As I stepped through the nearly 500-year-old stone archway, I was engulfed in silence. Stairs meandered into groves where trees filled with newly opened leaves spilled over onto the path, the branches blocking the view of the Lazio region’s shrub-peppered hills.

Orsini bucked the tradition of the Italian Renaissance garden

Nestled near the quiet Italian town of Bomarzo, about 92km north of Rome, the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Wood) was built in the 16th Century by Pier Francesco ‘Vicino’ Orsini, a great military leader and patron of the arts. But in designing the Sacro Bosco, he bucked the tradition of the Italian Renaissance garden. Gone is the symmetrical layout meant to please the observer. Instead of the ornate fountains, neat hedgerows and intricately sculpted Roman gods and goddesses, Orsini left the trees and shrubs undisturbed and filled his garden with unusual and grotesque creatures.

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After Orsini passed away, the Sacro Bosco was abandoned to the elements. Public interest was only reignited several centuries later after artist Salvador Dalí visited the garden. Dalí was inspired by Orsini’s gargantuan, now moss-covered creatures: he produced a short film about it in 1948, and the monsters are referenced in his 1964 painting, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

This renewed interest in the Sacro Bosco spurred debate among art history scholars, one that continues to this day: what was Orsini attempting to communicate through his bizarre creation?

Orsini was well-versed in classical literature, leading some to believe that the monsters were inspired by Arcadia, the representation of Utopia described in Virgil’s Aeneid and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso – a place where art and nature are intertwined. Others argue that Orsini constructed the Sacro Bosco to counter the garden of his friend, Cristoforo Madruzzo. Madruzzo’s garden in nearby Soriano di Cimino represented all that was good and light in the world, while Orsini's, built in direct opposition to Madruzzo’s, represents its dark and discordant elements.

But a third view is that the ghoulish creatures represent Orsini’s personal demons born from his life’s tragedies. A general in the pope’s army during the Reformation, Orsini spent several years as a prisoner of war in Germany following a military campaign in 1553. His commander and close friend, Orazio Farnese, was killed in the same battle that led to Orsini’s capture; and shortly after his release from prison, Orsini’s beloved wife, Giulia Farnese, passed away. The octagonal Temple of Eternity that sits at the top of the garden is widely believed to be a memorial to his departed spouse.

According to Melinda Schlitt, art history and humanities professor at Dickinson College in central Pennsylvania, the answer to understanding the garden’s purpose lies in the inscriptions Orsini left behind.

“Rather than seeking a unified narrative message, it is more appropriate to take our cue for meaning from the relationship between the carved inscriptions in the garden and the sculptures they accompany, which Orsini surely intended,” she said.

Tucked near the heart of the garden is the belvedere, a small outlook reminiscent of a castle’s tower. A small staircase winds down its side, accompanied by the inscription: "And all other marvels prized before by the world yield to the Sacred Wood that resembles only itself and nothing else." This excerpt of poetry, Schlitt explained, “Urges the visitor not to search for resemblance to other ‘marvels’ outside of the garden itself.”

In other words, rather than seeking the meaning behind Orsini’s creation, we should appreciate the garden for the wonder it is.

Rather than seeking the meaning behind Orsini’s creation, we should appreciate the garden for the wonder it is

Many of the monsters now rest peacefully behind small barriers where their macabre features can be protected from tourists. I meandered around a giant turtle and entered a slanted structure resembling a house. The tilted floor left me feeling slightly queasy, yet I couldn’t help but admire the structure’s artistry.

“[Suprise, delight and wonder] are sensations embodied in the Italian word meraviglia, which is close to ‘marvellous’ or ‘astonishing’ in English, but which in the 16th Century was especially associated with responses to works of art and poetry,” Schlitt said. “‘Meraviglia’ is what happened to a viewer when his or her expectations of a work of art and experience of it clashed, which is precisely what occurs in the Sacro Bosco.”

Around each twist in the path – the result of restoration efforts by real-estate agent Giovanni Bettini in the late 20th Century – I was delighted by another unusual sculpture. A sea monster emerged from the forest floor, jaws agape; a colossal Hercules tore a giant in two with his bare hands.

Finally, I found myself standing at the mouth of a giant ogre, words etched into his gaping stone maw: “All reason departs”.

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