Roughly 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from Rome is the beautiful town of Tivoli. You’ll discover stunning castles, magnificent landscapes, and the lush gardens at Villa d’Este. This UNESCO World Heritage Site makes for the perfect day trip outside of Rome, or if you wish to see all of what this quiet town has to offer, stay for a long weekend! In this article, we will be taking a stroll through Villa d’Este, and going over some the main points of interests for you to keep an eye out for during your visit.
The gardens were first commissioned around 1550 when Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (Pope Alexander VI’s grandson) was selected by Pope Julius III to be the Governor of Tivoli. Villa d’Este is thought to be one of the most spectacular representations of an Italian Renaissance garden: filled with fountains, statues, pools, and other architecturally pleasing aspects.
In fact, these amazing grounds have been included in the Grandi Giardini Italiani, translating to grand Italian gardens. This is a collection of the most important gardens throughout Italy and Malta, and it’s a real honor to be included in this list. The water that flows into the many pools you will see comes from the Aniene River. Stretching 99 kilometers (62 miles) from the Apennine Mountains all the way to Tivoli where it flows into the Tiber River in Rome.
You’ll notice there are many grottos and fountains tucked away that you might miss if you don’t turn every corner to explore the nooks and crannies. For instance, the Grotta di Diana (Grotto of Diana). She is known as the goddess of wild and domestic animals, the moon, hunting, and childbirth; with the Greek Goddess, Artemis, being her equivalent.
The grotto was completed in 1572, and the original mosaics still glisten on the inside. Make sure to take a quick step inside because if you look up at the ceiling you can see a depiction of Perseus and Andromeda from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the fourth book). In Greek mythology, Perseus killed the sea-serpent Cetus in order to save Andromeda, who he later married. If you’re a fan of Greek mythology, also keep an eye out for a later piece known as the Fontana di Plutone e Proserpina (Fountain of Pluto and Persephone) that was finished in the early 1600s. The statue that you’ll see centered shows when Pluto kidnapped Persephone, dragging her down into the underworld where he would make her his queen.
Another statue depicting Diana, or Artemis, is the Fontana della Madre Natura (Fountain of Mother Nature). Completed in 1568, this statue was originally a part of the Fontana dell’Organa (Fountain of the Organ), but she was moved where she is now during the 17th century because Cardinal Ippolito and Ligorio thought the fountain had an overly Pagan appearance. It is said that in medieval times her followers were thought to be witches.
The reason Diana is shown having many breasts is due to her having a nurturing side, especially when it comes to taking care of children. Even though her right arm has been damaged, you can still see her left is open, thought to be bestowing spiritual blessings upon each and every one of us. On her head lies the sacred vessel of the goddess. Many believe that Diana is Mother Nature herself, with the crown being city walls, protecting those who reside within from harm, her breasts were thought to resemble the mountains with running waters to nourish those living on Earth, which is her body.
After hearing that story, you’ve definitely got to make your way over to the Fountain of the Organ, also started in 1568, yet it wasn’t finished until 1611, as it’s a massive centerpiece to the water display. Now, the term “organ” was added to the title because of an actual water-operated device (like a pipe system) that is hidden behind the structure.
The statue you saw of Diana at the Fountain of Mother Nature was originally intended to be placed in the center of this architecturally pleasing design. However, instead, you’ll notice a small temple in place of where she was intended to stand. Even though the water-operated device is only turned on once every two hours, starting at 10:30am, if you miss the chance to hear it, you can still get an idea by listening to Franz Listz’s “Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este”. He was a Hungarian composer and pianist, during the 19th century, who often visited and played at Villa d’Este. He composed this piece based on the sounds he heard from the fountains while being here.
If you look down from the Fountain of the Organ, you will notice three square ponds. This is a highly loved feature in the gardens, and if you’ve been to, or plan on making it over to Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa) you’ll be able to see the larger rectangular fishing pond named Poikile, which these were modeled after.
You’ll notice that the majority of the gardens are not even, and are slightly sloping. Well, Cardinal Ippolito suffered from gout, and these ponds, on level ground, became one of this favorite places to sit and admire the scenery around him. One thing you may want to watch out for if you’re traveling with small children is that the ponds do not have any type of boundary to protect anyone from falling in.
Rometta is quite an amazing fountain to view as most of it was unfortunately destroyed, and you can’t even tell because it is still so glorious today. A majority of the tiny replicas of the Roman buildings were damaged, but you can still see the iconic statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-world who raised them.
As the legend goes, Romulus is said to be the founder of Rome, who killed his brother Remus during an argument of where Rome should be built. This act left Romulus free to build the Eternal City on the site of the Palatine Hill (Palatino) where he named the city Roma (Rome), after himself in 753 BC. You’ll also see the statue of a boat sitting in the still water of the fountain that represents the Tiber River (that runs through Rome). The boat, however, is thought to be representing the Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina), which also has an interesting legend of how it came about.
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, also known as Tarquin the Proud, was the last king of Rome ruling from 535 to 510 BC. He and his wife were thought to have conspired to have the previous king, Servius Tullius, killed – who was also the father of Tarquin’s wife. Together they murdered many Roman senators whose beliefs differed from their own, causing him to be hated by the Roman people.
Finally, Tarquin’s reign was put to an end, and he was exiled by the Senate. But get this… Apparently, he tried to gain the support of the people where he had been exiled to and planned to retake Rome. Needless to say, this was an unsuccessful attempt, leaving him dead in 496 BC. The Romans did away with his body by throwing it into the Tiber River, where they were led to believe that the dirt and debris that settled around his body formed the Tiber Island.
Another fountain you should take a moment to linger is the Fountain of the Great Cup (Fontana del Bicchierone). Designed by and accredited to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (an immensely loved Italian architect and sculptor) in 1660. It’s really neat to look at from the top, and then again from the bottom.
The top section resembles a cup that is being filled rapidly to the brim. Once you step down to look at the bottom half, you’ll see that the cup is beginning to overflow into a large shell-like structure. You’ll also love the views from here as you can see the mountains along with many houses and cathedrals in the little town of Tivoli.
This is not all that you will fall in love with at the Villa d’Este. There are still so many statues, fountains, and scenic views to take in during your time here. When you are finished strolling through these magical and musical gardens you can make your way into the Villa to see the official house of Este that was permanently signed over to the family in 1621.
From April to September, you are allowed to enter Villa d’Este between 8:30am until 6:45pm, exiting at 7:45pm. From November until February, there is an earlier closing time at 4:00pm with an exit time of 5:00pm. Though, in both March and October the closing time will be at 5:30pm, and you’ll need to exit by 6:30pm.
Entry tickets are priced at 8 EUR (9.03 USD), however if there is an exhibition going on you may see the fare rise to 11 EUR (12.41 USD). Please check with the official website to familiarize yourself with any ongoing events. If you get hungry afterward, there are many cozy little cafes and restaurants to eat at right outside the entry gates.
It’s really easy to get to Tivoli from Rome, and you can do so by taking the Metro in Rome to Ponte Mammolo on Line B.
When you get off at Ponte Mammolo, take the stairs that lead up to the main part of the station, and when you turn right you’ll see ticket desks with people in line, do-it-yourself machines, and a little news-stand selling snacks and coffees.
Do not go to the ticket desks where everyone else is, as they are usually filling out paperwork for some other matter that is not in reference to going to Tivoli. Instead, head right on over to the little newsstand where you can order an espresso to drink before your one-hour journey, and also your COTRAL bus ticket.
The area right outside is where your bus will pick you up, and usually says Tivoli on the front. When you’re ready to come back to Rome just catch the bus once again (there’s a bus stop to the right of the Villa d’Este entrance gates) back to Ponte Mammolo and you’ll arrive back in Rome in no time!