Text and photos by Julie Moir Messervy.
The Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo, located 60 miles northwest of Rome, is a must-see destination for all garden lovers. Also called the Villa of Wonders, it has been on my bucket list since I read Marella Agnelli’s wonderful Gardens of the Italian Villas (NY: Rizzoli, 1987); what joy to finally encounter the monsters along its many winding paths!
This sixteenth-century landscape was created by Pier Francesco Orsini who laid out the gardens to “satisfy the heart.” An inscription carved in stone at the entry seems to have been written for me: “You who go wandering about the world in search of sublime and awesome wonders, come here where horrendous faces, elephants, lions, bears, ogres and dragons are to be seen.” Indeed, the visitor leaves the safety of the Autostrada to wind on ever-narrowing roads, past a castle atop a hillside, to a low valley where weedy stands of plane trees create a Sacro Bosco, or Sacred Grove. Orsini, perhaps in reaction to the perfection and symmetry of earlier Renaissance gardens in nearby Rome and its environs, decided to create a more stylized and bizarre landscape in a style that came to be called Mannerism.
I’ve always loved Mannerist paintings, sculptures and gardens because they exaggerate and play with form, scale, and structure. This place delights and confounds its visitors who wander past one massive sculpture after another (two dozen in all). Agnelli writes that Orsini, a man of arts and letters, may have taken inspiration from the works of Rabelais, romantic epic poetry, books about the East Indies, and epic literature like Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. What it most feels like is the epic journey of a chivalrous knight who must overcome one ordeal after another in order to claim the hand of his beloved. We too are transformed as we wander these ancient paths past the strange and unsettling elements of this mysterious universe.