At Bomarzo, in the province of Viterbo in northern Lazio, there is a unique complex of monuments called Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters) also called Sacro Bosco (Sacred Forest) or Villa delle Meraviglie (Villa of Marvels).
Commissioned by Prince Pier Francesco Orsini and dedicated to his wife Giulia Farnese, it was designed and built in 1547 by the architect Pirro Ligorio. It is a park that lies at the foot of the Orsini castle and which was once connected to the palace by a large Italian garden. The park, scattered with gigantic sculptures carved in basalt representing monsters, mythological figures, heroes, but also by impossible works of architecture, had an even more alienating effect on the soul of the visitor who passed from the polite, geometric and rational nature of the Italian garden, to a natural, dreamlike space, full of mysterious philosophical references. The contrast aimed to evoke the distance between material certainties and the restlessness caused by self-knowledge, necessary to embark on that inner journey that leads to the elevation of the spirit. A sort of descent into hell of one’s conscience and a purifying journey towards a higher dimension.
The peculiarity of this grotesque and enigmatic complex, one of the most significant examples of the mannerism that characterizes Italian art of the sixteenth century, lies precisely in the interpretative fever that has led some scholars to consider the work as the representation of an alchemical initiation, finding confirmations in the mysterious inscriptions engraved on the statues and in the reasoned succession of the figures that invite to reflection those who have eyes to see, and others to interpret it simply as a game, an allegory of the difficulties commonly encountered in everyday life, as would seem to confirm the inscription engraved on a pillar that reads: “Only to vent the heart”.
What is certain is that whoever visits the park without the knowledge necessary for a good interpretation or without reflecting sufficiently on the meaning of the figures, which is sometimes deliberately ambiguous, only gets a little entertainment.
The park, closely related to the Sacred Wood of Pitigliano and the Villa of Caprarola, just to name a few works in the vicinity, has an area of three hectares and is covered with conifers and broad-leaved trees. After the death of the prince it was completely abandoned and rediscovered only towards the middle of the last century by the Bettini Family who, with great effort and money, fortunately saved it from decay. This is the reason why some of the works are no longer found in their original place and why some inscriptions are almost completely erased or difficult to read, aspects that make their interpretation even more enigmatic.
The Tempietto built by Vignola is the final resting place of the Princess Giulia Farnese and is unique in its architectural inspiration, because it incorporates both classical and Renaissance models with a dome inspired by that of the church of S. Maria del Fiore in Florence.
The Path and the Stone Monsters
Whether the path is the representation of an initiatory journey or just a fairytale oasis, we cannot say with certainty, even if the enigmatic stone sculptures and their symbolism, as well as the numerous engravings that are encountered along the way, would suggest the first hypothesis.
Thus we find explicit invitations to reflect on the inscriptions at the base of the two Sphinxes placed at the entrance to the park, which challenge the visitor to find the true meaning of the garden, or in the one engraved above the niche, which is halfway along the path, at the inside of which there is a triclinium (ancient roman dining table with three couches around it), almost an invitation to sit down and reflect on the opportunity to continue the journey in the midst of such scary characters and horrible faces.
The fair amount of monsters with wide open mouths (Proteus, the Whale, the Ogre) allude to the initiation rituals and the concept of swallowing (loss of self) and spitting (resurrection to new life and new knowledge), while figures fighting each other, some arranged almost as in a theatrical staging (Hercules and Cacus, the Dragon, the Echidna and the Fury with the lions side by side in the middle) allude to the inner conflict that every process of growth inevitably implies.
Some of the sculptural groups with the most complex and stratified symbolism (the Tortoise, Pegasus, the Theater and the Elephant) have divided the scholars, but all refer to the path that the alchemist is called to undertake in order to rise from a primordial nature and chaotic passions towards higher and more spiritual feelings.
The Leaning House built by Vignola is perhaps the most disconcerting construction in the park and creates a feeling of vertigo not only for those who enter it, but even for those who observe it from outside. Built according to geometric and spatial criteria different from those we are commonly used to, it would symbolize the discomfort of the initiate in contact with a reality based on false beliefs.
Then there are more contemplative sculptural groups, such as the tub with the god Neptune or the Nymphaeum of the Three Graces, both surrounded by stone benches, as an invitation to meditation addressed to the observer, or the gigantic sleeping Nymph watched over by the dog (which represents faithfulness between the spouses, beyond death) a sculpture that commemorates Princess Farnese and recalls the reason for the construction of the park.
Finally, the Temple, built by Vignola according to classical schemes and which, with its balance, gives relief to those who have made their journey in the Sacred Forest, among screaming and torn faces. It means landing in a new condition, made up of balance, silence and detachment, underlined by the internal decoration of the dome, a starry sky that inevitably recalls the last verse of Dante’s Inferno: “So we went out to see the stars again.”
We have focused only on some of the sculpted figures that make up the stages of this mysterious journey and tried to give interpretation to a small part of such a complex and cultured work, for this reason we invite all those who stay in Lazio, not to miss the opportunity of a visit to this peculiar artistic place and to experience firsthand the emotions it arouses.
Laura Luciani Italy Trails Blogger