Villa d'Este

Tivoli, 1565-72

Garden Architect:  Pirro Ligorio





The Villa d'Este, which was designed by Pirro Ligorio, is most important for its fountain-rich gardens.  This villa was the pet project of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, one of the wealthiest men in Italy in his day.  In 1550 the Cardinal, who had been much criticized for his opulent lifestyle and alliance with the French, was disappointed at not being elected pope.


Acquisition of the Property

After accepting the governorship of Tivoli, just east of Rome, Ippolito began buying property there for a villa.  He initially bought land that had been part of a Benedictine monastery and remodeled the main building to serve as the villa's residence.


During construction, a street in the town of Tivoli was cleared to make more space for the outer edge of the garden.


Decoration with Ancient Statues

As governor of Tivoli, Ippolito d'Este directed the archaeologist Ligorio, who was his architect at the Villa d'Este, to begin excavating Hadrian's Villa, which was nearby.  Ligorio unearthed many ancient statues that were later used in decorating Ippolito's villa.


In the late sixteenth century, these statues were removed from the villa by the Este family, and most of them are in museums now.  An ancient work from Hadrian's Villa that remains is the large basin on the balcony overlooking the gardens from the residence.


Este Symbols

Obelisks, eagles, ships, and fleurs-de-lis, symbols from the Este coat of arms, are repeated in various forms around the gardens.


The symbols are used in rotation at several sites such as the Oval Fountain and the Wall of the Hundred Fountains.





1550: Purchase of property. After being appointed governor of Tivoli, Cardinal Ippolito d'Este began purchasing property for a villa.


1560:  Reconstruction of monastery. A Benedictine monastery on the site was reconstructed.


1565-72:  Appointment of Ligorio. Pirro Ligorio was engaged to design and supervise the construction of the gardens.


1572:  Cessation of construction.  Construction ceased with the death of the Cardinal.


1605:  Resumption of construction.  Work on the villa was resumed according to Ligorio's plans.


1661:  Completion of Organ Fountain. Bernini completed the Organ Fountain by adding the cascade.


1851-67:  Beginning of modern restoration. After a period of neglect in the eighteenth century, when the villa had been owned by the House of Hapsburg, Cardinal Gustav von Hohenlohe acquired the villa and began its restoration.


1867-82:  Use for entertaining visitors. Cardinal Hohenlohe entertained visitors including Franz Liszt, who composed Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d'Este on one of his visits.


1920s:  Restoration under government. The villa was further restored under the Italian government, who had taken over the villa during World War I.


1944 - present:  Repair and re-opening by government. After World War II, war damage was repaired and the villa was opened to the public.  Restoration by the Italian government has been ongoing, and now all the fountains have been repaired.






The rectangular site slopes downward not only from back to front but also from side to side.

Because of the site's steepness, earth was brought in to make a level area at the lower end for the parterre.  Consequently, the garden is unusual in having its parterre at some distance from the residence rather than next to it.  The intervening area was planted with trees, which would typically have been placed beyond the parterre.


Organization of Walks

The garden was planned to be toured from the bottom upwards rather than from the top downwards, as it is today.


The garden is laid out geometrically in a grid-like configuration.  Walkways that parallel the residence divide the hillside into bands.  The main three cross-axial walks are the Cardinal's Walk, which is just below the residence, the Wall of the Hundred Fountains, and the walks along each side of the series of rectangular fish pools.


Because of the steepness of the upper half of the garden, walks connecting the levels are angled diagonally to make them less steep than walks or staircases that run straight upward.



The parterre stands in sharp contrast to the upper garden because it is level and its paths are either parallel or perpendicular to the residence.  This contrast would have been greater in the Renaissance when its plants were low and the trees were small.


A vine-covered cross-shaped pergola originally divided the parterre into quadrants.  Because the base of this pergola covered the entrance gate, Renaissance visitors were shielded from the light and a view of the rest of the gardens until they emerged from the other end of the pergola, where a wide expanse is created by the large fishponds.


The quadrants mimic the design of the whole parterre in that each has a grid of pathways and a pavilion in the center.


Organization of Fountains

The six major fountains that were originally planned are laid out so that two are located on the villa's central axis and the other four are grouped in pairs and positioned across from each other on the left and right edges of the garden.  The pairing of fountains serves the garden's thematic program.


The upper two fountains are physically connected by channels of water and the lower two are visually linked by pools.  Four pools were planned but only three were built.





Diverse Hydraulic Devices

The Villa d'Este was one of the most full-featured water gardens of its time.  Its hydraulic (water-powered) repertoire included not only devices to display water but also devices for making sounds and powering mechanical movement.  The musical notes of the Organ Fountain and the bird songs of the Fountain of the Owls were powered by water pushing air through the pipes.


Birds sang at this fountain until the arrival of an owl provided a reason for their silence, and this interval allowed the pumps to regain pressure for another round of chirping.


Water Sources

The water needed to meet the extensive demands of the garden's water features was obtained from three sources.  Two aqueducts were built to bring water from mountain springs, and a long tunnel was built to bring water from the Aniene River, which flows from Tivoli to Rome.  Only a river-rich location like Tivoli, which was known for its waterfalls, could have sustained the needs of such a garden.


Major Fountains

The Villa d'Este boasts many features including five fountains with large pools or streams and a wall with many individual fountains.

Oval Fountain
Wall of the Hundred Fountains
Dragon Fountain
Organ Fountain
Fountain of Neptune


Smaller Fountains

Fountains of varying sizes and forms are found throughout the garden.


A fountain featuring Pegasus, the winged horse in Greek mythology, is located on the top of the artificial mountain above the Oval Fountain.


Giant sphinxes spurting water from their nipples decorate the balustrades at the top of the semicircular stairs connecting the Wall of the Hundred Fountains with the Dragon Fountain.


Water flows downward from level to level along the handrails of the staircases in the middle third of the garden.  The changes in the water level are accomplished by channeling the water through the ends of the side walls and out through masks on their fronts.


Water Jokes

Water jokes were also plentiful.  According to contemporary accounts, wetting the guests greatly amused the Cardinal.


Some guest-wetting fountains were triggered by actions from the victim such as opening a gate.  Others were triggered mechanically by an agent of the host when the victim was in a position from which there could be no escape without further wetting.  The enclosure containing the Owl Fountain was equipped with such a fountain.





Three Themes

Three major themes underlying the design of the Villa d'Este have been identified by David Coffin (The Villa in the Life of Renaissance Rome).


The fountains at the Villa d'Este were planned to embody three themes.  The pairing of the outer fountains facilitates the expression of two of the themes.


1.Art and Nature.

The theme of art and nature is embodied by the two pairs of fountains.


Nature.  The lower pair of fountains, the Organ fountain on the left and the Neptune fountain on the right, represent nature.  A series of pools containing fish stand between the two fountains.


The central niche of the Organ Fountain originally featured the statue of Diana of Ephesus, a replica of an ancient work.  Her many breasts identify her as an earth goddess or Mother Nature, making this a fountain of nature. Dolphins, which are among Neptune's attributes, are included at the Organ fountain.


The Fountain of Neptune featuring a colossal Neptune driving a chariot pulled by sea horses was not completed, and the bust of the sea god was moved across the garden to a niche in the cascade in front of the Organ Fountain.


Art.  The theme of art is represented by the upper pair of fountains.  High on the artificial hill above the Oval Fountain is a fountain featuring Pegasus.  As the horse of the mythological Muses, who inspire poets, musicians, and other artistic creators, this statue refers to the realm of art.  


At the other side of the garden, a model of ancient Rome replicating specific works of art and architecture demonstrated man's ingenuity and artistry during the Roman period, a high point in man's cultural history.  Much of the architecture of the Rometta has been destroyed.


2.Tivoli and Rome and their Rivers

The upper pair of fountains is also the site of the second theme, which concerns Tivoli and Rome and their rivers.  Tivoli and Rome were significant for Cardinal d'Este as the sites of his governorship and his titular church.  The arrangement of the upper pair of fountains in conjunction with the fountain linking them symbolizes Tivoli's three local rivers flowing into the Tiber before it reaches Rome.  Water is introduced into the garden as a waterfall flowing into the pool below the sculpture representing the three rivers.  From there, the water is divided into three channels that symbolize the three local rivers, and these channels feed three superimposed rows of fountains, which are known as the Wall of the Hundred Fountains.  At the right side, the three channels merge before flowing into the Rometta.


Tivoli. Tivoli is represented on the left by the Oval Fountain, whose original name was the "Fountain of Tivoli."  Tivoli's three local rivers, which are tributaries to the Tiber, are represented allegorically by sculpture. Albunea represents the Albuneo River, and the river gods in grottos on each side represent the Aniene and the Erculaneo Rivers.  Albunea is also called the Tiburtine sibyl in reference to Tivoli's ancient name of Tibur.


Rome. Rome is represented on the right by the Rometta.  The merged channels form a stream symbolizing the Tiber, which flows past a miniature version of the city of Rome.  A colossal allegorical statue representing Rome forms a counterpart to the colossal statue of Albunea at the other end.  A stone boat represents Tiberina, an island on the Tiber in Rome whose ship shape was emphasized by the ancient Romans by ship-like additions such as a ship's prow at one end.


3. Hercules and the Garden of the Hesperides

The third theme, that of Hercules and the Garden of the Hesperides, is centered on the Dragon Fountain and the upper section of the garden.


Hercules and the Este family. The Este family historian traced the Este lineage back to Hercules, and many member's of the family were named Ercole, which is Italian for Hercules.  A prominent image of Hercules holding apples would have referenced both the Garden of the Hesperides and the notion of moral choice.


Hercules and moral choice. In addition to being known for the Labors, Hercules was an important exemplar of virtue and courage in the Renaissance.  In an episode in his youth known as the "Choice of Hercules," Hercules was offered a choice between a life of ease and pleasure versus one of virtue, struggle, and fame.  He chose the latter.


In the garden, the theme of moral choice is referred to by the pairing of statues suggesting erotic pleasure and chastity.  Erotic pleasure is represented by a statue of Venus in a grotto on the left side of the garden.  Chastity is represented by a group of statues, including Diana and Hippolytus, in a grotto at the right end of Cardinal's Walk.  The goddess Diana (Artemis in Greek mythology), who was associated with nature as both a huntress and a protector of wildlife, was known as the virgin huntress.  The Greek hero Hippolytus was associated with chastity because he resisted the advances of Phaedra, the young second wife of his father, Theseus.  Hippolytus' presence in the garden was also a reference to the patron, whose name, Ippolito, is Italian for Hippolytus.


The theme of choice is also imposed on visitors, who are forced to turn left or right when they reach the Wall of the Hundred Fountains.


The Garden of the Hesperides.  A sculpted image of Hercules holding a club and three golden apples had been planned for the niche in the rear wall of the Dragon Fountain.  Hercules was famous for his "Twelve Labors," and the apples refer to his eleventh Labor of stealing apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, which was guarded by the many-headed dragon, Ladon.  As an honor for Pope Gregory XIII, whose visit was anticipated and whose coat of arms features the upper body of a dragon, the four upper bodies of dragons were finished in time for his visit in 1572.


According to Greek mythology, the apples, which represented the gift of immortality, had been wedding gifts for Zeus' wife, Hera, who owned the garden.  The Hesperides were nocturnal nymphs who are linked with the garden's apples as both thieves and guardians in different myths.  Apples referring to the Garden of the Hesperides were incorporated into the decoration in many places such as the Fountain of the Owls.



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