Villa Gregoriana at Tivoli: an overlooked ‘Sublime’ landscape

Posted on September 7th, 2011 by Charles Boot

Kristina Taylor

In the Non-Catholic cemetery in Rome, lying near Shelley’s grave, is a stone with a poignant inscription which reminds us of the dangers of trying to experience the thrills of sublime landscapes and why health and safety standards haunt our enjoyment of them:

Sacred to the memory of Robert the eldest son of Mr. Robert Brown of the City of London, Merchant who unhappily lost his life at Tivoli by his foot slipping, in coming out of Neptune’s grotto, on the 6th July 1823. Aged 21 years. Reader beware by this fatal accident a virtuous and amiable youth has been suddenly snatched away in the bloom of health and pride of life…

Neptune’s grotto is near the bottom of a spectacular natural picturesque gorge which has undergone a number of changes over the last two millennia, now known as the Villa Gregoriana. The gorge has been carved out from uncompacted tufa, conglomerate stones and sedimentary deposits, by the Aniene river, a tributary of the Tibur, at Tivoli north of Rome where it drops over 100metres from the centre of the town into the plain. At one time there were a number of little waterfalls, sprouting randomly out from different places on the cliffs wherever water found its way through the porous rock, in addition to the principal waterfalls (below).

One of the many waterfalls at Villa Gregoriana, Tivoli. Photo by the author.

One of the many waterfalls at Villa Gregoriana, Tivoli. Photo by the author.

So beautiful was this place that the Romans, in the 1st century BC, built the circular Temple of Vesta with the Temple Tiburnus alongside, the ruins of which are still perched high to one side of the gorge (below). They are supported by reinforced concrete (opus caementicum) vaults below the temples, innovative high tech engineering of their time.

The Temple of Vesta, exemplar for so many others. Photo by the author.

The Temple of Vesta, exemplar for so many others. Photo by the author.

Until 1915 this was Tivoli’s main attraction, so it is disappointing that visitors who now come to visit the later Roman Villa Adriana and the Renaissance Villa d’Este nearby usually miss out on the wonderful Villa Gregoriana. It was a ‘must see’ tourist destination on the Grand Tour and from the 17th century was celebrated in paintings by many artists from Poussin, Claude Lorraine, Fragonard and Piranesi to Ingres and Turner.

The unfortunate Robert Brown was, by 1823, able to access Neptune’s grotto more easily than 18th century visitors because of a tunnel, the Traforetto, with arched window openings to the gorge, constructed in 1809 by General Miollis, Napoleon’s Governor in Rome. Before that the precarious path was so difficult to navigate, even with the aid of ropes that few ever experienced the grotto. Steps were cut into the rock inside the grotto in1841 and there is an iron railing part of the way up. But, it is still very scary inside and a strong feeling of vulnerability overwhelmed me as the thunderous sound of the water echoed throughout the space whilst the river churned through large boulders below, spitting up a fine mist. It is not dark, only gloomy, as light comes from a huge opening at the back made larger by the devastating flood of 1826.

As a result of this disaster, which seriously affected the livelihood of Tivoli’s residents, Pope Gregory XVI (1831–46) commissioned engineering works which solved any more uncontrolled destruction of the town and the gorge. Villa Gregoriana, a public park (confusingly there is no house), was created as a result of these works, and opened in 1835. It has recently undergone a restoration by FAI, Fondo per L’Ambiente Italiano.

People were writing about the gorge’s natural beauty and its unstable nature long before Pliny the younger’s eyewitness account of a typhoon leading to a flood which washed away large parts of the town in November 105 AD. In his Epistle 8 (17, 3–5) he describes how standing on a high part of the town he watched the torrent tearing away at the rocks, woods, buildings and villas and described the ‘mighty chattels of the rich’ along with oxen, ploughs, peasants, monuments and tree trunks floating past. There had been a large and beautiful green lake, the Pelago, in the bottom of the gorge but this all but disappeared as the water level dropped and a new opening was forced through below the level of the second cascade, now a natural bridge called the Ponte Lupo. The bottom of the gorge, now planted romantically with evergreens, is called the Valle dell’Inferno, Valley of Hell. Where water pushed through under the Ponte Lupo it became known as the Albergo delle Sirene, Grotto of the Sirens, named in the late 18th century by the Swiss landscape painter Louis Ducros.

Many attempts were made over the millennia to channel flood waters which repeatedly swept away at least three weirs erected by the Romans as well as a barrier from 1489, which with careful maintenance had lasted until the disastrous flood of 16/17 November 1826. Pope Gregory, when he acceded, invited engineers to submit proposals for a competition to find the best solution to taming the floods. Clementi Fochi, an experienced hydraulics engineer, won it, even though his plan to move most of the river away from the town was the most expensive of the 23 submitted. It took three years to dig out a pair of parallel tunnels 280 metres long by 10 metres wide through hills to the northwest of Tivoli that divert most of the water from the river running through the town. The long, spectacular, ‘Grand Waterfall’, which resulted, dropped from the twin tunnels to a shorter yet equally showy one. They could be viewed from the other side of the valley, where the Pope presided over its inauguration on 7th October 1835, accompanied by the King of Portugal and the Queen of Sicily. The completion of the diversion came just in time, because, on 6th February the following year, another flood tested the engineering works and its level is recorded on a plaque inside one of the tunnels.

Samuel Palmer’s c.1839 view of the falls and surroundings; not long after the new works were completed. Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei

Samuel Palmer’s c.1839 view of the falls and surroundings; not long after the new works were completed. Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei

Within the gorge the water pressure through the tufa dropped and the smaller waterfalls dried up allowing the gorge to be landscaped with paths and views in a more orderly fashion than in the past. Cardinal Rivarola, in charge of the project, suggested planting evergreens “in order to avoid monotonous uniformity and to ensure that there should be as much scope as possible for that which can be classed as charm and picturesque.” Holm oaks, pines and cypress created a tree canopy, under which holly, viburnum, arbutus and bay were planted along with acanthus, ferns and cyclamen. Walks, seating areas and view points were created including a new overlook focussing on the Grand Waterfall, which lay outside the gorge park.

In 1870 the Pope transferred the park’s ownership to the Italian state and in the early 20th century it was fenced in, with a museum at its entrance in Via Quintillo Varo. After bombing during WWII, which damaged large parts of the town, the park went into decline until in the 1990s it was finally closed because of its state of decay. Health and safety measures had never been considered and the park was not fit for purpose. In 2002 the FIA began a five-year project of restoration including conservation of the Roman Villa, Manlius Vopiscus, with its columns, capitals and cippi which had been scattered over the left side of the valley. Only some foundations to the huge villa complex remain, as vaulting six metres high, built into the cliff face. However a giant fish tank in the basement area is still visible.

Poor Robert Brown will be remembered for daring to explore the sublime gorge and the terrifying Neptune’s grotto at Tivoli whilst his family are long forgotten. His gravestone, inscribed both in English and Italian, concludes: “his disconsolate parents are bereaved of a most excellent son. His brothers and sisters have to lament an attached and affectionate brother and all his family and friends have sustained an irreparable loss.”

When next in Rome try to make time to visit his grave at Zona Prima, row 15 no. 3 to pay homage to him and then take yourself off to Tivoli to experience Neptune’s grotto. Be careful the rocks are still very slippery inside.

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