About 70 kilometers northwest of Rome, just outside the small town of Bomarzo, lies an exceedingly strange garden: Parco dei Mostri (Park of Monsters.) Scattered among several acres of plane trees and shrubs are sculptures unlike any in classic museums or, in fact, almost anywhere in the world. Walk the path and you’ll come to an enormous stone elephant, a dragon enjoying a human meal, a colossal head with a gaping mouth, a horse with wings, a mermaid siren, and much more.
This unusual place, privately owned but open to the public, was commissioned by Prince Pier Francesco Orsini, known as Vicino, in the mid-16th century in honor of his beloved wife Giulia. The designer, Pirro Ligorio, was a noted architect of the time who also designed the famous gardens of Villa d’Este in Tivoli and oversaw the construction of St. Peter’s cathedral in the Vatican.
The statuary in the Park of Monsters is impressive, if not downright weird in spots, but it’s more playful than frightening, even though giants and dragons are gobbling other creatures. It’s a fine place to take children for a chance to run around outdoors and gawk at the figures. Some can even be climbed on. Among the animals, ogres, nymphs and gods, Ceres lounges with the abundant fruits of the earth in a bowl on her head, while old, bearded Neptune towers over a basin. Thick green moss covers his shoulders. In one corner is an oddly tilted house, the Casa Storta, “Twisted House.”
It’s fun to visit now, but the park was originally designed not to please, but to shock. Vicino had just been through a war, held for ransom, and seen a friend killed, and he arrived home only to have his cherished wife die. The park was to be an expression of his grief. Knowing this makes sad sense of the symbolism, such as the immense head with a wide-open mouth, as if in a scream. The inscription reads, “all reason departs.”
Centuries later, the surrealistic park inspired artists such as Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali. Paintings, stories, and even an opera were composed. Gradually, over time, the park became neglected and overgrown, but it was restored in the 1970s and is now a tourist attraction.
Nearby Bomarzo is a medieval town on a limestone cliff, overlooking the Tiber Valley. It’s a great place to explore on foot, with narrow stone streets and flowers spilling over window boxes. And, there is even a castle fortress at the top of a nearby hill.