Last week I went to Rome to see my great friends Giulio and Francisco. On Saturday we ventured outside the city on a trip to Bomarzo near Viterbo and about 70 km North of Rome.
Francisco had read a marvellous novel about Bomarzo and its prince Vicino Orsini (1513-1584, there seems to be some confusion about the exact dates) who in the 1550s took a fancy to construct a garden of wonders. Just below his castle in the Tiber valley he had gigantic sculptures carved out of the soft tuff the ground is made of in those regions. Today the statues are covered in moss but back then they were painted in bright colours.
It’s a mannerist dream. This is where you can lose yourself in the woods and encounter the beasts of the darkest corners of your imagination. When you least expect it you meet a stranded mermaid or a monster ready to swallow you skin and all, and next up is a house leaning over which will make your head spin when you enter.
There was an elephant too, said to be a portrait of Annone the Elephant. A specimen sent to Pope Leo X on his coronation in 1513 as a gift from King Manuel I of Portugal. And much did the Pope love Annone.
So what’s it all about? Why would anyone spend years and years in creating such a place? Too much money, too much time you could conclude. And yes, that is part of the story, but it’s also a philosophy of life. It’s there to sfogare il core – set the heart free. After a century of orderly symmetry and perfected beauty in the arts the generation following Raphael and Michelangelo had to move in a different direction. So instead of symmetry and balance they chose distortion, spirals and curves. They loved whims and scherzi, jokes. Even when they did an apparently well-proportioned piece like Palladio’ s Villa Rotonda(1550) it had to have four identical sides leaving the visitor insecure about the simplest of facts about a house – what is front and back and sides.
Unsteadiness and uncertainty is what you get a Bomarzo. There seems to be no ground plan, the sculptures are scattered as if they were dropped by chance, so you’ll never know what you’ll encounter round the next corner. The leaning house messes with your brain and makes you physically insecure on your feet. And even when you know about Vicino Orsini you have the feeling that this is the product of some secret hand or even by nature herself. A freak show you have entered without permission which will punish your intrusion by never letting you out again. But which will also give you the special pleasure of being in a secret and beautiful place.
Well, we did get out of the sacred grove. Unlike Ofelia in Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del fauno which must have been inspired by Bomarzo.
I had never thought I should be in such a place, and now I am wondering – was it all just in my head as it was in Ofelia’s?