Villa d’Este, Tivoli

The Dragon Fountain

The Dragon Fountain refers to the Dragon Ladon, who is the protector of the Garden of Hesperides, where the golden apples of eternal life are located. It’s also here that the garden’s architect, Pirro Ligorio, created a tribute to the hero of Tivoli — Hercules — at the same time providing a Renaissance lesson in morality and free will.

Meaning of the Garden (As relating to the D’Este family)

The proprietor of this garden was Ippolito D’Este. D’Este was a man with coveted skills in politics, which everyone envied him for. He became an archbishop at just 10 years old. Then, at 27, he became ambassador of France followed by being named Cardinal at 29 years. Its easy to see why he was so successful with the political jumps he made during his lifetime, even at a young age. Though his political enemies blocked his opportunities and lobbies to become Pope five times, he was eventually named governor of Tivoli so that he would never have the opportunity to become Pope. He was essentially bound to Tivoli for the rest of his life. D’Este was an avid supporter of arts and a serious collector of antique sculptures and paintings. As a display of both his power and love of art, Ippolito “purchased” gardens, vineyards and a monastery on the hillside overlooking the political center of Rome as his residence in Tivoli. By “purchased”, he really just pressured the original owners to sell regardless of their desire to do so.

Up close, you can see the double reference to the family symbol — the eagle.

Close up of the eagle.

Ippolito layered his garden with an Eagle, the center symbol in their family crest, to remind visitor’s whose garden they are visiting. Its a definite display of hierarchical power and rule. He wants visitors to know who controls the garden (and territory) at all times.

Description of the garden

D’Este started constructed the villa in the second half of the 16th century, in 1565. The garden, even for being built this early in history contains a critical feature of the Mannerist garden — a symmetrical design. The garden contains a central axis, which also has a path leading from the city of Tivoli to the villa itself. This axis serves as the project line for the symmetry of the villa. Visitors frequently entered at this axis and had to extend their eyes, looking uphill at the villa ahead of them. The purpose was to represent the power of the Tivoli governor over visitors and peasants from the area.

The garden also contains five cross-axis, each with terminating points at either an architectural point of the garden or still continuing to a classical feature should the line extend through the garden.

During the garden’s construction, an aqueduct from the Rivellere from Monte S. Angelo and an underground canal from the River Anio were added. These feed the 51 fountains with 398 spouts, 364 jets, 64 waterfalls and 220 basins purely through the power of gravity. Through Villa d’Este, Ippolito conveys his power and control over nature, especially water. A formidable symbol in this design.

One of the garden’s main features is a humongous waterfall called the Neptune Fountain, demonstrating the power of nature and water in the garden layout. It boasts one of the tallest natural jets of water and features a couple  walk-able man-made caves from above for a beautiful scenic view of the countryside and surrounding fish ponds.

The Vialone, the terrace in front of the villa is over 200 meters long. Here, the governor would have parties and horse riding events. At one end of the terrace lies the Gran Loggia that overlooks the garden and countryside. From a distance, it appears like a triumphal arch elegantly painted. This is where the governor and his guests would have dinner while enjoying the continuous breeze.

Important Symbolism

The symbolism in this garden  is Hercules and his 11th labor of retrieving the golden apples from the garden of Hesperides, which is a symbol of eternal life. On many points of the statue and throughout the illustrious garden are embroidered or painted vines of golden apples. the Fountain of Dragons is another main aspect of the garden. This is, as I mentioned above a reference to the keeper of the garden of Hesperides. It seems that D’Este was hoping to convey the message his garden is a symbol of eternity. The golden apples, which portray eternal life are meant to symbolize that his garden, and more specifically, his legacy is timeless, ageless, and overall eternally everlasting — just as the Gods are everlasting.

References to Rivers

The garden coincidentally refers to a few main rivers in the Lazio region. The Aniene River feeding water to the garden, begins at the Oval Fountain. This could represent how the legacy of the garden is survived by the seemingly never-ending water source that gives life to the city. Just as water contributes to the health of a city, so does it to the life of his garden. Additionally, the three layers of The Hundred Fountains relate to the Albuneo, Aniene, and Ercolaneo all rivers that survive in the city of Tivoli. Lastly, the Fountain of Rome is a reference to the gigantic Tiber River that flows through Rome. This river actually is very, very long, but the only part of the river that boats and ships can sail upon is the part flowing through Rome.

The “three rivers” of the Hundred Fountains connect to the Fountain of Rome, symbolizing how all the rivers I mentioned connect into the Tiber. This could also represent how big and gigantic the Tiber is, but also how the Tiber provides life to Tivoli by feeding its rivers. In the same way, if we look at D’Este’s garden as the undisputed central point of Tivoli, his garden feeds the rivers and city of Tivoli. Not the other way around. This is again an indication of the power he has over the city and in his garden.

Personal Thoughts

I think the Villa D’Este garden is one that is extremely undervalued and not as well-known as the history suggests. With this garden, we have an accurate representation of how the power structure constantly shifted during the 16th and 17th centuries. When Ippolito failed in his bid for the papacy, he acquired the acreage to build his own garden to become a symbol of power in the region that he did have governance over, Tivoli. This represents how many nobles strive and clawed for power.

And I think this garden is a perfect representation of that. I think that is why I liked it so much. Its big and colorful and very well though out. I wouldn’t consider this a top attraction in Italy, but it would be hard to justify not visiting this garden since I have been studying in Viterbo since January. Had I not been in this class, I don’t think I ever would have heard about the garden and that is a shame. This is a garden that everyone who comes to this area for a long time should make time to see.   I think this is one of the most subtle, yet impressive displays of power and water works. Visitors of the the villa have a unique chance to see water as both a symbol of power and and art with the Hundred Fountains axis.

One of my favorite features of the garden was the Organ Fountain, which plays an organ tune every other hour using only the controlled power of water.I think most people would agree that its one of their favorite parts of the garden because it is so unique and rare. I can’t think of any other place that has a feature like this. Add to the fact of how old its features are, I can really appreciate how intricate and how important water plays in the garden. Its like water is the one undeniable force of energy and life in this garden. The Organ Fountain stays true to its purpose, especially considering how its powered. I guess I just wished I saw this in the summertime when the sun is high and the water is cool. How amazing that would have been.

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