The park of monsters is a renaissance garden located in the small city of Bomarzo in the area of northern Lazio called Tuscia. The park was created in the mid of 16th-century byPierfrancesco (Vicino) Orsini.
Vicino Orsini belonged to a noble family in Rome and like many young men of his age and status he had to dedicate the first part of his life to the art of war. During the years he spent living as a soldier he witnessed many horrors; death, torture, imprisonment and loss of friends. These events left a mark on his heart and soul. When he finally retired to the city of Bomarzo of which he was the Duke, he decided to devote what remained of his life to the creation of a very mysterious and scary garden.
Unlike the other Italian renaissance gardens in Bagnaia and Caprarola, the park of the monsters in Bomarzo does not follow a perfectly symmetric and geometric display of plants and fountains but rather has an apparently casual aspect. Designed by the architect Pirro Ligorio (the same who worked in the Villa d’Este in Tivoli) it is equipped with sculptures, fountains and various special effects that will literally make your head spin.
Many of the statues represent curious and at times horrible creatures that have been tamed by the duke of Bomarzo and are waiting to capture you and transport you into a different dimension where you wonder if what you see is real or just an illusion.
In fact, the stroll through the sacred forest of Bomarzo is not just an enjoyable walk in nature but also a journey through the unconscious, a plunge into the deepest part of our being – the human spirit.
The “monsters”: elephants, lions, sphinxes, turtles, orcs and many others were sculpted directly in the rocks that once upon a time were randomly abandoned here by the local volcano. The sculptors, whose names remain unknown, had to adapt the figures to the peculiar size and shape of the rocks.
It was not an easy task to accomplish. In all the series of statues that you will be able to find here one of the most appalling, and therefore one the most photographed, is the Orcus.
It’s a huge statue carved out of the grey tufa rock with round empty eyes, a huge open mouth and two big square teeth that without a doubt would be capable of tearing to shreds those who’d dare to enter.
Over the years this giant has become the symbol of the park of monsters but who is this hideous creature? His name is Orc or Orcus and he’s a creature described both in the North European tales as well as in the Mediterranean myths. In the northern culture, the orc was often portrayed as a huge, strong, muscular, hairy and very, very scary man-like creature that enjoyed feeding on the human flesh.
In fact, it was these tales that inspired J. R. R. Tolkien the creation of his horrifying
creatures in the Lord of the Ring novels. Moreover, the orcs were not particularly clever, actually, they were quite stupid and in the tales, the hero always managed to succeed because he’d defeat the orc through his intelligence.
However, in recent times, primarily thanks to the movie Shrek there has been a revaluation of the orcs that don’t seem so scary anymore On the Italian peninsula on the other hand Orcus was presented as a gigantic creature that populated the underworld and was identified with the God of Hades Pluto, he was often represented with Cerberus the three-headed dog by his side.
Where Vicino Orsini got the inspiration for his orc we do not know for sure but what we do know though is that certainly, this creature must have amazed all the visitors of the park.
On the monster’s upper lip is a curious writing: Ogni Pensiero Vola - “Every thought flies”.
What could this mean? Well, we know that Vicino was an educated man that dedicated many days to lectures and some books must have served him as inspiration for the creation of what he used to call “il boschetto” (the little wood). Without a doubt, one of them was The Comedy by Dante Alighieri.
In this narrative poem, the pilgrim Dante accompanied by Virgil visits hell where at the entrance it says: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. It is very likely that these were the words originally written on the lip of the orc and only with time they have been changed to the current phrase. The phrase could serve as a warning similar to 'proceed with caution’ 'stay away' or 'do not enter'.
So, are you courageous enough to enter?
In fact, the statue of the Orc is the only statue in the park that’s hollow on the inside. In the centre of the cave-like space, there’s a table, carved out of stone and a bench running along the side walls.
We can imagine the Duke of Bomarzo and his friends enjoying each other’s company dining
and drinking here on the hot summer days. Considering that the mouth of the orc amplifies the sounds imagine what this party must have looked like from the outside. The sound of people eating, chewing and sipping must have appeared as though it was the orc himself eating whoever was on the inside. Scary!
Park of Monsters - Inspiration for Modern Art
In 1938 the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali adventured into the park of Bomarzo. At the time the garden was abandoned and used solely by the local shepherds who from the mouth of the orc guarded the animal's grazing. Dali was amazed by the incredible creatures embedded in nature and had many pictures taken. One picture, in particular, was taken when he was sitting in the mouth of the orc. Dali defined the park of Vicino Orsini as the precursor of surrealism. After his visit, the limelights were once again turned on this bizarre universe and the park was purchased by the Bettini family and restored to its former beauty.
In the last decades, some modern artists have taken interest in this magical forest and have come here in search of inspiration, one of them was Niki de Saint Phalle. The park of monsters with time became fertile soil for the imagination of this French-American artist who in the years 1974-1998 in the Tuscan city of Capalbio created the so-called Giardino dei Tarocchi – the Tarot Garden.
In this curious and very colourful space, she inserted a statue named - Papessa (female
pope), if you look at it very carefully you’ll see that there’s a very close similarity with the statue of the orc in Bomarzo.
Canale Monterano, the ghost town, is less than an hour's drive from Bomarzo, and has an almost unreal landscape, due to its abandonment following an epidemic, probably of malaria, at the end of the eighteenth century.
The area, famous in the Renaissance period for the extraction of alum, from the nearby Monti della Tolfa, had attracted the attention of several noble families, including that of the Orsini, making it necessary for a large number of labourers to arrive.
What was once a medieval fortress had to be transformed into a noble palace, due to the presence of the Altieri family.
The Altieri were the architects of the splendid development of the city in the second half of the seventeenth century, entrusting none other than Carlo Fontana with the direction of the works of the Doge's Palace.
The mighty lion, once towering over a fountain, which decorates the palace, undoubtedly recalls the lion of the fountain of the four rivers by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in Navona Square in Rome, an artist who would also have worked in Monterano for the Altieri.
Even the church of San Bonaventura, in the same complex, would have been executed by Matthia De Rossi on a project by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The rediscovery of the place can be traced to the cinematic interest in these ruins. Canale Monterano appears in Il Marchese del Grillo, with Alberto Sordi, or in Ladyhawke, echoing the charm of the ghost town.
If your tour of Italy is on the quest for the unusual and dreamlike places off the beaten trail, then a visit to Bomarzo and Canale Monterano is a must. Roma Experience has created an itinerary called “Devils and Monsters” to discover two fantastic places in the Lazio region.