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“Park of the Monsters“ is a bizarre Renaissance garden where spooky sculptures surprise visitors

David Goran

The Sacro Bosco (“Sacred Grove”), colloquially called Park of the Monsters (Parco dei Mostri in Italian), also named Garden of Bomarzo, is a Manieristic monumental complex located in Bomarzo, in the province of Viterbo, in northern Lazio, Italy. The gardens were created during the 16th century. They are composed out of a wood located at the bottom of a valley beneath the castle of Orsini and populated by sculptures and small buildings among the natural vegetation.

A fountain called Pegasus, the winged horse. source

A fountain called Pegasus, the winged horse. source

 

A turtle with a winged woman on its back. source

A turtle with a winged woman on its back. source

 

A giant

The sleeping Nymph. source: Basil & Tracy Brooks/Flickr

The park’s name stems from the many larger-than-life sculptures, some sculpted in the bedrock, which populate this predominantly barren landscape. It is the work of Pier Francesco Orsini, called Vicino (1523–1585), a condottiero and patron of the arts, greatly devoted to his wife Giulia Farnese, not to confuse her with her maternal grandmother Giulia Farnese, the mistress of Pope Alexander VI. When the wife of Orsini died, he created the gardens. The design is attributed to Pirro Ligorio and the sculptures to Simone Moschino.

Cerberus, a monstrous multi-headed dog. source

Cerberus, a monstrous multi-headed dog. source: Florent Darrault/Flickr

 

Gardens of Bomarzo - Head of Proteus-Glaucus. source

Gardens of Bomarzo – Head of Proteus-Glaucus. source

 

Hannibal's elephant catching a Roman legionary. source

Hannibal’s elephant catching a Roman legionary. source

 

Hannibal's elephant catching a Roman legionary. source

The fortified elephant with which Hannibal seriously damaged the Roman legions…while it transports the unconscious body of a legionnaire. source: Jeff Hart/Flickr

During the nineteenth century and deep into the twentieth the garden became overgrown and neglected, but in the 1970s a program of restoration was implemented by the Bettini family, and today the garden, which remains private property, is a major tourist attraction.

Neptune statue in the gardens of Bomarzo. source

Neptune statue in the gardens of Bomarzo. source

 

Neptun symbolizing the Tiber flowing down to the valley occupied by the Tyrrhenians from Lydia when they arrived in Etruria. The dolphin symbolizes Apollo. source

Neptun symbolizing the Tiber flowing down to the valley occupied by the Tyrrhenians from Lydia when they arrived in Etruria. The dolphin symbolizes Apollo. source: magalibobois/Flickr

 

One of the two sphinxs placed at the entrance to the gardens. source

One of the two sphinxes placed at the entrance to the gardens. source

The park of Bomarzo was intended not to please, but to astonish, and like many Mannerist works of art, its symbolism is arcane: examples are a large sculpture of one of Hannibal’s war elephants, which mangles a Roman legionary, or the statue of Ceres lounging on the bare ground, with a vase of verdure perched on her head.

The many monstrous statues appear to be unconnected to any rational plan and appear to have been strewn almost randomly about the area, sol per sfogare il Core (“just to set the heart free”) as one inscription in the obelisks says.

Orcus with its mouth wide open and on whose upper lip it is inscribed "All Thoughts Fly", which is illustrated by the fact that the acoustics of the mouth mean that any whisper made inside is clearly heard by anyone standing at the base of the steps. source

Orcus with its mouth wide open and on whose upper lip it is inscribed “All Thoughts Fly”, which is illustrated by the fact that the acoustics of the mouth mean that any whisper made inside is clearly heard by anyone standing at the base of the steps. source: genlbee/Flickr

 

Statue of Echidna. source

Statue of Echidna. source

 

The big statue of the Dragon bitten by a lion and a dog. source

The big statue of the Dragon bitten by a lion and a dog. source: Erin/Flickr

 

The Leaning House dedicated to cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo, who was a friend of Vicino Orsini and his wife. source

The Leaning House dedicated to cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo, who was a friend of Vicino Orsini and his wife. source

Allusive verses in Italian by Annibal Caro (the first one is of him, in 1564), Bitussi and Cristoforo Madruzzo, some of them now eroded, were inscribed besides sculptures.

The reason for the layout and design of the garden is largely unknown : perhaps they were meant as a foil to the perfect symmetry and layout of the great Renaissance gardens nearby at Villa Farnese and Villa Lante. Next to a formal exedra is a tilting watchtower like casina, the so-called Casa Pendente (“Leaning House”).