Friday, July 9th
Today we visited an immense villa in the small town of Tivoli outside Rome: the villa d'Este.
This villa was the brainchild of a Cardinal d'Este, the son of Lucrezia Borgia, and the grandson of Pope Alexander VI. Pope Alexander VI was among the most controversial figures in the most controversial period of the Papacy, and was accused of simony (granting ecclesiastical honors for secular considerations) and ordering the execution of political rivals. His daughter Lucrezia (by one of his many mistresses before becoming Pope) was a pawn (perhaps willingly) in the political machinations of the Borgia family, and was married several times under suspicious circumstances as directed by her male relatives. Ippolito d'Este was the issue of one such union, and attained the position of Archbishop of Milan and then Cardinal. He had aspirations of becoming Pope, but they were never fulfilled.
He built a grand villa at the top of a hillside, and acquired a talented crew of architects, painters, sculptors, and hydraulic engineers. This team put together an ambitious plan to cover the hill itself with a garden and a series of 500 fountains, and for around the last 25 years of the Cardinal's life, work continued on the plan. It was completed after his death in 1572. To attain the desired effects, the team had to recover lost techniques from ancient Rome for hydraulic engineering. The gardens had an enormous influence on European landscape design over the next centuries.
Here are some more pictures showing the villa, the gardens, and the fountains.
Hard to believe, today is our last day in Rome. We went this morning to see the Catacombs, where 500,000 Christians and Jews were buried outside the walls of Rome. There was an ordnance in effect that nobody could be buried inside the city, for health reasons. The only exceptions to this rule were burial of creatures deemed to be divine, mostly including the better class of emperors -- hence the tombs of Julius and Augustus Caesar and others in the Forum.
The Catacombs were exactly what we expected, only more so. 20km of underground passages on four levels excavated from volcanic stone for the purpose of burying folks. Each corridor had small slats cut into each side where bodies could be placed; the bodies would then be sealed in using brick, stone, or marble. Sixteen Popes were buried in the Catacombs we visited. The Romans knew of the Catacombs, but did not know that secret Christian meetings were held in the corridors. No photography was allowed inside the catacombs.
We also went to St Paul's basilica, which was a magnificent church built around 300-400 AD at the location of the death of St Paul. The magnificent church was destroyed by fire in 1823 after surviving mostly intact for almost 1500 years. The church was rebuilt according to the original plan, based on contributions of historically appropriate materials from a wide range of countries. As you can see from the pictures below, the church today is beautiful, and the only sign of the previous destruction is the long row of capitals of the original columns, lying outside the cloister.