The next time you have to slam on your bakes to avoid crashing into the car that has just cut in front of you, or you’re stuck, seething, behind a car whose driver turned on his – or her, these things being largely gender neutral – left turn signal, just as the light turned green, before you lean on the horn – or even worse – thereby adding to the already frazzled state of all around you, you might want to consider what a 16th century Italian cardinal did when those around him did things that sent his blood pressure into the stratosphere.
While Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este didn’t have to cope with rude and reckless drivers, he had his own frustrations dealing with the rest of the Cardinals, who, year after year, stubbornly refused to elect him Pope. He did have a couple of things against him – but really, it wasn’t his fault his mother was the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. More hurtful to his cause was his total disregard for the importance of how one packaged one’s aspirations. Ippolito’s blatant displays of raw ambition appalled the Cardinals. How could they entrust the powers of the Papacy to someone who didn’t even bother with the usual social niceties?
In ogni caso, after Ippolito’s first unsuccessful attempt – he tried five times in all – the Pope awarded him the governorship of Tivoli. A rather lavish consolation prize, you might be thinking, but Julius III didn’t get to be Pope for nothing. He didn’t trust Ippolito either. The governorship was a ruse to keep Ippolito tied up looking after the affairs of Tivoli and as far as possible from Rome, where the real power lay.
With each defeat, instead of venting his frustration in any of the usual ways of the day – arranging the untimely death of a cardinal, perhaps a bit of well-placed bribery – Ippolito poured his money and energy into transforming Tivoli into his version of the mythical Gardens of the Hesperides. Here at least, in this alternate world, Hippolito would reign supreme.
The entrance to the gardens was at the bottom of the hilltop town, thus ensuring that visitors would be suitably humbled, in body and spirit, by the magnificence of Ippolito’s creation by the time they reached the villa at the top where their host awaited them.
Nowadays the bus from Rome brings visitors to the centre of Tivoli at the top of the hill and then it’s a short walk along a cobblestone alley to the villa entrance. A note of caution in case you’re thinking of going – Do NOT drive to Tivoli! Believe me. I tried.
The glory of Villa d’Este was – and still is – its spectacular fountains. Because the entrance to the property is now at the top of the hill, you have to go through the villa to reach the garden.
Tantalizing glimpses of the fountains and gardens make it difficult to give more than a cursory glance at the ornately decorated walls. It’s even more difficult if you visit on a warm day in May as I did, when the windows are open and the halls filled with the sounds of water splashing and gushing out of those fountains.
As soon as I stepped out into the garden I wished I had learned how to use the video feature of my camera, just to capture the sound of the water flowing all around me. As anyone who has visited Niagara Falls knows, whether you’re standing by the railing at the top of the falls or on the deck of the ‘Maid of the Mist’, it is the sound, as much as the sight, of all that raging water that is so awe-inspiring.
Like many of the fountains in the garden, the Fontana dei Draghi (dra-ghee) is not just an extravagant display of hydraulics and statuary. Through an extraordinary feat of genealogy the d’Este family traced their lineage all the way back to Hercules. In honour of their legendary ancestor, the exploits of Hercules are prominently featured in the garden.
For his 11th labour Hercules had to steal the golden apples that grew on a tree in the Garden of the Hesperides. Instead of the fire-breathing, 100-headed dragon that guarded the mythical tree, a four-headed monster spews forth powerful jets of water.
The Fontana di Tivoli, aka the Fontana Ovato because of its oval shape, is one of three fountains that tell what may be the most important story of the gardens – at least in Ippolito’s world view. The craggy backdrop represents the Tiburtini mountains north of Tivoli, the major source of all the fresh water not only for Tivoli, but also for Rome.
Water flows from the Fontana di Tivoli to the second fountain in the story – the Viale delle 100 Fontane (Avenue of the 100 Fountains). Three tiers high and 130 meters long, it is a remarkable feat of hydraulics, even by today’s standards. (How many times have you been caught in the middle of taking a shower when someone starts running the water somewhere else in your house?) Eagles along the uppermost level make sure no-one forgets who created all this.
Before he could start work on his dream garden, Ippolito had to free up some space. Lots of space. The townspeople watched, powerless, as entire neighbourhoods were expropriated and demolished. Then the hillside was excavated and the earth moved around to create five level terraces.
Since Ippolito’s vision also required enormous quantities of water, he had an aqueduct built. When this proved inadequate, he ordered the diversion of a tributary of the Aniene River – which just happened to be a major source of water for Rome.
Like most of the cardinals of the day, Ippolito was enormously wealthy, but all this activity began to strain even his resources. So he did the usual thing – imposed a special tax on the hapless townsfolk. Things might have continued in this manner and the gardens might have been even more extensive, but eventually the long-suffering locals got together and put a stop to further expropriation. As for the tax…
When I came to la Fontana di Nettuno, while decidedly grandiose, extravagant, even over-the-top, it seemed totally in keeping with the rest of the garden, so I was surprised to find out later that it is, in large part, a 20th century creation.
In Bernini’s original design, a grand waterfall cascaded over the upper balustrade into the enormous Peschiere (Fish Ponds) below. The design was such a hit, that it was quickly replicated in the most important gardens in Italy and much of Europe during the 17th century. Remember the waterfall in the gardens of the Reggia di Caserta? (‘Versailles all’italiana‘, Feb. 1, 2015)
But Bernini’s waterfall could not withstand two centuries of neglect and by the early 1900’s the original structure was damaged beyond repair. In the late 1920’s – when much of the western world was on the brink of the Great Depression – funds were somehow made available to restore the fountain, albeit on a less grandiose scale.
The fountain above Neptune’s Fountain is not nearly as spectacular at first glance, but don’t let that fool you. It is called the Fontana dell’Organo (oar-gah-no). Fountain of the Organ.
There was more to explore around Neptune’s Fountain, but I didn’t want to miss the concerto, so I climbed the stairs to the upper level. I was a few minutes early and the little doors that protect the organ were closed. Time for a quick look around.
Originally there was another statue in the centre, but a later Cardinal had it moved to a more remote part of the garden. We’ll get to it in a bit and you’ll see why.
The ‘music’ is created by an ingenious system involving water pressure and air. It was absolutely enchanting and we all sighed when the little doors closed.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, ‘An Emperor’s Country Retreat’, a lot of the statuary from Villa Adriana ended up here. What else would you expect if you put the same person in charge of the excavations of the most extravagant Imperial Residence of the Roman Empire and the design of your new, power garden?
The fellow in question was Ligorio, one of the most revered landscape architects of the time. It was inevitable – whenever Ligorio was over at the ruins, he would be on the lookout for bits of statuary he could use over at Villa d’Este. He was also an adept poacher of design ideas. The pools beyond Neptune’s Fountain recall the Peschiere (pes-kyai-ray), the enormous pond Hadrian liked strolling around in the evening.
In Ippolito’s day and for centuries after, the only colour in the garden came from marble, pilfered from … Since the Italian state took over the property at the turn of the century, an assortment of colourful perennials has been introduced.
When I reached the west wall of the garden I caught my first glimpse of the statue that had once held centre stage at the Organ Fountain.
After a great deal of soul-searching, in 1611 Cardinal Alessandro d’Este came to the conclusion that it was inappropriate to have such a generously endowed goddess, a pagan goddess at that, so prominently displayed in the garden of a Man of the Church. However, rather than having the statue destroyed – think of the Bamiyan Buddhas blown up by the Taliban in 2001 – he instead ordered it to be transferred to this somewhat less visited part of the garden. And here she stands, to this day, in splendid isolation, surrounded by beautiful, abundantly flowering roses.
A gardener was watering the roses nearby. I asked him what his favourite time of year in the garden was. He hesitated and then said, “Maggio (madge-Joe), per le rose”. (“May, for the roses.”) Me too.
I continued along the rose-covered wall to the southern border of the garden, the site of the last fountain in the three-part story that begins with the Fontana di Tivoli.
Just to be on the safe side, in addition to tying up Ippolito with the governorship of Tivoli, the Pope also passed a decree prohibiting him from owning property in Rome. The beleaguered cardinal was essentially banished from the city. However, never one to accept defeat graciously, Ippolito decided that since he could not go to Rome, he would bring Rome to Tivoli. He commissioned the construction of a new fountain, one in which the starring role would be played, not by water, but by statuary.
He hired sculptors to create exact replicas of all the major monuments in Rome. Although most of the statues have since been stolen or destroyed, the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome and Minerva, the Roman Goddess of wisdom, still remain. The channel of water below represents the Tiber and the boat in the middle the Tibernina Island, where the first Romans settled.
Ippolito called his miniature city the Fontana di Rometta. Even if you don’t parlare italiano, you’ve probably come across one of the most intriguing things about the language – the way you can change the meaning of words by adding little bits onto the end. If you want to make something small, there are all sorts of possibilities – spaghetti/ spaghettini, Giulia/Giulietta – so you may have already guessed that Rometta means ‘little Rome’. And what was the source of all the life-giving, fresh water for Rometta and, by extension, Rome itself?
Next to his ‘Little Rome’ Ippolito and his guests would dine under a triumphal arch, the hazy outline of the city that spurned him in the far-off, immaterial distance.
Whatever you think of him – Ippolito certainly seemed to have a fair bit of the delusional, narcissistic, if not egomaniacal about him – you have to admit that the way he chose to vent his frustrations resulted in the creation of an absolutely gorgeous garden. Food for thought, even if trying to drive from point A to point B is hardly on the same level as trying to get elected Pope.