• Email
  • Print

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 Bomarzo1 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 striking is not only that the Italians do not investigate Bomarzo but that they do not seem to want to know about it. An attempt has been made to get Mondadori to have de Mandiargues’s book translated, but this has been unsuccessful.

The Italians like to have their art pleasing—harmonious, well-proportioned. Even the roughness and horror of Dante’s Hell are later counteracted by his Purgatory and Paradise. It has been said that the monsters of Bomarzo are a kind of thing that would seem more appropriate in Germany, with its taste for the macabre and grotesque. They were, at any rate, for four centuries left to themselves, embedded in a jungle of shrubbery. My old Baedeker of 1909 does not mention Bomarzo at all; but a Guida ai Misteri e Segreti del Lazio (Sugar, 1969) gives it five pages and four photographs. When de Mandiargues visited Bomarzo—his book is dated 1957—he says that the jungle was undisturbed, but that he was sure that it was only a question of time before it would be barred off by a barbed-wire fence and tickets would be sold at a wicket. When I went there in 1968, a fence and the wicket were already in existence, and the jungle had been partly cleared, though not enough to make it easy going.

The difficulty of getting far enough from the statues on account of the bushes and trees which surround them makes it impossible to take good photographs—even those of de Mandiargues’s book are rather unsatisfactory. The old steps that lead down the hill are so worn down that descent is difficult. Apparently only foreigners till very recently have come to Bomarzo. Signore Praz, though he has lived in Rome the greater part of his life and though Bomarzo is not far beyond Orvieto, says that he had never heard of it till he was told about it by a Russian painter, who had himself learned about it from an American. When Praz inquired of a local guide whether many people came to see it, he was told “with a disconsolate nod,” “Americans and Canadians every day.” The park was, at last, however, disclosed with characteristic showmanship by the Spanish Salvador Dali, a friend of the Russian painter who had told Mario Praz about it. Dali, as it were, “took possession,” as Mario Praz puts it, with a procession of motor cars and a retinue that suggested the making of a film.

Bomarzo is of course a wonderful find for surrealists like Dali. A product of Renaissance extravagance, it falls in all too appropriately with their cult of the irrational and the nightmarish. It seems to me that de Mandiargues’s book is perhaps a little warped by his surrealist glee at finding that such effects were already being achieved at the end of the sixteenth century. Mario Praz has pointed out that, from a period earlier by a century, there stands at the entrance to the gardens of the Palazzo Zuccari in Rome something similar to the Bomarzo ogre, a great gaping mask with eyes for windows, through the mouth of which one enters. This was designed by Federigo Zuccaro, and Praz calls attention to the fact that the letter from Federigo which advises Orsini on his project for representing the “story of the giants” recommends for this purpose his brother Taddeo, a “mannerist,” which implies an aptitude for distorted images.

The imposing Palazzo Orsini stands at the top of a very steep hill, from which it overhangs and dominates the flock of monsters browsing below. I was sorry I could not visit it because I had only a day at Bomarzo, and this palazzo for some reason seems inaccessible from the inn at which we dined. A few of the rooms have been taken over by the Commune (the town hall), in which the mayor has his offices, but the immense unused chambers of the building contain at least one sinister mystery: a mummified human body, with closed slits of eyes, a hole for a nose, and a mouthful of long grisly teeth, who is crowned with a wreath of flowers and richly dressed in a beribboned costume, now falling to tarnished decay. The mummy is protected by a lid of glass. M. de Mandiargues, though he includes a photograph of it, throws no light on this gruesome figure except to note that it is “evidently not so old as the statues.”

From the palazzo down the hill the show begins. Near the top, one is soon confronted by the gaping jaws of an ogre, through which one passes into a room furnished with a stone bench that rather recalls a Mithraic chapel. On the upper lip of this ogre is a curved and uncanny inscription, “Ogni pensiero vol [a?]” (“Every thought flies”), the last word of which is now defaced. What exactly does this imply? One would like to see these inscriptions collected and studied for their authorship and meaning. Some are intended to astonish, perhaps terrify the visitor: “Voi che pel mondo gite errando vaghi de veder meraviglie alte et stupende venite qua dove son faccie horrende elephanti leoni orse orche et draghi” (“You who go wandering about the world, in the desire to see high and astounding wonders: come here where there are horrid faces, elephants, lions, bears, ogres and dragons”); “Notte et giorno noi siam vigili e pronte a guardar dogni injuria questa fonte” (“Night and day we are on the watch and ready to defend this fountain from any damage”); and on one of the monstrous stone urns: “Fonte non fu tra chi [h] a guardia sia delle piu strane belve” (“Fountain never was which had stranger beasts as a guard”); below one of the crouching sphinxes:

Che con ciglia inarcati et labbra strette
non va per questo loco, manco ammira
le famose del mondo moli sette.

He who with lifted eyebrows and lips compressed does not go through this place does not even admire the seven wonders of the world”; “Dimmi poi se tante meraviglie sien fatte per inganno or per arte” (“Tell me then whether such marvels are produced by trickery or by art”).

Farther along past the gaping ogre, a more than life-size elephant with a kind of castle on its back and a male figure, with a kind of drum on his head, squatting on the elephant’s forehead, is mauling a man with its trunk and probably about to kill him. In a shallow and stagnant pool sits a river god with Neptune-like beard and drenched hair, who, unlike the usual statues in fountains, has a disagreeable snub nose and an unfriendly expression of a kind which is typical of the whole garden. A ferocious winged dragon is keeping two lions at bay. Two figures, perhaps twenty feet tall, are engaged in a terrible combat. One holds the other upside down and is apparently rending his legs asunder while the other with open mouth is howling. There is a theory that this group is intended for Hercules destroying Cacus, the cattle thief; but I could detect no distinguishing traits that made such an identification plausible. One could not even be sure of the sex of the victim, who by some is thought to be a woman.

I had to wait by this group for some time, guarding my companion’s handbag, while she went to the bottom of the hill to report on what was to be found below. I saw that the towering statues had now been anchored to the rock behind them to prevent them from toppling over. They were accompanied by an object like a huge phallus, which seemed to have been cut from the same rock formation, toward which a badly eroded but somewhat ducklike creature was apparently opening its beak. A rhyming inscription as follows: “Se rodi altier gia fu de suo colosso pur di quest il mio bosco anche si gloria e per piu non poter of quant io posso” (“If Rhodes was once proud of its colossus, my wood can also boast of this one and I can do no more than I am able”). Of another inscription mostly effaced one can only read the words “—scempio sanglante” (“bloody slaughter”).

Creeping vines; lichens on the statues; little blue, white, and yellow flowers; some conifers and low saplings. A stagnant pool; a little cascade that is falling from beneath big elephant-ear-like leaves which have been eaten full of holes. Below, beyond the foot of the hill, one looks out on the familiar gray olive grove. There is a relatively chaste little temple said to be intended as a memorial to Orsini’s first wife. On this or some other such building is the Latin admonition: “Animus qui ascendo fit prudentior” (“The spirit, by climbing here, is made more cautious”). But otherwise the ugly-grotesque is reiterated in many forms. A fishlike goggle-eyed face—wide nostrils and shaggy brows—stares out of a dried-up pool; it balances a sphere, surmounted by a castle. A whale stretches huge squaretoothed jaws. The size of these creations is shown in one of de Mandiargues’s photographs, in which a living young local girl, long-haired and bare-legged, is made to lie in relaxation below the maw of the whale, which dwarfs her at the same time that it emphasizes her attractiveness. An equally enormous tortoise is lurking among the trees at the side. On its shell stands a pedestal with another sphere and a female figure posing on the sphere.

Are these emblems of the Orsini family? The Orsini bears are in evidence, clasping to their bosoms large rosettes. There are sphinxes and women with urns on their heads, out of which grow weedy wild plants. Some of these female torsos seem to rear their heads with a certain nobility. But, as we go farther, these partially disfigured shapes seem to convey erotic suggestion, and this has prompted a theory that the gardens were used as a stage for sexual orgies. A large mosscovered woman is lying on her back with her legs apart; a nymph has been evidently contrived to shoot a stream of water from between her legs; a monkey is embracing a woman from behind; two women in a strange ornamental row of figures of which one cannot make out the sense have either a man or a woman—it is impossible to tell which—upside down between them; a headless figure with female breasts and a thick scaled serpent’s tail rears her full-bosomed torso from the ground; a damaged hermaphrodite stands upright in a niche.

Broken fragments are half-buried in the earth below. M. de Mandiargues says that the boys of the neighborhood have been shooting at the statues with slingshots and that their disfigurement is partly due to this. At the bottom of the hill, I was told, is some kind of larger temple, which I did not go down to see.

There is a long novel, now translated, by an Argentine writer, Manuel Mujica-Lainez, based on and entitled Bomarzo,2 and this has provided Alberto Ginastera, the Argentine composer, with his opera of the same name. It is perhaps an evidence of the spell of Bomarzo that, according to the album of the opera, Señor Mujica-Lainez should believe he has identified himself with the humpbacked duke. “‘I found that things I invented I had not invented,’ says the languid, mystical, brocade-vested Argentine, waving a bejeweled hand. ‘It was my own life. The duke and I are one….’ ” But the novel and the opera largely follow the legend and do not dwell much on the monsters. The duke is here represented as a tragic neurotic case, bullied for his deformity by his father and his brothers, and everything is shown through a somber veil of self-hatred and apprehension. All the resources of twelve-tone music for hideous and weird effects—which turn out to be very considerable—are exploited to the utmost here. There is a ballet of monsters and a dance by the mummy.

The opera was forbidden by the mayor of Buenos Aires on account of its alleged sexuality. But a scene between Vicino and a Florentine courtesan, with whom he hopes to lose his psychological impotence, must surely be the least seductive scene of the kind that has ever been seen on the stage. The courtesan’s boastful song about the talents of Florentine courtesans comes through as something soft and plaintive. This character, at the premiere in Washington, seemed to be wearing false naked breasts, and her chamber is lined with mirrors by which Vicino is cruelly halted when he sees his deformity multiplied. There is nothing but horror, with an undertone of pathos, from beginning to end of this opera, which I found nevertheless quite effective.

One feels in the park itself that the avoidance of it by the Italians is due to the same superstitious shrinking that makes them fear the evil eye and shy away from physical defects; and that the place does seem somehow accursed. It is a kind of malignant poem created by a determinedly perverse nature, which still speaks through its threatening inscriptions and petrified but animated dreams. It should certainly be cleared and preserved, and as far as possible reconstructed. It constitutes a kind of drama of the fantasy of the Renaissance, carried to violent and outrageous lengths. One wonders what had really happened to this supposedly anguished duke who has succeeded in realizing his sadistic and unpleasing vision. If he wanted to shock the Italians, his creation has not entirely lost its force. In any case, it deserves a study more searching than that of de Mandiargues.

  1. 1

    Paris: Grasset, 1957.

  2. 2

    Bomarzo by Manuel Mujica-Lainez, translated by Gregory Rebassa. Simon and Schuster, 573 pp., $10.00.

  • Email
  • Print