Villa d’Este Gardens Italy

Each year the Senior College Dun Laoighre Landscape Design Department go on a five day educational trip to a city of interest and at the end of January 2010 we set off for Rome. After several days of high intensity sightseeing, the walking tour of the city, the vastness and wealth of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the fascination of the Colloseum, we took a break from the city and gratefully boarded a train for Tivoli an hours journey from Rome, enjoying the simple pleasure of watching the city give way to countryside, to olive groves and vineyards, the train climbing higher and higher as we travelled into the Tiburtine hills east of Rome. As we neared our destination we were afforded glimpses of the Aniene River cascading from the escarpment on which the ancient city of Tivoli is built. It is this river which is the inspiration and the source of the garden we were about to see, Villa d’Este, The 16thC garden and Villa which have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Without a word of Italian between us we got directions from a local who perhaps helped by the character and legibility of an ancient town on a hill of  narrow streets, winding steps and squares, described the route in such perfect mime that it brought us right to the door,


The low key entrance was set in the wall in the corner of a small piazza. The ancient building occupying the space for so long had become tightly knit into the fabric of the town. The building started out as a Benedictine convent in the 9thC though much modified since then it still retains an austere simplicity, but like a simple but beautifully lined coat it is the contrasting and unexpected nature of what lies beneath that surprises and delights.


To access the gardens we walked through the main body of the house, one room connecting to the next and each one sumptuously decorated with stuccoed detail. The central room leading out onto a balcony was decorated as a garden complete with a fountain. From this balcony we got our first breath taking views of the garden and the countryside with Rome in the distance. I wish I could convey our excitement at that moment, as we began to comprehend the nature of this garden.


It was the first day of February but an almost summer warmth permeated the air and we arrived so off season that we had this incredible garden almost to ourselves. The sun shone illuminating the myriad spouts, sprays, cascades and pools. Exuberant, spectacular! The tumultuous sound, the reflections and iridescence, the softness of the tiny droplets of water suspended in the atmosphere appealed to every sense. Beneath this spectacular performance there was also lovely detailing, in the steps, in the proportions and location of seating, and in in the patterns of paving. Designed to be approached from the entrance at the lowest point of the garden, the visitor would have experienced the garden in a different way, the wonders of the garden slowly revealing themselves as one climbed the terraces. In the summer the garden is filled with roses, though the original planting palette would have been quite different. Original descriptions of the garden describe the lower entrance as having a wooden pergola covered in rare grape varieties and leading into a level garden of medicinal herbs, on the walls were espaliers of citron. Fruit and vines made up a lot of the planting in other parts of the garden. The trees which gave shelter and structure were elms and planes. Some of the cypresses planted in the 17thC still survive today though these would not have been part of the original planting .


The man behind this incredible garden was Cardinal Ippolito d’Este who was appointed governor of Tivoli in 1549. The governors’ house was the old Benedictine convent, modest but on a magnificent site with views over the entire region. The site behind the convent sloped away steeply, a vertical drop of 45 metres. In his employ was Pirro Ligorio described as a classicist, though from his activities he would also appear to have been an architect, engineer and historian all rolled in to one. Through his studies of ancient sites such as Villa Hadriana he had a thorough knowledge of ancient Roman hydraulic engineering. He is attributed with the idea of creating a garden here  inspired by the abundant waters of the Aniene River and harnessing its power for a water garden so spectacular that it would be like nothing anyone had seen before. The Cardinal was one of the wealthiest men of his time and a famous patron of the arts. He had an ambition to be pope and the garden would have fitted with this ambition.  In order to realise the gardens, much of the lands and city below the garden had to be acquired and demolished. The centre part of the garden was built on artificial terraces supported by pillars in order to achieve the desired proportions of 30 metres conforming to the aesthetic principals of the Renaissance. The entire garden is laced with tunnels canals and underground tubes to feed the vast array of fountains, spouts, waterfalls, basins and canals all moving exclusively by the force of gravity. In its detailing the garden is a representation of the landscape between Tivoli and Rome in microcosm, from the Tiburtine hills represented by the Tivoli Fountain to the Rometta Fountain representing Rome itself. The fountains, decorations and statuary were based on the myths and themes of classical culture and this is the unifying theme or element throughout the house and gardens.


It is the strength of Pirro Ligurios initial idea and his vast knowledge of how to make it work coupled with the wealth of a man of culture taste and ambition that the garden did indeed become “a garden of marvels” like nothing anyone had seen before. Though the garden has seen many changes of fortune, periods of neglect and restoration, many additions and alterations, it has remained true to its initial ideal. It is a garden that will remain in your memory forever.