During our trip to Italy (sadly over now), we visited some stunning classic formal gardens, including Villa Lante, Palazzo Farnese and La Foce. One garden, however, was very different from the others, and that was Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo (west of Viterbo in Lazio). In fact it was like no other garden I have ever seen.
The garden was the creation of Prince Vicino Orsini and was begun in 1552 in the wooded valley at the base of his family's formal terraced gardens that descended from their castle at the top of the hill in the village of Bomarzo. The architect Pirro Ligorio was employed to carry out the work. 'Sacro Bosco' means 'Sacred Wood' in Italian and the garden has none of the geometry and formality of its Renaissance contemporaries, being comprised of meandering paths in a forest of trees, with three broad terraces and steps to reach these different levels. One doesn't pay much attention to what these trees are, as they are simply a backdrop. The dominant aspect of the garden is the array of huge statues carved from the outcrops of rock that existed throughout the site. Cryptic inscriptions were carved into many of the features, adding to the intrigue and mystery. The statues retain a wonderful patina of lichen and moss, which makes them seem intrinsically part of the surrounding wood, although in Orsini's time, they were apparently painted in lurid colours.
Unlike the classical, refined statues of other gardens of the era, these are wild, bizarre and at times savage, frightening and lustful figures of people and animals, imbued with an anarchic, mocking tone that makes it all the more amazing that they are almost 500 years old. Garden writers have long puzzled over what it all means. Many of the figures have allegories to classic ideas and texts that are unfamiliar to modern visitors, but which would have been meaningful to those who viewed the place in the 16th century. Some analysts see it as representing a sort of violent underworld, with statues representing mythological figures from such a place and one seen as 'the entry to hell': a large, terrifying face (pictured above), the mouth of which visitors can walk through to sit inside the creature's head.
Others have seen it as Orsini's way of mocking the solemn and serious gardens of his contemporaries. He was not constrained by religion as was the case with several other gardens made in the region of Viterbo by cardinals. He did include many similar garden features as in those gardens but twisted them with an ironic flair and used them to express his own personal emotions and experiences. A giant colossus, possibly Orlando, from Aristotle's poem Orlando Furioso, or maybe Hercules, holds a rival upside down and tears him in half - apparently paralleling Orsini's rage at a betrayal; a huge elephant (which apparently had real tusks and rubies for eyes) carries a dead soldier - which may be an allusion to Orsini's military career.
Other features seem to be pure jokes or riddles: a miniature house was built with a distinct tilt (pictured at the start of the blog), so that visitors entering the building have a disconcerting feeling of disequilibrium. However, some have seen this as suggesting the corrupt nature of the world. Certainly the tone of the garden does change once the visitor reaches the top of the garden, where a classical temple was built to honour Orsini's wife, Guilia, who died at a young age. The temple is said by some to represent the purity of divine love rising above the baser desires, problems and forces of human existence that swirl around the statues in the wood below. In the end, every garden visitor will have their own take on this extraordinary place.
The garden was abandoned after Orsini's death in 1584 and was overgrown and forgotten about. It was rediscovered in 1949 when visited by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, and the subsequent publicity rekindled an interest in the place. Efforts were made to resurrect the garden soon after. The property was eventually bought by the Bettini family, who continued the restoration and opened the garden to the public, after an official exorcism by a local bishop!
On the bright summer's day when we visited, the place was packed with cheerful families enjoying a day out, the children finding the statues highly amusing. However, I can imagine that on a misty winter's morning or a moonlit night, if one were alone in the garden, the atmosphere would be one of an edgy, frightening glimpse into the machinations of the unconscious mind, which was my personal take on this strange and memorable creation.
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