Mirabilia Urbis: Rome Walking Tours

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Villa d'Este: the Glory of a Renaissance Garden

The gardens on Hyppolitus d’Este’s estate were synonymous with originality and good taste.  Of course, that was easy to when Hyppolitus was a cardinal, his mother was none other than Lucretia Borgia (and therefore he was the grandson of Pope Alexander VI), and his father was Alphonso I, Duke of Ferrara, one of the wealthiest and most feared condottieri in Italy. 

Tapping into his funds, Hyppolitus bought a tidy piece of land in Tivoli.  The Aniene and its abundant confluents influenced his purchase as did the site’s historical implications.  This was the rolling countryside where the Emperor Hadrian had built his villa, embellished with fountains, phenomenal landscaping, and incredible waterworks.  Hyppolitus d’Este, a quintessential Renaissance man, wanted his own modern version.  And he got it! 

Of course, Renaissance gardens in general are tour de forces of classical and Christian symbolism.  The idea of a garden could promise otium, the ancient Roman ideal of relaxation with good friends, clean air, sparkling conversation, and excellent fare. Gardens also inspired associations with Eden and could be a terrestrial substitute for the biblical one that was lost… 

There was also more subtle symbolism referring to the homeowner and his kin.  Hyppolitus’ name could be tied to a myth regarding a horse-tamer Hyppolitus and the Goddess Diana.  Whereas the cardinal’s brother, Hercules, obviously had a name that harkened back to the classical past.  No surprise then, when a visitor finds a fountain crowned with a statue of the Hunter Goddess or a water feature dedicated to the dumb jock of Olympus.  In one case, a statue of a dragon roosts over one basin: it is the dragon of Hesperides, the guardian of the classical paradise from which Hercules stole the golden apples.   

 Of course, there are geographical references, too.  On one side of the park that encloses his villa, Hyppolitus created a gigantic fountain whose crashing waters cooled his many dinner parties.  Its abundant and theatrical flow represented the Aniene in Tivoli, which cascades into waterfalls nearby.  On the other side of the park, a miniature city stands over a placid stream.  The fountain is referred to as Rometta (or small Roma).  The sculptures are a caricature of Rome and the staid waters that flow by it represent the Aniene that feeds into the Tiber, which then flows through the city.  From nature to culture…