A destination of the Grand Tour of the Roman countryside in past centuries and the pride of the noblest families in Europe, today we can not say that we were in Rome if we did not visit the two UNESCO world heritage sites in Tivoli: Villa Adriana and Villa d’Este.
Tivoli is located just thirty kilometers from Rome: a town with an extraordinary historical and artistic heritage that has always fascinated nobles and thinkers such as Suetonius, Horace and Virgil himself who described the ancient Tibur as “superb”. Precisely the ancient Romans, who from the IV A.C. contributed to the magnificent development of Tivoli, built extraordinary architectural structures that, although today are only vestiges, give us a sense of the greatness of Rome at that time, just as Villa Adriana still does today.
The grandiose Villa Adriana
Villa Adriana, or Hadrian’s Villa, is considered the largest mansion of all time belonging to a Roman emperor. Emperor Hadrian wanted it outside the city of Rome and far from the center of power; he therefore chose a location immersed in nature and close to thermal springs. The ancient Romans were already familiar with these beneficial and therapeutic sulphurous waters known as the ‘Acque Albule’ due their chalky color and their ability to cure various maladies.
Villa Adriana is very different from the typical Roman domus, such as the famous Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. Adriano, who personally followed the construction that started in 117 B.C., customized it according to his military campaigns and his travels around the Roman Empire.
It is said that the building was erected by the emperor in memory of his beloved Antinous, who mysteriously dead in Egypt and was later even deified by Hadrian.
The symbol of the villa is undoubtedly the splendid Maritime Theatre, an enchanting round portico with an ionic colonnade that encases a pond with a small, central island, reachable only by wooden drawbridges, where Adriano took refuge to meditate.
Equally spectacular is the “Canopus“, a long, picturesque basin of water, surrounded by caryatids and culminating in a small temple dominated by a dome with unique wedge designs.
There are many other surprising areas within the villa, from the “Piazza d’Oro” used for public functions and where portraits were found depicting Marcus Aurelius, Sabina and Caracalla, to the baths and the Hall of the Philosophers. Of the latter, there are still seven large visible niches which, according to some, contained statues of sages, or according to others, contained ancient parchments and were part of a library or archive.
Villa d’Este and its fountains
Hadrian’s Villa is an official UNESCO world heritage site, just like another place in Tivoli: Villa d’Este, a true Renaissance jewel built by the son of Lucrezia Borgia, Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este. The beauty of this place lies in its magnificent and luxuriant Italian gardens with playful waterfalls, unique streams, lush vegetation and artistically decorated pathways like the “Avenue of the Hundred Fountains” where the water gushes on two levels, spilling forth from the mouths of eagles, and anthropomorphic sculptures.
But these 50 fountains astonish further: their uniqueness lies in the fact that they simply exploit the natural power of water, thanks to the underground channel created by the architect Pirro Ligorio; additional mechanical devices are only used to produce special effects.
For example, the splendid Fountain of the Organ produces a melody that sounds as if it is played by an organ, thanks to a combination of movements between air and water. The very unique Fountain of the Owl depicts a branch with bronze birds chirping and singing that then disappear when an owl arrives.
Three fountains not to be missed are: the Fountain of Rometta which represents the Tiber River, the Fountain of the Dragons which is said to have been built in one night to surprise Pope Gregory XIII as a guest of the Villa, and the monumental Fountain of Neptune in front of which there are three large ponds, where once the guests of the villa would once go fishing for freshwater fish.
Other places to see in Tivoli
Being in Tivoli, you cannot miss visiting the park of Villa Gregoriana, a FAI heritagesite which is accessed through the Gregorian bridge: it is a natural oasis full of man-made caves and an impetuous waterfall that flows into what was called in ancient times the “Valley of Hell”.
Arrive at the Grotta di Nettuno by walking along the path of Miollis, a tunnel carved into the rock with windows that create a fantastic play of light and shadow.
From Villa Gregoriana you can enjoy a spectacular view of the so-called Acropolis of Tivoli which consists of two temples: the first is thought to have been dedicated to the Sibilla, the other is the well-preserved “Temple of Vesta” dating back to the 1st century B.C., the latter was originally surrounded by 18 columns in Corinthian style, and contained the sacred fire that was guarded by vestals.
The visit concludes at the beautiful Temple of Hercules Victor, where some of the most important summer events are held each year.
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