Park of the Monsters: A 16th-century bizarre surreal oasis built in a lovely Italian Garden

The Sacro Bosco (“Sacred Grove”), also known as the Park of the Monsters (Parco dei Mostri) in the Garden of Bomarzo, was built in 1552 as a result of Prince Pier Franceso Orsini’s grief.

The Park of the Monsters, built during the Italian Renaissance, is a weird paradise of Manneristic design that can be viewed as 16th-century surrealism.

The name of the park comes from the numerous larger-than-life sculptures, some of which are carved into the bedrock, that adorn this primarily desolate environment. Its commissioner, The Prince of Bombarzo, Pier Orsini, had been battling for years through an unmerciful war, had been imprisoned for ransom, and when eventually forced to witness the murder of his beloved wife, Giulia Farnese, he had sought refuge in the verdant garden.

Orsini, a well-known arts patron, enlisted the services of well-known architect Pirro Ligorio to design a park that will both memorialize his late wife and serve as an expression of his sadness.

The park of Bomarzo was designed to astound rather than satisfy, and its symbolism is arcane: examples include a colossal sculpture of one of Hannibal’s war elephants, which mangles a Roman legionary, and a figure of Ceres resting on the barren ground, with a vase of verdure perched on her head. The many monstrous statues appear to have been strewn almost randomly throughout the area, sol per sfogare il Core (“just to set the heart free,” as one inscription on the obelisks says.

The reason for the arrangement and relatively cryptic design of the garden is unknown: possibly they were intended as a contrast to the immaculate symmetry and layout of the famous Renaissance gardens nearby at Villa Farnese and Villa Lante. Next to a formal exedra is a casina-like tilting watchtower known as Casa Pendente (“Leaning House”).

The weird Park of the Monsters was not only a location where Orsini found tranquility and surrounded himself with literates and artists strongly committed to an Epicurean way of life, but it also influenced major surreal painters decades later. The Parco dei Mostri was one of Salvador Dali’s favorite spots. The surrealist genius got inspiration here and used the site for a short film he filmed. Dali’s 1946 artwork The Temptation of Saint Anthony was inspired by the park’s bizarre statues. Jean Cocteau was another frequent visitor to the area.

The centerpiece of the 16th-century park is a giant screaming mouth (dubbed “the mouth of hell”), inside which is a picnic table and chairs for a small group to enjoy lunch.

The Mannerism marvel fell into obscurity over the nineteenth century, overgrown and ignored by the new grandeur of Neoclassical gardens and statues. What was once an aesthetic haven has degenerated into a crumbling park devoured by nature.
However, the Bettini family launched a restoration campaign in the 1970s, and now the garden, which remains private property, is a significant tourist destination.

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