The Three Sisters of Tivoli

by Danilo Brunetti

The ancient hill town of Tivoli is well worth a day trip from Rome at any time of year, but in summer it becomes a true mini-vacation, an escape from the heat and chaos of the big city. In less than an hour by train from Termini station, you can explore the beautiful historical center of Tivoli, Renaissance wonder Villa d’Este and ancient Villa Adriana (both UNESCO World Heritage sites), and the recently reopened Villa Gregoriana with its mix of ancient and natural beauty.

> Villa Adriana

A man of culture and a passionate lover of architecture and all the art forms of his day, Hadrian has always been remembered as an emperor of the Golden Era of Rome, and has long been lauded for his clemency and sense of justice, yet many historians now argue that much of what we think we know about Hadrian is actually false. For example, that he was not, as was believed, the adopted son of Trajan, but rather his adoption was a plot by Hadrian himself and Trajan’s wife Plotina, with whom he was romantically involved. It is also now claimed that he was not as tolerant as history has made us believe, but instead a persecutor of Jews and an assassin of anyone who dared come between him and his power. Whatever the truth may be, it is certain that he was an illuminated man from an artistic and cultural point of view; he was responsible for the construction of many temples which enriched the artistic heritage of the lands in which they were built. 

Hadrian’s Roman residence was a complete and autonomous microcosm. A frequent traveler, Hadrian wanted to combine at Villa Adriana the luxury and functionality of the places he had admired during his travels in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. In particular, Hadrian paid tribute to Greek and Egyptian cultures with countless images of gods, philosophers, heroes, animals, and athletes. These statues are unforgettable symbols of the emperor’s time in foreign lands: the head of an Amazon, the caryatids that flank the Canopus, the white marble peacock, the Minerva, and the Faun. There are also effigies of Hadrian himself and his wife Sabina, as well as his great love Antinous, a young man whom he met in Bithynia and who became his inseparable companion until the latter’s death, which took place in the waters of the Nile under mysterious circumstances. From that moment on, all the provinces of the empire were decorated with images of his young lover, a true obsession that led the emperor to continually order new statues.

Hadrian died in Baiae, a town on the gulf of Naples, before the construction of his miniature city was completed. The sprawling palace boasted Roman organization and architecture, although it was contaminated by Hadrian’s innovative ideas, such as Greek cultural influence, underground passages, navigable canals, and panoramic terraces.

> Villa d’Este

Situated in an area that was a favorite vacation spot back as far back as the days of the Roman Empire, Villa d’Este was built by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este II, Duke of Ferrara, in 1572, although it eventually passed into the Hapsburg family, who allowed the great estate to fall into abandon. In the mid-1800s, Cardinal Hohenlohe fell in love with the property, spending his entire fortune to purchase and restore it. The Villa was eventually turned over to the Italian State in 1919 with the Treaty of St. Germain.

The fountain-filled gardens of the villa, which are regularly awarded the honor of the most beautiful garden in the world, were the work of architect Pirro Ligorio. His project was truly innovative and the various structures of the garden were unique to their era. He excavated a 600-meter underground gallery which reached the banks of the Aniene River, transporting gallons of water to a tank above the glorious oval-shaped fountain. He precisely calculated the exact quantity of water necessary to create the water-play he had envisioned, utilizing the principle of networking fountains.

Water is clearly the inspiration of the villa, with a variety and splendor of fountains that leaves visitors in awe. Pirrin del Gagliardo’s Organ Fountain produces such an extraordinary sound that Pope Gregory XIII was often convinced someone was in the garden playing an actual organ. The Three Fishermen Fountain, immersed in greenery with 48 jets; the glorious Fountain of Diana of Ephesus; the Fountain of the Eagle, symbol of the Este family; and the whirling Windmill Fountain, also known as the Fountain of Dragons; and the infinite Fountain of Persephone, are some of the most notable. The Path of 100 Fountains, made up of two parallel strips containing pools crowned in obelisks, fleur–de-lis, and ships, stretches 100 meters and is gloriously illuminated by night. The Oval Fountain is perhaps the most beautiful, with water cascading from a massive basin above. The most famous, often attributed to Bernini, is the Bicchierone Fountain (literally the “big cup”), made up of an enormous shell and a giant spouting chalice. Diana’s Grotto is composed of mosaics, stucco, and reliefs, and depicts mythological scenes, while a more recent addition is the Fountain of Neptune, built in 1927, displaying the torso of the god immersed in a waterfall.

While the gardens are by far the biggest attraction, the villa itself is well worth exploring. Frescoes by Tempesta, Karcher, and Perin del Vaga adorn the halls, and a double-ramped stairway leads to the royal apartments, where an impressive perspective of painted columns leads to the throne room. Stroll through frescoed rooms featuring the trials of Hercules, the great philosophers, and the Este lineage.

> Villa Gregoriana

In 1826, the River Aniene burst its banks and a catastrophic flood swept away much of Tivoli’s ancient town. The papacy intervened with grandiose plans for reinforced riverbanks, but it was architect Clemente Folchi who came up with the idea to bore into Monte Catillo, creating underground tunnels to deviate the river’s course, and in the process creating a spectacular waterfall and pathways carved out of the original riverbed. Pope Gregory XVI, after whom the park was named, presided over the opening of this oasis of waterfalls, ravines, and grottoes in 1835. In 1870, the Park passed from Vatican State property to the Italian State, and it was the main tourist attraction of Tivoli until World War I. At that point, Villa Gregoriana remained closed for decades due principally to lack of maintenance, which caused the park’s natural elements and structures to deteriorate significantly. In 2002, FAI (Italian Environment Fund) gained patrimony of Villa Gregoriana and began a long process of restoration and maintenance, with a focus on security: reinforcing unstable cliffs, restructuring ramps with travertine, and creating parapets, walls, and handrails. Villa Gregoriana finally reopened in 2005, but the natural beauty of the park isn’t the only thing worth seeing. The ruins of the ancient villa of Manlio Volpisco, a Roman consul, are visible as well. Built in the beginning of the second century BC, it was a sumptuous, spacious, and complex villa built in proximity to the sacred forest of Tiburno, the grotto of Sybil, and the temples of the Acropolis.

The round temple perched at the top of the cliff above the valley and waterfall completes a striking scene. Called the Temple of Vesta, it is unclear to whom the temple was actually dedicated: the hero Tiburno (whose sacred forest was on the spot, and who gave his name to the town of Tivoli); Hercules, the protector god of the ancient Tibur; Sybil Albunea, one of the virgins with prophetic abilities; or Vesta herself, the goddess of hearth, home, and family. Likewise, the nearby rectangular Temple of Sybil could have been dedicated to Tiburno, Hercules, Sybil, or Vesta.

VILLA D’ESTE – Piazza Trento, 5. Tel 0774332920. 

VILLA ADRIANA – Via di Villa Adriana, 204. Tel 0639967900.

VILLA GREGORIANA – Piazza Tempio di Vesta. Tel 0774382733.