More Watery Landscapes in Tivoli : The Villa D’Este and The Villa Gregoriana

Perhaps the most famous location in the town of Tivoli itself is the Garden of the Villa D’Este. The sun was shining on my last day at Sant’ Antonio and I decided that I would visit the garden and that of the nearby Villa Gregoriana.

Vd'este 1

Thursday 19 March just happened to be St Joseph’s Day (Father’s Day) and a big celebration filled the town centre of Tivoli. Was this the reason why the Gardens of the Villas D’Este and Gregoriana were practically deserted that morning? Anyway, it was very pleasant to have the gardens virtually to myself.

v d'este2

Cardinal Hippolyte D’Este (1509-1572) became governor of Tivoli and set about establishing a garden. Today it’s approached from the house but originally the entrance was at the bottom of the garden and visitors slowly climbed the hill to take in the wonders of the garden. Upon reaching the top, where the Cardinal would be waiting, you’d be in a ‘sense of breathless awe’. (According to Monty Don in the 2011 series of BBC programmes visiting Italian Gardens).

d'este gardens view

The View from the Villa

D’Este had great wealth but the one thing he wanted above all was to be Pope. He failed in 1549. So he demolished streets and had water brought to the site by a sophisticated method from a nearby aqueduct. All the water still comes from this same source and using the same methods. No pumps are used and the whole is still powered by pressure. The speed and movement of the water are still controlled by different sized pipes and spouts.

V d'este 3

The whole estate took 20 years to construct during which time the Cardinal made 5 attempts to become Pope. Here “Rometta” is his model of Rome – he never did achieve his goal. Here is an expression of power built to impress. But he ran up huge debts: the whole project is said to have cost the equivalent of £100 million in today’s money.

fontana di rometta

Fontana di Rometta

100 fountains

The 100 Fountains – they have the same rhythm and sound as you walk along beside them

pegasus fountain

Pegasus Fountain

Organ fountain

The Organ Fountain Plays Every Two Hours on the Half Hour

It’s a wonderful theatrical performance full of drama and excitement; entertainment and playfulness with surprises and jokes. In addition to the gardens you can visit the mansion atop the hill the mansion is open too – room after room of breath-taking painted ceilings but little else. Like Hadrian’s Villa the Villa D’Este is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I spent over two hours wandering around the gardens and house but felt the call of the Villa Greogoriana and, ultimately, Sant’ Antonio.

VG Grand Cascade

The Grand Cascade

Cascade from window

The Grand Cascade from my window at Sant’ Antonio

The Park of the Villa Gregoriana, for the Villa itself is no more, fills both sides of a wooded gorge where the waters of the River Aniene spill over precipices and lie still in pools in the valley bottom, is perhaps my favourite of the three gardens of Tivoli. Much of it, including the huge waterfall, can be seen from Sant’ Antonio and it appears more natural and less planned than the other two. Sant’ Antonio can be seen from the park.

SA view info

SA view

Sant’ Antonio from the Villa Gregoriana

If you ever plan to visit be sure to wear strong, rubber-soled walking shoes as the paths and steps are uneven and slippery when wet and take your National Trust card with you, if you’re a member. Entry is free to NT members. The FAI in Italy aims to preserve Italy’s art, nature and landscape and has reciprocal arrangements with our National Trust.

Remains of VG

Remains of the Villa of Manlius Vopiscus

Inside the ruins

Roman Wall inside the Villa remains

The park was commissioned by Pope Gregory XVI to rebuild the bed of the Aniene River, which had been damaged by the terrible flood of 1826. It had fallen into rack and ruin by the end of the 20th century, but has been reopened to the public in 2005 thanks to a major landscape recovery project orchestrated by FAI, the Italian National Trust.

It was in 1835, after the Aniene River had burst its banks yet again, that Pope Gregory XVI decided to transform this enchanting but extremely dangerous location into a model of integration between art and nature. The project saw a tunnel being dug through Mount Catillo in order to deviate the river and thus preserve the town of Tivoli. This was then followed by the construction of an extraordinary natural garden dominated by the acropolis with Vesta and Tiburno’s Temples.

As you walk through the thick woodland of Parco Villa Gregoriana you will discover the delightful combination of the majestic landscape and the tranquillity of the paths that meander through it. En route, you will get to the caves of Neptune and of the Sirens, which form part of an incredible series of gorges and cascades, and to the Great Waterfall, with its whirling mass of water that seems to fall directly onto those who stand and gaze at it.”

cave of sirens

The Cave of the Sirens

Valley of Hell upper viewpt

valley of hell 2

valley of hell 3

valley of hell 4

Views of the Valley of Hell from Upper Viewpoints

According to the leaflet/map guide to the gardens “Goethe was among those who were amazed by the area. ‘I was recently in Tivoli, where I admired a breathtaking natural spectacle. The sight of the waterfall there, along with the ruins and the whole landscape, greatly enriches the soul’. Goethe visited during the heyday of the Grand Tour, when Italy was the destination of choice for upper-class travellers from all across Europe, affording them and unrivalled classical education.” And this was long before Pope Gregory XVI’s re-creation of the original garden.






Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli : a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Wednesday last week dawned bright and sunny and I knew this was the day to visit the UNESCO listed Hadrian’s Villa another vast area of building remains. Although extensive today it’s thought to have been even more so originally.

villa model

My notes here are mostly taken from the little map guide I bought. On arrival you follow a wide path up to a few modern buildings; one of which houses a model of the site as it might have looked to Hadrian. Publius Aelius Hadrianus was born in 76AD, probably in Italica (Seville). In 117AD on the death of Trajan he succeeded him at the head of the empire. He differed from previous emperors in that he tried to define the borders of the empire rather than fight to expand it. He was gifted with brilliant intelligence and a vast general knowledge but was not much liked by his contemporaries, as he was unpredictable and inconstant in character. He died in Baia in 138AD. And yes, he is the emperor in honour of whom the Wall was named.


The Pecile Pool

the pecile

Beyond the initial modern buildings you pass through an arch in a high Roman wall into the park itself. In front is the Pecile formerly a courtyard with a pool at the centre. Then the choice of which direction to choose is yours. I headed first to the Palace and outbuildings which included the Golden Square, the Hospitalia, the Heliocaminus Baths, the Maritime Theatre (currently closed) and the Greek and Latin Libraries.


The Heliocaminus

The oldest bath complex on the site owing its name to the large circular room with a vaulted roof heated by the rays of the sun. In addition the floor was heated by the usual hot air system.

greek library

The Greek Library


The Hospitalia

hosp mosaics

osp mosaic

Mosaic Floors in Hospitalia Cells

golden square

The Golden Square (so called because of the richness of the archaeological finds made there)


The Quadriportico

More or less in the middle of the site is the Triple Exedra Complex. According to the booklet this is nothing more than a grandiose entrance vestibule to the imperial residence.

triple exedra

The Triple Exedra

great baths

The Great Baths

small baths

The Formerly Luxurious Small Baths

Beyond this are the Great and Small Baths and finally at the far end of the site The Canopus. This was an attempt at a copy of the channel that led from Alexandria to Canopus, a town on the Nile delta. The long basin of water is Euripus and at the far end is The Serapeum where summer banquets were held.


The Canopus




The Serapeum

canopus from belvedere

The Canopus from the Belvedere

Finally I made my way to Rocca Bruna a belvedere with marvellous views over the surrounding countryside. Apparently, Hadrian had a great interest in astronomy and it is also thought that the tower could have been used as an astronomic observatory.

rocca bruna

Rocca Bruna Tower

tivoli from rb

View towards Tivoli from the Tower

mtns view rb

Mountain View From the Tower

Water, water everywhere: The Caracalla Baths and The Claudio Aqueduct

The trip to The Protestant Cemetery took less time than I had envisaged and I’d booked the Appian Way walk so, as a friend had recommended seeing the Baths of Caracalla and they were just one Metro stop away, I decided to spend a couple of hours there, even though it started to drizzle with rain.

aerial view

Aerial View of the Baths


Artist’s Impression of Caracalla

Now, Colchester may be full of Roman superlatives but, as you probably know, Rome knocks every other place that was part of the Roman Empire, into a cocked hat when it comes to remains. The Caracalla Baths are HUGE. The walls tower over you and the scale of everything was (and still is) vast.

Caracalla 1

caracalla 2

These, the largest and best preserved thermal baths, were entirely built by Emperor Caracalla since AD212. Apparently 9,000 workers were employed daily for approximately five years to create a huge platform 337m x 328m. Water was brought to the bath house by aqueduct and the whole place was abandoned after the siege of Rome when the Goths destroyed the aqueduct and cut of the supply of water to the city.


Many of the decorations and works of art were removed from the site over the centuries. There is a particularly fine collection in the Vatican Museum since several popes were involved with excavations. Some mosaics remain roughly in situ but otherwise there are few artefacts remaining. There had been bronze statues in niches, fountains, marble floors and columns and painted frescoes.

mosaic pavement

mosaic close up

Romans enjoyed board games and a tabula lusoria has been preserved here. Many such gaming boards were carved into floors and, as here, round the edges of pools. The game involved getting a walnut (or marble or knucklebone) into the holes.


The Natatio was a huge Olympic size swimming pool – the board game is alongside – is 50m x 22m and the walls are 20m high. It was not very deep and certainly not suitable for diving.

the natatio

The Pool Today

original baths

Artist’s Impression of the Pool in its Heyday

cypress trees in gardens

The Gardens – Cypress Trees – at Caracalla

Following our visit to the Catacombs and walking along the Appian Way our Enjoy Rome Tour included a visit to the extensive remains of the Claudio Aqueduct. The aqueduct was one of several that supplied Roman Rome with its water.

Claudio Aqueduct

The Claudio Aqueduct

The Parco degli Acquedotti is a public park about 8 kilometres from the city. It is part of the Appian Way Regional Park and is of approximately 15 ha. The park is named after the aqueducts that go through it. My guess is that it’s not easy to reach by public transport but I was glad to have seen it as I had no idea of its existence before.

approaching aqueduct

Approaching the Aqueduct

Next up is a report of my visit to Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli where there is even more Roman water!

At Horace’s House : Sant’ Antonio, Tivoli

Sant' Antonio

In the summer of 2013 I had the great good luck to be offered a room and to stay with fellow Landmarkers in the Italian countryside near Tivoli, about 20 miles northeast of Rome. I leapt at the chance and finally last week the trip became a reality. I have just spent a fabulous week at Sant’ Antonio and made a few excursions too when I could manage to drag myself away from this wonderful old house.

According to the History Album Sant’ Antonio was built around 100 BC.  The upper parts were rebuilt in the late 16th and early 17th centuries: the monastery between 1583 and 1590; the east wing about 1625 and the church in 1647. It was acquired for preservation by Frederick Searle in 1879. The present owner, Vicomte Roger de Brisis, is his descendant but Sant’ Antonio has been managed by The Landmark Trust since 1995. It consists of a medieval monastery grafted onto a Roman villa of the time of Caesar Augustus, or maybe even before. It was rescued from abandon in 1879 by an Englishman newly returned from West Indies.

vesta temple

Temple of Vesta, Tivoli

A well-founded belief is that a frequent guest, if not an early owner, was the poet Horace. Across the ravine thunders the water of Anio, with temples of Vesta and the Sibyl poised above it. All these on the outskirts of Tivoli, the Roman Tibur, and you are approaching something very near the heart of the civilisation that has moulded Europe for two millennia.

It is fitting that the revival of this place should have fallen to an Englishman, because those two names – Horace and Tivoli have a particular resonance for his countrymen. From the Middle Ages , English boys learned their reading and writing by means of Horace’s Odes and Satires, along with the works of Virgil and other writers of the Augustan Age. Only in the late 20th century has academic education ceased to be built on these cornerstones.

In the 17th century Englishmen first began to visit Italy in large numbers and carried its influence home in the most direct manner, in their paintings, and their buildings and their gardens. The dramatic influence of Tivoli appealed strongly to painters, notably the great French creators of an ideal classical world: Claud Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet. The English imitators eg Richard Wilson, followed them here. Writers like Joseph Addison sought the places which the best paintings might be composed and the. Murmured to themselves of “Tivoli’s delightful shades and Anio rolling in cascades.”

In 1879 Frederick Searle was searching for a place to sketch the waterfall when he first saw Sant’ Antonio – “La casa di Orazio”. He made it his home; spent 20 years renovating and repairing it and encouraged scholars and archaeologists to share his discoveries. His daughter Georgina and her husband George Hallam and then her great-niece Lucy d’Aihaud de Brisis continued the tradition. In this generation Count Roger de Brisis took on the care of Sant’ Atonio and with Landmark’s help has made it possible for guests to stay here. Sant’ Antonio has long enjoyed the soubriquet ‘Horace’s Villa’ . There are several schools of thought relating to whether Horace lived here or not. It is known through the writings of Suetonius that Horace lived in Tibur (Tivoli).

The Sant’ Antonio History Album goes on to give various scholars’ opinions on the exact location of Horace’s Villa but I like to think that it was Sant’ Antonio and unless some future academic gives me proof to the contrary I will stick with this theory and the celebrity link with the house.

The Franciscan Friars took over the remains of a Roman villa – it had continued operating as a villa farm – with ample storage spaces, good water supply and fertile terraces. By becoming a monastery its survival was ensured for a further five centuries. Sant’ Antonio was a monastery complex of the lesser kind; common in the mountains of central Italy. The little church of this monastery is still an object of devotion for the many Catholics of the town. The feast day of St Anthony is 13 June.

Having read details of the architectural plans of the monastery it would appear that the arrangement of the rooms and their various uses has changed little over the centuries. We dined in the Refectory, cooked in the kitchen, slept in the monks’ cells (the numbers still painted on the doors) off long wide corridors decorated with church ornaments, crucifixes and reliquaries. Our sitting rooms – a range of three – occupy a northeast projecting wing. The main floors are of rectangular terracotta bricks laid in coursed and herringbone patterns with borders, a technique common to Italy. The small casement windows are a rare feature to have lasted so long in Italy, the details of the dark unpainted wood, the panes of glass and their fixings, and the modest catches all being precious survivals.

Welcome to Sant’ Antonio – come and have a look inside.


The Refectory


The Kitchen

Roman wall in kitchen

Roman Wall in the Kitchen

a dble room

A Double Bedroom with Herringbone Pattern Floor

Twin bedroom

A Twin Room with Sitting Area

Upper floor

Upper Corridor

lower floor

Lower Corridor


One of the Reliquaries

sitting room

The Sitting Room

a reading corner

A Quiet Reading Corner

sitting rm

Three Sitting Rooms

Anio falls and window

The “Anio Rolling In Cascades” seen through a Casement Window

SA Garden

Former Main Entrance now Rear Door into the Garden

Main Entrance

Today’s Entrance Approached from the Main Road