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If you ever happen to find yourself in Rome for any more than a few days, and don't make the effort to see Villa D'Este then you may well end up kicking yourself. Why? Because Villa D'Este is a world class renaissance garden, and a UNESCO world heritage site to boot!

Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este,
Situated, and well sign-posted in the ancient town of Tivoli, it is only an hours train ride from the terminus station in Rome. 

From arriving at Tivoli station it is then only a 10-15 minutes walk to reach Villa D'este.

The villa itself is surrounded on three sides by a sixteenth-century courtyard, and sited on the former Benedictine cloister.

Unfortunately, walking through the villa itself - although large - is particularly sparse, and could definitely learn a few lessons from that darling of British institutions - the National Trust.

Be that as it may, this disappointment was of no consequence as the gardens are so fantastical that even a top end renaissance villa would struggle to compete.

The Villa d'Este was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, son of Alfonso I d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia, and grandson of Pope Alexander VI.

From an early age it appeared that Ippolito was going to lead a charmed life. He became a bishop at the age of just two, arch-bishop at ten and made cardinal by the age of thirty.

Coming from such a powerful family it seemed that his destiny to become pope was assured.  

Tiled wall plaque
However, he was defeated to this position by Julius III who effectively exiled d'Este by appointing him Governor of Tivoli, with the gift of the existing villa.

This proved to be a ruthless tactic as Italian law stated that a governor could not leave his province. 

The situation was clear, from his hill top villa, Cardinal d'Este could see Rome, but could not physically go there.

For the remaining twenty years of his life, Cardinal d'Este, lived out his frustrated ambitions and dreams in Tivoli. 

He expressed his wealth and power in the only way that was left to him. If he wasn't able to get to Rome then he would bring the splendor of Rome to Tivoli.

The gardens at Villa d'Este

A cornucopia
From 1550 until his death in 1572, Cardinal d'Este created a palatial setting surrounded by a spectacular terraced garden in the late-Renaissance mannerist style.

 He took full advantage of the dramatic slope the grounds offered, but required substantial innovation. 

In order to bring in a sufficient water supply, which was employed in cascades, water tanks, troughs and pools, water jets and fountains, giochi d'acqua, half the water from the nearby Aniene river was diverted through the villa.

The result is one of the series of great 17th century villas with water-play structures in the hills surrounding the Roman Campagna, such as the Villa Lante, the Villa Farnese at Caprarola and the Villas Aldobrandini and Torlonia in Frascati. 

Their garden planning and their water features were imitated in the next two centuries from Portugal to Poland.

Fountain of the hounds
Drawing inspiration - and many statues and much of the marble - from the nearby Villa Adriana, Cardinal d'Este revived Roman techniques of hydraulic engineering to supply water to a sequence of spectacular fountains.

Its architectural elements and water features had an enormous influence on European landscape design.

Pirro Ligorio, who worked out in the villa's frescos, and  Tommaso Chiruchi of Bologna, - one of the most skilled hydraulic engineers of the sixteenth century were also commissioned to lay out the gardens for the villa.

They were assisted in the technical designs for the fountains by a Frenchman, Claude Venard, who was a manufacturer of hydraulic organs.

The garden plan is laid out on a central axis with subsidiary cross-axes, refreshed by some five hundred jets in fountains, pools and water troughs.

Little Rome
 The water is supplied by the Aniene river which is partly diverted through the town, a distance of a kilometer, and by the Rivellese spring, which supplies a cistern under the villa's courtyard.

The garden is now part of the Grandi Giardini Italiani.

The Villa's uppermost terrace ends in a balustrade balcony at the left end, with a sweeping view over the plain below. 

A symmetrical double flights of stairs flank the central axis and lead to the next garden terrace. 

The Grotto of Diana, richly decorated with frescoes and pebble mosaic to one side and the central Fontana del Bicchierone ("Fountain of the Great Cup") loosely attributed to Bernini, where water issues from a seemingly natural rock into a scrolling shell-like cup.

The Hundred fountains
To descend to the next level, there are stairs at either end — the elaborate fountain complex called the Rometta ("the little Rome") is at the far left — to view the full length of the Hundred Fountains on the next level, where the water jets fill the long rustic trough, and Pirro Ligorio's Fontana dell'Ovato ends the cross-vista.

You can walk behind the water through the rusticated arcade of the concave nymphaeum, which is peopled by marble nymphas by Giambattista della Porta.

Above the nymphaeum, the sculpture of Pegasus recalls to the visitor the fountain of Hippocrene on Parnassus, haunt of the Muses.

 Le Cento Fontane, is better known to us as The Hundred Fountains. This terrace is united to the next by the central Fountain of the Dragons, dominating the central perspective of the gardens, erected for a visit in 1572 of Pope Gregory XIII whose coat-of-arms features a dragon. Central stairs lead down a wooded slope to three rectangular fishponds set on the cross-axis at the lowest point of the gardens, terminated at the right by the water organ and Fountain of Neptune.

Life after Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este

Cardinal Alessandro d'Este repaired and extended the gardens from 1605.

In the eighteenth century the villa and its gardens passed to the House of Habsburg after Ercole III d'Este bequeathed it to his daughter Maria Beatrice. Sadly, both the villa and its gardens were neglected.

The hydraulics fell into disuse, and many of the sculptures commissioned by Ippolito d'Este were scattered to other sites.

Villa d'Este was purchased for the Italian State after World War I, restored, and refurnished with paintings from the storerooms of the Galleria Nazionale, Rome.

Visited by me in early 2012 - loved it.

For related articles click onto:
How to get to Sorrento from Naples International Airport?
How to get to Villa d'Este from Rome
ITALIAN HISTORY: Who was Christopher Columbus?
ITALIAN HISTORY: Who was Julius Caesar?
ITALY: Rome Pictures
ITALY: What is Pompeii?
ITALY: Where is Pompei?
MARRAKECH: Marjorelle Gardens
ROME: Villa d'Este
ROME: What was a Gladiator?
ROMAN HISTORY: What did the Romans Eat?
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