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Orcus and Proteus and Glaucus, Oh My!

Visiting the "Sacro Bosco" of Bomarzo's Parco dei Mostri

Orcus and Proteus and Glaucus, Oh My!

Voi che pel mondo gite errando vaghi di veder meraviglie alte et stupende venite qua ove tutto vi parla d'amore e d'arte - Vicino Orsini

It is a bit of an understatement to say Italians have a certain penchant for drama. In Viterbo, at the "Sacro Bosco" known as Bomarzo, the point is grandly illustrated.

"You who are wandering the world looking for great marvels, come here where everything speaks of love and art". Those are - roughly translated - the words whispered by Vicino Orsini introducing his Parco dei Mostri, or the Park of Monsters, to the world.

Located in northern Lazio, the gardens of Bomarzo were never meant to delight with a lighthearted hand. Rather, the often grotesque elements of "Sacro Bosco" were imagined to spur a somewhat morbid, wholly surreal sense of awe. So much so that in order to realize the full effect of the park's tortured beauty, one must take a dip into the mind of its creator.

The Mind Behind the Gardens

Pier Francisco Orsini, commonly known as Vicino Orsini, was a Renaissance-era patron of the arts, a soldier and a man who wore the emotional scars of war's brutality like a heavy cloak upon his privileged shoulders. After returning from battle and following his father's death, Orsini inherited the Duchy of Bomarzo - in no small part through the influential political intercession of Alessandro Farnese, family friend and the future Pope Paul III.

Shortly after obtaining the Duchy and following his subsequent marriage to first wife, Giuliana (née Farnese), Orsini began conceptualizing a plan to create a garden unlike any other. A garden where rolling lawns would collide with jagged stone, where jolting surprises would hide around each corner and where behemoth monsters would lay in wait under the shade of wild oaks. Over the next thirty years, the concept was to become an exquisite - albeit wildly esoteric - example of 16th century Mannerist-style landscape architecture designed by Pirro Ligorio. Indeed, one of the myriad mysteries surrounding Bomarzo is how Orsini managed to entice Ligorio, an architectural genius credited with the completion of the Cathedral of St. Peter following the death of Michelangelo and with the creation of Villa d Este in Tivoli, to agree to bring his disturbing and seemingly haunted dreams to life.

The Gardens as Token of Love

It is said that Orsini dreamt the park in a fantastic effort to capture the devotion of Giuliana. A great beauty in her own right, Orsini's wife was the granddaughter of 'Giulia la Bella', the so-called 'Venus of the Vatican' made famous by her seduction of Pope Alexander VI in the late 1400s. Alas, Giuliana was never to see her husbands folly come to fruition. The noblewoman for whom the monsters danced died before the gardens could be completed, leaving a grief-stricken Orsini to continue alone what would now serve as a macabre memorial to lost love. While Orsini later remarried, his 'Sacro Bosco' remained a darkly sardonic homage to Giuliana.

The Rediscovery of the Gardens

For centuries after his own death, Orsini's gardens at Bomarzo remained nearly obscure and anonymous. In the 1930's, the gardens and its monsters slowly began to rise from their slumber of indistinctness, luring artists and historians to visit the monuments and wonder over their meanings. A favorite haunt of Salvador Dali who was so (predictably, one could argue) taken with the macabre wonderland, it is said to have inspired his creation of The Temptation of St. Anthony in 1946. In 1954, the gardens were taken over by the Bettini family who continue to oversee the property.

Today, the family has opened the Park of Monsters to the public. Difficult to reach via public transportation and with hours tending to be somewhat subjective at best, Bomarzo is still relatively unknown and unseen in its demense about forty minutes outside of Orvieto.

The Experience of the Gardens

Tu ch'entri qua con mente parte a parte et dimmi poi se tante meraviglie sien fatte per inganno o pur per arte. - Vicino Orsini

Translated as "You who enter here put your mind to it part by part and tell me if some many marvels were made by deceit or by design", the inscription found near the entrance to the park indeed underscores the difficulty guests may have in ascertaining between deceit and design when discovering Bomarzo. For those infatuated by art and architecture, smitten by romance, romanced by history or simply enamored by oddities there are few destinations in Europe quite as beguiling. It is an enigma destined to be a point of aesthetic conjecture. It is meant to experience, to make one's own. The impact and lasting memories created by experiencing the gardens have a way of pleasantly haunting one's dreams... after all, it's not every day one has the opportunity to visit with monsters.

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Main destinations

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Useful links
Orvieto Hotels
Viterbo Hotels
Bolsena Hotels
Umbria (all hotels)