in the signofVicino
In addition to giving a new urban layout to the medieval village of Bomarzo, the Orsini enriched it with the grandiose Palazzo Orsini and the celebrated Monster Park, completed by the eighth decade of the 1500s.
Also known as the Sacred Wood, it is a unique work of art, conceived and commissioned by Vicino Orsini, a fine scholar who was part of the close circle of poets and men of letters in Venice and Rome, a valiant commander and though ill with gout and kidney stones, who spent his mature years there in the company of his closest friends.
A congeries of giant, eerie stone figures, originally colored, are arranged among the vegetation on the sloping terraces of an enchanting natural amphitheater. Unknown are both the author and the meanings of most of the perturbing and bizarre sculptures that populate this place, to the realization of which the Neapolitan architect Pirro Logorio contributed. According to some fruit of the creator’s conflicted state of mind, the “monsters” are nonetheless explanatory of a culture that matured within that taste for the horrid, the magical and the esoteric in vogue in Rome in the second half of the 16th century.
Crossing the entrance, turning left and walking down the avenue, one encounters the gaping mouth of a sea monster-some say an Aztec mask-holding a globe topped with a castle, a clear symbol of the power of the Orsini family.
Turning back and climbing the stairs on the left we reach the top of the hill, where Vicino Orsini wanted to erect a small temple grafted onto an octagonal body covered with a dome as a tribute to Giulia Farnese, his young wife who died prematurely in 1560.
In the square below are Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog guardian of Hades, and Proserpine who welcomes her children into her broad belly; at the far end of the square, bordered by pine cones and acorns, two Bears, symbol of the Orsini, support the shield with the family’s coat of arms, while behind them two crouching lions are flanked by two sirens, one bicauded and the other with bat wings, inspired by the Etruscan infernal deities.
Just below, in addition to an Etruscan seat and vase, one can admire what is undoubtedly the park’s most representative sculpture: the gigantic gaping mouth of an Orc that echoes Dante’s Inferno and bears on its lip the inscription “Ogni pensiero vola.” And then a fighting elephant supporting a wounded soldier with its trunk, a dragon assailed by a lion and a veltro, Neptune-Tevere with a small dolphin under the palm of her right hand, and, just beyond, the sleeping Nymph protected by her trusty little dog.
One cannot then fail to be amazed when observing from the outside but especially when entering the interior of the Leaning House, a small pavilion singularly built in a strongly oblique fashion, probably symbolizing the Church, which in Vicino Orsini’s time was staggering due to the spread of the Protestant Reformation, as can be seen from the dedication to his friend Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo, a Tridentine prince.
Continuing on, one encounters a small classical theater and a rather rough-looking Venus, the nymphaeum with the three Graces and with the Muses, and a little further on the mythical winged horse Pegasus and the mouth of a whale, half-hidden by vegetation, wide open to a turtle topped by a winged Victory.
Up the stairs, a sculptural group can be glimpsed from behind: these are two struggling giants, according to some Hercules and Cacus but more likely the personification of good that with relentless gesture but serene expression manages to land evil.
And here ends the symbolic itinerary desired by Vicino Orsini, who was so proud of his creations that he wrote, “Se Rodi altier già fu del suo Colosso pur di questo il mio bosco anco si gloriasi e per più non poter fo quanto posso.”
After a few centuries the “memory” of the Sacred Wood was lost due to the thick vegetation that hid the traces of the “Monsters” of Bomarzo. It was the scholar Domenico Gnoli, in 1913, who “rediscovered” the wonders of the place, followed, forty years later, by artists and men of letters attracted to the Sacred Wood of Vicino Orsini: the Catalan surrealist painter Salvador Dalì called it “a unique aesthetic invention” while Argentine writer Manuel Muijca Laìnez published in 1962 the novel “Bomarzo” from which the opera of the same name by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera was based.
Today, the Sacred Wood has come back to life thanks to the Bettini family, which has owned the Park for several decades.
I, Vicino Orsini, born in Rome on the 4th of July of the year 1523, I have seen the greatness, the splendor and nevertheless, the vices of the Eternal City; I saw the ferment of art in Venice and the magnificence of Florence; I experienced the horror of war and the sufferings of imprisonment ... But finally, I found peace and quiet of soul here, in the land of Bomarzo, between the mighty walls of my Palace and the harsh and virgin nature ... Here I realized my big dream. A dream that still continues and that I would also like to make each of you live ... In Bomarzo, in my Bomarzo, on the 4th of July 2023, for the feast of my five hundred years! ....