Regardless of theoretical approach, architectural ideas are ultimately embodied in materials. While contemporary buildings are often brimming with architectural theories, they frequently flounder at the attempt to translate these ideas into materials. The uncertainty of this contemporary architectural climate is powerfully mirrored in the artistic language of mannerism. Rejecting the tenets of the Renaissance, and inspired by new discoveries, the italian architect of the late sixteenth century sought to reformulate architectural language. Founded on an increasingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the antique world, this language was to represent a new understanding of nature and involved an exploration of natural materials in a way unimaginable in the early Renaissance. This paper describes the garden of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, a masterpiece from this period where materials themselves resonated with significance. Based on the author's iconographic interpretation of the garden, it draws on original eyewitness descriptions of the effects of water, light and sounds.