The Garden of Monsters

by Jesper Jensen

What kind of man was Pier Francesco Orsini, and what inner demons haunted him? The answers to these questions might help to discover why a large number of monsters and figurers from the mythological and natural world have found their way to a woodland area near the small central Italian town of Bomarzo: three-headed dogs, giant human beings fighting with one another, tilted houses, aggressive dragons, giant turtles, combat elephants carrying away fallen warriors, animal bodies with women’s heads, horses with wings, a horrible forest troll with its mouth wide open, and many others.

All this probably sounds like a nightmare. But don’t be fooled by these apparently horrible monsters – all carved out of a malleable calcareous tufa stone – which can be found in a woodland area about 65 kilometres north of Rome. Although these fantastical creatures might seem a sort of animals’ chamber of horrors, the park is both intriguing and charming, and the area has become a popular attraction.

In springtime the forest’s full-blown oaks, beeches and chestnut trees form an idyllic frame around visitors. Here in summertime one can find cool, shady areas, and in autumn nature’s colour palette shows its most fascinating side. The idyllic atmosphere of the Garden of Monsters is therefore in strong contrast with the park’s many disturbing inhabitants.

The world’s first land art museum

Pier Francesco Orsini, known as Vicino Orsini, duke of Bomarzo, has been described as a brave soldier, a dreamer, a poet, a romantic soul and a competent commander. By the age of 33 he had already served for 11 years as an officer in the army of the pope, three of which he had passed as a prisoner in Germany.

It would seem that the many horrors of different wars had a negative effect on Orsini’s sensitive nature: too much bloodshed, too much war, and too much violence. Perhaps for this reason, Orsini – to hold his inner demons in check – decided to start planning a rather special garden. The decision was taken in 1552, when he at the age of 33 left the pope’s army.

Five years later Orsini lost his beloved wife Giulia. His grief for this terrible premature loss seems to have made Orsini speed up the planning of his Monster Garden in order to “let his heart find an outlet for its sorrow”. Orsini’s idea to construct a garden of monsters became, at the same time, the beginning of what some historians have called the world’s first land art museum.

The curious pope

To carry out his plan Orsini called on his good friend, the architect Pirro Ligorio, who was an important figure at the papal court. After Michelangelo’s death Ligorio finished some of the great Tuscan artist’s commissions, including some in the vast basilica of St Peter’s, then Rome’s most prestigious building project. Some years before, in 1550, Ligorio had been the architect and artistic designer behind the magnificent Villa d’Este in Tivoli – the famous garden with 500 fountains, big and small – to the south of Rome.

Under Ligorio’s direction, the woodland area just outside of Bomarzo started to change slowly. All of a sudden the old forest, which previously had been a popular hunting area for noblemen, became populated with pagan creatures of stone, figures in the Mannerist style, which was also coming into vogue in normal architecture.

At the same time, the garden’s strange creatures –often of mythological inspiration – had an obvious attraction on a larger sphere of literary and cultural personalities of those days, who started to go on pilgrimages to Bomarzo to see Orsini’s peculiar sculpture park. Word of the garden reached Rome, and Pope Gregory XIII was intrigued. He was apparently so curious that in 1578 he travelled the 65 kilometres from Rome to Bomarzo in order to see Orsini’s monsters for himself.

Slow decline

It took Orsini more than thirty years of his life to design, project and finish the garden which he chose to dedicate to his late wife. He spent al lot of time in the garden, either walking or on his horse Ragazzino. In 1579 he noted in his diary: “I can find relief only in my beloved forest, and I bless the money I have spent and still spend on this magic area”. Six years later, the 62-year-old Orsini died.

Perhaps the members of Orsini’s family had not been able to understand his anguish in losing his wife, or perhaps they were simply not capable of appreciating the park’s surreal landscape, his life’s work. Whatever the reason, after Orsini’s death his wonderful garden was abandoned and fell into decay. The forest started to close in on the peculiar beings, green moss started to cover them, and wild vegetation began to take a life-threatening stranglehold on many of Orsini’s fantastic animal works of art.

And the more the surrounding forest enclosed the stone monsters, the more they seemed giant beasts lying in wait for accidental passers-by. No wonder, in fact, that for many years – even in modern times – Orsini’s forest was folded in mystery and superstition. The locals simply did not dare to visit the area in fear of the risks they might face.

Salvador Dalì in Bomarzo

Throughout time the monster garden’s surreal inhabitants have exercised a strong attraction on a long series of artists. The first one openly fascinated by Orsini’s work was the German painter Bertolomeus Breenberch. In 1626 he made several paintings which depicted the garden’s fascinating atmosphere.

Closer to our own day, no less a person than Salvador Dalì was attracted by Bomarzo’s monsters. He was in the middle of an inspirational crisis, and he heard about Orsini’s fantastic and surreal garden, he left Spain to go to Bomarzo right away. Dalì’s meeting with the monster garden gave him some much-desired artistic redemption, and in his famous painting “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, from 1946, you can see on less than four long-legged elephants carrying different shaped constructions. This might be a reflection from Bormarzo, as the monster garden has a statue of an elephant carrying a tower.

The Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, who recently died in Rome, visited Bomarzo in search of inspiration, and in 1949 he made a short documentary film simply called Bomarzo. Finally, also the Argentinean writer Manuel Mujica Lainez should be mentioned. He was so attracted by the forest’s mysterious sculptures that he, in 1958, wrote a biography about Vicino Orsini and his strange garden.

Art or illusion?

The happy turning point for Bomarzo’s garden came in 1951, when Giovanni Bettini, a real estate agent, travelled around Italy looking for land to buy. When he came to the Monster Garden and walked around the horrible beasts, he didn’t lose his courage: he lost his heart. He immediately offered to buy the entire woodland, an offer which was accepted. Shortly thereafter he began the restoration of the famous garden. The sculptures were liberated from the forest’s tight embrace, the moss was removed, the paths were repaired and the whole area was tidied up so it could again receive visitors.

The Bettini family’s loving care and financial investments have borne fruit, and today the annual number of visitors has now passed 40,000.

Nonetheless, Vicino Orsini remains an enigma. He was a capable soldier, a poet and a romantic soul. He was also an intellectual tease who liked to challenge the garden’s visitors. Or so it would seem, if you read one of the sentences he ordered carved into one of the Monster Garden’s tuff stones: “Thou, who enter this garden, be very attentive and tell me then if these marvels have been created to deceive visitors, or for the sake of art”.

The Garden of Monsters

Bomarzo (VT)
+39 0761 924029


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