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View down the gardens at the Villa d'Este, Tivoli



“In this delightful region, country-houses are built expressly for pleasure; and, as the ancient Romans had here their villas, so, for centuries past, their rich and haughty successors have planted country residences on all the loveliest spots” 


- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey VI.235, November 1786


From the age of antiquity through the Renaissance and Baroque periods and up to the present day, the villa and country garden have served as centres of rural leisure, aesthetic reflection, displays of wealth, and even political strategy. Nowhere is this multiplicity of roles more in evidence than in those in the countryside of the Roman campagna. Tivoli, 30km from Rome and picturesquely situated in the Sabine Hills above the plains of Lazio is home to two grand UNESCO-listed villas – one the enormous architectural playground of a Roman Emperor, the other the epitome of Renaissance sophistication. At both sites, the gardens are just as important as the villa buildings, and through them we can explore the concept of villeggiatura, or withdrawal to a country residence.



Aerial view of Hadrian's villa at Tivoli 


“His villa at Tibur ​was marvellously constructed, and he actually gave to parts of it the names of provinces and places of the greatest renown, calling them, for instance, Lyceum, Academia, Prytaneum, Canopus, Poecile and Tempe. And in order not to omit anything, he even made a Hades”  


 - Historia Augusta - The Life of Hadrian 26, tr. David Magie


The Emperor Hadrian (76 - 138 AD) is well known for many structures that bear his name, and his villa at Tivoli (ancient Tibur) reflected his interest in architecture and his wider cultural knowledge. Construction began on the villa and its grounds in 118 AD, and the site was intended as an oasis of peace away from the bustle of Rome. It was a sprawling complex of 300 acres containing baths, temples, barracks, theatres and gardens, and though the villa was plundered over the centuries, the ruins are still impressive in their scale today.



The Canopus with the Serapeum at the far end


The grounds featured peristyle gardens, ornamental pools surrounded by statuary, and grand fountains. A noted Philhellene, Hadrian took inspiration from buildings he had seen on his travels in Greece, with the large colonnaded pool called the Pecile imitating the Stoa Poikile in Athens. Egypt was another source of inspiration, and the structures in the villa grounds which reference Egyptian designs such as the well-preserved Canopus and Serapeum could also be seen as a memorial to Hadrian’s lover Antinous, who drowned in the Nile in 130 AD.



Statue of a crocodile by the side of the Canopus pool




“In Tivoli is to be seen the famous palace and garden of the cardinal of Ferrara, a most exquisite piece of work”


- Michel de Montaigne, The journal of Montaigne's travels in Italy by way of Switzerland and Germany in 1580 and 1581, II.168, tr. William George Waters



Engraving of the Villa d'Este, Tivoli by Piranesi, c. 1748-1778


Close to the site of Hadrian’s Villa, the spectacular gardens at the Villa d’Este illustrate the refinement and achievements of Renaissance culture, and had a great impact on later garden design. They were designed by Pirro Ligorio for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, a son of Lucrezia Borgia, who had been appointed governor of Tivoli in 1550. Ligorio had excavated the neighbouring Hadrian’s Villa, and took inspiration – and many works of art and statuary – from the classical ruins. Ligorio’s design scheme also elevated his patron, with a monumental statue of Hercules referencing the d’Este family’s claimed mythical ancestor. 



The Villa d'Este, Tivoli


The garden is built into the hillside, with several terraces and a central staircase leading the eye up to the villa at the top. Lavish water features were the most celebrated aspect of the garden’s design, with streams cascading and fountains thundering. The fountains remain, but several of Ligiorio’s inventions have been lost to time – such as fountains that played music, and giochi d’acqua (‘water games’), devices whereby unsuspecting visitors would be sprayed with water if they stood in the wrong place. Ligorio was able to use the natural water supply of the nearby river Aniene to achieve this spectacle. In this regard, the Villa d’Este encapsulates a feature fundamental to garden design across the ages – the desire to enjoy nature in a manner that has been tamed and controlled by the human hand.



Pathway of the hundred fountains, Villa d'Este, Tivoli




Our group will be visiting Hadrian’s Villa and the Villa d’Este at Tivoli as part of our tour exploring the Villas and Gardens in Lazio, from 11th - 17th May 2024. Contact us to enquire about a late availability place.


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Explore centuries of beautiful garden designs on other ACE tours:


BLOG_Tivoli_Mapperton_House_Dorset BLOG_Tivoli_Villa_Poppaea_oplontis_fresco_AS

Dorset Country Houses & Churches

19 - 24 August 2024

With Charles Hind 


Take in fine examples of English garden design, including the Grade II listed Arts & Crafts gardens at Mapperton House, voted Historic Houses Garden of the Year in 2020. 


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Pompeii with Herculaneum 

21 - 26 September 2024

With Steve Mastin


Explore Roman gardens of different sizes, from the peristyle garden of the House of the Vettii to the large pools and frescoed garden rooms of the Villa Poppaea at Oplontis.


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Image credits:

Header image: View down the gardens at the Villa d'Este by Ben Cappellacci licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Canopus, Hadrian's Villa by Carole Raddato licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Crocodile statue, Canopus, Hadrian's Villa by Palickap licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED via Wikimedia Commons

Engraving of the Villa d'Este, Tivoli, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, c. 1748-1778, public domain via the Rijksmuseum.

Pathway of a Hundred Fountains by Ben Cappellacci licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr

Mapperton House Gardens by Michael Garlick licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED via Wikimedia Commons

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