Gardens filled with monster heads and fantastical creatures — you’ve probably dreamed of such things or read that they existed, but you just didn’t know where to find them. So, let me tell you about Bomarzo.
About an hour and a half north of Rome, just shy of the city of Viterbo, is the town of Bomarzo, home of the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Woods), aka Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters).
These Mannerist gardens, filled with gigantic sculptures of monsters, animals (elephant, tortoise, whale), and other mythological creatures, were created in the 16th century then left mostly abandoned for 400 years until they were rediscovered in the early 20th century.
Pier Francesco “Vicino” Orsini was the aristocratic patron behind this landscaped garden, work on which was begin in 1552 and finished some time before Orsini’s death in 1584. Pirro Ligorio (who worked on nearby Villa Lante, Villa d’Este, and Casino Pio at the Vatican) was the chief planner of Sacro Bosco. And while Simone Moschino was the primary sculptor of the strange statues here, which were hewn from the many rocky outcroppings in this part of Lazio, the vision for Sacro Bosco came from Orsini.
Art historians and others have debated for years over whether the gardens were a whimsical response to the typically Mannerist Villa Lante in Bagnaia (a few kilometers from Bomarzo) or if the gardens devolved into some kind of sad, surrealist fantasy following the death of Orsini’s wife Giulia Farnese, who passed away in 1560.
Richard Jackson, who runs the blog The Garden Visitor, posited that Orsini used the gardens as a sort of “self therapy” following the death of his wife. More from Jackson:
The colossal confrontational sculptures were markers on a voyage through depression and near-madness, culminating in the ascent to the calm sunlit meadows where Giulia’s body was interred in the classically-proportioned mausoleum, a final acceptance of lost love. Orsini described the garden as ‘only to relieve the soul’, which lends this idea some credence, but I’m sure every visitor leaves with their own personal interpretation.
If You Go to the Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo
It’s easiest to reach the Parco dei Mostri by car. By train from Rome, you’ll need to take the train to Orte Scalo then transfer to a bus for Bomarzo. Going by car will also allow you to head over to the gorgeous manicured gardens of Villa Lante.
An ideal itinerary is Bomarzo, lunch, then Villa Lante, before driving back to Rome.