Tivoli: Villas from different times

Tivoli is a town not far from Rome, located on the Sabine hills, from where a beautiful view of the Roman countryside can be admired. It can be reached easily from Rome with a private car or public buses.

Tivoli is famous for several interesting sights, among which two are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List as Villa Adriana (Tivoli) and Villa d’Este, Tivoli.

Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa)

The Villa Adriana is a large Roman complex of several buildings, built by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, in the outskirt of the ancient city Tibur, now known as Tivoli. The area where it’s located, Villa Adriana, obviously takes its name from the villa. It is believed that emperor Hadrian disliked the imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome and decided to build this villa as a private retreat. He actually lived in the villa and ruled the empire from his retreat. After his death the villa was still used until the decline of the Roman Empire, around the 4th century. During this time most of the buildings in Rome and surroundings fell into disuse and materials and piece of art were taken away. Unfortunately Villa Adriana followed the same destiny and was robbed of most of its marble and statues, some of which were used to decorate Villa d’Este (the other UNESCO site in Tivoli) in the 16th century.

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Trees line the road leading to Villa Adriana.
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Ruins of Villa Adriana.

What’s special about Villa Adriana is the size of the site (believed to be at least 1 square kilometer) and the architecture that combines elements of Egypt, Greece and Rome in one single site. There were many pools, baths, theatres, gardens, fountains and even farms and wild areas.

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Grand Thermae.
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Back section of the Grand Thermae.
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Canopo.
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Nymphaeum that was thought to be the stadium.

Because the place was so big, and served as the residence of an emperor, it must have housed several thousand people: staff, visitors and, of course, slaves. In order to keep the landscape of the villa intact a network of tunnels, discovered recently, was built underground, beneath the villa.

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Detail of a ceiling.
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The Maritime Theatre.
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Building With Doric Pillars.
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Nymphaeum Fede (Temple of Venus)
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Trees seen through a wall of the Villa.
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What’s left of the ceiling of one of the many domes that were in the Villa.

A walk around the many buildings and ruins of Villa Adriana is an incredible experience. The place permeates with a sense of power and the good state of preservation of several areas gives a good idea of how this masterpiece of Roman architecture might have been during its glorious days. Some parts, like the outstanding Canopo, are a remarkable example of how the classical architecture found in Villa Adriana influenced future Renaissance and Baroque artists and architects.

Villa d’Este

Villa d’Este is a 16th-century Renaissance villa that can be accessed from the centre of Tivoli. It was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, from whom it takes its name. As everything else from that period, the history is a sequence of different owners, alternating between good times and financial difficulties that led to the decline of the villa, followed by newly renovated interest and restorations, until present days when it belongs to the Italian State.

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Entrance of Villa d’Este and the plaque certifying the inscription to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The villa consists of a palace with a courtyard and several beautifully decorated rooms and halls, and a garden with countless fountains. The garden, the main attraction of the villa, is a sequence of hillside terraces that gradually ascend from the original entrance to the villa, at the bottom of the garden, toward the palace. Now the villa is visited in the opposite direction: the entrance is through the palace, at the top of the garden, and the visiting route unwinds downhill. The following pictures are approximately in the hypothetical order of a typical visit to Villa d’Este. Obviously anyone is free to roam around the gardens without sticking to a specific route.

The garden isn’t easy to describe. It’s vast and divided into different sections with different themes. In every section there are several fountains and waterfalls that make an incredible use of complex and advanced hydraulic engineering. The entire water system of the garden works completely by force of gravity, not even one pump is used, and it’s supplied by the river Aniene which crosses the city of Tivoli.

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View of the garden from the Loggetta of the Cardinal, with the Fountain of the Tripod in the foreground.
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Fontana dell’Ovato (Oval fountain) from above.
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Fountain of the Bicchierone (Big cup). The balcony in the back is Loggetta of the Cardinal.
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Fountain of the Dragons.
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The Hundred Fountains.
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A statue of the d’Este eagle between two spouts of the hundred fountains.
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The fish ponds seen from behind the Fountain of Neptune.
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The fountain of Neptune and, above, the Fountain of the Organ.
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A resident of the gardens of Villa d’Este, with the fish ponds in the background.
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Fish ponds, orange trees and Fountain of Neptune in the background.

What is so important about Villa d’Este is that the garden represents a unique example of Renaissance design of the 16th century applied to gardens. The gardens are so beautiful that they were used as a model for the development of the design of other important gardens in Europe. It’s a captivating place where to spend a fantastic day admiring the beauty of nature in a man-made environment.

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The Fountain of Diana of Ephesus
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The beautiful Fountain of the Owl.
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Detail of the Fountain of the Owl and view of the Roman countryside.
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Panoramic picture of the Rometta (Little Rome) Fountain.

Other sights in Tivoli

Tivoli isn’t only Villa Adriana and Villa d’Este.

Villa Gregoriana is an urban city park, that feels like a forest due to its woodlands, caves, gorges and even a proper waterfall. It was commissioned in the first half of the 19th century, it then fell into ruins and it was open again to visitors in 2005. It’s in the centre of Tivoli, at the bottom of a cliff on which the ancient acropolis and the temple of Vesta, dating to the 1st century BC and now part of the park, are located.

The Sanctuary of Hercules the winner is another interesting sight dating to the 2nd century BC, located just outside the ancient city. It was one of the largest religious complexes at the time but it’s now in ruins.

Rocca Pia, a fortress built in 1461 and located in the heart of Tivoli, not far from the main gate of Villa d’Este.

How long is long enough?

With a car, both villas can be visited in one, long, day. A proper visit to Villa Adriana can require several hours, as the site is big, while Villa d’Este can be visited in a shorter time, from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the pace.

If the plan is to visit also the other sights in Tivoli, or the town is reached by public transport, one day isn’t enough. Considering the distance between the two villas (Villa Adriana is a few kilometers outside Tivoli) and to/from Rome, it would be advisable to stay in Tivoli overnight and visit everything, without rushing, in two consecutive days before heading back to Rome.

Tivoli and its superb historical villas are well worth a trip from Rome. Not only for the artistic and cultural heritage that they represent, but also to experience a completely different paced local life. Tivoli is a town that, despite being close to the big city, still retains most of its old charm that has so fascinated influential people from the past, that they thus chose this place as their residence.

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