North of Rome there is a lovely walled city called Viterbo in the region of Tuscia, which can be used as a base to visit three of Italy's most important Renaissance Mannerist gardens, the Villa Lante in Bagnaia, the Villa Farnese at Caprarola, and the Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo. The region was for centuries inhabited by the Etruscans, a pre Roman civilization who's physical remains are mainly the tombs they built for the interment of the deceased.
The Clock Tower in Bagnaia
I like strange gardens, ones that break the mold of tradition and enter the realm of fantasy. The Sacro Bosco or Sacred Wood at Bomarzo is truly a fantasy world where stories from literature were carved in to stone. I had seen photos in books of the monumental sculptures carved from the volcanic boulders and outcrops in a wild forest and longed to experience it for myself. I even had dreams of this mysterious place, dark, damp and misty with a canopy of bare branches overhead. My dreams became reality on this moody day in early January, 2010.
Like entering my dreams, Bomarzo fulfills brings stories to life.
It was cold in Viterbo when I arrived. There were still holiday festivals and lights to brighten the dark winding medieval stone streets, but very few tourists plan visits to such places during the dim winter months.
A garden in Viterbo
I first visited the Villa Lante, which is considered the most classic example of any Italian Mannerist garden. This period marked the glorious final phase of the Renaissance, before the excesses of the Baroque came in to favor. We had studied the Villa Lante in school because it exemplified in the most literal way the concept of transitioning from the wild of nature to the controlled hand of man through a series of metaphorical tableaus. Visiting these gardens was the fulfillment of a dream for me. Public transport was infrequent and I ended up walking to the medieval town of Bagnaia, which in retrospect made the experience more authentic than riding the bus.
A villa I encountered on my walk to Bagnaia
I was the only person at the Villa Lante when I visited and it was a mild and magical day I will never forget. I scoured it from top to bottom and over and over again, capturing every niche and detail as if living a dream. The light was perfect and the moss growing on carved stone was vibrantly green.
Sitting on the magnificent stone banquet table at the Villa Lante
A couple of days later I made the journey to Bomarzo. I was too thrifty to rent a car, but managed to find out the location where the bus to Bomarzo embarked. It pulled up just as I arrived at the stop. We passed through Bagnaia and down in to a valley with fallow corn fields, over rolling hills and gloomy woods.
The edge of Bomarzo town
This is the land of the ancient Etruscans, the civilization that preceeded the Roman Empire. Rock cut tombs and giant urns are the most recognizable remains of the people who ruled this region since the 6th Century BC.
Etruscan tombs at Orvieto in neighboring Umbria
A view of the Sacro Bosco from the town of Bomarzo
I was dropped unceremoniously at an interesection with a small cafe and a gas station. After inquiring as to where the hell Bomarzo was, I was directed down the cross road. The bus lets you off on the other side of the hill from town.
A door to a cave dwelling and a stone wall built over excavated Pecarino bedrock on the road in to town
As I entered the quiet, otheworldly town it began to pour rain. The place felt deserted, ancient and forgotten as if life had moved either indoors or left for more favorable climes on this cold and dreary day.
These curved stone steps, extending to the curb, left a lasting impression on me.
Medieval towns are usually fortified, and perched on the edges of defensable cliffs for reasons of security. Who knows when a foriegn army might pass through, sacking the town for provisions, treasure, and access to women? It wasn't all that long ago that some people still lived in caves here.
The door to a cave at the end of a narrow alley
The town is compact and retains its ancient character through concious preservation and respect for history. The stone stairs on ancient houses are curvaceously worn by centuries of footsteps. These would be the horror of an American building inspector.
The visible wear of centuries of footsteps on medieval houses in Bomarzo
Towering over the valley, the Villa Orsini is not the most beautiful palace in Italy, but it is imposingly larger than everything else in town. Patina from age softens its bulk. The majority of windows look toward valley and the Sacro Bosco below. Lord of the villa, Pierre Francesco (Vicino) Orsini was a condotierri, essentially a military contractor who ran merenary war campaigns for popes and monarchs. Orsini was aligned with the Farnese family cardinals, who constructed the fortress like Villa Farnese at Caprarola about 30 kilometers away. Once the source of three popes, the family name had fallen in ranks over the years.
Pierre Francesco (Vicino) Orsini
He married Giulia Farnese, related to his influential friend Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who later became Pope Paul III. While he proved to be a good commander, he did not find comfort in the unjust things he saw inflicted on the battlefield in the name of wealthy, powerful religious figures. He was a prisoner of war, held for ransom for some time after being captured by German forces during the French/Spanish wars, and retired from service on his release over two years later.
Returning to Bomarzo and the villa his wife had been completing in his absence, he embarked on a more pleasurable life, as a patron of the arts, and food, and sex. Being reknowned for her fidelity and steadfast devotion, Giulia passed away shortly after his return. It is said that the work he embarked on at this point was in many ways an attempt to overcome his grief and the garden it seems was thereafter devoted to her memory.
Looking across the valley to the Collina di Monte Casoli di Bomarzo
I walked down the road to the bottom of the valley and there was a small empty amusement park that must produce some income during the tourist season. Rusty little rides bring an element of roadside attraction to the Parco dei Mostri, or Monster Park as it is popularly called today.
Looking back at Bomarzo and the Villa Orsini
Sloping green pastures and groves of trees connect the village to the garden below. Large boulders carved with niche like tombs of the ancient Etruscans provide a transition in to this strange world that bridges epochs in human history and the myths and riddles attempting to explain man's relationship to his soul and the universe.
Ancient Etruscan tombs carved in to volcanic boulders
A simple plinth like sculpture with a central opening containing a primitive figure with a three tiered plate balanced on its head stands near the entrance to the garden. The parks many iconic sculptures are carved from a relatively easy to work stone of volcanic origin called Pecarino, like the cheese.
A contemporary sculpture framing an old piece of statuary stands by the parking area.
Having been lost to obscurity for over 400 years, the abandoned gardens gained notoriety when they were visited by the surrealist artist Salvador Dali and his friend, the art collector Mario Praz in 1938. They made a short film while there that captured the essence of their experience. The bizarre nature of the garden and its fantastical sculptures were a great inspiration for Dali, and it is said that elements of his stilt legged elephant painting, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony were derived from the Sacro Bosco.
The unassuming entrance to the ticket office.
The original garden had a wall around it that not only offered it protection from the outside, but also held within it another realm, a series of tales and mythology that confronts the viewer in a way that makes it possible to change the way we feel about who we are. Vicino loved to read and literature's defining works had great influence here. The symbolism in various sculptures act as riddles, creating confrontations in opposition to previously accepted ideas. Jacopo Sannazaro's poem Arcadia was an inspiration for aspects of the garden, as was Virgil's Aeneid. Bomarzo, and Vecino's rank in society were rustic when compared to those of his high ranking friends. He once wrote "I prefer living amongst these woods to being immersed in the falsities and vanities of the courts, especially that of Rome." Still he wanted to impress, and the development of the Sacro Bosco was meant to show off his intellectual ideals in the most astounding ways.
A plan of the Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo
Vicino prescribed to an Epicurean ideal based on the Greek philosopher Epicurious's model for living, seeking modest but pleasurable pursuits surrounded by a state of tranquility, free of fear.
The first things you encounter when you pass through the gate are a pair of sphinxes that were most likely moved from another part of the garden at what is believed to be the original entrance down by the Leaning House. Inscriptions on the bases set a cryptic tone for the realm you've just entered. "Whoever without raised eyebrows and pursed lips goes through this place will fail to admire the famous seven wonders of the world." This is excerpted from Orlando Furioso, a series of cantos that had significant influence on the embellishment of the park. On the base of the other sphinx, "you who enter here put your mind to it part by part and tell me then if so many wonders are made as trickery or as art". Vicino was justly proud of his strange manifestations and their ability to astound. The garden was built in direct contrast to the more formal Mannerist gardens of the time. Perhaps the line from the opening of Dante's Divine Comedy inspired his creation: "Midway on the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight road was lost."
At the sphinxes the intersecting path runs perpendicular to the entrance. To the left, off by itself on a dead end trail lies the most comical of the garden's sculptures, the Proteus-Glauco. We'll get back to this as I opted to turn right and head in to the main part of the garden. I would return at the end of the day to this strange apparition. A dam across the creek once formed a lake that wound its way between cliffs, and supplied water to the many fountains designed by Pirro Ligorio, who was responisible for the completion of the Basilica of Saint Peters in Rome after the death of Michaelangelo and the great water gardens at the Villa d'Este at Tivoli.
A lake, no longer existent acted as a reservoir that supplied water to the elaborate fountains found throughout the gardens.
Vicino called his park, the Sacro Bosco, rather than a garden, as he built it without significantly altering the existing terrain and wild trees. This both made the project an expression of his personal ideals and fantasy, rather than the controlling hand prescribed by piers. One of the first marvels I encountered was on my journey was a toppled and broken tomb lying on its side along a path above the creek, alluding to the ravages of time on antiquity. The style is similar to Etruscan tombs found in the area. Parts of the garden utilized preexisting elements from antiquity.
A toppled tomb alludes to the ruin of time
Stone blocks form a terrace surrounding a boulder carved with an inscription
A tall stone block terrace was built around huge boulders leading to the first of the famous monumental sculptures at Bomarzo. Carved from a boulder outcrop, a Herculean giant tears an unfortunate adversary apart by the legs while hanging upside down. While it isn't apparent who the characters true identity is, the title on the map says that it is Hercules and Cacus, referring to the 10th of the 12 labors of penance required of Hercules to atone for the killing of his wife and children after being driven mad by the Goddess Hera. The cut boulders by the path are carved with inscriptions, one which proclaims " if Rhodes of old was elevated by its colossus so by this one my wood is made glorious too and more I cannot do. I do as much as I am able to." While boastful, it encourages a sense of awe and conflict in a rite of passage.
It is also possible that the figures are derived from the madness of Orlando, driven mad by love and jealosy in the story of Orlando Furioso.
The head of Cacus?
Behind the giants are cast off armour and a helmet with the Orsini crest on them, bringing Vicino's experiences and disallusion with war in to the destructive conflict of the depiction.
Backside of the Wrestling Giants
Continuing down the path, another group of large sculptures comes in to view. The stream flows over a small cascade by the sharp toothed head of a whale like orc who's head emerges from the bottom of the valley with a gaping mouth. On a terrace above the orc is a giant tortoise with a draped statue of Nike standing on a sphere on a pedastle balanced on its shell. She once held two horns as seen in a later engraving that may have spouted water on demand as an amusing folly. The tortoise and Victory (Nike) symbolize moving through time slowly and patiently while a hastier life balances precariously on the sphere.
The Tortoise and Orc and the edge of the Pegasus fountain
The Tortoise with a statue of Nike standing on an orb
It is said that people sometimes dined inside the gaping mouth of the Orc. On this winter's day the stream rushed around its base, where it seems to rise up from the waters, and it is possible that a dam once formed a pool that surrounded this creature up to its neck. The Orc plays a part in the epic tale Orlando Furioso and was used by the sorceress Alcina to lure and transport the English knight Adolpho to her island home, where he was seduced and held captive.
The Whale/Orcus has an inscription obscured by moss that translates to "All Thoughts Fly"
Nearby there is a tilted circular fountain basin with a statue of the winged horse Pegasus touching his hoof to a rock at the top of Mount Helicon, from which the spring of Hippocrene emerges in Greek myth. The Hippocrene was sacred to the Muses and those who drank from it were imbued with poetic inspiration. Much of the sculpting is not particularly masterful in its rendered and has a rustic look that compliments the wildness of the forest. This may well have been the necessity of limited funds and a lack of highly skilled artisans. There is a Pegasus fountain at the Villa d'Este at Tivoli and the Villa Lante in Bagnaia as well, bringing the auspicious blessing this myth extolls. Pegasus is the symbol of the Farnese family, and this statue is oriented to look directly up the hill to the Villa Orsini providing a visual connection between the families. The tilted basin was once surrounded by statues of 10 Muses, with Apollo, Jupiter, Mercury, and Bacchus overseeing the gathering from four corners behind. This is known because of an engraving by the artist Giovanni Guerra, who made several interpretive illustrations of elements in the garden.
The Pegasus Fountain
The fourth sculpture in this group is a simple Myrtle tree trunk, which relates to the chivalrous story from Ludovico's Orlando Furioso where King Ruggiero flies to the island pleasure garden of the sorceress Alcina on a winged hippogryph, a creature that is half eagle and half horse. He did this in order to rescue the beautiful pagan princess Angelica, who is held captive there. He ties the hippogryph to the trunk of the myrtle tree. As the creature eats the leaves of the tree, it reveals itself as the English knight Astolfo, whom the sorceress had lured to her island and turned into the myrtle when she grew bored of him. The tale spans the globe, and even includes a trip to the moon. You'll just have to read the book as it is one of the epic tales of a distant time that is hard to encapsulate in to an essay such as this. This part of the story was written as an opera called Alcina, one of three relating to Orlando by George Frideric Handle in 1734. You can. for the sake of understanding, read the synopsis of the plot at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orlando_Furioso.
The trunk of the Myrtle Tree, which the sorceress Alcina turned the knight Adolfo in to.
The Sacro Bosco originally had sophisticated water fountains, none of which function today. While doing research I found a report written by British hydraulic engineers who came to Bomarzo to survey the hydraulic systems that were used to provide water to the many fountains and pools. The ruined state of the gardens after 400 years of neglect leaves much to be deciphered. They found remnants of the old lake, storage tanks, pools, water channels and pipes connecting many parts of the gardens.
A waterfall cascades over a stone terrace
Originally the sculptures were painted, so the organic natural appearance you see today is very different fro their original appearance. The closest thing in Oregon to Bomarzo that I can think of is called Enchanted Forest, a popular children's amusement park south of the capital of Salem. It has the theme of popular fairy tales, with characters made of painted concrete. This theme park is also meant to amaze and bring fantasy to life.
A witch house and paths at the Enchanted Forest south of Salem, Oregon
The Sacred Grove went in to decline shortly after Vicino's death and lay in ruins for 400 years. It was purchased in 1951 by a real estate agent by the name of Giovanni Bettini, who along with his wife Tina Severini and the architect Maria Louisa del Guidice oversaw the clearing of the monuments and their restoration. They eventually opened the site to the public. On its dedication the Catholic Church felt it appropriate for send a priest to perform an exorcism to drive out the dark spirits and sexual innuendos that the the Catholic Church associated with the pagan, literary characters depicted in the garden.
I'm not sure what this is, a grinding mortar, or a space ship to the moon
The more monumental works, carved from giant boulders were able to maintain their sculptural integrity while more constructed parts of the garden collapsed and needed significant restoration. On the day I visited there were two caretakers who kept their distance while I prowled around. Eventually I approached them and showed them photos of my mosaic work and garden projects. My Italian has gotten better since then, but once they had met me they seemed to be more relaxed by my presence and stopped keeping an eye on me. It was then that I became more bold, climbing over railings to get a closer view of some of the sculptures.
The two caretakers
Further along the path lies an ovate boat that was once filled with water. It is flanked by two pairs of dolfins that spouted water in to the flat bottomed vessel, suggesting a paradox, the boat being a reservoir for water rather than floating on the surface.
A stone boat with dolphin fountains
Looking from the other direction
The path continues onward, lined by sculpted benches made for resting and engaging in conversation or flirtation. Vicino loved women and had numerous relationships. After his wife's death he had two children with a young teenage shepherdess. As he grew older, he laments in letters to his dear friend, the Frenchman Giovanni Drouet of his loss of vigor, sense of taste and smell, and sexual desire. The benches are framed in lions and caryatid brackets laid on their side, that were probably moved from other applications when they were vertical sconces in a wall.
Sculpted benches on either side of the path create spaces for intimate conversation and dalliances.
A caryatid bracket set on it's side to frame a bench.
Behind one of these benches on the uphill side is a niche containing a relief of the Three Graces, voluptuous nude attendants of the Goddess Venus. This tryptic has multiple connotations, relating to the planets Jupiter, Venus, and the Sun, friendship, commeradary, and alchemy, and bearing good fortune and health on those who experience the sacred wood.
A lion and bench, with the Three Graces and Nymphaum behind.
Adjacent to this is the Nyphaeum, carved from solid rock with smooth and rough surfaces to give the illusion of great antiquity. It was originally covered with a vaulted roof. The Nymphs were beautiful demi goddesses who inhabited natural landscapes in Greek mythology. They were not immortal but had long lives, and cavorted with satyrs in the wild. Nymphaeums were popular architectural and ceremonial spaces in Roman and Renaissance architecture as a symbolically ritualistic communion with the spirit of nature. The inscription on the wall says "The cave and fountain free you from every dark thought."
Alchemy plays an important and illusive role in the themes of the garden. Man in his struggle to confront his ego, is lead on a path of confrontation, rites of passage, and the disollusion of self in the quest for a state of enlightenment free of the bondage of worldly self absorbtion. The sculptures in the garden are repesentations of the path one takes in a life of self discovery, destruction of the ego, purification, and the resulting freedom from the constraints of human emotion. This fascinating film by Livio Fornoni expresses these deeply meaningful concepts. Gardens designed and built today rarely contain anything close to the depth and profundity that is expressed in the mystical adventures that are manifested in the Sacro Bosco.
Life is a journey and the paths through this garden lead you to face the monsters that await to confront you.
Rustic steps made of logs and rough stones
Up the slope above the Nymphaeum lies a giant sleeping Nymph, guarded over by a dog seated at attention. Nymphs traditionally reside around springs of water, a source of refreshment and liquid music. A prominent publication from the time that Vicino no doubt owned was the Italian Dominican priest Francesco Colonna's illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (say that 5 times). You can read a short but informative description of the book's provenence and importance as a turning point in publication at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/365313
The sleeping or dying Nymph watched over by a dog
One of the illustrations features a sleeping Nymph in a similar pose. She is sensual and vulnerable in her condition, hence the need for the dog in case some unruly satyr were to come along like the one in the book. Vicino brought to life the visuals conjured by literature in oversized dimensions to make them as epic as the stories they tell. Her body is now clothed in moss, and the fact that she is remotely sited gives her an intimate erotic presence.
The loyal protection afforded by the attentive dog allows the Nymph to drift safely away in to a world of dreams.
I admired her moss and lichen encrusted hand for some time. It has the look of tree bark, making her appear to become part of nature.
The Nymph's hand, beautifully patinaed with moss and lichen
Back down the hill, the wall turns in to the broad open space of a stepped theater. At the entrance to this grotto are two giant faces with deeply furrowed brows and gaping mustached mouths from which water once flowed.
A mask with the curled horns of a ram once spilled water in to this pool.
There is a point in this exploration of the garden where you find yourself on a stage, viewing yourself externally before the eyes of the world. As Vicino advanced in age, he wrote to his friend Drouet: "When I consider that from now on there are no more installations to be made in my boschetto, other than contemplating the deeper and higher things, this had the effect on me of leaving me insensible, with a soul like a statue. The thrill is gone. The theater was most likely used for performances or readings of literature.
The Sacro Bosco was built as a place to entertain guests, to share ideas and the philosophical ideals expressed in literature and soul searching. In winter, the hazelnut trees are in bloom with pale yellow catkins dangling like ornaments. These beautifully frame the the statue of a solumn looking woman who once held a basin from which water fell. Her arms broke off perhaps centuries ago along with whatever it was she was holding.
She stands atop a winged dragon like creature. There is speculation that this image represents the Egyptian goddess Isis because of the creature she stands on. Isis was the most revered of Egyptian Goddesses during Roman times. A series of holes around the perimeter of the arch may have been fountain jets spraying a web of water around her.
The winged dragon like creature on which the woman is standing.
The theater has 7 columns with wild looking busts with baskets on top their heads. They stand on square tapering columns that are the remains of what may have been an avenue of Herms. Some of them have two or four faces, representing the four ages of man. They also represent the four faced diety Janus, the god of beginnings and ends, transitions, and duality. Herms were originally of Greek origin and were used as boundary markers and were associated with the god Hermes.
Directly opposite the Herms are 7 empty niches that may have once held statues. Giant Etruscan style urns stand along the top of the wall backing the theater. A set of wide stepped terraces surounds an ovate space with a sloped central surface which once contained a fountain. Two rectangular column bases frame the steps with inscriptions, one which contains line "Sol per sfogar il Coro", "Only to unburden the heart."
To the right, facing the Theater is one of the most iconic structures at Bomarzo, the Leaning House. This two story building tilts in to the slope as if pushed over by faulting in an earthquake.
The Theater and the Leaning House
A large flat terrace flanks the downhill side of the house, eccentuating the tilt of the structure with the remains of an ovate white marble fountain basin in one corner.
The terrace viewed from a window in the leaning house.
The Leaning House
There is a plaque with an octopus carved on to it on the bottom corner of the building and a staircase leading up in to the interior.
An Octopus ornaments a shield attached to the corner of the Leaning House
A scrolled plaque at the base of the house has an inscription translated to say: The mind becoming quiet becomes wiser thereby."
The base of a scrolled plaque on the Leaning House
The views out the windows are disorienting due to the slant of the walls and floors contrasting the even planes of the landscape outside. It is believed that the Leaning House was one of the original entrances to the garden. You can exit the upper level of the building on to the terrace above the adjacent Theater via a small bridge.
The tilted view of the Theater from the Leaning House
The Leaning House
Clearly the Leaning House is meant to confound the mind and alter our sense of perception.
Stairs at the base of the Leaning House
A small altar inset in to a niche by the stairs contains the relief of a woman praying to an image of the crucifixion, the only Christian iconography that I noticed in the garden. Could this be a depiction of his pious wife Giulia?
A praying woman next to a Christ on the cross
Arriving on to the upper terrace from the Leaning House, a flight of stone steps leads up to what is called the Xystus. In ancient Greece a xystus was a kind of covered gymnasium used for excersizing during inclement weather in the winter months. The Romans adapted the idea to a collonaded garden usually flanked with shade trees. Here at Bomarzo, the Xystus was originally lined with trees, and giant Etruscan style funerary urns. Some of the urns are etched with inscriptions to express literary ideas. One simply says "Notte e giorno", or "night and day". Another says in translation, "Night and day, we are vigilant and ready to protect the fountain from any harm." At the far end of the courtyard lies a monumental river god, remeniscent of those seen at the Capitolini in Rome or the Villa Lante at Bagnaia.
The funerary urns might suggest the spirits of the dead watching over the space. The river god has a cornucopia filled with fruit and foliage lying by his side. It is possible that while representing a god of all waters, like Neptune, that this god also rules the underworld.
To his left, the head of a giant fish or dolphin rises from the ground, its mouth open wide enough to enter. Water may have cascaded over the rough hewn stones in to the curved basin below the River God.
The River God and a giant fish
The River God
On one side of the xystus, behind the row of funerary urns are two more iconic statues emblematic of Bomarzo.
Looking down from above the River God fountain to the Xystus and Hannibal's elephant.
One is a lifesize monolithic rendering of an caparisoned elephant with a stone tower on its back. A badly weathered driver stands before the tower, and a Roman soldier lies limply wrapped in the elephant's trunk. The elephant represents one used in battle by the highly successful Carthaginian general Hannibal, who defeated the Roman army during the second Punic war around 200 BC in an area not far from Bomarzo. The soldier seems to speak of the suffering inflicted on soldiers in war, which Vicino had experienced first hand. This soldier could have represented his best friend, who'm he had seen killed in battle. There is an informative article on Hannibal's elephants from the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/18/science/the-mystery-of-hannibal-s-elephants.html
It discusses what kind of elephants Hannibal may have used, as larger African elephants do not domesticate like smaller Asian elephants. The sculpture in the Sacro Bosco has the stature and size of an African elephant.
Hannibal's Elephant rising above the row of funerary urns
There are indentations on either side of the elephant's trunk that suggest that it once had real tusks. Sockets for the eyes may have been set with colored stones. The tower on the elephants back is similar to illustrations I found on the internet. This one, made for film maker Peter Jackson depicts Hannibal's elephants being transported on log rafts across a body of water. The crennalations on the top of what I would call a military howdah would have provided protection to archers riding inside.
Carthage was a kingdom located in North Africa in what is Tunisia today.
A Roman soldier being picked up by the trunk of the elephant.
Again it is important to note that this was probably painted, so that the carved ornamentation would have been colorful and expressive.
Tassles hang from the caparison, draped over the rear of the elephant.
Next to the elephant is a bizarre anthropomorphic creature resembling a winged dragon with hooves that is being attacked by lions. There are ringed holes where horns would have been mounted over a furrowed face with arched brows. These could have been real ram's horns, adding a decorative element other than stone, like the tusks on the nearby elephant.
Its a very dynamic sculpture showing wild, natural combat between supernatural creatures. The dragon is pressed against the hillside, providing structural support. The body has plate like rings starting at the neck and continuing to the tail, which is looped around what might be a lion cub. This could be the reason for the provocation between the lions and the dragon.
The dragon's mouth is agape, looking like it would be emitting a scream as the lions bite at its leg and breast.
The shreiking dragon
The dragon's tail wraps around a lion cub, like the elephant holding the Roman soldier in its trunk.
A bearded bust on a Herm found in the Xytus
At the opposite end of the Xystus terrace is a serene giant reclining, oddly proportioned woman with long flowing hair and a wide vase balanced on her head. She has a cloth draped across her lap like the River God she gazes towards that anchors the other end of the space. It is common for the most skilled carvers to render the face on sculptures, leaving execution of the bodies to less masterful workmen.
A recliining Goddess
She is backed by a curved pool with dolphins and has winged, fish tailed creatures with human torsos holding an upside down person hanging from his knees. She could be Poseidon's wife Amphitrite, or, in a more cyclical realm, the Goddess Demeter, who joined her husband Pluto in the underworld, summoning the darkness of Winter before reemerging in Spring, a time of regeneration, like the foliage filled vase on her head.
Four winged half boy-half fish wrestle behind the Goddess, holding someone upside down over the now empty pool.
Leaving this terrace, the path turns around behind the statuary of the Xystus and leads to a flight of steps and the most astonishing of all the sculptures at the Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo.
The path passing behind the fountain of Demeter and around to the infamous Ogre.
The Mouth of Hell
The Mouth of Hell, Ogre, or Orchus is a monumental face with a gaping oval mouth that leads to a small cave like room set with a rectangular stone table and a pair of benches. This space would be cool in the Summer, a secluded and perhaps somewhat naughty place to escort a love interest in to. The fact that the now mostly obscured inscription carved on its mouth read: "Laciate ogni pensiero voi ch'entrate", "Abandon all thought you who enter here" seems to act as a get out of jail free card. The table looks to me like it would provide a convenient platform for copulating. The inscription here is an alteration from the line in Dante's Inferno, "Abandon all hope you who enter here" makes the threshold potentially liberating rather than menacing.
The Orcus or Mouth of Hell
The hairy arched eyebrows and hairline frame the hollowed eyes and flared nostrils and the deep wrinkles surrounding the mouth. Two teeth are ready to bite as the mouth swallows you. This is by far one of the most impressionable structures I have seen in a garden anywhere.
Inside, the eyes and mouth allow enough light in to the interior to dimly illuminate the space. The table is curved at the end like a tongue. The narrow benches on either side seem too far removed to use as a proper picnic table, which it is often referred to.
The table and benches inside the Mouth of Hell
There is a stone wall behind the giant that separates it from a higher terrace where the Hippodromo is situated. On a flat open space below the wall stands an ornate Monumental Vase, now distractingly supported by a metal tripod. The base is surrounded by a shallow wall that may have been filled with water with fountains spouting from the four face masks carved in to the base pedastle.
The giant vase
The terrace above the Mouth of Hell and the giant vase is the site of the Hippodrome. Traditionally these were ovate race tracks for horse and chariot races dating back to Ancient Greece. The architect Pirro Ligorio, who consulted on the design of the garden and its hydraulics had recently excavated the famous Hippodrome pool at Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli outside Rome.
The elongated space is framed by a wall punctuated with giant alternating carved pine cones and acorns. Pine cone imagery is found on Etruscan tombs and symbolizes fertility, death and regeneration. Acorns are a suggestion of strength and fruitful abundance.
Acorns and Pine Cones
An Orsini Bear and the Hippodrome
There are two statues of small standing bears at the entrance, literally Orsini in Italian, which are symbols of the family name. One holds the family crest, and the other a rose, which was also associated with the family.
Behind the bears are two of the more bizarre features of the garden, a two tailed mermaid and a winged woman with a dragons tail. Between them are two lions with cubs. The perimeter around the lions is recessed and may have contained water and fountains.
The mermaid or siren gazes straight ahead with her arms resting on her wide spread tails, which are also benches. Fluid carvings of hair frame a vaginal opening through which the terrace can drain. This type of figure can be found carved on Etruscan funerary urns and is depicted in architecture found in Tuscany to the north.
A two tailed mermaid and pair of lions with cubs
Across from her on the other side of the pair of lions lies winged Fury. She has claws and a long scaly tail that twists up the wall like a serpent. She two has a calm face that gazes straight forward and a now broken basket like crown. Her wing is webbed like that of a dragon.
An illustration shows that the Hippodromo once contained planting beds where Vicino's botanical collection could be displayed. Centered on the upper wall, a boulder was carved flat and inscribed with the proud proclamation refering to an ancient Egyptian capitol, in translation: "Memphis and every other marvel too that the world has held in honor until now yield to the holy wood which is only like itself and nothing else." Vicino was obviously proud of his accomplishments in the Sacro Bosco.
An inscription carved in to a flattened boulder by the Hippodrome.
Centered at the opposite end of the Hippodrome is a bench backed by a woman with outspread arms that is associated with Persephone. She too has a basket on her head. Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter is the Goddess of Spring and Nature, but is also the Queen of the Underworld, abducted by Hades after she ate seven of his sacred pomegranate seeds. Be careful where you sit.
Behind the Persephone bench, two sets of stairs climb the hill. The one to the left is watched over by a Cerberus, a three headed guardian of the entrance to the underworld, preventing the dead from leaving.
Stairs leading to the highest level of the garden, passing the Cerberus
The three headed dog, Cerberus, guardian of the gates of the Underworld.
The Etruscan bench stands alone in a corner of the garden. An elegant stone couch with scrolled ends sits inside an arch with three Orsini roses on the vault. The inscription on the back, curved to follow the arch translates to say: "You who have traveled the world seeking marvels grand and stupendous, come here where there are terrible faces, elephants, lions, ogres, and dragons."
Climbing the stairs past the 3 headed dog guarding the gates of the Underworld leads to the highest terrace, from which the Rotunda protrudes.
Steps winding around the side of the Rotunda
The arched niches probable held statuary and there is a shapely round basin for a fountain centered on top. The Rotunda may have been a metaphore for the Meta Sudans, a fountain that once stood by the Colosseum in Rome. The conical fountain was demolished by Mussolini for the construction of a circular road that ran around the perimeter of the Colosseum, part of which has since been rebuilt as a pedestrian area.
The ruins of the Meta Sudans fountain next to the Colosseum in Rome from a photo taken in 1858
Fountain basin in the Rotunda, perhaps once a miniature of the Meta Sudans in Rome
Climbing to the top of the hill, the path winds through woods past boulders covered in Polypodium ferns.
I came upon another bench carved from a boulder outcrop, with a two coats of arms and stone pillows, which I thought were very clever. Something soft made from something very hard.
A stone bench with stone pillows
Lichen covered scroll work on the bench
A coat of arms with an eagle
Construction of parts of the garden were well underway when Vicino's wife Giulia Farnese passed away. One of the last constructions, the little temple, or Tempietto was built in her honor and sits on the highest point in the garden. It combines Etruscan and classical Renaissance elements, and is quite different from anything else in the Sacro Bosco. The area around the Tempietto is more open, with an expanse of lawn beyond a low hedge that surrounds the building.
The porch has 16 columns with a central vault and is accessed by curved steps that divide symetrically and double back on themselves to frame a sculpted panel with rondels and a garland.
The small domed chapel is closed to the public and contains the remains of Giovanni Bettini and his wife Tina, and presumably those of Giulia Farnese. The Tempieto was meant to be the final desination of the fantastic journey visitors had navigated through the Sacro Bosco, no doubt wholly changed by the experience.
The front facade of the Tempietto
Medallions with the Orsini rose are framed on the corners by the lilies of the Farnese family in the vault.
Detail of the vault in the Tempietto
Inside the porch of the Tempietto
A stately gate at the top of the garden was previously located at the original entrance below the Leaning House. I cant imagine what is involved in moving something like this, unless most of it was built from scratch with some recycled details. It now leads to a road and is probably used to access the lawns for mowing in this part of the garden.
A gate at the top of the garden
I had the luxury of spending the entire day wandering around the Parci dei Mostri, and revisited several areas as I made my way back to the entrance. This was for me what I would call a pilgrimage, having the luxury to make real what had for a long time been a dream to experience for myself this incredible place.
A herm, a woman's bust with a vase on her head
A wall detail
When I got back to the entrance, I continued down the straight path to finally see the outrageously carved head Proteus, or Glauco. There was once a shallow, rectangular pool that would have reflected this incredible face with a mouth large enough to swallow two people. There are varied explanations for the story behind this gape toothed monster. If called Proteus, he would be a god of rivers and oceans. These waters are subject to constant and sometimes violent change, requiring mutability. The face has similarities to the Mouth of Hell, with a frame of scale like shapes rather than tangled hair. They could suggest a sea creature with bulging eyes and flared nostrils. On his head balances a striped globe with a castle on top, the crest of the branch of the family, Orsini da Castello. There are remnants of red pigment painted on the stripes. This was a corner of the property and this may have acted as a boundary marker with a fearful guardian watching over the edge of the Sacro Bosco's domaine.
The remains of a reflecting pool
Glauco, or Glaucus, was a Greek Sea god. Originally a fisherman and diver, he is said to have eaten a magical herb (I love those) and then jumped in to the sea where he was transformed in to a divine water divinity. Glauco is sometimes depicted dressed in shells and seaweed. So Proteus, or Glauco?
A side view detail
There is a railing to keep tourists away from the monument which would otherwise be overun on busy days. But alas I was alone, so over that rail I went. I sat inside the mouth as the sky grew darker, and took a couple of selfies with the timer on the camera. I came, I saw, and I was eaten.
My journey was complete through the Sacro Bosco as a storm gathered over an imposing volcanic stone table mountain that makes up the nearby Riserva Naturale Monte Casoli di Bomarzo. No taxi was waiting for me when I got to the car park. It started to sprinkle as I climbed my way back up the road to the absolutely medieval looking town of Bomarzo on the hill.
Bomarzo town in the distance.
It started ro rain when I got to the town, which but for a few cars felt like it was from another century, gloomy and grey. Few people were evident. A statue of a Pope seems to wave goodbye beneath the walls of the Orsini palace at the edge of town.
Statue of a Pope?
Tightly clustered houses look out over the valley
A warren of apartments
There are a number of contemporary pebble mosaics in the town center that showed their most vivid colors as the rain came down.
A compass of cut stone and crudely set pebble mosaic
Pebble mosaic star in front of the church
The church that Giulia Farnese commissioned in Bomarzo town.
A pebbled threshold to a public building
A nice mixture of cobbles and pebble mosaic remeniscent of something I would build.
While very atmospheric, this must be a very odd place to live. I came to dead ends a number of times as I explored the twisting lanes.
A medieval doorway
Lightning and thunder made me scurry along. I slogged back around the hill to the cafe on the corner where the bus had dropped me off. My shoes and pants legs were soaked. The woman in the cafe told me a bus would come eventually so I went outside and waited. Someone came out and said I was waiting in the wrong place so I had to cross the road and stand in the rain for close to an hour.
It was dark by the time we got back to Viterbo and I was exhausted. But what a day it was!
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey
To Hell and back
Salvador Dali 1938. The mouth once had bottom teeth