Since classical times Tivoli has been a favoured summer retreat for people wishing to escape the heat of the city. Nestling in the Tiburtine hills, around 30 km from Rome, this was where many prominent Roman citizens, including the Emperor Hadrian and the poet Horace, chose to build their villas. The town remained popular in later centuries and new villas continued to be built until the nineteenth century. Today the area continues to appeal to tourists, drawn by the medieval streets and historic villas of Tivoli. The thermal waters beneath the town, where it is still possible to bathe, are an added attraction.
The Villa d’Este
The Villa d’Este is in the centre of Tivoli and stands in a corner of the Piazza Trento. The exterior is modest and gives no indication that the house leads on to the most famous garden in Italy, tumbling down an entire hillside with a series of extravagant water features.
The Villa d’Este was built on the site of an old convent as a country retreat for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este (son of Lucrezia Borgia) in 1550. The interior, with its frescoed walls and ceilings, is worthy of examination, but it is the gardens that visitors come to see. Built on the side of a hill, with four terraces linked by long flights of steps, the garden boasts fountains, waterfalls and statues, as well as panoramic views.
Although the villa and its gardens later fell into neglect it became fashionable again in the nineteenth century, attracting visitors such as Franz Liszt who lived in the villa for the last year of his life. Liszt’s piano composition Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este was inspired by the gardens and he gave one of his final concerts here. The many famous sights in the gardens include the following
- Viale delle cento fontane (Avenue of 100 fountains), a long path with water gushing out of fantastical stone heads
- Fontana della Rometta, a miniature representation of Rome landmarks
- Fontana dell’organo idraulico (Organ fountain), with a hydraulic system that enables it to play music!
- Fontana dei draghi (Fountain of the dragons), built in honour of Pope Gregory XIII whose insignia included a dragon.
Villa d’Este was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. This was because it is regarded as an outstanding example of Renaissance culture, and also because of its influence on European garden design.
The gardens of the Villa Gregoriana were commissioned by Pope Gregory XVI in 1826. Following flooding the course of the nearby Aniene river was diverted, creating a huge waterfall which now cascades down the wooded slopes of a rocky gorge. Visitors to the gardens can scramble down narrow paths to find caves, tunnels and the remains of two temples as well as the original Roman villa.
In the plain below Tivoli, a short distance from the town, lie the remains of the Villa Adriana. This was designed by the Emperor Hadrian and was the largest villa owned by any Roman emperor. During Hadrian’s time the site included over thirty buildings, including palaces, temples, baths and other public buildings as well as homes for servants and slaves. The complex covers an area of around one square kilometre and today it is possible to walk through the classical park and the ruins of the buildings.
Villa Adriana became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It was stated to be an “exceptional survival from the Early Roman Empire”. It also played an important role in the rediscovery of classical architecture during the Renaissance period.
How to Get to Tivoli from Rome
Tivoli can be reached from Rome by car or train (from Tibertina station). The Villa d’Este and Villa Gregoriana are walking distance (2 km) from the railway station, but buses and taxis are available. Villa Adriana is outside of the town and can be reached by taking a bus from Piazza Garibaldi.