Visit: 4th April 2015
After visiting the Villa Adriana in Tivoli on Good Friday, the “Famous Five” of myself, Natalie, Ross, Louise and Ayesha stayed overnight in the town in order that we could visit the nearby Villa d’Este the next morning. For a small town, Tivoli is quite unusual in having two totally separate World Heritage Sites – this is normally something you only encounter in major cities.
Described by Unesco as an illustration of “Renaissance culture at its most refined”, the Villa d’Este was constructed to be the holiday residence of Cardinal Ippolito II of the East (or d’Este), a churchman whose rank made him second only to the Pope.
When I say the two WHS villas of Tivoli are completely separate, I do not mean they are unconnected. In fact, the good cardinal plundered the nearby Villa Adriana of its marbles and statues in order to decorate his new residence, which is located higher up in the Tiburtine hills than its Roman predecessor.
It seems to be the gardens and the magnificent fountains that get all the attention at the Villa d’Este, but the house – although not particularly attractive from the outside – is worth a mention. Its rooms are sumptuously decorated with Renaissance/Mannerist frescos all over the walls and ceilings. As was customary at the time, they tend to focus on either Biblical scenes or Greco-Roman mythology. I particularly liked the convincing effects of the columns painted onto the ceiling, below; the Renaissance was a time when artists rediscovered the ability the paint things realistically – and codified the laws of perspective for the first time.
The view from the balcony takes in the old town of Tivoli, on the right, and the plunging Renaissance gardens full of fountains (as many as 500 of them). The gardens inspired the nineteenth century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt to write a couple of piano pieces in their honour – hear one of them on YouTube here.
Below you can see us all seated in front of one of the grander fountains. It is notable for containing a ‘water organ’ – which is simply an organ whose air supply is powered by the running water that goes on to pass through the Villa’s other fountains. I’m not sure whether it can be played manually, but I know it can play an automated tune, much like a fairground organ (driven by a rotating metal drum with bumps and ridges signify the notes). We had understood that the organ is switched on every Saturday at 11am, but unfortunately 11am came and went without any sign of a tune. And so the water organ came to symbolise to us the two Italies: the Renaissance Italy full of ingenuity that created such a marvel of its time; and the modern-day Italy, where nothing seems to run on time or work properly (c.f. our Europcar experience at the airport or my spending €70 to go zero metres on a toll road).
It is said that Cardinal Ippolito II had ambitions to become Pope himself, but when it eventually became clear to him that he was not going to make it he retreated to Tivoli to work on the project of a lifetime. The gardens and statuary that he had created certainly made his name famous for centuries to come, and allowed him to show off his power and wealth to the well-heeled tourists of the Italian Renaissance. It was through the grandeur of his Villa d’Este that he was able to console himself with not being Pope by impressing upon others his majesty, good taste and power.