Villa d’Este

At Tivoli, the ancient Romans must have been very happy indeed. A modest altitude and the fresh waters of the Aniene river made it a place of delicious tranquillity. And today, people visit Tivoli primarily to see the work of one of the greatest Roman emperors – one of the harshest when the need arose, but also one of the most cultured, sensitive, emotional and inspired. 

Hadrian essentially intended Tivoli as a love nest, as we know from Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), which ranks among one of the most touching, exquisitely judged novels of the century. Her book gave fictionalized form to a life lived nearly two thousand years ago, when moral codes were very different from how they are today.  

But it wasn’t only the Emperor who was besotted with these parts. Not far away, you find another country residence, blessed in its position. This is the sumptuous villa of the cardinals from the Estensi family, which was built in the 1500s at the behest of Ippolito d’Este.

The villa has fluctuated in fortune over the centuries, from the highest glory to the lowest abasement, depending on who it was that held the Keys of Peter at any given time. But for all the good times and bad times, the vast wealth that successive cardinals threw at it eventually settled it as the Este’s primary residence, surpassing even the home comforts of their beloved, native Ferrara. 

The villa was designed by Pirro Ligorio, archistar of the time, and was completed after a vast splurge of resources. It wasn’t just about all that glittered; it was a true opus of builders, craftsmen and artisans of every kind, from simple stonebreakers to the age’s finest engineers. You only need to think about the digging of the culverts necessary to divert significant quantities of water from the Aniene to the dozens and dozens of fountains that nourish the immense gardens. Ippolito survived to see the villa completed – he did so in 1572, in the company of Pope Gregory XIII – before leaving this world a few months later. 

The Tivoli villa remained a passion project for the Este family, and they kept on adding to it, embellishing it, and maintaining it. They kept this going until the eighteenth century, when the Italian political vortex landed it in the hands of the Habsburgs: the villa’s new owners had other things to think about, and let it go to rack and ruin. It was largely plundered of its art collection.

It took a member of the German Hohenlohe family to restore the villa to former glory; so successfully, in fact, that Franz Listz spent happy, productive periods there. But after disputes over ownership, wars and politicking, the villa passed to the Italian state as the 1920s shaded into the ‘30s, thence becoming open to the public.

When we come to the centre of Tivoli today, what surprises us is the sobriety of the façade turned towards the town. Only when we pass through a number of arches does the villa explode in all its majesty. Its best side, in fact, looks out on the gardens, forming part of a vast architectural choreography in which the loudest noise is that of the fountain heads, waterfalls and pipes that disgorge themselves everywhere. 

Mythology, Romanticism, and a taste for everything antique, never mind that it’s fakely antique. An all-downhill walk, with slides and staircases sculpted into the greenery, which every so often opens up into gorgeous clearings, bursting with classical throwbacks. 

All in all, the villa marks a monumental labour, from the perspectives both of maintenance and conservation – and it has to be said, no effort is spared on that front. Visiting it is a breathtaking experience: literally, on account of the countless slopes, but mainly thanks to the astonishing panoramas. And the gardens and fountains too are overflowing with a wealth of iconography, deployed in such a way as to coax you up even the steepest slope. 

So yes, this a place worth getting lost in for an hour or two, even for a whole afternoon, for those who have no commitments and a great deal of curiosity. But however much time you can spare, every minute is a minute well spent amidst all this Italic beauty.