The Villa d’ Este in Tivoli, 30 kilometres from Rome, was a convent before Cardinal Ippolito d’Este confiscated it in 1555. The spartan 12th century structure was to serve as the Cardinal’s residence when, effectively exiled from Rome, he was appointed governor of Tivoli. A man of extraordinary taste and unlimited means, d’Este set about rebuilding and then lavishly decorating his “rustic” retreat. Inside, he commissioned frescoes of mythological scenes and landscapes from Zuccari, Agresti and Muziano.
Outside, he added arcades and a loggia from which to enjoy the panoramic view of the Tiber valley as it descends toward Rome. The steep slope on which the Villa perched was transformed into a “garden of miracles.”
Five terraces were carved into the hill below the mansion, planted with thou- sands of cypress, palms, and myrtle, and embellished with over 500 fountains. Ingeniously fed by the waters of a single stream, they range from comparatively simple jets to grottoes, waterfalls, basins, and statuary in multi-storey extravaganzas. The composer Franz Liszt, who occupied the top floor of the Villa during the last year of his life, was inspired by the murmur of burbling water to write his “Fountains of the Villa d’Este.”
Wealthy personages of the mid-16th century were beguiled by mechanical novelties, and none were more beguiling than the Villa’s Fountain of the Organ and Fountain of the Birds and Owl. A complicated water-driven mechanism duplicated the sound of an organ in one; in the other, twenty metallic birds suddenly appeared on bronze branches singing in the tones of a flute and ocarina until chased by the screeching of an owl.
These mechanical wonders fell into disrepair over a century ago but after several years of restoration, function again as they did in the Cardinal’s day. If you plan a visit specifically to see them, however, it might be wise to ring ahead to be sure the mechanical fountains are splashing as advertised. The day I was there both were temporarily inoperative because of “technical reasons.”
Villa d’Este is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:30 until an hour before sunset. If Monday is a holiday the monument is open, but closes the next business day. Admission is €11.
The Fountain of the Birds and Owl plays every two hours starting at 10:00. The Organ fountain plays for five minutes every two hours, starting at 10:30.
Getting There: From Rome, take the Pescara train to the Tivoli station