Villa d’Este, with its stunning views and expansive gardens, has become a well-known site in the small town of Tivoli.
Located just 19 miles outside of Rome, this 16th century estate was commissioned by the Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, who was very interested in the works of the Renaissance. What resulted was a great series of gardens and impressive fountains to accompany the already perfectly located estate.
Read on to discover more about this popular day trip destination.
Tivoli has been a well-known location for a summer residence since ancient Rome, when emperor Hadrian built his private villa in the countryside. The Villa d’Este’s cooler location and views over the valley below (including Villa Adriana) were among the reasons that Cardinal Ippolito d’Este took over the location around 1550. The former Benedictine convent, built in the 9th century, then became the place for the large estate we see today.
Because of the Cardinal Ippolito’s other duties in and outside of Rome, constructing Villa d’Este took many years, from 1560 to 1586 with the death of Ippolito’s nephew, Cardinal Luigi. Once the initial gardens were completed, the extensive gardens started to decline because of their high maintenance costs and the lack of income they produced.
In the mid-19th century Cardinal Gustav von Hohenlohe brought the overgrown gardens back to their former beauty, this time designing the villa in the romantic style. He also invited artists, musicians and writers to create their respective works of art about the recently redone gardens.
After World War I, Villa d’Este was bought by the Italian State, who then added their own restoration projects in the 1920s.
These two villas, Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana, despite being built centuries apart have a few similarities in their design and building materials.
Pirro Lingorio, a classical scholar and designer of Villa d’Este, studied the Villa Adriana extensively to prepare his designs for Villa d’Este. Lingorio wanted his villa to exceed the ancient Roman design, along with anything else that the ancient Romans had built.
Another connection these villas share is the marble used in their designs. Once Lingorio had completed his design, much of the marble and statues used in Villa d’Este were sourced from the ruins of Villa Adriana. Villa d’Este, as well as other important churches and buildings in Tivoli, used the marble from Villa Adriana for their own works.
The over 500 fountains of Villa d’Este are undoubtedly the most prominent features in the villa, and they give the gardens their character. Below are just a few of the best known fountains in Villa d’Este, but they are all worth exploring.
The Fountain of the Organ, is one of the most recognizable fountains in Villa d’Este, was completed and installed in 1571. The French fountain engineer Luc Leclerc created this fountain to play music from the 22 pipes in the fountain, the first of its kind. Although the music was discontinued in the 18th century, in 2003 the fountain was updated with modern materials, and now music can be heard several times a day.
The Fountain of Neptune is located directly under the Fountain of the Organ, and is one of the more impressive fountains in the gardens. But this is not the original design. The first Fountain of Neptune was designed by Bernini in the 17th century, but after years of neglect, the fountain had to be redone. The fountain we see today was redone in the 1930s by Attilio Rossi, who kept the original cascading design, but adding the fountain’s powerful jets.
Another iconic fountain is Villa d’Este’s Hundred Fountains, which feature a wall of one hundred small fountains lining the walkway between the Oval Fountain and the Fountain of Rometta. Why one hundred small fountains? These were meant to represent the aqueducts that the ancient Romans built to bring water to Rome. These highly celebrated fountains of the Renaissance certainly showcase the abundance of water that flows through these gardens.
The Oval Fountain and its attached Grotto of Venus, is one of the first fountains that visitors come across in the gardens. This large fountain includes not only the broad basin and the round fountain, but also the artificial mountains and the statue of Venus at the top. The entire fountain and grotto took five years to complete, from 1565 to 1570, and has been a popular meeting place for visitors to Villa d’Este ever since.
The Fountain of the Dragons is another well-known fountain in the gardens, located at the original center for the gardens. The original design for this fountain was to show the story of Hercules stealing the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, with a dragon at its gate. But this design would never get past the designing stage. For the visit of Pope Gregory XIII in 1572, Cardinal Ippolito modified the design to have four dragons at the base, a symbol for the pope’s family. Later, a statue of Jupiter was placed where Hercules would have stood.
The villa itself, which includes the apartments of the Cardinal, also has a variety of elegant frescoed rooms, including the Hall of Hercules, Hall of Moses, Hall of Venus, and the Hall of the Hunt. Each room describes the stories of a specific ancient figure, through colorful frescoes on the walls and ceilings.
The inclusion of Hercules in these rooms is particularly interesting because of its connection to the Villa and the d’Este family. Hercules, from ancient times, was said to be the protector of the region that includes the villa. The other reason to include Hercules into Villa d’Este because the d’Este family claimed to be descended from the mythical hero.
A curious site found on the first floor of the apartments is an excavation site located under the floor of the First and Second Tiburtine Halls. As late as 1983, while the flooring was being redone in these rooms, a room belonging to a large Roman villa was discovered underneath, with its detailed mosaic flooring. Built above the Roman villa were parts of the Medieval convent that Villa d’Este now stands on today.
Tuesday - Sunday 8:30 am - 6:45 pm
Monday 2:00 pm - 6:45 pm
Keep in mind that the ticket office closes one hour before closing every day.
For those without a guide, the two most popular ways to get to Villa d’Este is either by bus or by train.
Travelling to Tivoli by train is another option, and the trip takes about an hour to arrive at the Tivoli train station. Trains depart for Tivoli about every hour from Termini, either by the FL2 regional train, or trains heading to Avezzano. From there, Villa d’Este is about a 15 minute walk from the station, and the way there is clearly marked with signs.
Taking the bus to Tivoli also takes about an hour, and makes several stops to the other major sites in the town. These buses leave about every 15 minutes from the Ponte Mammolo stop (blue metro line stop). Once in the town center, there is a shuttle bus service that can take you to the different sites in Tivoli, including Villa d’Este.
Although you can get to Villa d’Este by using public transport, the most hassle free way to get to Tivoli is by booking a guided tour. Walks Inside Rome offers Tivoli day trips, during the day or at twilight, that provide transport to these beautiful sites.
Other than Villa d’Este, Villa Adriana is the other best-known site to see in Tivoli. Built in the 2nd century AD, this archaeological site was once home to emperor Hadrian’s elaborate private villa, because he was unhappy with the palace on Rome’s Palatine Hill.
Villa Gregoriana is a site that was developed later than Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana, but it is still a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. This villa, commissioned by Pope Gregory XVI around 1834, is famous for its Great Waterfall and abundance of natural greenery.