Italian culture and history: Villa d'Este. A Triumph of the Baroque
- WTI Magazine #130 Aug 22, 2020
The magnificent Villa d'Este in Tivoli is one of Italy's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Just a brief train ride from Rome, Villa d'Este was originally commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (Governor of Tivoli in 1550). The Cardinal, disappointed that he was not elected pontiff, wished to bring to Villa d’Este the luxury of the Ferrarese, Roman and French Courts and, above all, to match the luxury found in Hadrian's Villa.
Villa d'Este's concentration of fountains and grottoes represented a model emulated in gardens throughout Europe, specifically those done in the Mannerist and Baroque styles. The most noteworthy garden in this regard is that of the Royal Palace of Caserta, near Naples.
Of particular interest are the rooms on the piano nobile – nobles' floor – decorated and painted by a large group of Roman artists of the late Mannerist school, among the most famous of whom were Livio Agresti and Federico Zuccari.
What stands out most at the Villa is, of course, the marvelous garden, conceived by the painter and architect Pirro Ligorio, and constructed and landscaped by the Court architect Alberto Galvani with the help of countless artists and artisans.
After its most splendid period, the Villa fell into a state of abandon sometime between the 18th and 19th Centuries; it was only around the 1850s that, thanks to a masterly restoration, the Villa returned to its original glory. From that point, several important artists were guests at the Villa, including the musician Franz Liszt, who composed "Water Games at Villa d'Este", and held one of his last concerts there (1877 and 1879, respectively).
Restoration works and maintenance have continued up until the present day, and Villa d’Este and its garden are some of the most visited sites today.
Defined by terraces, staircases, and grand slopes and promenades, the garden evokes the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, while the water transport system, with an aqueduct and a tunnel under the city, resembles the highly-advanced engineering of the Romans.
The 100 Fountains lining the longest promenade also make a strong impact on the scenography, and no doubt contributed to the gardens’ turns as the background for several films – such as the banquet scene in William Wyler’s "Ben Hur".
To the left of the promenade is the Fontana dell’Ovato, the most Baroque fountain here, endowed with the extraordinary visual effect produced its rocks, massive ornamentation and the streams of water representing the three Rivers flowing from the Tiburtine Hills: the Aniene, Erculaneo and Albuneo. In Antiquity, water from the Aniene flowed to the fountain, transported via canal.
Looking from the villa, one can see the Grotta di Diana (Diana’s Cave) on the left, elaborately decorated on the exterior. Originally, statues were kept on the interior, including one of Diana the Huntress, but they were later acquired by Pope Benedict XIV, who had them transferred to the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
Below the three-level promenade of the 100 Fountains is the Fountain of the Dragons, that, due to its central position, is in the heart of the garden.
Legend holds that the fountain was completed in only one night, in September, 1572, as an homage to Pope Gregory (Boncompagni) XIII, who was a guest at the Villa and whose family crest contained winged dragons.
In the lower part of the garden resides the Rotonda dei Cipressi, a rounded piazza with giant, centuries-old cypress trees.
Finally, the most impressive and imposing fountain is Fountain of Neptune, realized by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (later restored in the 20th Century).
The fountain's beauty made it a prime example that was copied by numerous artists and architects during the 1700s.
Below it, three small, reflective fishing ponds complete the scenery already blessed by the Neptune, while above stands the Fontana dell'Organo, named for a mechanism inside the fountain that, by means of water, creates notes similar to that of an organ – this effect can still be heard by visitors today.
To learn more, explore the history of Villa d'Este in our itinerary