Villa Adriana and Villa d’Este: Relive Ancient Splendors, Just a Stone's Throw from Rome
The city of Tivoli was founded in 1215 BC on the Tiburtine Hills in the province of Rome. Poet Virgil defined it Tibur Superbum (Aeneid, Book VII), a title that still stands out in the city’s coat of arms. Tivoli is known for its sulphur mineral water springs which have been used since ancient times, but even more so for two villas, which are now on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites: Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriana) and Villa d'Este.
It was commissioned by Emperor Hadrian as his imperial residence. Access was provided from two roads (Via Tiburtina and Via Prenestina) or by navigating the Aniene River. The emperor wanted to replicate those monuments that had fascinated him on his many travels, especially in Greece: The Pecile, Canopus, Academy and the Lyceum. Our tour starts precisely with these monuments. The Pecile is an enormous garden surrounded by a portico with a central pond and was used for summer and winter strolls.
The Canopus (the name of an ancient town connected to Alessandria by a navigable canal) can be reached by crossing a series of thermal buildings. It’s a long basin of water decorated by columns and statues that culminates with a temple covered by a ribbed dome.
In line with the valley of the Canopus, the ruins of two thermal establishments are visible: The Large Baths and the Small Baths. The Small Baths had an outdoor frigidarium and round room with a coffered dome and 5 large windows. Decorated with precious stuccoes, these buildings were dedicated to the imperial family and their guests.
The Large Baths, which were reserved for the personnel at the villa, had a heating system under the floor and an impressive round room used as a sudatorium. Of interest: A large cross-shaped roof in the main room that is still in perfect balance, despite 1 of the 4 support pillars having collapsed.
Certainly, there are many places to visit within the villa, including the Academy, Stadium, Imperial Palace, Hall of Philosophers, Greek theatre and Piazza d’Oro. The latter is a majestic complex that was used on official occasions to receive guests and contemplated a large peristyle enriched with very fine stuccoes. Lastly, make sure to visit the marvellous Maritime Theatre. It’s a kind of island with an Ionic colonnade surrounded by a canal. Inside is the emperor’s private refuge, which was accessed by a system involving moving jetties.
It was commissioned by Cardinal Ipplito II d’Este, the governor of Tivoli starting in 1550. He was looking to relive the splendours of the courts of Ferrara, Rome and Fointanebleau in this villa.
The impressive number of fountains, grottos and plays of water was a model often emulated in European Mannerism and Baroque gardens.
The rooms on the palazzo’s noble floor are of particular interest, and were decorated and painted by a large group of artists from the Late Roman Mannerism period.
The garden at Villa d’Este is of particular splendour and was designed by artist and architect Pirro Ligorio. Encompassing terraces, stairways, paths and slopes, the garden recalls of the hanging gardens in Babylon, while the water system, which includes an aqueduct and a tunnel under the city, evokes the skilful engineering knowledge of the Romans. The 100 fountains alongside a pathway (100 metres long) create quite an effect. The Fontana dell’Ovato (Oval Fountain) to the left of the path is the most Baroque fountain at the villa considering the extraordinary effect produced by the rocks, ornamental boulders and water flows. They are to represent the Tiburtine Hills from which the 3 rivers Aniene, Erculaneo and Albuneo descend. Below the Viale delle Cento Fontane path is the spectacular Fontana dei Draghi (Fountain of Dragons), whose central position has made it the heart of the park. According to legend, this fountain was built in a single night in September 1572, to pay homage to Gregory XIII, who was a guest at the villa. The Rotonda dei Cipressi (Cypress Rotunda) is in the lower section of the garden. It’s a large square surrounded by gigantic centuries-old cypress trees.
Certainly, the most majestic and spectacular fountain at Villa d’Este is the Fontana di Nettuno (Neptune Fountain), which was originally commissioned by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and was restored in the 20th century. Its beauty was the inspiration for several 18th-century fountains. Completing the group of fountains is the Fontana dell’Organo (Fountain of the Organ), which is above the Fontana di Nettuno. This fountain was named after the water mechanism it encompasses, which still generates sounds from an organ that can be heard by visitors.