Imagine a garden that tumbles down an entire hillside. With terraces, fountains and waterfalls, and sweeping views of the Roman countryside. This is the Villa d’Este, a grand country residence not far from Rome, with what is perhaps the most famous garden in Italy.
The Historic Villas Of Tivoli
Since classical times Tivoli has been a favoured summer retreat for people wishing to escape the heat of the city. Nestling in the Tiburtine hills, around 30 km from Rome, this was where many prominent Roman citizens, including the Emperor Hadrian and the poet Horace, chose to build their villas.
The town remained popular in later centuries and new villas continued to be built until the nineteenth century. Today the area continues to appeal to tourists, drawn by the medieval streets and historic villas of Tivoli. The thermal waters beneath the town, where it is still possible to bathe, are an added attraction.
The Fashionable Villa d’Este
The Villa d’Este is in the centre of Tivoli and stands in a corner of the Piazza Trento. The exterior is modest and gives no indication that the house leads on to the most famous garden in Italy, a hillside extravaganza with a series of water features.
The house was built on the site of an old convent as a country retreat for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este (son of Lucrezia Borgia) in 1550. Although the villa and its gardens later fell into neglect it became fashionable again in the nineteenth century, attracting visitors such as Franz Liszt who lived here for the last year of his life. Liszt’s piano composition Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este was inspired by the gardens, and he gave one of his final concerts here.
A Grand Interior
Although the gardens are the main attraction, the villa itself is worth more than a cursory glance. You enter via a courtyard which was once the convent cloister, decorated with statues, columns and arches. The central feature of the courtyard is the Fountain of Venus, with a 4th century sculpture of the goddess.
The interior rooms are richly decorated with frescoed walls and ceilings. Look for mythological themes, Biblical subjects and classical landscapes. The house also occasionally hosts temporary exhibitions.
The Gardens Of The Villa D’Este
Emerging from the back of the house you come to the first of four terraces on the hillside, linked by long flights of steps. From here you get your first sight of the garden, with its water features, statues and panoramic views.
You may detect a classical feel to this garden. This is not surprising: the Villa d’Este was built at around the same time that the nearby Villa Adriana was being excavated and large amounts of marble, mosaics and statues found their way to the new building…
LivItaly have a whole range of small group tours throughout Italy. Readers of this site can get a 5% discount on all of their tours by using discount code BEWITCHEDBYITALY
Fountains And Water Features
The many famous sights in the gardens include the following
- Viale delle cento fontane (Avenue of 100 fountains), a long path with water gushing out of fantastical stone heads
- Fontana della Rometta, a miniature representation of Rome landmarks
- Fontana dell’organo idraulico (Organ fountain), with a hydraulic system that enables it to play music!
- Fontana dei draghi (Fountain of the dragons), built in honour of Pope Gregory XIII whose insignia included a dragon.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Villa d’Este was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. This was because it is regarded as an outstanding example of Renaissance culture, and also because of its influence on European garden design. (Read more about the World Heritage Sites of the Lazio region.)
How To Visit The Villa D’Este
- Tivoli can be reached from Rome by car or train (from Tiburtina station or, less frequently, from Roma Termini). The Villa d’Este is around 1 km from the railway station
- The site is partially accessible, with a lift from the villa to the garden
- The Villa d’Este is normally closed on Mondays
- If you are planning also to visit the Villa Adriana and the Santuario di Ercole Vincitore you may find it cheaper to purchase a combined ticket for all three sites.
- If you’re travelling from Rome you could take a small group tour with LivItaly – this also includes a visit to the Villa Adriana. (If you’re booking this tour don’t forget to use discount code BEWITCHEDBYITALY for a 5% discount.)