Pirro Ligorio (1512-1583), Italian painter, architect, garden designer, and classical scholar, was a well-known and respected artist in 16th Century Italy. Today his name is much less familiar to us than Michelangelo’s; however, when Michelangelo died in 1564, Ligorio was named architect of Saint Peter’s. He served as the Vatican’s Papal Architect under Paul IV and Pius VII. Beyond architecture and painting, Ligorio restored the Aqua Vergine, the ancient roman aqueduct that brought fresh water to Rome. The garden he designed for the Villa d’Este in Tivoli was and is praised as one of the most extraordinary gardens in the world. It was designated in 2001 a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tivoli is on the western slopes of the Sabine Hills, east of Rome. Its location close to Rome, the beauty of the hills, and the high waterfalls made Tivoli a desirable location for Emperor Hadrian to build his sumptuous villa (118 CE) away from the busy center of Rome. Tivoli also was the site of the great ancient temple complex built to honor Hercules Victor, a god who protected the Tiber River.
A former 9th Century Benedictine convent, built on the site of a Roman villa, became the site for the Villa d’Este. The site and the title of Governor of Tivoli were a consolation prize given to Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509-1572) by Pope Julius III when Ippolito failed in his bid to become Pope. The son of Lucrezia Borgia and grandson of Pope Alexander VI, Ippolito was made archbishop of Milan at age 10, and Cardinal at age 30. He was a patron of the arts and sponsor of the composer Palestrina, the sculptor Cellini, and the poet Tasso. He also was a passionate collector of antiquities. The small and undistinguished so-called palace did not suit one of the wealthiest ecclesiastics of the 16th Century.
The view from the convent into the valley was spectacular and included a view of Hadrian’s Villa. Renovations of the villa were begun in 1550. The primary architect was Giovanni Alberto Glavani.
Cardinal Ippolito d’Este commissioned Pirro Ligorio in 1565 to design a classical Roman program for the paintings in the rooms of the villa and the garden. He also supervised the construction of the gardens. The gardens covered 35,000 square meters (8.65 square acres). The new villa and garden were intended to exceed anything the Romans had built. The garden is laid out in a grid pattern with three major walkways ascending the hillside. Cross walks allowed access to all parts of the garden.
The drawing “Gardens of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli” (1760) by Charles Joseph Natorie, the Director of the French Academy in Rome from 1751 until 1775, captures one of Natorie’s favorite spots to bring young French artists to draw. The palace structure can be seen above the three fountains: the arched Water Castle, the smaller Fountain of the Organ inside the arch, and the Fountain of the Dragon with a large cascading waterfall beside it. Walkways, ancient urns, columns, and a lion fountain sprouting water can be seen below. Villagers in contemporary dress are depicted along with two men in Roman togas at the lower right corner. The Avenue of Cypress trees can be seen at the upper left. Mostly reality but part fantasy, the gardens were inspirational for all who drew or painted them.
Ligorio’s first task was to secure the water necessary to supply his elaborate garden design that consisted of 51 fountains and grottos, 398 spouts, 364 water jets, 64 waterfalls, and 220 basins, fed by 2900 feet of canals, channels, and cascades. The Aniene River that runs from Tivoli to Rome, and the Albuneo and Ercolaneo Rivers supplied the necessary water for the elaborate system he and the engineers devised. There were no pumps, only gravity to move the water.
The color print of the “Viale delle Centro Fontane of the Garden of the Villa d’Este, in Tivoli” (1731) (Isaac de Moucheron) depicts the beginning of the central downward axis of the garden. The Avenue of 100 Fountains runs diagonally from the right side of the drawing. Visitors walk across the wide concourse and pass through two short columns with potted trees on top. In front of the closer column, a large sphinx spouts water from her nipples. The visitor walks farther to the left where a parapet holds two statues of Roman goddesses. On either side of the parapet are semi-circular stairs that lead to the next level of the garden. De Moucheron depicts gardeners at work and a few visitors enjoying the spectacular vistas of the gardens and hills.
The 100 fountains were under construction from 1566 until 1577. The avenue was lined with three tiers of fountains with sculptures placed on the marble wall depicting episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Three hundred spouts feed the three parallel canals. The garden above was planted with fruit trees, and the upper water spouts were sculptures of fleurs-de-lis, eagles, obelisks, and ships, drawn from the d’Este family coat-of arms. The spouts of the lower canal are grotesque masks, a favorite of Ippolito’s. Many of the features have decayed or been removed over the centuries.
Isaac de Moucheron (1667-1744), a Dutch painter and interior decorator (wall painter), came from a family of painters. After he returned to the Netherlands from his travels in Italy, he became famous for his Italian landscapes that were much in demand by the wealthy Dutch to decorate the walls of their houses. Several of his sketches from Italy were of the fabulous gardens of the Villa d’Este. The color print “Fontane Dragons” (1772-30) depicts the Villa set between the lush variety of trees and Ligorio’s elaborate stairways that surround the Fountain of the Dragons, below the Avenue of 100 Fountains.
A major theme of the villa wall paintings and gardens, as designed by Ligorio, is the 11th labor of Hercules. He succeeds in gathering the golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides, overcoming the 100-headed dragon that guards them. A d’Este family historian traced the family’s origins back to Hercules. Ippolito and Ligorio intended the villa’s garden to replicate the Garden of the Hesperides, the most beautiful garden in mythology. “Fontane Dragon,” the major feature in the central axis of the garden, tells of Hercules’s triumph in the combat of good and evil. Given a moral choice as a young man, Hercules could live a long but easy life, or a short life of virtue and fame. Hercules chose a life of virtue.
One side featured a statue of Hercules with his club and the other side statues of Mars, the god of war, and Perseus, who slayed Medusa. The 100 dragons were placed on an island in the middle of the fountain. After Pope Gregorio XIII visited the Villa in 1572, Ippolito had the design changed to four winged dragons, the symbol of the Pope’s family. Amidst the center of the dragons, a jet of water shoots up so high that it can be seen from anywhere in the garden. Two dolphins spray water across the pool. Water kept under pressure was suddenly released, and the sound was like fireworks or cannon fire.
Ligorio removed the ancient art from the nearby Villa of Hadrian in order to place pieces throughout the palace and the gardens. Muret, a friend of Ippolito reflected on the theme of the fountain: “The same apples that Hercules took away from the sleepy dragon, now belong to Ippolito, who, grateful for what he received, wanted that his garden was considered sacred by the author of the gift.”
The Oval Fountain was one of the first fountains Ligorio designed (1565-1570). “The Oval Fountain” (1808) (1.28” x 1.77”) was drawn by Hubert Robert (1733-1808) with red chalk and graphite. Robert was one of “the masters” of 18th Century French art. His clientele included Catherine the Great of Russia. Nicknamed “Robert of the Ruins,” he specialized in landscape paintings, some true to the scene, but many creative compilations of ancient ruins. One of the best paid painters of his time, he also was commissioned to designed porcelain and furniture, and he was appointed Designer of Gardens by the King of France to design the gardens at Versailles. His knowledge of the gardens of the Villa d’Este influenced strongly his work at Versailles.
The Oval Fountain, designed by Ligorio (1565-1570), is a large stone basin set against a semicircular wall. The series of niches once contained statues of Nereids (sea nymphs), goddesses of the sea who protected the oceans’ treasures and sailors, and who possessed the power of healing. Water jetted into the fountain from the vases the Nereids held. While they are no longer in the niches, fan sprays spout from the vases. The bottom of the basin is decorated with ceramics in the shapes of lilies and eagles from the d’Este coat of arms.
The two mountains that rise from the top of the fountain represent the Tiburtine mountains. Grottoes in the mountains once held statues representing the Ercolaneo and Aniene rivers. Centered above the oval is the figure of the Tiburtine Sibyl, who hold her son’s hand. She is the goddess of the Tiber River, a major source of fresh water for Rome. The fountain also is known as the Tiburtine Fountain. Water flows from the fountain from the Sibyl’s breast, a symbol of continuous abundance. The statue of the Tibertine Sibyl is important to Ippolito’s papal ambitions. She prophesied that a Roman Emperor would hand over the Roman empire to the Christian religion. The Oval Fountain was called the “Queen of Fountains.”
These are but three of the fountains he designed. Ligorio’s gardens at the Villa d’Este inspired the grand gardens at the Palace of Versailles and the Alhambra Garden in Spain, among others. Ligorio certainly deserves the title “Master Gardener.”
Alas, Cardinal Ippolito died in 1572. He had been expelled from the church by Pope Paul IV for simony, the sin of profiting by the selling of church offices and relics.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.