You may wish to see a map of the region and a short introduction to this section first.
View of Bomarzo
Similar to Bagnoregio, Bomarzo is a small town situated on a hill at the edge of a volcanic plateau overlooking the Tiber River valley. We know little about its Etruscan and Roman past when it was called Polimartium, the town of Mars. During the Early Middle Ages and until 1035 it was a bishopric seat, which indicates that the town had some importance.
At the beginning of the XVIth century Bomarzo was a fiefdom of the Orsini, a most powerful Roman family. The development of the town is strictly linked with the decision made by Gian Corrado Orsini and his son Vicino to build an imposing palace there.
The construction of Palazzo Orsini started in 1519 and it was completed by 1583 when Vicino Orsini passed away. Palazzo Orsini is made up of two main buildings which occupy nearly half of the medieval town. The part which was not included in the palace still retains some houses with profferli, external staircases which are typical of Viterbo.
(left) Parish church; (centre-above) heraldic symbols of the Orsini (bear) and of the Farnese (fleur-de-lys); (centre-below) coat of arms of the Orsini; (right) Renaissance fresco framed in a later altar
In 1544 Vicino Orsini married Giulia Farnese, a cousin of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III. Vicino assisted the Cardinal in his diplomatic and military activities and he was most likely portrayed in a fresco at the Cardinal's palace at Caprarola (you can see him in a detail of the fresco where he is marked with a blue dot - it opens in a separate window).
Vicino renovated the only church of Bomarzo, which was given an elegant Renaissance fašade and was decorated with frescoes.
(above) 1583 inscription and monogram of Vicino Orsini; (below-left) double rose of the Orsini; (below-right) ancient funerary relief walled on the bell tower
(see that on the bell tower of nearby Vasanello)
After the death of Pope Paul III Vicino Orsini fought at the side of the Farnese Dukes of Castro who supported France against Spain. He was taken prisoner for two years (1553-1555). He was then involved by Pope Paul IV in a war against Spain which ended in total disaster. After this event he decided to retire to Bomarzo and to dedicate himself to the construction of a Sacred Wood which would represent his view of life.
Bomarzo and the Orsini palace seen from the valley where the Sacred Wood is situated; in the foreground a boulder with ancient tombs (see an Etruscan sarcophagus which was found in a painted cave near Bomarzo at the end of this page)
At the time Vicino Orsini decided to build his Sacred Wood other gardens were in the process of being designed or completed at Caprarola, Bagnaia and Tivoli. They were all designed along the slope of a hill and had a very symmetrical structure. Vicino Orsini chose instead a hidden valley, rather far from his palace, probably because big boulders of peperino, a volcanic rock easy to cut, were available there.
The Sacred Wood today is known as Parco dei Mostri, because of its gigantic sculptures portraying heads of monsters which house benches in their open mouths where Vicino Orsini and his guests rested during the hottest hours of the day.
The meaning of these works is often unclear, although short sentences were carved near most of them. In general there is consensus that they celebrate Vicino's chivalric view of the world in addition to the glory of the Orsini through references to their heraldic symbols (the image used as background for this page shows the statue of a bear holding a rose, two symbols of the Orsini).
The Ogre, the most famous "monster"
Other Late Renaissance gardens have artificial caves which are usually decorated with statues and mosaics which link them to deities or heroes of the Classical World. At Bomarzo instead they seem to be part of fantastic tales such as those described in contemporary poems on the life of Roland, the paladin of Charlemagne, by Matteo Maria Boiardo (Orlando Innamorato - Orlando in Love) and Ludovico Ariosto (Orlando Furioso - Mad Orlando).
Two other "monsters"
There might have been some practical reasons behind the choice of portraying "monsters" rather than famous mythological creatures.
As a matter of fact the Sacred Wood houses statues of Venus, the Three Graces, a River God and Pegasus. Visitors immediately compare them with others they have seen and notice that they are poorly sculptured, because peperino cannot be finely worked.
The "monsters" do not have an ideal model to be compared to and therefore they end up by being the main attraction of the Sacred Wood.
Some sources cite Simone and Francesco Mosca, two Tuscan sculptors who worked at nearby Orvieto as the creators of some of the statues, yet Giorgio Vasari does not mention Bomarzo in their biographies.
An "Etruscan Bench" in the upper left corner and other benches in the shape of mermaids or goddesses
The Sacred Wood has plenty of benches where the guests of Vicino Orsini could rest, but who were these guests is an open question. Bomarzo was (and is) in the middle of nowhere and difficult to reach because it is remote from Via Cassia and Via Flaminia, the two main roads of northern Latium. Vicino Orsini belonged to a famous family, but his relatives had fiefdoms more important than Bomarzo.
After the death of his wife in 1557 Vicino lost his link with the Farnese and he married Cleria Clementini who came from a rather obscure Roman family.
Most likely the Sacred Wood to which Vicino Orsini dedicated his life was almost unknown to his contemporaries.
Scenes of fights
Similar to clouds, boulders often have shapes which resemble things or living creatures. It is possible that some subjects were suggested by the shape itself of the boulders and did not have a specific meaning. Other groups however were not inspired by the shape of a rock, but their significance is unclear, apart from their surprise effect on visitors.
An inscription at the entrance is perhaps the only real clue to the Sacred Wood.
Voi che pel mondo gite errando, vaghi
di vedere maraviglie alte e stupende
venite qua, dove son faccie horrende,
elefanti, leoni, orsi, orchi e draghi.
You who travel the world to see its wonders, come here where you will find horrible faces, elephants, lions, bears, ogres and dragons.
(left) The Leaning House; (right) the Tortoise, perhaps a tribute to Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany whose fleet had as its emblem a tortoise with a sail upon its back. Vicino Orsini promoted the marriage of Paolo Giordano Orsini to Isabella, daughter of Cosimo (more on this unhappy couple)
Maybe Vicino Orsini had a spiritual heir in the
Prince of Palagonia, whose villa at Bagheria near Palermo was visited by J. W. Goethe in 1787 who wrote in his Italian Journey:
"Our entire day has been taken up with the madness of the Prince of Pallagonia. His follies turned out to be quite different from anything I had imagined after hearing and reading about them. (..) The drive to the house is unusually broad and each wall has been transformed into an uninterrupted socle (base) on which excellent pedestals sustain strange groups interspersed with vases. The repulsive appearance of these deformities, botched by inferior stonecutters, is reinforced by the crumbly shell-tufa of which they are made. (..) In the house the fever of the Prince rises to a delirium. The legs of the chairs have been unequally sawn off, so that no one can sit on them." (translation by W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer).
E' del poeta il fin la meraviglia (..) chi non sa stupir vada alla striglia (The aim of the poet is to surprise. He who cannot
astonish us should work in the stables). By these verses Giovan Battista Marino, an Italian poet of the early XVIth century summarized the aim of poetry and in general of art, but
when Vicino Orsini designed his Sacred Wood the culture of the time was not prepared to accept something which lacked symmetry and did not
have a justification, either moral or literary.
Vicino's descendants were not interested in the Sacred Wood, they did not add statues or other facilities and probably they did not care to maintain it properly. In 1645 they sold their possessions at Bomarzo to Ippolito Lante della Rovere, who in 1656 bought Villa di Bagnaia with its much celebrated gardens. The new owner cared to improve the decoration of Palazzo Orsini at Bomarzo, but he regarded the Sacred Wood as something which would not add anything to his prestige.
(left) Chapel dedicated by Vicino Orsini to Giulia Farnese, his first wife; (right) detail of its decoration which is based on the roses of the Orsini
and the fleurs-de-lys of the Farnese
The Sacred Wood fell into oblivion the only exception being a chapel dedicated by Vicino to his first wife which stood almost isolated on high ground. For his wife he chose to build a chapel which was in line with the architecture of the time. Several names are quoted as possible designers of the chapel, but there is not proper documentation supporting the attributions.
Vases and between two of them the finest face of the Sacred Wood (perhaps that of Ceres)
The Sacred Wood was abandoned for centuries and its statues were covered by vegetation. Only local shepherds visited it and sheltered themselves in its artificial caves. In 1954 the property was bought by the Bettini family who started a lengthy restoration to bring it back to its former splendour, although the lack of documentation does not ensure the positioning of some small statues is the original site. In addition Parco dei Mostri displays a wide range of plants which were not in the Sacred Wood.
Two miles from the modern village of Bomarzo is the site of an
Etruscan town, supposed to be Moeonia. There are few
remains above-ground, but several interesting tombs. One,
with a single pillar in its centre, is known as the Grotta della
Colonna. Near it is the Grotta Dipinta decorated with
very curious frescoes of Dolphins and other monsters, some
of them with semi-human faces. The temple-shaped sarcophagus, adorned with snakes, now in the British Museum,
was found in this tomb.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875
The stone used for this sarcophagus was nenfro, a local volcanic stone, which cannot be finely worked (see some other Etruscan sarcophagi). In this case however the sculptor achieved a very good result which can be compared to those in marble sarcophagi. The Etruscans usually depicted the dead on the lid of the sarcophagus, very often in the act of banqueting. Here instead the sarcophagus has the shape of a temple which is guarded by sphinxes and knotted snakes. The angel-like figures are deities of the Etruscan Underworld. The name of the dead is written in Etruscan alphabet.