Bomarzo's main attraction is a garden usually referred to as the Bosco Sacro (Sacred grove) or, locally, Bosco dei Mostri ("Monsters' Grove"), named for the many larger-than-life sculptures, some sculpted in the bedrock, which populate this predominantly barren landscape.
A sphinx at the entrance of the Park of the Monsters.
It is the work of Pier Francesco Orsini, called Vicino (1528–1588), a hunchback condottiero and patron of the arts, greatly devoted to his wife Giulia Farnese (daughter of Galeazzo Farnese Duke of Latera, not to be confused with Giulia Farnese); when she died, he created the gardens. The design that has been attributed to Pirro Ligorio, a well known architect of the time.
The park of Bomarzo was intended not to please, but to astonish, and like many Mannerist works of art, its symbolism is arcane: examples are a large sculpture of one of Hannibal's war elephants, which mangles a Roman legionary, or the statue of Ceres lounging on the bare ground, with a vase of verdure perched on her head.
The many monstrous statues appear to be unconnected to any rational plan and appear to have been strewn almost randomly about the area, sol per sfogare il Core ("just to set the heart free") as one inscription in the obelisks says.
Allusive verses in Italian by Annibal Caro, Bitussi and Cristoforo Madruzzo, some of them now eroded, were inscribed besides sculptures.
The reason for the layout and design of the garden is largely unknown: perhaps they were meant as a foil to the perfect symmetry and layout of the great Renaissance gardens nearby at Villa Farnese and Villa Lante. Next to a formal exedra is a tilting watchtowerlike casina, the so-called Casa Storta ("Stunted House").
An octagonal templet was added about twenty years later to honor the second wife of Orsini, Giulia Farnese.
During the nineteenth century and deep into the twentieth the garden became overgrown and neglected, but in the 1970s a program of restoration was implemented by the Bettini family, and today the garden, which remains private property, is a major tourist attraction.
The surreal nature of the Parco dei Mostri appealed to Jean Cocteau and the great surrealist Salvador Dalí, who discussed it at great length. The poet André Pieyre de Mandiargues wrote an essay devoted to Bomarzo. Niki de Saint Phalle was inspired by Bomarzo for her Tarot Garden. The story behind Bomarzo and the life of Pier Francesco Orsini are the subject of a fascinating novel by the Argentinian writer Manuel Mujica Láinez (1910-1984), Bomarzo (1962). Mujica Láinez himself wrote a libretto based on his novel, which was set to music by Alberto Ginastera (1967). The opera Bomarzo premièred in Washington in 1967. In Argentina the opera was banned by the military dictatorship, but in the USA both Mujica Láinez and Ginastera were awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
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