The Italian Almanac

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monster park of Bomarzo

Italian Art - December 7

Michelangelo was the mind behind the mythological dreamscape that draws thousands of visitors to the Monster Park of Bomarzo near Viterbo each year. The park of weird giants, dragons, three-headed dogs, mythological heroes, hellsmouths and crazy tilting houses was conceived by the Renaissance genius and built by some of the most trusted members of his workshop, Rome University art historian Enrico Guidoni believes.

Guidoni's theory, which overturns 500 years of research, is that "there was a division of labour in which Michelangelo framed the basic scheme and made suggestions for the artists, some of his best students, who carried out the major sculptoral work". The Italian academic has put his theory into a book, The Sacred Grove of Bomarzo In European Culture, which has just been published in Italy.

"Sacred Grove" was what the patron of Bomarzo, the hunchbacked art-lover and former condottiere Pier Francesco ('Vicino') Orsini, called the fabulous and grotesque fairyland he created in memory of his young wife. From the 16th century onwards, most historians have cited another major artist, the architect Pirro Ligorio - who finished off St.Peter's after Michelangelo died and designed the famous Villa D'Este at Tivoli - as the author of Bomarzo.

The many monstrous statues appear to have been strewn almost randomly about the area, 'sol per sfogare il Core' ("just to let the heart pour out its feelings") as one inscription on the obelisks says. Some believe the gardens were 'deliberately unplanned' as a foil to the perfect symmetry and layout of the great Renaissance gardens nearby at Villa Farnese and Villa Lante.

For almost three hundred years after its construction, the park was abandoned, becoming overgrown and neglected. But in the 1970s a program of restoration was implemented by the Bettini family, and today the garden, which remains private property, is a major tourist attraction.