muziano, Cesare Nebbia and Antonio Tempesta. Unfortunately, Cardinal Ippolito never got to see his work completed as he died in 1572.
In 1605, Cardinal Alessandro d’Este resumed the work on the villa and gardens, restoring and repairing the waterworks and vegetation, as well as adding new features and decorations, and among those that were commissioned to work on this project was no less than the famous artist Gianlorenzo Bernini. Unfortunately, since that era, the estate has suffered several periods of abandonment and disrepair, but recent restoration efforts have been unimpeded and have been successful in bringing the estate back to its former glory.
Best of all, authorities have been able to restore and maintain the gardens and unique fountains that the villa is most famous for.
What to See
The main villa itself is a structure that is filled to the brim with beautiful artwork. It contains gorgeous frescoes and paintings on the walls, floors, and ceilings, and tons of intricate and stunning statues and carvings are just about everywhere. These works of art usually depict scenes from classical myths, particularly stories involving Hercules and his labors, and the Hesperides and the sleepless dragon who Hercules stole the Golden Apples from. The palace also contains magnificent fountains of its own, usually bearing Ippolito II d’Este’s heraldic symbols.
A beautiful combination of terraces and slopes, the garden’s layout follows a long central axis that is crossed by five other main axes. These axes join all the slopes harmoniously and allow visitors to smoothly transition from fountain to fountain when walking along its paths. Other than the main axes, narrower paths and lanes also criss-cross and wind throughout the area, all meant for long, cool, relaxing walks among the trees and flowers. As mentioned previously, this is also where the main fountains can be found.
Bicchierone Fountain: This fountain derives its name from the word for a large cup or drinking glass, as its lines represent a chalice held up by a sea shell. This fountain is attributed to Bernini.
Ovate Fountain/The Fountain of Tivoli: Named after the egg-like shape of its basin, the Ovate Fountain was designed by Pirro Logorio, though it was actually completed by other artists and sculptors such as Della Vellita, Curzio Maccarone, Giovanni Battista della Porta, and Giovanni Malanca. It is also called the Fountain of Tivoli as the upper part of the fountain represents the Tiburtin mountains, while the cascades represents the waterfalls of Tivoli. Other nearby natural landmarks such as mountain and rivers are then further represented in the sculpture as nymphs and other personalities from classical myths.
Rometta Fountain: One of the older fountains on the estate, it is another design by Pirro Logorio, that was later added to by Venturini after the fountain was partly destroyed at some point in its history. The fountain contains miniature representations of famous landmarks in Rome.
The Avenue of the Hundred Fountains: As the name suggests the Avenue of the Hundred Fountains is a main street inside the gardens that is lined with small water spouts that have been carved in various shapes that are embedded in a wall. These include lilies, eagles, obelisks, small boats, and so on. The water from these spouts and mini-fountains is caught in a narrow duct beneath it. In front of the wall of fountains are flower beds and trees, making this part of the gardens the most photographed and a particular favorite among tourists. The avenue is flanked on one end by the Ovate Fountain, and by the Rometta Fountain on the other.
Fountain of the Hydraulic Organ: The Fontana dell’Organo Idraulico was a marvel of hydraulics and engineering during its time. Possessing a clearly-baroque aesthetic, the fountain was also a thing of beauty as intricate carvings festooned every surface. Its true wonder, however, was the fact that at one point, the fountain played music on its own. This was thanks to a system of hydraulics that was developed and installed during its construction that allowed a central organ to be played mechanically, depending on the way water fell.
The Fountain of the Owl: Like the Fontana dell’Organo Idraulico, the Fountain of the Owl made use of clever engineering and hydraulics in order to create some spectacular effects. It had a series of bronze pipes which acted like flutes in order produce the twittering sounds for the artificial birds in the fountain, while similar hydraulics causes an owl to pop up and silence the noisy avians.
Fountain of Dragons: Dominating the central view of the gardens if the Fountain of Dragons. It was built in 1572 in preparation for a visit from Pope Gregory XIII whose coat-of-arms is that of a dragon.
Fountain of Diana
Fountain of Porsepina
Fountain of Neptune
The Fishing Ponds
There are three rectangular fishponds located at the lowest point of the gardens. It is flanked by the water organ on one side, and the Fountain of Neptune on the other. Though it no longer serves as a home for swans as it used to, it still has fish in them which visitors are free to feed.
Tips and Advice
- Tivoli is very easy to reach from Rome, and you can either do it by train by taking the Roma-Pescara line and get off at station Tivoli, or you can take a bus from the Ponte Mammolo station that will take you to the station in Tivoli, Largo Naziano Unite. From the bus station, it’s a two-minute walk to Villa d’Este, and all you’ll have to do is follow the chain of souvenir and merchant stalls.
- When visiting Villa d’Este, reservations are required, so be sure to purchase tickets early, or talk to your tour operator. Expect a lot of people in the area, especially in the summer, as many will be seeking respite from the heat and the garden is one of the best places to cool thanks to its location, greenery, and fountains.
- If you wish to also visit Hadrian’s Villa nearby, there is a local bus which shuttles visitors between the two sites, so watch out for that.
- You can choose to bring your own snacks and food in the gardens, though there is also a reasonably-priced cafeteria at the terrace levels which caters to tourists. You can also choose to exit the gardens and have a meal in the town of Tivoli.