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General Tivoli is a town some 31 miles east of Rome, nestling in the Alban Hills. The town lies on the River Aniene, which is a tributary of the Tiber. Tivoli gets its name from Tibur, the Latin name for Tiber. The attraction of the town, of course, is the extravagant villa built there by a wealthy family, the d'Este family, during the Renaissance, and the villa and its gardens and fountains are what we're going to Tivoli to see.
Historical Sketch Tivoli is a very ancient settlement, going back to the Stone Age. It became an Etruscan village whose populace fought against the Roman kingdom at the Battle of Regillus in 496 B.C. They were defeated, and eventually came under Roman control. By 90 B.C. all the inhabitants were Roman citizens and Tivoli entered its golden age. Its hills, fresh air, abundant water, and cool summers attracted Roman aristocrats, who built villas on the hillsides. At the fall of the Roman Empire, the town was plundered by invading Goths. During the Middle Ages, the town was rebuilt, and we now have remains of a 14th-century Benedictine monastery. Tivoli became a part of the Papal States (i.e. lands administered directly by the pope). Soon, popes and cardinals took the place of Roman nobles in coming to Tivoli during the summer.
The d'Este Family: In 1550, Pope Julius III appointed the Cardinal of Ferrara, Ippolito d'Este, as governor of the town. This was meant to compensate the Cardinal for his repeated failure to get himself elected pope — he came from an ambitious and worldly family. At the age of 9 (!), Cardinal d'Este had been appointed Archbishop of Milan as a result of his family's political intrigues. Ippolito d'Este was an intelligent and cultured man, despite the corruption of his family. As governor of Tivoli, he lived at first in the modest governor's palace — formerly the 13th-century Benedictine monastery referred to above. Unsatisfied by its Spartan furnishings, Ippolito transformed the old palace-monastery into the splendid villa we see today, and had the magnificent gardens and fountains laid out.
The Gardens and Fountains of the Villa d'Este They were designed as a single unit by the Neapolitan artist Pino Ligorio, hence have a harmony of arrangement which is unique in Europe, rather than a haphazard, ad hoc sort of layout that one finds often enough in Europe. Think of the engineering achievement the fountains represent. Ligorio had to solve a number of technical problems — after all, he had no hydraulic power at his disposal, only gravity! First of all, a huge tunnel was dug (1800 feet long), bringing water in at a rate of 300 gallons per second to supply the fountains.
The fountains are beautifully decorated with sculptures by various artists of the day. One fountain, called the Organ Fountain, channeled the water in such a way that it fell on organ keys — the fountain played music! One impressive feature is the "Avenue of the Hundred Fountains", personally designed by Ligorio. The biggest fountain is called Ovato, also designed by Ligorio. The water coming through the tunnel reaches this fountain first, then flows from it to all the others.
Centuries ago, the fountains were equipped with all sorts of tricks and surprises — to amuse the Cardinal and his guests at banquets. For example, if someone stepped on certain stones, small frogs in some of the pools were released and leaped out —much to the affright of the ladies!
What to see: The best way to appreciate the beauty of the villa and gardens is to go down to the bottom of the grounds and make your way up to the top, since in the days of Cardinal d'Este, the entrance to the gardens was from the lower level. Marvel at the centuries-old cypress trees, fishponds, flower gardens, and statuary. Many of these statues were taken from Hadrian's Villa, a palace built by the Roman emperor, located a short distance from Tivoli.
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