A mysterious fantasy world awaits in the Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo, colloquially known as the Park of the Monsters—a unique garden with dozens of sculptures of otherworldly creatures based upon classical mythology, all immersed in the natural vegetation.
The park was conceived by the eccentric Renaissance prince Pier Francesco Orsini (1523-1585), the lord of Bomarzo, following the premature death of his beloved wife Giulia Farnese as a way to cope with his grief. He was assisted by one of the most famous architects of the period, also one of the designers of the Tivoli Gardens, Pirro Ligorio. The Orsini family symbol was the bear (orso in Italian).
This ”sacred grove” is considered to be the oldest sculpture park in the modern world, with most of the sculptures carved out of the bedrock on site and blocks of local volcanic peperino stone, typical of the region.
In the last century, surrealist Salvadore Dali would be deeply influenced by the gardens. He made short film there, and the park inspired one of his paintings, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Many have attempted to interpret the garden’s meaning, but to little avail. The mascherone (large mask) rock face, which has become the iconic symbol of the park, bears the inscription Ogni pensiero vola, which means “every thought flies,” so perhaps the intention is for our imaginations to take wing.
Bomarzo makes for a great day trip by car from Rome. When in Rome you can also check out Palazzo Zuccari, a 16th-century residence located on the Via Gregoriana just off the Spanish Steps. It is known as the “House of Monsters” for the decorations on its doors and windows, inspired by—surprise!—the Gardens of Bomarzo.
Not far from Bomarzo, in Tuscany’s Maremma an enchanting modern sculpture garden also backons, with a surrealist landscape of twenty-two massive, vibrant, fantastical, multicolored depictions of the Major Arcana of the mystical and mythical tarot cards.
The garden is the public art magnum opus born of the fertile imagination of self-taught French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. A vibrant celebration of feminism, the garden represents a beguiling fusion of pop, folk, outsider art and surrealism.
A great lover of Italy, de Saint Phalle was granted the land to create her magical world after a chance encounter with Marcella Agnelli, sister of Fiat industrialist Gianni Agnelli. She began work in 1979 and the colossal project consumed nearly two decades of her life.
Fully immersed in personally designing and building the statues (most measuring between 39 and 49 feet tall), de Saint Phalle hand-painted and decorated each with ornately detailed mirrors, mosaics, multi-colored ceramics and Murano glass, creating a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and shapes.
The garden’s largest sculpture is of the Empress, symbolizing the Great Mother archetype as a voluptuous woman-sphinx. The enormous hollow shell of its interior served as de Saint Phalle’s home while she worked on the garden. One of the figure’s breasts housed a mirrored and lavishly embellished living, dining and kitchen area, and the other a grand bedroom and bath.
Throughout the course of the project the artist enlisted a group of skilled collaborators in her “garden of joy.” Chief among those was her husband, Jean Tinguely, whose mechanical skills helped to motorize and breathe life into several of the garden’s features and monumental sculptures. But the overall phantasmagorical design could ultimately be the brainchild of only one supremely gifted individual.
In Giardino dei Tarocchi, a visitor can not only admire the art but interact with it, whether climbing the Tower or playing the Wheel of Fortune. Niki de Saint Phalle meant for her Eden-on-earth to be touched and enjoyed by children of all ages with all their senses . . . an evocation of—but also a brief respite from—the lifelong game of chance that is the story of the tarot.