The Monsters of Bomarzo

Among the uniform amenities of Italy there is one patch of ugliness and horror. The Orsini Park of Bomarzo strikes a deliberately discordant note. The explanation of this strange phenomenon has so far been hidden in mystery, and the best one can do about describing it is to begin by recounting its legend. According to this somewhat fantastic story, one of the Orsini dukes, whose real name was Pier Francesco but who was known by the nickname Vicino, designed toward the end of the sixteenth century a garden of a sensationally eccentric kind, which exhibited a varied assortment of grotesque and horripilating figures, executed in the soft local tufa by a captive from the battle of Lepanto.

The duke was a hunchback and is said to have been embittered by an affair of his wife with a younger brother. The duke had this brother murdered and had his own life memorialized by a collection of monstrosities created as a gesture of defiant misanthropy. A sign dedicates the gardens “to the somber character of Pier Francesco Orsini, who, retiring on his estate, in 1560, had the labors begun which expressed his anguish…. Vicino was a hunchback and deformed…. His attractive wife, Giulia Farnese, and a very handsome brother [fell in love]. He killed the brother, knowing that Giulia loved her kinsman.”

A compiler of a work called Famous Men describes Vicino as of “regal appearance and way of life, a lover of arms and letters,” and speaks of him as still alive toward 1574. A letter to him of 1564 refers to the “marvels of Bomarzo” and advises him how to represent in his castle “the story of the giants.” It says that the idea is “in harmony with the place, where there are so many other extravagant and supernatural things.” These references seem to be all that is actually recorded of Bomarzo. Mario Praz has written about it—though more briefly than one might expect on the part of that amateur of curiosities—in his Panopticon Romano and even more briefly in another of his books, Bellezza e Bizzarria.

The only book, so far as I know, exclusively devoted to the subject is Les Monstres de Bomarzo by a Frenchman, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, who has done some research among the family papers in the archives of the Capitol in Rome, though he has not been able to consult certain documents in the possession of the present Orsini princes or some other possible sources of information; and he has finally come to the conclusion that, for reasons he does not know—it may be that the monsters were a scandal—the real story has been suppressed. “One is baffled by so tenacious an obscurity,” M. de Mandiargues says. “From the moment one undertakes to dig a little into questions that are posed by the monuments of Bomarzo, the darkness that lies at their feet is so thick that it would seem that it has been accumulated intentionally.” What is …

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