Located in the lovely Tivoli, a small town at a stone’s throw from Rome, Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens are an impressive example of Renaissance grandeur. The country estate of pope-wanna-be Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, son of Alfonso d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia (daughter of Pope Alexander VI), Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens are easy to visit on a day trip from Rome.
If you are looking for a place to visit near Rome where you can escape the chaos of the city and the crowds of tourists, this post is for you. Continue reading as I will share the history and main sights of Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens, as well as some practical information that will help you plan your visit.
Make sure to also read my posts A Short Guide To Tivoli, Italy and 28 Best Day Trips From Rome.
The History Of Villa D’Este And Tivoli Gardens
This famous villa was first commissioned by Italian cardinal and statesman, Ippolito II d’Este in 1550. He was one of the richest and most powerful cardinals of his era with an annual income estimated to be around 120,000 scudi.
Ippolito was well connected to the elite of Europe, and was at one time positioned to become the next Pope. He was a well-known patron of the arts and a keen supporter of sculptors.
His power in the politics of the era is shown through him being sent as an envoy to Rome by the new French king, Henry II. He carved out a role in shaping the social and political landscape of Rome at the time.
Ippolito failed, however, to become Pope, largely due to his lavish lifestyle which went against the morals of the sixteenth-century Reformation (Ippolito was a candidate for the papacy four more times after this, but was never elected by his fellow cardinals).
Instead, he was appointed as the governor of Tivoli by Pope Julius III in that same year as thanks for helping him ascend to the papal throne. He was pleased with this, as it gave him jurisdiction over Hadrian’s Villa.
However, on arrival in Tivoli, Ippolito discovered that his lodgings consisted of an old and not-so-comfortable former convent at Santa Maria Maggiore (on the site of an old Roman villa). The cardinal was used to a bit more luxury, but enjoyed the fresh air of Tivoli and was interested in the Roman antiques and ruins scattered throughout the region.
He set about transforming the old convent into a villa, calling on the skills of architect Pirro Ligorio for the purpose. Ligorio was a classical scholar who had studied Hadrian’s Villa, alongside many other sites in the area, and planned to build a villa and garden that would exceed any of the ancient remains, and worked alongside an enormous number of craftsmen and creatives to achieve Ippolito’s vision.
However, due to a series of official duties and even exile, construction on the estate didn’t begin in earnest until 1560 when Ippolito returned after Pope Pius IV had pardoned him of any wrongdoing.
A huge construction site was needed for the building of his estate, which meant that surrounding houses, public buildings, streets and even churches had to be demolished. The destruction of the local area led to 12 different lawsuits being filed against the cardinal by local residents in 1568.
The landscape of the area was, then, completely changed. Between 1563 and 1565, a massive amount of earth was moved to construct the grottoes, nymphaeum and terraces of the residence. Even the River Aniene itself was diverted to provide water for Ippolito’s succession of water features and fountains.
The garden’s famous sloping side also posed difficulties; canals and pipes were built to create this artificial slope. In general, the layout of the garden at Villa d’Este was that of a classic Renaissance ideal, whereby it was sectioned off into neat shapes, each 30 meters across.
The villa itself was built before architect Alberto Galvani took the reins, while the interiors were the work of Livio Agresti, who set about lavishly decorating it.
At this time, Cardinal Ippolito made his fifth attempt to become pope but, upon failing yet again, it was to be his final attempt. The new pope, Pius V, banned Ippolito from ever attempting the papacy again. This left the cardinal free to focus on his villa.
Ippolito drafted in a long list – from Italy and further afield – of painters and stucco workers, ceramicists and mosaic artists, and even fountain engineers, to create his marvelously impressive estate.
By the end of the decade (1569), the frantic work on the villa began to take on a slower pace. Ippolito increasingly spent more of his free time at his villa, meeting with prominent thinkers and creatives of the Renaissance.
In the summer of 1572, to prepare to receive Pope Gregory XIII as a guest, Ippolito completely redecorated the top floors of the villa and rushed to complete the Dragon Fountain. This visit cost him more than 5,000 scudi, the cost of which was footed by Ippolito having to sell a portion of his precious objects. But that same year, on December 2nd, Ippolito died in Rome.
With his death, the villa and its surrounding gardens were passed onto Ippolito’s nephew, Cardinal Luigi d’Este. Luigi did some of the work that had been left unfinished, but ran into difficulties with the soaring maintenance costs of the estate.
Once Luigi died in 1586, the villa was given to the Cardinal Deacons of the Sacred College. Following, in 1599 the estate was once again returned to the d’Este family – it was to be the ambitious Cardinal Alessandro d’Este who was tasked with running the estate.
Alessandro had the vigor and desire to not only properly maintain the whole estate and its gardens, but to also make additions, specifically to the fountains. He also managed to persuade Pope Gregory XV to officially give the estate over to the d’Este family.
Alessandro’s successors were the Dukes of Modena; Cardinal Rinaldo I commissioned new fountains which were designed by eminent Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
However, by the end of the 17th century, the d’Este family were no longer able to afford the exorbitant costs of keeping the villa up to scratch. The villa, then, fell into half a century of decline; antique sculptures were removed and sold off, the gardens became overgrown, and the estate soon lost the luster of its heyday.
It passed through the hands of various noble families, notably the Habsburgs, under whom the villa saw its most serious decline, specifically at the hands of French soldiers who occupied it twice and looted much of its decoration.
Villa d’Este then came into the possession of Cardinal Gustav von Hohenlohe, who restored the now dilapidated estate between 1850 and 1896. But at this time, the practically ruined estate appealed to the Romantic and Gothic sensibilities of the time.
Artists and musicians were drawn there – for example, the composer Franz Liszt wrote three pieces of music specifically about the estate. Following World War I, the Italian state took ownership of the villa and began to restore it in 1922, at which time it was refurbished with paintings stored at the Galleria Nazionale in Rome.
Villa d’Este took damage from bombing raids during World War II, and additional damage took place in the post-war era from pollution in the surrounding area. Thankfully, in the last few decades, much has been done to preserve the villa and its famous gardens. In 2001, it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and described as “one of the first wonder gardens”.
The Main Sights Of Villa D’Este And Tivoli Gardens
Entrance to Villa d’Este
Today, visitors can enter the villa and enjoy the extravagance of the building. The entrance is found in Piazza Trento, which differs from the time of Ippolito, who had it planned that visitors would enter through the bottom of the gardens, walk through the estate, past the fountains and statues, and ascend the steps to the villa.
The door that visitors enter through today actually predates Ippolito (it was made in 1521). Once inside, though many of the paintings that once decorated the foyer were destroyed by WWII bombs, some can still be seen. These date back to 1563 and depict scenes from the Old Testament.
Hall of the Stories of Solomon
Next, there’s the Hall of the Stories of Solomon. Frescoes that adorn the wall of this room illustrate scenes from the life of King Solomon. Also found in this room is a huge travertine head, once on display in the garden until it was moved inside during the eighteenth century.
The courtyard at the actual villa itself was once the courtyard of the Benedictine convent which originally stood here. Here you can see the Fountain of Venus, designed by Raffaello Sangallo in 1568 and topped by a fourth-century bust of Emperor Constantine; the central element of the fountain is an ancient statue of the goddess Venus (fourth to fifth centuries), which gives the fountain its name.
Located on the ground floor of Villa d’Este, these various rooms were once the personal apartments of Cardinal Ippolito. The salon was where he would entertain guests, and is centered around a view of the gardens with the borrowed scenery of Hadrian’s Villa in the background.
In its heyday, the now-bare walls were completely covered with leather, accented with green and gold eagles symbolic of the d’Este family. The vaulted ceiling is still covered in ornate friezes and frescoes that were designed by Livio Agresti in 1568.
On their way to the Cardinal’s Bedroom, visitors will pass by a small antechamber which is decorated with personifications of virtue. The bedroom was constructed in 1576 and was also once covered in leather. Today the coffered ceiling is the focal point of the room, which is made of gilded wood. Also found in the Apartments are a library and a small chapel.
Below the Cardinal Apartments are a collection of decorative rooms that have each been painted with gorgeous frescoes according to a specific theme. These rooms would have been used for the cardinal to enjoy pastimes – one would be for reading, another for music, while there was also a specific room for conversations.
All of the rooms have names. Some of the more notable ones include the Hall of Noah, which is absolutely covered in frescoes designed to look like a tapestry, depicting scenes of classical landscapes; the work in here dates to 1571.
There’s also the Hall of Moses, which is centered around a ceiling painted with a depiction of Moses hitting a rock with his rod to get water for the Israelites; this was supposed to be a nod to the cardinal, who had a river moved to feed his garden.
There’s also the Hall of the Fountain, a reception room where guests would arrive after passing through the gardens (and also where concerts would take place). Designed between 1565 and 1670, the main focus of this room is a wall fountain decorated with ceramics and sculptures, studded with seashells and precious stones.
All of these rooms were connected via a long corridor, which features a beautifully mosaicked, high-vaulted ceiling that dates from the late sixteenth century. The corridor is also decorated with three fountains, elaborately designed in a rustic style, each of which has miniature grottoes built into them.
Much of the fame not only of Villa d’Este but Tivoli as a whole are the Tivoli Gardens at this sprawling estate. Famed as much for their Renaissance heyday as they were for their dilapidated state in the 19th century, Tivoli Gardens today have been returned to their former glory.
The gardens are most famous for their incredible system of fountains, of which there are 51 in total, including 398 spouts, 64 waterfalls, 220 basins and 364 water jets, all working together via a series of canals, cascades and channels, and powered all by the force of gravity – an amazing feat of engineering for the sixteenth century.
Tivoli Gardens at Villa d’Este were one of the finest gardens of the Renaissance and have been imitated ever since.
The Vialone (Terrace)
This 200-meter-long terrace connects the gardens and villa itself, providing a border between the two. Standing here, visitors can soak up a sweeping view of the landscape. It was previously used as a space for festivities and parties and was constructed between 1568 and 1569.
On the terrace, there’s a nymphaeum which plays host to the Fountain of Leda. There are two more fountains on the terrace: the Fountain of the Tripod, which is actually a copy of an ancient Roman fountain, and the Fountain of Europa.
The Upper Garden
From the terrace, two ramps lead down from the Fountain of the Tripod into the garden itself. Here, the Cardinal’s Walk provides a shaded path that leads from one side of the garden to the other, passing by several grottoes and water features along the way.
In the middle of the Cardinal’s Walk is the Loggia of Pandora. Many of the original statues that were originally part of the loggia are now to be found at the Capitoline Museums.
The nymphaeum that was here was converted in the 19th century into a chapel. It was a particularly favored spot of Franz Liszt, who dedicated two of the three pieces of music he wrote about Villa d’Este to the chapel.
This part of the garden also hosts two fountains by Bernini, one of which is called the Fountain of the Bicchierone. Commissioned by Cardinal Rinaldo d’Este, and built between 1660 and 1661, it features a fountain that erupts from a shell and shoots up in a jet that reaches as high as the Vialone above.
Translated as “Oval Fountain”, this was one of the first fountains to be created at Villa d’Este and has become one of its most famous. It is the work of Pirro Ligorio, who set about work on the project in 1565, using fountain engineers and sculptors to create the theatrical water displays.
The design consists of an enormous oval stone basin backed by an artificial semicircular grotto, from which jets spray out into the basin. Behind that, there’s an artificial mountain from where a waterfall erupts.
The Hundred Fountains
Called the Cento Fontane in Italian, this is a masterpiece of Renaissance garden design. It is situated between the Oval Fountain and the Fontana di Rometta. Rather than 100 spouts there are actually almost 300 spouts that line this verdant walkway.
A series of canals bring water to the various spouts that shoot out of various masks decorating the leafy wall, which is overgrown, but kept that way for the Romantic appeal.
Various statues line the route of these fountains, including terracotta vases, small boats and plaques that depict scenes from Roman poet Ovid’s work, Metamorphoses.
Fontana di Rometta
This impressive fountain helps to connect the symbolic story being told by the features of the garden. Meaning “Little Rome Fountain”, the fountain is a miniature representation of the River Tiber arriving at Rome.
The Oval Fountain depicts its source in the Tiburtine Mountains, while the Hundred Fountains symbolize the river’s course through the valley on its way to Rome.
The Fontana di Rometta was again designed by Pirro Ligorio and depicts a miniature version of Rome, or at least a portion of the city. The real city was once visible far in the distance behind the fountain, creating a mirror-like backdrop that would have amused visitors in its heyday.
Sadly, much of the representation of Rome was destroyed or deteriorated in the nineteenth century, but part of the miniature architecture still stands as the backdrop to the fountain.
Back when it was created, there would have been seven sections representing the Seven Hills of Rome, as well as some of the city’s famous monuments in miniature.
Fountain of the Organ
Probably the most famous of all the fountains in Tivoli Gardens, this unique fountain has been imitated time and time again throughout the European continent. It was and still is an ingenious creation, using a series of mechanisms to create a water organ.
The fountain is the work of French fountain engineer Luc Leclerc and his nephew Claude Vernard, with Vernard completing the mechanism after his uncle’s death in 1571.
It was an incredibly complex process that began with water that created whirlpools, passing through wind chambers onto a water wheel, then forcing valves open and shut.
The music that issued forth from the 22 water-powered pipes was so convincing that one visitor, Pope Gregory XIII, insisted on going behind the fountain to inspect the workings as he couldn’t conceive that someone wasn’t inside making the music.
The delicate system was out of use for centuries, but since 2003, after a very complex restoration, the organ is again in fully working order. It now has 144 pipes and plays four pieces of late Renaissance music.
Originally the kitchen garden, the less theatrical Lower Garden was divided into 16 large squares where various vegetables, flowers, fruit trees and medicinal herbs would have been grown.
The paths of this 16th century part of the garden would have been covered with trellises with grape vines and jasmine hanging from them.
This was all replaced in the 17th century with cypress trees and became one of the most famous elements of the garden, inspiring artists and musicians. Only two of the original cypress trees remain, the rest were planted towards the end of the 20th century.
Also located in the Lower Garden are a few more fountains, too: the Fountains of the d’Este Eagle, a group of water features that sees water spurting from bowls, all decorated with eagles (the emblem of the d’Este family).
This was part of the gardens before the cypress trees were planted. There’s also a collection of rustic fountains called the Mete, which were designed to look like natural rock, with various grottoes and niches built into them.
But the most famous of all the fountains in the Lower Garden is the Fountain of Diana of Ephesus. Originally it was situated next to the Fountain of the Organ, but was moved in the 16th century, and took inspiration from a classical Roman statue of Diana – goddess of hunting, fertility and the Moon – dating from the second century.
The fountain sits inside a grotto and features water spurting from the goddess’s multiple breasts.
Villa d’Este opens daily at 8:45 am except for Mondays when it opens at 2:00 pm. Closing time vary depending on the season and are as follows:
November to January – 5:00 pm
February – 5:30 pm
March – 6:15 pm
April – 7:30 pm
May to August – 7:45 pm
September – 7:15 pm
October – 6:30 pm
The ticket office closes one hour before the site closes.
On the first Sundays of January, February and March 2023, the site is open from 8:45 am to 6:00 pm. Last admission is at 5:00 pm.
The villa and the gardens are closed on the 1st January and the 25th December.
Keep in mind that admission to Villa d’Este is subjected to a time-slot system. If you don’t purchase tickets in advance, you’ll be given the first available time slot when you purchase your tickets at the ticket office.
For more information, visit the official website of Villa d’Este here.
Best time to visit Villa d’Este
Since there is a lot to see at Villa d’Este, the best time to visit is early in the morning. This is also a good way to beat the crowds, especially in high season, as tour groups often arrive around mid-morning.
In the summer months, you can get special evening tickets, which is likely to not be a busy time to visit. Another way to beat the crowds (and save money) is to opt for one of the reduced-cost ticketing days from October to March.
General Villa d’Este tickets cost €10 (€13 when there are special exhibits). These give you access to both the main villa building and the garden.
Reduced tickets cost €2 (€6,50 during special exhibits) and are available for EU citizens and residents between 18 and 25 years of age – you may be asked for your ID card upon entering.
Free admission is available for anyone under the age of 18 and for disabled visitors.
Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month.
There is a €2 online booking fee that everyone must pay.
Between October and March (the off-season), there are several different options for discounted tickets to Villa d’Este. Sometimes you can save as much as half the usual cost. If you’re visiting on a budget, this could be a good option for you.
There’s also the Villae Pass Tivoli to consider. This gives you access to Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este and the Sanctuary of Hercules Victor. It costs €21 + €2 booking fee for adults (the fee is €25 during special exhibits); €6 + €2 booking fee for concessions; and it is valid for three days.
Audioguides are available for €5.
The official site for Villa d’Este tickets is CoopCulture. Tickets bought on the official website can’t be refunded or modified. Third party sites have a more flexible cancellation and modification policy.
To get your Villa d’Este tickets on Tiqets, click here.
Should you get a guided tour of Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens?
To make a long story short – yes. I went on a guided tour and I was thankful for that. A tour is a very rewarding way to get to grips with Villa d’Este – there’s so much to see and so much to learn about. A guide will be able to run you through not just the general history of the villa, but also the symbolism of many of its features and anecdotes of the time.
Separate tours of the garden and the villa building are available. One particular tour of the garden costs €7 in addition to the cost of entry. If you want to save a little bit of money, but still want to learn as you walk around the estate, then you can also opt for an audio guide, which costs €4 and is available in Italian and English.
There’s the option of booking this Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa day tour from Rome. This is the tour I did and I can recommend it. You have the option of booking the tour with or without lunch. I opted for no lunch included and judging from the feedback from other travelers after lunch, it was the right decision – they were not pleased!
I can also recommend this Villa D’Este and Villa Adriana day trip from Rome which includes transportation and a live guide, as well as skip-the-line tickets for all sites. Lunch is not included, but there are plenty of places in town where you can grab a bite.
How to get to Villa d’Este and Tivoli Gardens from Rome
By public transport
Trains to Tivoli depart regularly from Rome Termini or Rome Tiburtina station. The ride takes around one hour and from there it’s a 15 minutes walk to Villa d’Este. You also have the option of catching a bus that will leave you at Piazzale Nazioni Unite in Tivoli; Villa d’Este is a three-minute walk from here.
Make sure to also read my post How To Use Public Transport In Rome.
If you want to drive, it’s relatively simple and takes just under an hour, depending on traffic. Just take the A24 motorway and exit at the Tivoli tollbooth. After this follow the signs towards the center of Tivoli. There’s a multi-storey car park near Rocca Pia, which is a short walk from Villa d’Este.
By guided tour
A guided tour will whisk you from your accommodation (or a meeting point) to Villa d’Este, tour you around the estate, and then take you back for the return journey.
Most are group tours and also include a visit to Hadrian’s Villa, as well.
I recommend this Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa day tour from Rome – opt to have it without lunch as apparently the place where tourists are taken is hardly memorable.
Private tours are also available. In this case, you’ll a more personalized experience of the villa and its famous gardens.
You can book your private tour to Tivoli here.
In either case, allow a full day for a tour of Villa d’Este from Rome.
Make sure to also read my post A Guide To Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli: 17 Best Things To Know.
Other useful information
There are toilets located on the second floor of the villa. Otherwise, you can find public toilets at the piazza near the entrance to Villa d’Este.
The villa is partially accessible and has been equipped with a series of elevators, and provide electric vehicles for disabled visitors who may need them to tour the estate. There’s an elevator that takes visitors from the lower terrace to the upper terrace, as well as recommended routes for wheelchair users to get around the garden.
Are there any security checks?
On particularly busy days there may be security checks, wherein any bags you have will be checked. Note that backpacks and luggage may not be permitted inside the estate.