Sacred Forest or Monster Park?

Some people say it doesn’t matter, but I think it does.  I’m talking about the rooms we stay in when we travel.   And for me, the most important thing about that room is that it have a view.  At the end of a day of sightseeing, even if it’s only for one night, I like to look out my window and see something that lets me know where I am.   And in the morning, to look out that window again and watch the boatmen navigate a small canal in Venice or the breeze shimmer through an olive grove in Tuscany or the fishermen bring in the morning’s catch in Sorrento’s Marina Grande, holds the promise of another bella giornata. Maybe this matters more for solo travellers, but having travelled alone and with company, I’m not convinced.

A room with a view in Positano.

A room with a view in Positano.

What else do I look for?  Small, charming, owner-operated where possible and decorated in a style that reflects the area.   Something that says ‘genuine’.  In Italy I also look for a location where there is a strong possibility that the evening passeggiata is alive and well. And a good selection of restaurants within easy walking distance – I’ve been walking around gardens all day.

On the island of Ischia, geranium barriers block all traffic from the main road for the evening passeggiata.

On the island of Ischia, barriers of potted geraniums are rolled out for the car-free, evening passeggiata.

I start my search by getting out my guide books.  With books you know something about the author.  My favourites are ‘Charming Small Hotel Guides’, Alistair Sawday’s ‘Special Places to Stay’ and ‘Hotels and Country Inns of Character and Charm’ by Rivages.  Then I start trolling the web,  looking for the most recent comments on the hotels I’ve earmarked. Occasionally a change in ownership or rating pops up.  I was upset to see that my favourite hotel in Nice had been upgraded to four stars since my last visit. Not surprisingly, the room prices had also been upgraded.  


The room had a great view but given the upgrade, I’ll have to find a new favourite hotel for my next trip to Nice.

Sometimes, while I’m looking for a hotel, I stumble across a garden or a tourist site I knew nothing about.  When I was looking for a place to stay near Villa Lante, I checked out the hotels in Viterbo.  In addition to glowing descriptions of the amenities awaiting you at each hotel, as a further inducement, most websites also included a list of ‘Nearby Attractions’.  Not surprisingly, Villa Lante was on every list.  But so was another attraction – Sacro Bosco aka Parco dei Mostri.  ‘Sacred Forest’ or ‘Park of the Monsters’, depending on your point of view I suppose.  I’d never heard of it.  From the brief descriptions, it sounded more like a very weird amusement park than a garden, but in the end I decided to go.  It was only 13 kilometres from Villa Lante.


The village of Bomarzo, perched atop a rocky ridge.

It was created only a few decades after Villa Lante, but apart from sharing the same architect, the two gardens could not be more different if they had been created centuries apart, on opposite sides of the planet.   It wasn’t because one was the garden of a Cardinal and the other of a military officer and diplomat. It was the times.

In 1527 Charles V had attacked Rome.  In the brutal rampage that followed – the Sack of Rome – the Renaissance came to an abrupt end.  Days of devastating bestiality, pillaging, murder and rape by the Emperor’s out of control troops had exposed the ideals of the Renaissance to be nothing but an illusion.  And with the shattering of that illusion came the rejection of everything the Renaissance had stood for.

Along the path to the entrance.

No formal cypress-lined avenue here.

In its place a new movement emerged –  Mannerism – so called because of its emphasis on style over substance, on the ‘manner’ of a thing over its essence.  Those paintings with the strange long necks and arms, the weird, unnatural landscapes?  All Mannerist.  When it came to garden design, having rejected all the standard features of the Renaissance Garden – symmetry, harmony, central axes, level terraces, focal points –  what was left for the garden designer to do?  One man’s answer, in fact the most extravagant take on the Mannerist theme, is in a valley in the middle of nowhere.  At least that’s what it seemed like as I was driving along the narrow, country roads trying to find it. As usual there were no signs.

Orsini is a diminutive of orso meaning bear.

The family name of the creator, Duke Orsini, is a diminutive of orso (bear).

In the mid 1550‘s, after witnessing the brutal murder of his closest friend, Duke Orsini was captured and held for ransom.  Three years later he was released and had barely made it back home when his beloved wife died.  Overcome with sorrow, he withdrew from public life, and retreated to his family’s holdings, a wild, rocky property in the hilltop village of Bomarzo.  After a while, perhaps as many of us have done when we find ourselves ‘in the wilderness’, as a way to ease his sorrow, in the valley below he began to create … something.  For lack of a better word, let’s call it a garden.


Solo per sfogar il core. (Only to relieve my heart.)

Orsini himself didn’t call it a garden.  He called it Sacro Bosco (Sacred Forest).  An allusion to the groves where pagans had worshipped in ancient times.  In his Sacred Forest there would be no focal point.  No clear direction to follow.  Visitors were left to meander along the contours of the hillside.  In Orsini’s words, ‘completely free to search for what they most desired or to wander aimlessly until lost’.

I was fine with the idea of searching for what I most desired.  It was the thought of ‘wandering aimlessly until lost’ that made me uneasy.


I read later that the sphinx had recently been moved to its present location, just beyond the entrance.  It was felt that the new location might help visitors understand what is going on in the garden.


The inscription, in an old form of Italian, roughly translates as  “Whoever goes around this place with raised eyebrows and tight lips and is not filled with wonder and amazement at the sight of Bomarzo’s gigantic statues would not be capable of  appreciating even the famous seven wonders of the world.”  Sounded like a taunt to me.  Hoping I was up to the challenge – wouldn’t want to be betrayed by a wandering eyebrow – I set off.


Poseidon, the fisherman turned into the sea god after eating a magic herb.

In keeping with the new Mannerist style, instead of clearing the land of the existing vegetation and boulders and then moving quantities of earth around to create level terraces, Orsini left the valley in its natural state.  And all the enormous lumps of volcanic rock that littered the valley?  He had them carved in situ into Roman and Greek gods, and an assortment of mythological creatures.


“You who have travelled the world in search of great and stupendous marvels, come here, where there are horrendous faces, elephants, lions, ogres and dragons.”


Unlike visitors today, Orsini’s guests would have had no trouble identifying any of the statues strewn along the hillside. This reclining figure might be a siren. Or maybe a goddess.

Hercules was bound to be here somewhere.  For the 10th Labour he had to bring back the magnificent red cattle of Geryon, the fearsome giant who controlled the western edge of the Mediterranean.  On the way back, as Hercules lay sleeping, the rogue Cacus stole a few.  Eventually Hercules caught up to him.


Of all the strange things here, one of the strangest is the Casa Storta, which, unlike the Leaning Tower of Pisa, was deliberately built on an angle.  You can go inside, but I don’t recommend it if you are at all susceptible to vertigo.   Even if you have pretty good balance and the only thing you’ve had to drink so far is cappuccino, you’ll still be lurching and staggering across the floor.  And the world outside will appear disturbingly cockeyed.  It is, as Orsini no doubt intended, disconcerting.


Ironically, the falling down house stands rock solid 500 years later.

Further on Neptune rested with the dolphins, creatures revered not only by the pagans who worshipped in Sacred Forests, but also by the Etruscans, who believed that the souls of the dead were transported by dolphins to the next life.


A rare moment of serenity. Neptune at rest with the dolphins, the creatures



Peace is illusory in the Mannerist world view, so nearby Hannibal and his elephant are ready to do battle and a winged dragon is having it out with a few other creatures.


Perhaps the strangest thing of all is not even in the garden.  It’s the fact that the same individual could have designed this place and the gardens at Villa Lante and Villa d’Este.


The Snare of Lust.

As we saw at Villa Adriana, Hadrian dined al fresco in an elaborately decorated alcove overlooking his guests.  Ippolito d’Este revived the tradition under his Triumphal Arch overlooking Rome in the distance.  Cardinal Gambara dined with a few select guests in an elegant, but small palazzina overlooking a garden that symbolized man’s triumph over nature.  But all of these designs reflected an optimism and confidence that Orsini no longer felt.  Instead, he took his inspiration from Dante.   Over the Gates of Hell in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ is the grim inscription ‘Lasciate ogni speranza o voi ch’entrate!‘  (Abandon all hope oh ye who enter!)  Orsini gave the bleak warning a tweak, turning it into an invitation to abandon not all hope, but all thought.  OGNI PENSIERO VOLA.  Let every thought fly away.


A Mannerist take on dining al fresco.  Above the entrance an invitation to abandon all thought.

Inside the gigantic mouth – unfortunately there was no-one around to give a sense of the size and I hadn’t yet come up with the ‘shoe shot’ idea (The 1st Renaissance Garden, Part III, Sept. 22, 2013) – is a large stone table.  Bizarre, but would have been delightfully refreshing on a hot summer evening.


It has been said that of all the art forms, gardens are the most fleeting.  Sacro Bosco was extremely popular during Orsini’s lifetime, but after his death it faded into oblivion.  It took the devastation of World War II to bring it back to life.  As I meandered, not quite lost, back up the hill to the entrance, I passed a temple-like structure.


Although built as a mausoleum for Orsini’s wife, it was always referred to as “Il Tempio di Vignola“, (Vignola’s Temple), in honour of the architect who designed it.

In the early 1950’s a local, Giancarlo Bettini, purchased the property and hired a group of unemployed veterans who, having returned home from World War II, struggled to survive.


To him and his family goes the credit of having saved from destruction this important complex, the only one of its kind in the world and at the same time of having provided work to the unemployed of the village of Bomarzo.  In eternal memory of his death July 30, 1997.

Like Duke Orsini, I wouldn’t call it a garden – for starters, amidst all its spooky weirdness there wasn’t a single flower in sight – and while I noticed my eyebrow raising itself a few times despite my best intentions – I would also agree with the Duke that it is a place full of extraordinary, surprising things.  Full of wonder.  And, something the Duke could not have known, adding to that wonder is the fact that it was both conceived and brought back to life in the aftermath of war.

note:  If you read my blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I send out a new post once a week, on Sundays.  But because this is the last post for the Lazio region, and because I am leaving for a three-week trip to Sicily this evening, I decided to publish this one today.   And so, until June, Arrivederci!

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