The Monsters Park of Bomarzo

 

The small villages off the town of Viterbo, in central Italy, are rather unremarkable as a whole. One of them however has been attracting tourists and artists since the Sixteenth century. The Sacred Grove of Bomarzo, better known as “Monsters Park” is an astonishing work of art with a touching story to it.

The slanted terrain it is built on was originally destined to an ironic homage to Villa Farnese, an opulent and beautiful mansion nearby whose huge gardens and sculptures are the textbook example of Renaissance style. Prince Orsini, owner of the grove, had the idea of contrasting the geometric elegance of the famous villa with a Mannerist triumph of oddities – starting with the shape of the terrain itself – including unusual art and architecture. The grove of Bomarzo was to be a showcase for another concept of beauty: its realization was appointed to Pirro Ligorio, an architect so esteemed that he was also called upon to complete the building of the St. Peter’s basilica in Rome when Michelangelo died.

Ligorio began his job in earnest by using the boulders that dotted the grove as the basis for a series of symbolic sculptures – but soon the prince’s wife died, and the nobleman ordered a change of plan. For the next twenty-five years he singlemindedly  studied and designed a new series of sculptures based on his own arcane idea of the afterlife where his spouse had gone.

Each item was meticulously planned but never explained to Ligorio or the workers, who could only obey the growingly bizarre instructions.

The result was a puzzling collection of statues and buildings inscribed with mostly mysterious mottos. Only 24 of them are finished or well preserved enough to visit today: the park lied abandoned for three centuries until 1954, and experts think that most items went destroyed or stolen. What remains, however, is nothing short of breathtaking.

The sculptures of Monsters Park range from relatively normal decorative items and mausoleums to seriously weird inventions such as a whole two-storied leaning house. The statues depict both “common” mythical creatures and literary references, like a small teahouse shaped like a mouth of a demon out of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Other seem to reference specific historic events, as in the case of an elephant from Hannibal’s army crushing a Roman legionary. Some appear to have constituted part of a giant allegorical message, probably related to political situations or the relationship between the Church and the principates.

Countless people including Salvador Dalì and Goethe expressed their theories about the actual meaning of the park, but of course the truth is lost forever. What remains is however a unique experience for the visitors, who in Bomarzo can catch a glimpse of another, little known Italy of centuries gone by.