Halfway through our month-long stay in Rome, we decided to head out to the fabled Tivoli Gardens. I had heard of them as a wonder of beauty and elegance and was curious to see if the reputation held true. We’re also planning on visiting the Villa Hadriana, one of the most elaborate villas ever constructed during the Roman Empire.
The town of Tivoli is about an hour east outside of Rome. We take the bus to Termini, then the Metro (Linea B, direction Rebbibia) to the Ponte Mammolo station, where we take a Cotral bus to Tivoli. Unfamiliar as we are with the bus system, we take the first bus that indicates Tivoli; we end up on a “milk run” with stops every few minutes to let passengers in or out. The bus is full; people are standing in the aisles. (We realized coming back that there’s a bus that takes the highway and does the trip in 20 minutes instead of 45). The country and small towns we pass are uninspiring but soon they make way for groves of olive trees, full of fruit, and an increasingly tortuous and steep road. Tivoli sits on the Monte Tiburtino and surveys the valley below. The locals are used to the tourists and urge us (about six of us) to leave the bus at the right stop with good-natured instructions: they look at us and gesticulate, saying “Villa d’Este, scende qua!” (Get off here for the Villa d’Este!)
As with any Italian town, Tivoli has incredible appeal and it would take more than one day to explore it, so we head directly to the Villa d’Este (built in the mid-1500s) where the gardens are situated. The villa and its gardens is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was commissioned by Ippolito d’Este, the son of the famous (or infamous) Lucrezia Borgia. The first floor of the Villa is opened for visits and we spend an hour admiring the beautiful frescoed walls and ceilings by Pirro Ligorio. Often, not one inch of wall or ceiling shows. A lot of it is decorated in the grotesque style, one that I find charming and that we saw at the Galleria Dora Pamphilj and at the Vatican Museum.
We exit onto a stone balcony with two wide side staircases and look out onto the gardens. With the absence of traffic sounds, the gurgle of water, the luminous light filtering through the tall trees and the sight of small villages in the valley, it feels like we’ve entered another world. The gardens seem to swoop down in an almost vertiginous slope to a cliff. Standing here on the balcony, it feels like you could touch the top of the cypresses jutting up to the sky.
But the gardens are really set into a series of terraces, each level hiding several treasures: fern-covered pools set in mosaic grottoes, large staircases with water cascading along the banisters, tree-covered alleys, loggias with a view on the gardens. In additon,
We go down the stairs to the left and walk along the gravel-covered alley up to the end where we find the Fontana di Pegaso (Pegasus Fountain). The winged horse looks so real, it might take off at any moment. We walk the opposite way until we arrive at two impressive fountains the Fontana di Rometta (Fountain of small Rome) and the Fontana di Proserpina (Fountain of Proserpine). The Rometta sports the major monuments of Rome at its top (Pantheon, Colosseum, Constantine’s Arch), while Proserpine, dressed as a warrior, surveys the boat Charon uses to carry the unfortunate souls to Hades.
Going down again, we stroll to the opposite side until we reach the Fontana di Tivoli (Tivoli fountain) with its Grotta di Venere (Venus’s Grotto). This is an enormous fountain with a half-moon basin that makes the falling water cascade into a larger one. Above, a stone railing fronts a stone grotto with Venus–although the figure looks much more like the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child.
The material inside the grottoes, as well as bordering some of the paths, is strange until we realize it’s some type of coral somehow glued together.
We then direct our steps towards the Fontana di Nettuno (Neptune’s Fountain), a huge fountain–about 80 feet high–with, in its center, a cave with Neptune inside. The water cascading over it hides him and gives the impression of his hiding in an ocean cave. Water geysers from immense spouts almost to the edge of the Fontana dell’organo (Fountain of the Organ). Water flows into a two-tiered basin, then goes underground until it reachers Le Peschiere (Fish Tanks), three long basins that hold thousands of red carps (koi).
Maybe the most impressive and delightful of all the fountains here–twenty in all–is the alley of Le Cento Fontane. On one side of the alley, great trees provide wonderful shade; on the other side, water spouts, peacock tail fountains and other water features hug an ivy-covered wall. The water spouts have anthropomorphic and mythical features, like a lion’s mane with a man’s face, a man with rabbit ears, a monkey face with human ears. Towards the center and below the fountains is another very impressive fountain, the Fontana dei Draghi (Fountains of the Dragons) commissioned by Pope Gregorius XIII, whose emblem was the dragon. We’ve seen that emblem in other places as well, such as St Peter’s and other papal basilicas.
Everywhere we turn, it seems we encounter another fountain: the Fontana della Civetta (Owl Fountain), where we sit on a marble bench to eat our lunch; the Fontana della Madre Natura (Mother Nature’s Fountain), with its multiple breasts spouting water, the Fontana dell’Organo, which uses a water system to play organ music, the Rotonda dei Cipressi (Cypresses Rotunda), a charming fountain surrounded by massive cypresses that give a peak of the Villa way up above. Not all the fountains are large but they all have their unique charms.
Despite the serene beauty of the gardens (planted in the Renaissance Mannerist style) there were very few tourists, maybe because it was a Wednesday. It’s easy to imagine myself wearing a floor-length silk dress with a square bodice and puffed sleeves, bedecked in pearls and diamonds, on the arm of the Duke d’Este (of course, he was a Cardinal, too, but hey) and strolling along the grand alleys, listening to the sound of water gurgling and the birds singing. It was also easy to imagine that 16th Century life has continued on undisturbed and that a generous “spirit” has frozen time to not only keep the atmosphere but also the grandiose nature of the gardens as they were.
But of course, it’s not the case. It takes an army of gardeners and engineers to maintain them. In several places we could see scaffolding where restoration was going on.
We spent so much time at the Villa, we decided to return to Rome instead of going on to Hadrian’s Villa. It’s quite far from the city and not obvious where we needed to find the bus to get there.
Doesn’t matter. I had heard and read often of the famed Tivoli gardens. They lived up–no, exceeded–our expectations. A definite must for the traveller who wants to make a short excursion out of Rome.