Bomarzo, a phantasmagorical garden lost in the Italian countryside – World Meanderings (n°31)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
You certainly will never go to Bomarzo garden by accident. This incredible place was created in a remote area in the middle of the 16th century by Prince Vicino Orsini, Also called “Sacred Grove” (Sacro Bosco in Italian) or “Park of the Monsters”, this garden was designed by a famous architect of the time, Pirro Ligorio and it took over twenty years to complete it.
Like Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom it fell asleep and sank into oblivion for a long, long time after Vicino Orsini’s death. It was not until Salvador Dali fell under its spell in 1948 that it was saved from neglect after centuries during which nature had taken back its rights.
It comes as no surprise that a surrealist artist as outstanding as Dali, fell in love with this garden. When we think about Renaissance sculptures we immediately think of marble statues by Michelangelo, Verrocchio or Donatello. But the stone statues in Bomarzo garden have nothing to do with these and their Antiquity models.
The oversized human figures, mythical characters or exotic animals come straight from a world of unfettered imagination.
As there are no original written records about the construction, we actually know very little about the history of its creation or how to interpret the sculptures and the texts engraved on the stones and specialists still argue about all this. So I think that the best way to visit the garden is to wander about the wood and let your own imaginations roam and build your personal story.
The Bettini family bought the lands including the Bomarzo garden in 1870 and in 1954 Giovani Bettini and his wife Tina Severi undertook huge works of clearing and renovations. There are about 30 buildings and statues that have been sculpted directly into big volcanic rocks. These rocks are made of grey-brown peperino, forming hard pieces of stone included in consolidated volcanic ash ejected during a volcanic eruption.
Weird, horrific, enchanting, dreadful, fun… There is a long list of qualifiers to describe this “Park of the Monsters” and no one can remain indifferent when visiting Bomarzo garden, children love it and grown-up rediscover the pleasures of being mystified!
You will meet a giant that could be Hercules shredding a shepherd, a turtle carrying a winged goddess playing a trumpet, a monstrous whale with its jaws wide open, ready to swallow a careless visitor, an imposing siren with two tails, a harpy with lion legs and a fish tail, a dragon attacked by a lion and a lioness, one of Hannibal’s elephants catching a Roman legionary with its trunk, a curious leaning house carved from a single piece of rock, a big ogre’s head with its mouth wide open on whose upper lip it is engraved “All Thoughts Fly”, but inside there just is a picnic table!
Several more bizarre sculptures will complete your tour of this wonderful garden.
Before leaving Bomarzo make a stop at the small coffeehouse in order to slowly come back to our real world and have a macchiato or an espresso and a snack while enjoying the view over the garden sitting in one of the comfortable sofas waiting for you on the outside terrace.
This garden still is a mystery but in our rational world it feels good to know that such places still exist.
info about Bomarzo www.sacrobosco.it/eng/enter.php
all info about Italy www.enit.it
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny