It’s not too hard to imagine what kind of man Ippolito II d’Este would have been. Born into a wealthy and influential Italian family in 1509, he was a lover of the finest things.
Although he was made Archbishop of Milan when he was nine years old (the title was hereditary then), he saw the church as an instrument to be used to gain even more power.
Vows of celibacy weren’t his thing. He would bring in musicians, prostitutes, feasts and wine to impress the people who needed impressing.
When he was made the governor of Tivoli, he arrived in the town about 20 kilometres from Rome and did not like the look of the home that had been assigned to him.
And so, in the style appropriate for someone who kept peacocks as pets, he decided to build Villa d’Este – a new and much grander residence, not far from where the Roman emperor Hadrian had built his pleasure palace (taking many marbles and statues from the ancient site to decorate his new one!).
Nobody argued at the time when Ippolito II d’Este decided to dramatically modify the monastery he had been given in Tivoli – he was, after all, the grandson of a pope.
And you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would argue today, because his creation of the Villa d’Este and its Tivoli Gardens is one of the most magnificent examples of renaissance architecture and landscaping in the world.
While Villa d’Este is smaller than the nearby Hadrian’s Villa, and it was constructed about 1400 years later, the two palatial homes do have something in common – they are both World Heritage Sites.
Before I tell you more about Villa d’Este and its gardens, it’s just worth mentioning that visiting Tivoli and seeing both World Heritage Sites is a wonderful day trip from Rome.
Inside Villa d’Este
The large villa is spread over two levels with grand rooms with unique designs. The paintings on the walls and ceilings of the rooms make them feel more like cubes of art than practical spaces, but they were used back in the 16th century for both living and entertaining.
Most of the artworks have been described as ‘secular allegories’, which is probably quite suitable for a man who seemed to give his own interpretation to the role of the church.
Although Ippolito II d’Este became a cardinal (and almost pope), it was much more to do with lavish gifts he sent to European dignitaries than for selfless service to religion.
The Apartments of the Cardinal
You enter Villa d’Este from a piazza and onto the top floor of the building. It’s now known as the Apartments of the Cardinal, because it was the personal living area of Ippolito II d’Este.
The large salon is the first room and could used for receptions. From there, you’ll go through to an antechamber, decorated with personifications of virtue, before you reach the cardinal’s bedroom… where it’s likely things were not so virtuous.
The bedroom’s walls were once covered with leather painted with gold and silver but, like much of this upper level, those decorations have now gone. The ceiling, though, is wooden and gilded with painted imagery including the Este crest.
Connected to the bedroom are a small library and chapel. They are decorated with frescoes that mix Ancient roman motifs with traditional Christian symbols – perhaps a nod to his background and the pieces of Hadrian’s Villa that were used to decorated the new estate.
Looking out the windows from the Apartments of the Cardinal, you get a stunning view down to the gardens and across the green countryside around Tivoli.
The Noble Floor
Going down a set of circular stone stairs, you’ll reach the Noble Floor, a series of about ten ornately decorated rooms coming off a long corridor.
Each room has walls and ceilings painted with frescoes, with other adornments like mosaics and stucco. There’s a different theme for each room, most related to nature, water, and mythology or religion.
For example, one of the first rooms you’ll come into is the Hall of Glory, which has the illusion of windows, tapestries, and sculptures painted onto the walls. There are allegorical depictions of the seasons and virtues.
The largest room you’ll see here is the Hall of the Fountain, named because it has a small fountain in the wall at one end. It was used as a reception hall to greeet people who had just arrived through the garden (the main entry back then), but it could also be used for concerts and other events.
The frescoes on the wall show the gardens of Villa d’Este and an image of Ippolito’s villa in Rome.
At the far end of the Noble Floor are a series of rooms, each decorated with a different story. For instance, there’s the Hall of Noah, which you can see in this photo, with a central image of Noah making an agreement with God shortly after the ark landed on Mount Ararat.
Even for visitors to Villa d’Este who have come mainly for the gardens, the rooms of the villa are worth a bit of time and each one has so many different layers to uncover.
There’s no denying that it’s the gardens of Villa d’Este, also known as Tivoli Gardens, which are the most lavish part of the compound.
From the villa, stairs and paths lead down to the garden along five main corridors. At one side, the garden is elevated by a cliff-like fountain. The effect is that the whole space feels a bit like an amphitheatre.
Throughout the garden area are immaculately manicured hedges and trees, colourful flower gardens, stone statues and fountains. It’s designed so different parts have different atmospheres, with areas to relax in the sun or the shade, with a view or without one.
There are small private areas where you could sit in peace and read a book, for instance, but much of Tivoli Gardens was intended to be used for large functions, and there are space for games, performances, and even fireworks.
The fountains themselves are works of genius and were all designed to use gravity and hydraulics to move the water through them. Even today, all but two large jets are still operated without electronics or motors.
Although there are quite a few fountains in Tivoli Gardens, I’m going to mention a few to look out for:
The Fountain of the Organ
One of the most famous parts of Tivoli Gardens is the Fountain of the Organ, which has a complicated mechanism inside that uses water to operate instruments like pipes and trumpets. The music it creates is coordinated with the jets of water that are produced.
When it was built in 1571, most people had never seen anything like it before and it was a highlight of many guests’ visit to the villa.
The organ inside the fountain has been replaced since its original installation and it now has 144 pipes. It is still used these days and there are performances every two hours from 10:30 in the morning.
The Fountain of Neptune
Below the Fountain of the Organ is the Fountain of Neptune, which uses the water that flows down from the upper construction.
It was actually built in the 1930s to replace a 17th-century rocky cascade that had been neglected and needed to be replaced. It gets its name from the torso of a statue of Neptune that is in a grotto behind the main waterfall.
With its water jets of different heights, it creates a lively centrepiece at the end of the promenade of fish tanks that cut through the garden.
The Oval Fountain
The Oval Fountain was one of the first fountains built in Tivoli Gardens and was used for people to hang out on hot days, because the sprays of water cooled the air.
The focus is the large stone basin in the centre that creates a veil of falling water, but there are also smaller jets coming out of vases being held by statues of sea nymphs.
The artificial mountain behind the fountain is supposed to represent the landscape of the region, and it has three grottoes with water pouring out.
The Hundred Fountains
It’s hard to miss the Hundred Fountains because they stretch across the length of a pathway close to the side of the main villa building. There are actually about 300 spouts with water coming from thee canals at different heights.
The original fountains had more decorations, including small boats in one of the canals. What you can see now are spouts in the shapes of lilies, eagles, and obelisks.
As you explore the gardens, you’ll see at least six more fountains of different sizes. Each one of them has a story and you’ll be able to learn even more about what they represent if you go on a guided tour of Tivoli Gardens.
Tours to Villa d’este and Tivoli Gardens
As I walk down from the fountains at the top, with the villa above me on the left and an emptiness ahead that looks out over the suburbs of Tivoli, I can only imagine how it was to be here more than 400 years ago when the villa first came into existence.
The parties which must have been held here, the important people who must have come to visit, the amazement of everyone when they beheld this masterpiece for the first time.
It is possible to visit Villa d’Este independently, and I’ve got some information in a moment about how to get to Tivoli from Rome by public transport, for instance. But there’s so much to see here, and so many interesting stories about the parties and other exuberances that took place, you’ll get a lot more from a guide.
Most tours leave from Rome and most of the combine Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa, which makes sense because they’re two of the most significant sites near Rome (and are different enough that it doesn’t get boring to do them both on the same day.
The logistics of getting between the two sites (which are about 5 kilometres apart) can also be a bit of a hassle, so doing a tour that covers them both in much easier.
To do a day trip from Rome to see both Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este, there’s a very good and affordable tour here that I would recommend.
Or, there are some other good options that you may suit your circumstances better:
Visiting Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens
Over the years the villa did fall into a state of disrepair but it was eventually taken over by the Italian Government in 1920. Since then they’ve worked to restore and maintain it and make it available to everyone.
It’s certainly worth doing a day trip from Rome to Tivoli to see Villa d’Este. The villa and the attached Tivoli Gardens are in the centre of town and easy to reach by direct train from Rome. However, be warned that Hadrian’s Villa is about five kilometres away – if you want to see it too, it might make sense to use the Metro between there and Rome.
I would recommend about two hours to see Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens. You can rush through if you need to, because the site doesn’t take up that much space, but there are so many little details to see – and they are what make it so special.
Where is Villa d’Este in Tivoli?
Villa d’Este is in the centre of Tivoli at Piazza Trento, 5. The entranceway looks quite simple but don’t be fooled – it opens out to the impressive villa and garden once you’re inside.
How do you get to Villa d’Este in Tivoli?
The quickest way to Villa d’Este from Rome is to catch a direct train to Tivoli station from Termini or Tiburtina. The site is just a short stroll from there.
Alternatively, you can catch the Metro Line B to Ponte Mammolo and then get the bus marked to Tivoli.
When is Villa d’Este open?
The main Villa d’Este building is open from 08:30 – 19:45 every day except Monday, when it opens at 14:00 instead.
You can access Tivoli Gardens from 08:30 but the gardens close at different times during the year:
March: 1800 (or from 1900 when summer-time begins)
May – August: 19:30
October: 18:15 (or from 17:15 when winter-time begins)
November and December: 16:45
How much does it cost to visit Villa d’Este?
Entrance fees are €12 for an adult, €2 for a reduced ticket. Children under 18 are free.
You can buy tickets in advance here to skip the line, but I’m not sure it’s worth the extra expense.
You can also get a combined ticket for Villa d’Este, Hadrian’s Villa, the Sanctuary of Hercules Victor, and Mensa Ponderaria for €25 for an adult and €6 for a reduced.
You can find out more information at Villa d’Este’s official website.
Visiting Ville d’Este is an easy day trip from Rome or a good stopping point for journeys to the east of the capital. It is definitely worth the trip. You can also combine it with a visit to Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli and, remember, this tour will take the hassle out of all the logistics.
Ippolito II d’Este may have been an extravagant man who presumably made as many enemies as he did friends – but he has left us with a stunning legacy of which he should be proud.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN TIVOLI
Although you can visit as a day trip from Rome, there’s enough to see to make a lovely overnight stay in Tivoli.
There aren’t really any hostels in town, but you’ll find good rates at La Giada.
I think Cristallo Relais is a wonderful little hotel with excellent value for money.
For a rustic villa atmosphere, have a look at the charming Casale Colleoni.
And for an incredible historic hotel, Residenze Gregoriane is a very special experience.