The hills of the Lazio region, just north of the small town of Bomarzo in central Italy, are home to a surreal garden of giant stone creatures.
Crooked buildings, and large mysterious ornaments known as the Park of the Monsters. The bizarre park is the most unusual garden of the Italian Renaissance.
In 1552, Pier Francesco Orsini, known as Vicino Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo, commissioned the architect Pirro Ligorio, famous for building Villa d’Este in Tivoli and completing the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Rome. He asked him to design a garden that expresses sorrow, grief, and shock. The Duke was a tough soldier, a poet, and a romantic soul. By the time he turned 33, he had already served 11 years in the army of the Pope, of which 3 was imprisoned in Germany.
After he lost his friends in war, he left the Pope’s army and returned home. The bloodshed and the violence that he witnessed had a deep impact on his sensitive nature. It was during this period that the Duke started planning the construction of the unique garden. Five years later, his beloved wife Giulia Farnese died.
The old forest, which was used as a hunting area for the noblemen, started changing. It was inhabited by pagan mithological creatures of stone, built in the Mannerist style, carved directly from the rocky outcropping. At the time, the park wasn’t that popular and the sculptures were seen as grotesque. Most of the gardens then were constructed with elegant statues and fountains, recalling a romanticized antiquity. When the Pope Gregory XIII found out about the Garden of Monsters he was intrigued and traveled from Rome to Bomarzo to see the stone monsters.
After 30 years, Orsini finished the garden and dedicated it to his late wife. In his diary he noted that he could only find relief in his beloved forest. Orsini died at the age of 62. After his death the garden was abandoned. Wild vegetation started to surround the sculptures and they seemed even more giant and striking. Orsini’s forest was covered in superstition and mystery and the locals were afraid to visit it.
One of the first sculptures encountered in the garden is “Proteus (Proteo)”. He is the son of the god of the sea Neptune and a symbol of the earth, which he carries on his head. The largest statue in the garden is “Battle of Giants.” It is 26 feet tall and shows Hercules tearing apart another giant. The writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues suggested the giant looks rather feminine, and if that proves to be true, then the nature of the struggle is to be reexamined.
The most famous of Bomarzo’s sculptures is “The Mouth of Hell.” It is located in the center of the garden and has a theatrical and symbolic role, although the researches are still trying to find the purpose and function of the Ogre. In his mouth there is a table and a bench, and on his upper lip the phrase “Ogni pensiero vola” (every thought flies) is engraved.
In 1626, the German painter Bertolomeus Breenberch was enchanted and inspiered by the garden and made several paintings. Salvador Dali left Spain to go to Bomarzo in search for inspiration. His famous painting from 1946 “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, illustates elephants carrying constructions in different shapes. In the Monster Garden there is a statue of elephant carrying a tower. The story of Vicino Orsini and his mysterious sculptures had effected the Argentinean writer Manuel Mujica Lainez, so much so, that in 1958, he wrote a book about them.
In 1951 the real estate agent Giovanni Bettini bought the Park of the Monsters and started a process of restoration. Unlike the other Italian Renaissance gardens, the Park of Monsters doesn’t respect the rules of symbology and geometry. It is full with myth and allusion, with almost hypnotic atmosphere. Among the other sculptures there are three-headed dogs, aggressive dragons, giant turtles, animal bodies with women’s heads, mermaids, horses with wings and many others. The Garden of Monsters is fascinating and intriguing destination, and now it occupies a special place in the history of art.