As the owner of an Italy tour planning company I happen to read a lot of Italy travel books and Susan Van Allen‘s Italy travel book “100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go” is an informative, fascinating, entertaining book, and certainly a must if you plan to visit Italy. I am glad Susan accepted to offer my fellow Italy lovers the opportunity to read her take on the most amazing park in Italy.
The Park of the Mosters in Bomarzo, Italy.
In 1564 when his wife died, Prince Vicino Orsini dedicated this place to her. He called it his Sacred Grove. In 1954, Giovanni Bettini found it abandoned, cleaned it up, and renamed it The Park of the Monsters—better for marketing. It’s actually a combo of the two names, which is what makes it so uniquely alluring. It’s set on a wooded hillside where you meander along gravel paths under sun-dappled light and then along the way, popping up in haphazard places, you come upon immense bizarre statues of mythological creatures.
There are about two dozen of these creations in all, most carved directly from the hill’s rocky outcroppings, which explains the unplanned arrangement. There’s a winged mermaid, a sleeping nymph, a sphinx, a colossal Ceres, a tortoise, a whole house that’s set up purposely tilted to astonish you. The most famous of all is a giant screaming monster’s head—so giant you can walk into its mouth, where you’ll find a tongue turned into a picnic table. The inscription carved into this sculpture sums up the park’s surreal atmosphere: All Reason Departs. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding what the heck Orsini was thinking when he created this place. Some look at the statues’ tortured faces and say it was his expression of grieving for his wife, Giulia Farnese. But Orsini began this project before she died.
Their marriage was a good one. He was a military officer, gone a lot while Giulia took over the small town Bomarzo reins. He, of course, had his share of other women, during the marriage and after she died. As far as he knew, Giulia was a perfect, faithful wife. Twenty years after the Sacred Grove was completed Orsini built a temple in her honor that’s the most logical structure in this whole place. The Sacred Grove seems to be more of an expression of Prince Orsini’s intriguing, artsy character. While everybody else in those High Renaissance days was building grand, structured gardens to flaunt their wealth, the Prince turned his back on all that, wanting to create something that was not at all pretentious. It’s not even attached to his castle, but farther down the hill.
Also he didn’t have the money to compete with the Farneses and the d’Estes, so instead of grandeur, he went for shock and awe. Wherever a stone jutted out of the hill, he’d have his workers sculpt it according to his whim. He was a creative type who wrote poems and surrounded himself with the literati. This was his place for contemplation and meditation. It was his dream world where he mixed images from classical Greek, Roman, and Asian times. Like every other prince who had a garden, Orsini had illustrious guests come to visit. But he was always glad when they left, preferring the pleasures of simple country life and his shepherd girls. While other Renaissance gardens were kept up by families over succeeding generations, his was forgotten. Only the locals knew of it, and believed it was a haunted place. In 1938, Salvador Dali, in the midst of a creative crisis, heard about the Sacred Grove, left Spain, and cut his way through a tangle of weeds to see this “sleeping garden.” He became so inspired he made a film that included it and painted The Temptation of Saint Anthony that featured an image of an elephant— clearly inspired by one of the park sculptures. Giovanni Bettini bought the park in 1954 and restored it back to life. A visit here is a relaxing, enchanting experience, where you enter into the mythological dream world of the Prince.
The Park of the Monsters > Daily 8-1 hour before sunset
Golden Day > Wander around the Sacred Grove. There’s a camp lodge-style snack bar there, where you can get a caffè and panino. Eat and stay a short drive north at agriturismo Castello di Santa Maria, a beautiful former convent surrounded by olive groves that serves up exquisite meals.
About the author > Susan Van Allen’s love for Italy stems from her maternal grandparents, who emigrated from Southern Italy. She was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up on the Jersey shore amidst wonderful food and drama. When she first stepped off the train into Roma Termini in 1976, she got hooked on Italian travel. Since then she’s explored the country up and down the boot–visiting relatives, immersing herself in the country’s masterpieces and culture, taking language and cooking classes, and going on boating, biking, and hiking adventures. When she’s not in Italy, she is based in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and makes scrumptious lasagnas.
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