Via Tiburtina enters Tivoli from the southwest, snaking up the hill until it arrives at the last shallow curve of Vialle Nicolo Arnaldi. V.lle Arnaldi disappears into Vialle Garibaldi. On the left (to the north) as you enter V.lle Garibaldi is Parco or Giardino Garibaldi, from which, on clear days, you can see Rome to the west and all the way to the Mediterranean if you peer back along the length of the parapet, a little to the south of west. Evenings are great in the park, because you can have an unobstructed view over Rome to the sunset over the sea, but it's usually seen only by locals: most tourists are day-trippers out of Rome.
On the right and up a street from V.lle Garibaldi is the Rocca Pia, an impressive fortress built by Pope Pius II around 1460 on the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. Pius II was Enea Silvio de' Piccolomini, and he came after Calixtus III Borgia. Tivoli was loyal to the Borgias, and Pius II needed a big fortress to impose his authority. Borgia power was eventually reinstated when the d'Este family got the Tivoli Cardinal's hat and built their famous villa. More later.
V.lle Garibaldi continues into Largo Garibaldi, and diagonally across the Largo is Via Boselli, a really short street lined with stalls hawking all of the kinds of touristy wares you can find anywhere in town. You'll get almost as good a price here as anywhere, so live it up -- but do it on the way out of the Villa so you won't have to carry your purchases all morning. Via Boselli, after only about 80 meters, feeds into Piazza Trento on which stands the Romanesque church of S. Maria Maggiore. The church has some fine old art by people we none of us have ever heard of.
Just to the right of S. Maria Maggiore is the present entrance to the Villa d Este, celebrated for its remarkable gardens decorated with spectacular fountains. These were created by Pirro Ligorio for Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este (1509-72), the son of Lucrezia Borgia and Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara. Ippolito was a rich Renaissance prince, a collector and patron of the arts, and a friend and patron of authors Ariosto, Tasso, the sculptor and autobiographer Benvenuto Cellini, and the musician Pierluigi da Palestrina. Ippolito inherited his patronistic bent and love of the arts from his mother, Lucrezia, who by all reliable accounts was a charming hostess and all around nice lady. Rumors and accusations spread about her by enemies of the Borgias during her lifetime and by more modern enemies of the Catholic church all appear to be grossly and purposefully false -- no poison, no plots, no incest, no more than normal debauchery. Similar stories about the male Borgias, including her father, Pope Alexander VI (Roderigo Borgia), and her brother Caesar Borgia, the model for Macchiavelli's Prince, however, were true -- except for the stories of incest with Lucrezia.
The property that became the Villa d'Este had been a Benedictine convent and, perhaps before that, a Franciscan monastery, but it had already been confiscated by the Papacy as a residence for the governors of Tivoli before the d'Este family took over the governorate. The monastery/convent itself had been built on the ruins of at least two Roman villas, which had long before occupied the site.
When Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este became governor in 1550, he commissioned Pirro Ligorio, an architect, writer, and expert on Roman antiquities, to transform the convent into a sumptuous villa. A whole district of the town below the convent was leveled and the hillside was cut back, broadly terraced, and buttressed to provide space and a stable platform for the gardens. An underground conduit was constructed from the Aniene to increase the water supply. Modern architects have speculated that the use of water as the main theme of the gardens may have been inspired by Hadrian's Villa, and the plan was perhaps based on a series of terraces similar to the terraces of the Temple of Fortuna at Palestrina. Pirro Ligorio's records indicate that he was familiar with both sites.
The work had not been completed by the time of Cardinal Ippolito's death in 1572, and it was continued by his successor Cardinal Luigi d'Este who employed Flaminio Ponzio after 1585. In the 17th century numerous additions and restorations were carried out for Cardinal Alessandro d'Este and, by Gain Lorenz Bernini, for Cardinal Renaldo d'Este. (This was, obviously, a dynastic Cardinalate.) During the 19th century, the villa and gardens were neglected and all the previously collected Roman statues that decorated the house itself were sold. The estate eventually passed by bequest to the ruling Austrian Hapsburgs: Beatrice d'Este, the last d'Este owner, had married Ferdinand of Habsburg in one of many intermarriages between the two families. (For the history of the d'Este family including its dynastic marriages, go to http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/1/0,5716,33651+1,00.html.)
During this Austrian interlude, the top floor of the Villa was the Italian home of Franz Liszt (from l865 until his death in 1886), and it served as his base for European performance tours. While there, he composed the third book of his Annees de Pelerinage, in which was one of his most popular pieces, 'Les Jeux d'Eau a la Villa d'Este'.
In 1918 at the end of the First World War, the government of Italy recovered the Villa d'Este as a war prize and undertook a general restoration. A fine Roman mosaic pavement was found beneath the villa in 1983. The gardens and villa were again restored and the waters of the Aniene, which feed the d'Este garden fountains, were cleaned in 2000.
The current entrance to the Villa was originally the Villa's back door, a servant's entrance, that that gives access through a corridor into a 1567 courtyard occupying the space that once was the cloister of the convent. The Fountain of Venus in the courtyard incorporates a Roman Venus. Off the courtyard is the Appartamento Vecchio with frescoes by Livio Agresti (closed indefinitely). A staircase descends to the ground floor, but use the rest rooms before going down -- there are none below. The Appartamento Nobile, a fine series of rooms off a long corridor and overlooking the gardens, fills the ground floor. The largest room on this floor is the Salone with the Fontana di Tivoli, a wall fountain in mosaic begun by Curzio Maccarone and completed in 1568 by Paolo Calandrino. The frescoes are by the school of Gerolamo Muziano and Federico Zuccari. On the walls are views of the garden painted by Matteo Neroni in 1568. The Loggia (the grand external staircase) Ieads down from this room to the gardens. The two rooms behind the Fountain were decorated by Cesare Nebbia and assistants and the rooms on the other side of the Salone have frescoes by Federico Zuccari and assistants. Beyond the Sala della Caccia, with undistinguished 17th century frescoes of hunting scenes, a spiral staircase descends to the gardens (which can also be reached from the Loggia off the Salone).
The main facade of the villa, its
original front entrance overlooking the gardens, has that elegant loggia
(1567). The gardens are laid out on terraces, which descend from the villa
and are connected by steps and paths. The original vegetation (which included
plane trees and elms) was altered when evergreen trees (ilexes, pines and cypresses were introduced in the 17th century and sequoia and cedars were planted in the 19th. The terrace along the front of the palace is called the Passeggiata del Cardinale with a balcony on which is a pretty fountain basin. Beneath it is a lower loggia with a mosaic vault and, on a lower Ievel, the Fontana del Bicchierone (Fountain of the Goblet) which was added in 1661 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
A path descends to a lower walk at the far Ieft end of which is the Grotto of Diana, with Mannerist decorations in stucco, mosaic, colored glass, and shells by Lola and Paolo Calandrino. Steps descend from here to the elaborate Fontana di Roma or Rometta designed by Pirro Ligorio and executed by Curzio Maccarone. This has a model of the Tiber River with an islet (representing the Isola Tiberina in the form of a boat on which stands an obelisk. Behind the boat/island are a seated statue of Rome, with the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus and miniature reproductions of the principle buildings of ancient Rome.
From this fountain the Viale delle Cento Fontana Ieads right across the garden. parallel to the villa. It is skirted by a long narrow basin lined with hundreds of jets of' water, surmounted by a frieze of obelisks, models of boats, d'Este eagles, and lilies of France. Below, overgrown with moss and ferns are water spouts in the shape of animal heads. At the far end is the grandiose Fontana di Tivoli (yes, the same name as the one inside) also known as dell'Ovato by Pirro Ligorio with the end of the conduit from the Aniene River, one of the major water supplies for all the fountains, which descends in an abundant cascade. In the hemicycle of the fountain are statues of nymphs by Giovanni Batista della Porta. Above, in a laurel grove on the steep hillside, is the Fontana di Pegaso (Pegasus). On the right of the hemicycle are the Grotta di Venere and the very ruined rustic fountain of Bacchus.
On a lower level, still against the eastern perimeter wall of the gardens is the monumental Fontana dell'Organo, which was built around a water-operated organ (1568) in the center of the niche (later protected by a small temple-like structure.) This remains one of the most famous features of the gardens. Even though the organ mechanism was destroyed in the 18th century and only the outer shell survives, with only a little imagination you can still hear baroque organ concerti while studying the fountain.
Below the organ fountain is the Fontana di Nettuno with high jets of water that were added in 1927. And in front of the Neptune fountain are three peschiere or fish ponds.
In the center of the lowest terrace is thc Rotonda dei Cipressi surrounded by some if Italy's most venerable and mighty cypress trees, three of which were already in place in the 17th century. Beyond is the Fontana della Madre Natura with box and laurel hedges and a bizarre multi-breasted statue of the Ephesian Diana. If you look back up toward the Villa from the Cypress Rotunda you will see a broad central path between two of the fish ponds and up to another terrace with the Fontana del Drago, built by Pirro Ligorio, possibly in homage to a guest at the villa in 1572, Pope Gregory XIII, whose coat of arms featured similar dragons.
The Viale del Drago leads past the
Scalla dei Bollori (1567), which has seldom-operating water staircases
on both sides and then to the Fontana della Civetta (begun by Giovanni
del Duca in 1565 and finished by Raffaello Sangallo in 1569), which once
produced birdsong interrupted by an occasional screech of an owl (the Civetta).
Nearby is the Fontana di Prosperina/Persephone (1570) with seats for an
outside dining room, and the edge of the railed terrace below, near the
simple fountain of Ariadne offers breathtaking views of the valley below.