Engineering Rome

Italian Renaissance Gardens and Villa d’Este

Renaissance Gardens‍


Gardens have been present in cities and domiciles for thousands of years. Written testimonies describe the rich gardens in the houses and temples of Mesopotamia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and Persian hunting parks and ‘paradises.’ The oldest physical evidence of gardens can be found in Egypt, where gardens were vital parts of palaces and temples. There is also evidence of gardens in ancient Greece, both in the form of physical ruins and portrayls of nature and gardens in literature and art (Newton, 1971).

During the Roman republic and empire, gardens and greenspace were deliberately incorporated in living spaces. Houses carefully merged indoor and outdoor spaces in a way that was both aesthetically and practically pleasing. In ancient Rome, proper use of outdoor space would serve the house throughout the entire year, especially in the summer. Cross breezes and shade from plants kept domiciles cool during the heated months.

M‍‍ost palaces and villas in Rome had gardens, promenades and courtyards. This was also the period when villas in the countryside became more, as more and more wealthy Romans sought refuge from the heat of the city during the summer. One of the most famous examples of this is Hadrian’s villa (see Fig 1). Considered one of the ‍‍best examples‍‍ of landscape architecture in Rome, the villa features an amazing array of both indoor and outdoor features, often meshed together. The villa also features a variety of statues and other relics taken from various regions conquered by Rome, as a show of Hadrian’s and Rome’s victories. Hadrian’s villa would later be a significant influence on villas and gardens in the Renaissance, as gardens and designers used it for inspiration for their own creations (Newton, 1971).‍‍

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Fig 1: Left – Aquatic Theater at Hadrian’s Villa; Right – Canopus at Hadrian’s VillaPhotos found at

After the fall of the Roman empire, heavily cultivated green space was largely abandoned. The Middle Ages were a time marked by towns completely surrounded by walls, containing very little green space. Small gardens were present, but these were more often maintain for practicality than pleasure. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, there was some development of pleasure gardens, places where a visitor could wander through hedge lined mazes and labyrinths, sit by small ponds, and take in topiary bushes. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, however, that gardening would reach the height it had achieved in the Roman empire (Newton, 1971).

A resurgence of gardens occurred during the Renaissance for a variety of reasons. The transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance marked a shift from focusing on fear of the divine to the interactions between the self and the natural world. In addition, siege artillery developments rendered medieval fortifications virtually obsolete, which in turn allowed for architects to move beyond Medieval styles of buildings and grounds. Finally, as travel became safer and explorers began to return from Asia and the Middle East, trade increased, and with it wealth and education among a growing middle class (Newton, 1971).

Many of the families in this rising middle class were centered around present day Florence. In the late 14th century and early 15th century, they, like the ancient Romans before them, began to move out into the countryside in search of fresher air and cooler temperatures. With their new found wealth, they were able to construct lavish villas featuring extensive gardens, such as those constructed by the Medici family. However, it wasn’t until a series of productive popes that Rome would become the focus of this development. Beginning in 1447, several successive popes and other clergy sought to raise Rome up from her origins as the supposed capital of Christianity. They launched many works throughout Rome and the surrounding area, from a dramatic reconstruction of the Vatican gardens to the construction of several villas in the countryside near Rome, including Villa d’Este (Newton, 1971).


One of the primary influences on design in the Renaissance was Leon Battista Alberti’s On the Art of Building in Ten Books, which was the first printed Renaissance book on architecture. Published between 1443 and 1452, the books were the classic treatise on architecture from the 16th to the 18th century, and its influence shows through in the design of gardens. Alberti discusses gardens in the ninth book, ‘Ornament to Private Buildings.’ Alberti recommends that houses, regardless of whether they are in the city or the country, should all have gardens, so that the inhabitants can enjoy both sun and shade at various points during the year. Gardens should have a mix of open meadows and springs or fountains in unexpected locations, so that a visitor may experience the delight of discovering them. Paths should be enclosed by trees, and plants should be placed according to whether they are sun or shade loving. Designers can then add vases, statues and other pieces of art to add interest to the garden (Alberti, 1988).

Cultural Significance

Gardens held a range of significance throughout the Renaissance. A central theme during the period the examination of the connections between God, man and nature, and the gardens reflected this. Nature was seen as a reflection of human nature, presenting human traits, virtues and beliefs. At the same time, nature was a reflection of the divine, as the visible world was a reflection of the cosmos. Finally, nature was seen as dichotomously controllable and uncontrollable. Designers could decide what grew there, how water flowed there, even the form the earth took, but they could only extend this control so far. Many gardens sought to exemplify this dissonance, deliberately cultivating gardens to make it seem as if the man made and the natural aspects of a garden were each on the verge of overtaking the other (Lazarro, 1990).

This notion, in which gardens are seen as not man made or natural, but instead a supposed ‘third nature,’ was particularly popular in the Renaissance. Gardens were seen not as purely nature or purely man made, but instead a mix of the two. Designers were seen as a gem cutters, trimming and polishing the piece to help it reach peak beauty. A garden was not purely nature, but instead a recreation of nature. The architect would incorporate elements seen in nature, such as fields and forest groves and streams, but the end result would still be unnatural (Lazarro, 1990).

Finally, a garden was a reflection of the owner and the developers themselves. Gardens were physical manifestations of intellectual and aesthetic qualities the owner wished to highlight, and could be represented in a variety of ways (Dix, 2011). Family history, both real and mythological, was depicted in mosaics, frescoes, and statuary around the grounds. Wealth was demonstrated through expensive features and curiosities collected. Intellect could be shown through the variety of flora and fauna populating the garden. In many ways, Renaissance gardens were the precursors to natural history museums and botanical gardens. Local and exotic plants, animals and rocks were all exhibited, as a show of the collector’s knowledge and wealth. So much could be said with a garden that it was rare, if not unheard of, to encounter a villa without one (Lazarro, 1990).

Villa d’Este

Villa d’Este is one of several villas nestled in the hills and mountains to the east of Rome. It was commissioned by ‍‍Ippolito d’Este‍‍, Cardinal of Ferrara and Governor of Tivoli, and designed primarily by ‍‍Pirro Ligorio‍‍. The villa is most famous for its multitude of fountains and water features, powered only by‍‍ gravity‍. When it was first built, artists, nobility and royalty flocked to it to take in the hydraulic wonders. Today, most of the fountains have been restored to their original glory, and the villa remains a popular site in the area surrounding Rome.

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Fig 2: Far Left – Water chain fountain bordering the Fountain of the Dragons; Center Left – Drinking water below the upper courtyard; Center – The Fountain of the Dragons; Center Right – Stone carving in the Hundred Fountains; Far Right – Three central fish ponds


Fig 3: Map of Villa d’Este

Ippolito II d’Este, the Cardinal of Ferrara, originally acquired the land where Villa d’Este sits today in 1550. At the time, it was home to a Franciscan monastery and church, in the southwest corner of the town of Tivoli. The cardinal also purchased several plots of land below the monastery, to be incorporated into the grounds (Barisi & Catalano, 2004). Construction would not begin, however, until 1560, starting with an aqueduct to supply both the town of Tivoli and the Villa with water. This source went to a reservoir under the monastery, from which it supplied fountains with gravity (Coffin, 2004). Ligorio, in addition to designing, extensively studied the ancient aqueducts and wrote on their restoration. In particular, he focused on the support structures for the aqueducts, critiquing their construction and calling for more solidly built arcades (Karman, 2005). This experience was also useful when a second aqueduct was built in 1564, after it was decided that that the first aqueduct was insufficient. Ligorio had a conduit over 1000 feet long and tall enough to stand in excavated beneath Tivoli, sourcing water directing from the falls of the river Aniene. This supplied water to the Oval Fountain and successive water features (Coffin, 2004).

In between the aqueducts being built a significant earth moving project was conducted to reshape the hill. Originally, the hill was not on axis with the monastery, but sloped from the east corner down to the west (Coffin, 2004). Massive amounts of earth were moved to create a smoother, more symmetric slope to the southwest. However, while main axis of the slope appears to be perpendicular to the front of the estate buildings, in reality it is slightly off (Newton, 1971). Rather, the axis aligns with the Tiburtine Sibyl temple that stands at the top of the Tivoli Falls, an element of classical mythology heavily featured in the iconography throughout the villa (Russell, 1997).

1566 began the renovations on the monastery and church, planting of vegetation around grounds, and the beginning of work on the variety of fountains. Several different specialists were brought in the construct the complex features. Curzio Maccarone, for example, oversaw the building of the Oval Fountain from 1566 to 1567, and the Fountain of Rome in 1567. The father-son duo Luc LeClerc and Claude Venard constructed the Fountain of Nature in 1568. Sculptors were commissioned to provide statuary, in addition to the marble and artifacts that Ligorio scavenged from Hadrian’s Villa, less than 4 km from the site. The last feature to be finished was the Dragon Fountain, constructed hastily in preparation for a visit from Pope Gregory XIII, whose family’s coat of arms featured a dragon (Coffin, 2004).

The villa was essentially complete when d’Este died in December, 1572. A fishpond in the northeast corner and the Fountain of Neptune were among the few features never completed. Today, the head and bust of the Neptune statue meant to stand in the fountain instead sits behind a cascade of water added to the Fountain of Nature. Work by Ligorio on the villa stopped with the cardinal’s death (Coffin, 2004). The villa was passed down to Ippolito’s nephew, Cardinal Luigi d’Este, who finished some projects and maintained the overall villa. For years after Ippolito d’Este’s death, the villa remained a center of culture, heavily trafficked by artists, the nobility, and royalty (Barisi & Catalano, 2004).

Abandonment and Restoration

The villa was first abandoned in 1585, after ownership was transferred to the cardinal deacons in light of Luigi’s death, and the property was left to a slow decay. It was again acquired by a d’Este in 1605, when Alessandro d’Este became governor of Tivoli. Alessandro repaired the existing structures in addition to completing several new projects, focusing on fountains in the lower slopes and modifying the garden layout (Barisi & Catalano, 2004).

The villa was maintained by the d’Este family until 1695. Over the next 200 years, the palace would be stripped of its furnishings, the ancient sculptures sold, and the villa eventually abandoned. In the early 1800s, the villa would be occupied by French troops twice, who devastated the grounds and even went to far as to scavenge the lead fittings from the fountains (Barisi & Catalano, 2004).

Restoration did not begin again until 1850, when the villa was acquired by Cardinal Gustav von Hohenlohe. Over the next 45 years, Hohenlohe rebuilt the grounds, and Villa d’Este again became a cosmopolitan center. The property would be passed on to the Italian government in 1922, and another radical restoration would take place in response to bombing damage acquired during World War II, and later degradation of the walls caused by environmental damage. The layout has remained essentially unchanged since then, and the villa continues to be repaired to this day (Barisi & Catalano, 2004).


As with most Renaissance gardens, the gardens of Villa d’Este are filled with symbolism, and their structure, statuary, and decoration tells several stories. Both Ippolito d’Este and Ligorio were lovers of classical antiquity and mythology, and this love left a distinctive mark in the decoration and arrangement of the villa. Images of Jupiter, Neptune, Hercules and Venus can be seen scattered about the villa (Russell, 1997).

Two myths are featured particularly prominently within the villa. One is the myth of the journey of Hercules, told along the central axis. This axis runs from the main entrance in the northwest wall to the Room of Hercules in the palace, cutting through the Rotonda of the Cypresses and the Fountain of the Dragons (Fig 4). The axis was originally lined by statues relating to the myth of Hercules as well, such as Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna, and Hercules resting on the spoils of his labors. The Fountain of Dragons can be interpreted as Hercules stealing the golden apples of Hesperides. The axis ends in the Room of Hercules, where a fresco on the ceiling depicts Hercules being praised by the gods. The axis reflected the journey of Hercules. Visitors to the villa who went directly from central entrance to the villa would follow this journey (Ribouillault, 2011). Ligorio clearly designed the villa so that the classical themes would be unavoidable, as even the most direct route is steeped in symbolism.

Fig 4: The Fountain of the Dragons

The other myth centrally featured in the villa is a mixture of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and local legends, told in Edith Wharton’s Italian Gardens (Russell, 1997):
“Ino, who was transformed into the Tiburtine Sibyl, was the sister of Semele, Jupiter’s lover. Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno persuaded the pregnant Semele to ask Jupiter to reveal himself to her as a god. She, not being a god, could not withstand the bold of lightning and was instantly killed. Her unborn child, Bacchus, was sewn into Jupiter’s thigh, and after his birth was looked after by his aunt Ino. Juno was jealous of Bacchus, and convinced the Furies to render Ino’s husband mad. In his madness he smashed their first-born son to death on a rock and Ino fled with her second son Melicertes and flung herself from a cliff into the Ionian sea. Venus saw the innocent Ino and her child drowning and beseeched her uncle Neptune to save them, which he did by turning them into water deities, until they were washed up on the shores of the Tiber. Threatened by Juno once more, Hercules then came to their aid and the prophetess Carmenta made into a prophetess, the Tiburtine Sibyl.”
Today, a temple dedicated to the Tiburtine Sibyl is built at the top of the Tivoli falls, and is in line with the central axis of the villa, the same axis along with the myth of Hercules is told. Other characters in the myth have their own features in the gardens, such as the Grotto and Fountain of Venus, the Fountain of Neptune, and the Grottoes of the Sibyls (Barisi & Catalano, 2004). I personally find it interesting that, while the Tiburtine Sibyl is most prominent in the local lore, the Sibyls have a few grottoes, while Venus and Neptune have larger fountains, and Hercules has an entire walk.

A final element of symbolism in the villa is not mythological, but rather geographic. The second axis of the villa runs about northeast to southwest, parallel to the Hundred Fountains. The axis begins at the Oval Fountain (Fig 5), originally called the Fountain of Tivoli, in the northeast corner of the garden. The fountain is a metaphorical representation of the Tiburtine Mountains. Above the fountain is an artificial mountain, with three grottoes representing the rivers of Tivoli: the Erculaneo and the Anio. The miniature waterfalls call to mind the great falls of the Aniene in Tivoli, and the colossal statue of Sybilla Albunesa with her son Melicerte is likely a reference to the temple of Sibyl at the top of the falls (Barisi & Catalano, 2004). The axis ends with the Fountain of Rometta (Fig 5), a representation of Rome, which includes elements such as the Tiber River, the Tibertine Island, the gates of Rome, and the main temples of Rome. The two fountains are connected by the Hundred Fountains (Fig 5), which represents the way the river Aniene connects the two places. The river was noted by Pliny the Elder and Strabo for its easy navigability; this is reflected in the straightness of the canal at the base of the Hundred Fountains (Ribouillault, 2011).

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Fig 5: Left – Oval Fountain; Center – Hundred Fountains; Right – Fountain of Rometta

Personal Impressions

Villa d’Este is, to this day, stunning. I first saw the gardens through a window at the back of the palace, high above the upper courtyard. Peering out, I caught glimpses of the larger jets and the sounds of water drifting up through the foliage. The garden is not laid out in a way that betrays all its secrets to a casual viewer. Rather, the steepness of the cliff and the density of the foliage masks much of the water features. To even begin to experience them, you must descend down to the garden itself.

Several things struck me as I wandered through the gardens. One was the sheer cleverness of the use of water, from both an aesthetic and practical perspective. In the gardens, the sound of water is omnipresent, but never the same. It shifts from a dull roar at the larger fountains to a quiet trickle at the smaller ones. Varying the sound accomplishes multiple things. It affects the atmosphere in various parts of the garden. Areas where the water is louder are more lively, whereas areas where the water is quieter are more serene. Also, having different volumes of sound from the water is more reflective of nature. The sound of a stream or a river isn’t static. It shifts, depending on the volume and speed. Changing the volume of sound helps to blur the line between a man made structure and nature.

Fig 10: Show from the Fountain of the Organ
The Fountain of the Organ was not the only feature to produce hydraulic sound when the villa was first constructed. The Fountain of the Owl was also built to produce sounds, though instead of music, it is famous for bird calls. The mechanisms behind the fountain are very similar to that of the Fountain of the Organ. Water and air passes through a tube into a whirlpool, which is then dispersed in a series of smaller pipes to the different birds in the pavilion. Unlike the Fountain of the Organ, however, the stream of air is broken up by bursts of water, producing intermittent chirps to more closely resemble birdsong. A hydraulic wheel turns a toothed cylinder, which opens a series of valves to produce a programmed set of sounds that vary in size and tone. One portion of the cylinder has no teeth. The system was specially designed to reach this point at the same time that a counterweight fills with water and lifts an owl statue as the birdsong ceases. Once the counterweight reaches the top of the track, the water is drained through a valve, the owl disappears again from view, and the birdsong resumes. This fountain is currently being reconstructed, and will hopefully be function again soon (Barisi & Catalano, 2004).


Works Cited

Alberti, L. (1988). Book Nine: Ornament to Private Buildings. In J. Bykwent, N. Leech, & R. Tavernor (Trans.), On the Art of Building. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Barisi, I., & Catalano, D. (2004). Guide to Villa d’Este. Rome: De Luca.

Cappa, G., Felici, A., & Cappa, E. (n.d.). Il Rinascimento degli acquedotti. Atti Del XXI Congresso Nazionale Di Speleologia – Sessione Attività Di Esplorazione E Ricerca, 338-45. Retrieved from __

Coffin, D. (2004). The Villa d’Este at Tivoli. In Pirro Ligorio: The Renaissance Artist, Architect and Antiquarian (pp. 83-99). University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Dix, B. (2011). Experiencing the past: The archaeology of some Renaissance gardens. Renaissance Studies,25(1), 151-83.

Google Maps Find Altitude. (2013, November 13). Retrieved September 29, 2015, from __

Hodge, A. (2005). Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply (2nd ed.). London: Gerald Duckworth &.

Karman, D. (2005). Restoring the Ancient Water Supply System in Renaissance Rome. The Waters of Rome, (3). Retrieved from __

Lazzaro, C. (1990). Nature and Culture in the Garden. In The Italian Renaissance Garden (pp. 8-19). London: Yale University Press.

Newton, N. (1971). Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape Architecture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Ribouillault, D. (2011). Toward an Archaeology of the Gaze. In M. Benes & M. Ghee (Eds.), Clio in the Italian garden: Twenty-first-century studies in historical methods and theoretical perspectives. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Russell, V. (1997). Villa d’Este. In Edith Wharton’s Italian Gardens (pp. 158-168). London: Frances Lincoln Limited.

Sunil Maildm, S. (2012). Villa d’Este at Tivoli. Retrieved September 14, 2015.

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