by Andrew Hind
Nestled near the quiet Italian town of Bomarzo, in the beautiful shrub-studded hills of Lazio about 92 kilometres north of Rome, is one of Italy’s oddest attractions. Whereas most gardens are designed to be bucolic, soothing and colourful, the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Wood) is filled with grim, grey statues that create a melancholic atmosphere.
Despite the moodiness it conveys, or perhaps because of it, Sacro Bosco is a popular tourist attraction, explains Philip Curnow, owner and co-founder of Delicious Italy. His Rome-based company operates an online food and travel guide (www.deliciousitaly.com) to the various Italian regions and has been offering marketing and media services to incoming tourism stakeholders in Italy since 2000. “The Park of the Monsters in Bomarzo is a very popular attraction,” he explains. “A curiosity that serves as a classic road trip from Rome. It offers a couple of hours of fun and shade exploring the statues, an ideal destination for children.”
Sacro Bosco was designed by Pirro Ligorio at the behest of 16th century patron of the arts and military leader, Pier Francesco ‘Vicino’ Orsini. The garden bucked the conventions of the traditional Italian Renaissance garden. In the place of the symmetrical layout of neat hedgerows, picture-perfect flower beds and intricately sculpted Roman gods and goddesses, Orsini dictated that the garden be filled with unusual and grotesque statues laid out in almost chaotic fashion.
Was Orsini attempting to convey a message through the nightmarish creatures depicted in the garden? Many believe he wanted Sacro Bosco to counter the garden of his friend, Cristoforo Madruzzo, in nearby Soriano di Cimino. Madruzzo’s garden reflects all that was good and light in the world, while Sacro Bosco seems designed to depict darkness and chaos.
It’s thought that this design was a reflection of personal demons he bore within his soul, the result of numerous tragedies that haunted him. He saw the horrors of war firsthand as a general in the pope’s army, witnessing the death of his close friend, Orazio Farnese, in 1553. In that defeat, Orsini was captured and spent years in captivity. After he was released, he only had a brief reunion with his beloved wife, Giulia Farnese, before she passed away. The garden may have been commissioned as a way of dealing with grief. Regardless of its intended purpose and meaning, today the garden serves as a must-visit for tourists exploring Lazio, especially those attracted to the unusual.
The experience is memorable. After stepping through a 500-year-old stone archway, you enter a forested menagerie of creatures pulled from mythology. There are ogres; a sea monster hungrily surfacing from the forest floor, maw open wide; Cerberus, the two-headed dog that guards the gates to the underworld of Hades; a giant ripping a hapless victim in half; and the demon-prince, Orcus, his mouth agape as it prepared to swallow our souls. Not everything is grotesque, however. “The most striking statue to me was the elephant carrying a Carthaginian soldier, perhaps Hannibal, in its trunk,” says Curnow.
There are also some structures within the garden, including a stone topsy-turvy house that leaves you feeling queasy, and the octagonal Temple of Eternity, which is believed to be a memorial to Orsini’s beloved wife and which houses the property owners who restored the garden in the late 20th century. “The park is larger than you might expect,” says Curnow, “but a couple of hours are all you really need to explore and enjoy it.”
Don’t just limit your time in Bomarzo just to see the gardens, stresses Curnow. “A walk around the town itself is equally rewarding for the narrow streets and equally curious details on the buildings,” he explains. “I would suggest combining a visit to the Parco Sacro with the Etruscan ruins of Castel d’Asso and Axium near Viterbo, and a morning or afternoon dip in the pool of the Terme dei Papi just outside Viterbo.”
There’s an air of mystery and melancholy over Sacro Bosco; rather than repelling, it calls out to us, compelling us to explore. Whether Orsini found peace in its setting we can’t know, but modern tourists certainly do.