Wednesday 17 August 2011

Two great villas

The Island Villa or  'Maritime Theatre' at Hadrian's Villa: probably the Emperor's private quarters.
One of our aims while in Rome was to get to Tivoli to see Hadrian's Villa and the Villa d'Este, so on Sunday, foolishly believing that public transport was unreliable, we booked a tour that would take us to both. It did, but that was the best that could be said of it.

Hadrian, 76-138 AD, Emperor 117-138
(Capitoline Museum)
 Hadrian's Villa, now on the outskirts of Tivoli, must once have been among the greatest 'country retreats' the world has ever seen, a magnificent expanse of fine buildings and landscaping that in some ways can be seen as as a microcosm of the Roman Empire. Hadrian had a passion for art and architecture and here at his private villa he could indulge these with the resources of the empire behind him. Incredibly, the majority of the villa complex, stretching over almost a kilometre, was built within a decade of his accession, mostly while he was on tour of the empire, but evidently all to a single vision that must have been largely his own. With the buildings clad in marble it must have been an extraordinary place: even today, in ruins and stripped to the brick in all but a few corners, it is monumentally grand.

The Canopus, an area said to have been inspired by Egypt, with a half-domed dining hall at the end of a long reflecting pool, once lined by sculptures and a colonnade. The current statues are all replicas.

The massive remnants of Hadrian's Villa are still an imposing sight, in a wonderful setting.

After Hadrian's death the villa was maintained as an imperial residence for a while, but became neglected and eventually lapsed into obscurity, although forming a convenient source of building materials for the local populace. Its significance was recognised again in the Renaissance, when various prelates undertook excavations that unearthed a wealth of wonderful statuary and other objects, now scattered through the world's museums. Among these excavators was Pirro Ligorio, working for Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este (1509-1572), Governor of Tivoli from 1550, and then in the process of building his own remarkable and villa and garden that Hadrian's statues were to adorn. Among them was the statue of an Amazon seen to the right, a copy of an original by Pheidias that is now in the Capitoline Museum.

Only fragments remain on site to show how magnificent Hadrian's Villa must have been: an intricately carved column base.

The timeless Italian combination of olive trees and cypresses in the grounds of Hadrian's Villa.

The Organ Fountain, Villa d'Este
Tivoli from Villa d'Este
The gardens of the Villa d'Este are one of the greatest of Renaissance landscape creations, and have been admired and copied since they were built, principally between 1560-1575. Sited on a steep west-facing slope below the massive presence of the villa itself, they are a fantasy creation of fountains and pools, light and shade, formality and farce, warmth and coolth. With the exception of two unfortunate patches of bedding in Italian colours, there is little in flower at this time of year, but there doesn't need to be: the contrast in shades of green and the light from the stone and water is quite sufficient.

Despite the formality and beauty of the layout and architecture, water is the thing at Villa d'Este, providing light, movement and sound. Its provision required the creation of an aqueduct from the mountains and a conduit from the River Aniene which runs through the town, but this constant supply at constant pressure enabled the Cardinal's fountaineers to develop dozens of water features, many of which are sadly no longer extant (including the water jokes, but the water organ has recently been restored). The statuary is long-gone, alas, and the garden and its features fell into disrepair from the late 17th Century. Now a World Heritage site and owned by the Italian state they seemed to be well kept, with crisply trimmed hedges of Bay, Box and Myrtle, and most of the important fountains are working well (though others need attention).

All the elements of Villa d'Este are encompassed in the setting of the Fontane dell'Ovata.

The famous Pathway of the Hundred Fountains - a beautiful combination of sound and light.

The water features are all draped in a lush coating of Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum capillus-veneris, a nice sight for a pteridologist.

The Organ Fountain is at the head of the main cross-axis of the garden, with its water flowing into the first of three fish ponds placed along the terrace.
Having been whisked round Hadrian's villa in an hour flat, and about to get the same treatment at Villa d'Este, we decided to abandon the tour and go back to Rome by bus and metro, an arrangement that worked smoothly and efficiently. It gave us the opportunity to explore Tivoli and the grounds of the Villa Gregoriana, where the gorge of the Aniene, with the river rushing through tufa grottos suggested where, perhaps, some of the inspiration for Villa d'Este, and almost certainly some of its tufa features, had come from.

The Aniene gorge, below Tivoli.

A lily among the acanthus: a capital at the Temple of Vesta, Tivoli.


  1. john in coastal Nova Scotia18 August 2011 at 01:29

    Now there are Les Jeux d'eau à la Villa 'Este of Liszt. Magical.

    It took me some time to spot the hidden sketch of Liszt in this etching by Orosz -'Este.jpg

    Incredible detail on that Hadrian Villa column.

  2. The secret is to look for the eyes John, there are only a few places they could be.

    A wonderful set of images of both Hadrian's Villa and the Villa d'Este, you generally only see a few versions of the same thing. I would have loved to have seen it, especially now the organ fountain has been repaired. Cheers John

  3. Oh dear, you have brought back memories of my trip to Hadrians villa quite a few years ago when I tore a ligament in my leg!! Super place though, really enjoyed it. Stayed not far from Villa D'Este so had to pay it a visit, all the water certaily cooled the atmosphere and the fountains were magnificent.

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