Robert L. Peters

14 March 2010

Bomarzo… a poetic labyrinth

Viterbo, Italy

Only an hour or so north of Rome, Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters), built in the mid-16th century, was hidden by overgrown grass until it was rediscovered by chance in the midst of WWII and revealed to the eyes of the world. My Argentinian designer friend Ronald Shakespear, a columnist for America Late, shares in words and his pictures his thoughts and feelings when visiting what he refers to as “a poetic labyrinth.”


“A one-of-a-kind construction, Parco dei Mostri is located in Viterbo, Lazio, Italy, just 112 kilometers away from Rome. Also referred to as the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Grove), it was built by Renaissance architect Pirro Ligorio and commissioned by prince Pier Francesco Orsini (circa 1552) in memory of his beloved wife Giulia Farnese. The place is spellbinding and dramatic, and inspired Mujica Lainez to write his novel Bomarzo, which later gave rise to an opera set to music by Alberto Ginastera, which was banned in 1967 by Dictator Juan Carlos Ongania. Restored in 1954 by current owner Bettini Giovanni, the Parco has recovered its splendor and appears magically before our eyes as homage to the artistic nature of its creator.

I have gone back to the Parco several times to take pictures of the stone monsters, which appealed to the likes of Salvador Dali, Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini, among other illustrious visitors. Filled with fantastic images and ideas about life and death, the park relives Dante, Petrarch and Ariosto. A plaque warns visitors:


(He who does not visit this place with a frown and tight lips will not be able to admire the seven wonders of the world).



Asking about the way to Rome.

Elena, my wife, is Italian. She was the first to tell me about Bomarzo, forty years ago. I will never thank her enough for taking me there, some 112 kilometers from Rome. Bomarzo is a modest town that used to be the hunting grounds of Renaissance cardinals.

For years I thought that the hordes of tourists gathered around those sacred stones, here and there, were a banal, prosaic horror. Later—belatedly—simple people made me discover the value of those stones and fundamentally the empathic perception that the public has of them.

Human pilgrimages are endless and often touching. Mecca, the Wailing Wall, Maracana, Morumbi, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Coliseum, Disneyland, Rodrigo’s sanctuary, Lujan, the Chinese Wall, Boca Juniors’ soccer stadium, and so on… The Roman Coliseum is fantastic; mock sea battles used to take place there after the arena was flooded. An exemplary cistern constructed in the first century a.C. One prophetic step forward for imagineering (simulation engineering), a precursor of Rem Koolhass and Ray Bradbury.

In the end, people go where people go.

The second Renaissance.

Apparently—no evidence exists of this—the modern world knew nothing about Parco dei Mostri until WWII. It was at that time, legend has it, that an American regiment camped at Viterbo… and one soldier with diarrhea had to go “do his business” in the early hours of the morning. He suddenly found himself surrounded by stone monuments, and ran away in terror. The rest is history.

Something similar happened 100 years ago, when Machu Picchu was discovered by Hiram Bingham. Or more recently with the Terracotta Army discovered in 1974 in China, close to Xi’an and built as homage to Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The Terracotta Army is formed by more than 7,000 life-size sculptures of soldiers, horses and chariots made of clay and earth. As we can see, chance usually has a role to play in major discoveries.



Pictures, pictures, pictures.

Back in the 1960s I made a few dozen portraits for my book Caras y Caritas, published by Jorge Alvarez. In addition to Borges, Orson Welles, and “Mono” Villegas, among others, I spent a long afternoon with Mujica Lainez and Jorge Romero Brest at Instituto Di Tella. I made portraits of them both, and we talked about Bomarzo, naturally; that conversation ignited the fire of curiosity.

I personally paid three visits to Bomarzo, which provided me with long hours of pleasure. Every picture takes its time; some of the sculptures are surrounded by fences and are located in a semi-wild terrain, as is the case of the Turtle, which can be found at the bottom of a ravine. Photographers are sometimes weird people: I tend to take the same pictures over and over again.



A poetic labyrinth.

Bomarzo is a poetic labyrinth. I have devoted my life to urban itineraries; making them legible involves deciphering their codes. This has led me to my worldly trade of wayfinding in big spaces such as the Subway, Temaiken Zoo, the streets of Buenos Aires, etc. (see

It takes a God-given talent to be able to “read” space as Leonardo, Michelangelo or Brunelleschi did. For the rest of us, it takes Cyclopean efforts. Nothing at the Parco is rational; amidst this array of surprises, visitors need to discover every artistic event by themselves. Capturing the entirety, the full dimension of it all, is almost impossible. I simply cannot describe the beauty of the Giant Turtle, the Mouth of Hell, Hercules, and Hannibal’s Elephant Devouring a Roman Legionary. They are my favorites.

Mujica Lainez wrote: “The famous white elephant—a gift from Manuel of Portugal to Pope Leon X—which, after his death and following orders of the Pope himself, was painted by Raphael. Elephants were no strangers to the symbology of the 16th and 17th century: there is the black obsidian elephant found by Poliphilo (the hero in Francesco Colonna’s work), which has a female and a male statue, where antagonistic principles are represented. This elephant was probably inspired by a coin of the time, and is also present in Bernini’s work at the church of Santa Maria Minerva in Rome.” Bomarzo’s influence on the art world can be seen in Manfredo Manfredi’s oil painting Alla maniera di Bomarzo, Norberto Villarreal’s surreal drawings, the portraits of Pier Luigi Farnese and Maerbale Orsini, and the wonderful pictures taken by Enzo Regazzini for Olivetti’s famous almanac.

The luxury publication FMR No. 12, published by Franco Maria Ricci in 1983, includes an extraordinary fifteen-page piece on Bomarzo with articles by Elemire Zolla, Manfredi Nicoletti and Manuel Mujica Lainez, and photographs by Massimo Listri: a veritable jewel.



All the roads will take you there.

In spite of popular belief, the park is relatively small; walking it all will take as much time as a visitor’s curiosity demands. The place has astonished me every time. Bomarzo captures one’s fancy like few places do. An absolutely appropriate inscription can be seen on an obelisk: Sol per sfogare il Core (Just to set the heart free). Freedom is beautiful, but it is also dangerous. The winding paths of Bomarzo multiply themselves and sometimes you have to start over. On the other hand, who wants the extreme order of rationalists? As Oscar Wilde said, “ordering a library is impossible for someone who can read.” Getting lost is usually delightful. Or it can be tragic. Just like Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll suggests: “If you do not know where you are going, all the roads will take you there.”

Thanks Ronald. (The above text is lightly edited and drawn from the original post [in Spanish] at America Late and a re-post on the SEGD website. (Sorry, links are broken).

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