Villa d’Este: the Glory of a Renaissance Garden
Hyppolitus d’Este’s gardens exuded beauty and good taste. Of course! Beauty and good taste came easily to Hyppolitus: he was one of the most influential Cardinals of the Papal Curia, the son of Alphonso I, Duke of Ferrara (one of the most powerful and feared condottieri in Italy) and Lucretia Borgia (and therefore Pope Alexander VI’s grandson).
Tapping into his funds, Hyppolitus bought a tidy piece of land in Tivoli. This was where ancient aristocrats built luxury residences, taking advantage of the Aniene River and its abundant tributaries… Just like the Emperor Hadrian had built his Villa, embellished with fountains, phenomenal landscaping, and incredible waterworks nearby, Hyppolitus d’Este, a quintessential Renaissance man, wanted his own version. And he got it!
Renaissance gardens generally used both classical and Christian symbolism. Just like the ancient Villas they copied, they promised otium, the ideal of relaxation with good friends, clean air, sparkling conversation, and excellent fare. In Ecclesiastic circles, gardens were associated with Eden and could be a terrestrial substitute for the biblical one that was lost…
The Villa d’Este’s symbolism went even further, referring to its homeowner and his kin. The Cardinal’s name was tied to a myth regarding a horse-tamer Hyppolitus and the Goddess Diana. So it’s no surprise to find a fountain crowned with a statue of the Hunter Goddess! The Cardinal’s brother was named Hercules. The dumb jock of Olympus ended his labors in the Garden of Hesperides. Over one of the Villa’s many fountains, a statue of a dragon roosts over a basin: it is the dragon of Hesperides, the guardian of the classical paradise from which Hercules stole three 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, the “small Roma.” Its bonsai sculptures represent famous monuments in the Eternal City 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…