If you followed my adventures through Umbria a few weeks ago, you know I had a car and free reign of the road. Dangerous! Literally dangerous, but that’s another story. Driving in Europe is great fun, but for me the best part is the element of spontaneity. My drive recently took me past Bomarzo, which forced me into a little detour.
I’m often on big buses with my groups or high speed trains. As I whizz through the countryside, I often have that feeling of –wait! wait! Stop! I want to see that!! There’s no stopping a train at 200 miles an hour, and my groups are usually on a tight schedule, so no can do. But with a car… (add sly Cheshire Cat smile here). I’ve passed Bomarzo so many times on the autostrada, yearning to pull over, so I did just that. I wasn’t supposed to. Wasn’t on my schedule. But that’s what made it so sweet.
The road from the Autostrada winds through scenic valleys and tempting hilltowns on the way to Bomarzo. I’d been there once in the 90’s and didn’t remember it at all, but the drive was lovely and so distracting, I’m surprised I got all the way there rather than stopping at every adorable village. And why was I going? Monster Park! The name alone is reason enough!
The Monster Park (officially called the “Sacred Grove”) is a garden created in the 1550’s by Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo, a nobleman from the venerable Orsini family. He was considered to be a bit eccentric, a poet and dreamer of sorts. His wife was also from a local noble family, the Farnese family. After her death, he was so distraught that he decided to build her a fantastical garden in the woods near their palace to honor her memory. It’s a very sweet and romantic thought, although one must wonder about their relationship if this is how he memorializes her…
The architect of the project, Pirro Ligorio, created a path representing a philosophical journey, questioning the relationship between life, death and love, possibly as a way for the Duke to grieve. Prior to the creation of the garden, the land was pretty wild and was full of large outcroppings of rock that made it difficult to cultivate. The architect took that disadvantage and turned it into the focal point, carving into the existing stone and creating huge creatures and architectural features. Rather than a garden with sculptures, the garden IS the sculpture.
Upon entering into the garden, a pair of Sphinxes greet you and make Sphinx-like statements. One says “He who does not visit this place with raised eyebrows and tight lips will fail to admire the seven wonders of the world.” The other says “Be attentive and tell me if these marvels have come about by mistake or have been realized according to a form of art.” What does it mean? As we say in Italian, Boh!
From there, the path winds up and down the hillside, connecting stranger and stranger sights, curiouser and curiouser, as if the Mad Hatter would pop out at any moment. It is truly the other side of the looking glass.
“Casa Pendente” a bizarre leaning house that’s a bit like a playhouse for grown-ups. It was built like this, on purpose.
Wrestling Giants, very expressive, are the symbols of the struggle between good and evil. Interestingly, the evil one is a giant known for stealing from the poor….his name is Caucus. Hmm.
The Elephant, which carries a tower on his back, is often a symbol of strength. This one is especially strange as he seems to be grabbing a Roman soldier with his trunk, possibly a reference to Hannibal.
The Orc is the most famous work, and not only because it’s fun to take pictures of your family being vomited out of his mouth. His lips have an inscription “Ogni Pensier Vola” or “Every Thought Flies” which implies abandoning reason. Or maybe it’s a reference to the fact that his mouth is like a whispering gallery- if you say something softly inside, everyone standing outside can hear it perfectly! Inside of his mouth, his tongue makes a grotesque table and bench.
The winding path ends at a temple-like building, dedicated to the lost wife, and a large grassy area overlooking the whole site. It’s the first chance you get to see the site as a whole, and while I’m sure there is some philosophical reason for it ending like that, I’m don’t know what it is. On the day I was there, it was filled with Italian families having picnics in the sun. A perfect way to spend a warm and sunny day in the Italian countryside.
Over time, the Orsini family disappeared and the garden became lost under a tangle of weeds. It went unnoticed for 300 years until the 1930’s when it was discovered by surrealists, visited by the legendary Salvador Dalí who I’m sure was inspired by it. It was excavated in the 1950’s and is now a private park.
Is it a park of monsters? Nope, but it is something unique and thoroughly entertaining, with excellent English descriptions of all of the sculptures. I can imagine kids having a blast running around and having fun here, making faces at the grotesque Giants.
Bomarzo Monster Park, €10, open daily 8:00- dusk, is located 1 hour north of Rome in the province of Viterbo. From Rome, take A1 north to Attigliano, head left over the autostrada and follow signs to “Parco dei Mostri”, about 10 minutes drive. Modest coffee and snack bar. Plenty of free parking. www.bomarzo.net