Villa d’Este, Tivoli

The palace and the garden of Villa d’Este in Tivoli, in the centre of Italy, were layed out by Pirro Ligorio (1500-83) on behalf of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este of Ferrara (1509-72), who, after being named governor of Tivoli in 1550, desired the realization of a palace adequate to his new status. The ensemble composed of the palace and gardens forms an uneven quadrilateral and covers an area of about 4.5ha.

The Villa d’Este in Tivoli is one of the most remarkable and comprehensive illustrations of Renaissance culture at its most refined. Owing to its innovative design and the creativity and ingenuity of the architectural components in the garden (fountains, ornamental basins, etc.), it is a true water garden and a unique example of an Italian 16th century garden. The Villa d’Este, one of the first giardini delle meraviglie, served as a model for and had a decisive influence on the development of gardens in Europe.

The plan of the villa is irregular because the architect was obliged to make use of certain parts of the previous monastic building. On the garden side the architecture of the palace is very simple: a long main body of three storeys, marked by bands, rows of windows, and side pavilions that barely jut out. This uniform facade is interrupted by an elegant loggia in the middle, with two levels and stair ramps. Starting in 1560 great efforts were made to supply the water needed for the numerous fountains that were intended to embellish the garden. Once the water supply had been ensured and its flow made possible by the natural gravity created by the different levels of the garden, work started on constructing the fountains, ornamental basins, and grottoes and on laying out the landscape.

The Villa d’Este garden stretches over two steep slopes, descending from the palace down to a flat terrace in the manner of an amphitheatre. The loggia of the palace marks the longitudinal and central axis of the garden. Five main transversal axes become the central axis from the fixed point of view created by the villa, as each of these axes terminates in one of the garden fountains. This arrangement of axes and modules was adopted to disguise the irregular outline of the garden, to rectify by means of an optical illusion the relationship between the transversal and longitudinal dimensions, and to give the palace a central position, even though it is in fact out of alignment in relation to the whole.

The most striking effect is produced by the big cascade flowing out of a krater perched in the middle of the exedra. Jets of water were activated whenever unsuspecting people walked under the arcades. The Fontana del Bicchierone (Fountain of the Great Glass), built according to a design by Bernini (1660-61) was added to the decoration of the central longitudinal axis in the 17th century. This fountain is in the shape of a serrated chalice, from which a high jet of water falls into a conch shell. The garden, with its fountains, is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, both for the general lay out of the plan and the complex system of distribution of water as well as for the many water plays with the introduction of the first hydraulic automatons ever built.