GARDEN OF EARTHLY FRIGHTS: Mannerist Playground

Despite a lack of evidence, one local tale was that Vicino Orsini was a hunchback who created a garden of monsters in order to persuade his wife, Julia Farnese, that deformity held its own mysterious principles of delight. …Over four hundred years ago, a reclusive Italian duke created his own enchanted forest at Bomarzo.The Park of the Monsters, or “Parco dei Mostri,” in the Garden of Bomarzo was not meant to be pretty. Commissioned in 1552 by Prince Pier Francesco Orsini, it was an expression of grief designed to shock. Bomarzo, the most instantly recognizable of Italian gardens, is also the most untypical – indeed it is unique and impossible to categorize.Its weird monsters, giants, gaping mouths and lopsided architecture would seem more at home in the paintings of Salvador Dali or the pages of H.P. Lovecraft than in the peaceful countryside of the Latium….

McIntosh:It has also been claimed that the figures at Bomarzo, most of them carved out of natural pieces of rock on the site, are alchemical images. Vicino was deeply interested in alchemy and corresponded with the French alchemist Jean Drouet,11 and certainly a number of the figures could be given an alchemical interpretation. Others, however, appear to have no obvious connection with alchemy.

The Prince, also known as Vicino, had just been through a brutal war, had his friend killed, been held for ransom for years, and come home only to have his beloved wife die.He sprang from a notably ruthless line of robber barons who had emerged from the muddled and barbaric squabbles of a collapsed Rome in the tenth-century and become one of the supreme clans of the peninsula. It was a fortress acquired by his father and converted into a four-hundred room castle.  Racked with grief, the Prince wanted to create a shocking “Villa of Wonders” and hired architect Pirro Ligorio to help him do so. Salvador Dalí visited the park and loved it. He was so inspired, he shot a short film there, and the sculptures inspired his 1946 painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Jean Cocteau was also a fan of the park.

The element of playfulness that is such a feature of Renaissance gardens was partly, Lazzaro suggests, intended to havea‘taming’function.‘Through these ornaments and their playful, ironic and witty presentation, natural phenomena were mastered and domesticated, so that in gardens humans could interact with the larger forces of nature in microcosm.’ Play was also present in the form of the practical joke – jets of water, for example, that spurted from benches or other unexpected places, drenching the unwary visitor. Along with this playfulness went the element of permissiveness and the idea of the garden as a locus amoenus, a place for sensual enjoyment. Already present in the garden images of the courtly love tradition, as I have mentioned, this aspect came into full flowering during the Renaissance. The theme of sexuality, explicit or implicit, is ubiquitous. There are sirens with seductive female torsos and fish tails, sometimes with prominent vulvas, as in the example at Bomarzo. For the first time in history, female breasts become water spouts, and the figure of Venus appears again and again, often accompanied by her mischievous son Cupid with his bow and arrow. These images went together with a celebration of the fecundity of nature. But how genuinely pagan is the world view that they represent?

"Bredekamp sees much of the meaning of Bomarzo as lying in Vicino’s Epicurean world view, which led him to seek solace in sensual pleasure and the joys of nature and to rebel against the Counter- Reformation orthodoxy of his day by plunging into an extravagant world of the imagination, full of weird and bizarre images. Bredekamp also explains many of the features of Bomarzo as being intended to commemorate Guilia Farnese."


The garden’s sculptures, carved out of the cheesy, mica-flecked tufa of the Bomarzo Valley, some forty miles north of Rome, have taken almost five centuries to lose most of their erotic languor or expressive strain; not lying in their gluey clay, they have returned to the primitive tradition of rocks, outcrops of immobile Etruscan stone whose roots go deep into the ground, sharing its darkness with the forgotten tombs of an earlier people.

If the stone monsters of Bomarzo, together with their layout and inscriptions , are seen as a work of art; that is, as a group of images intended to convey some meaning, however private, esoteric, or otherwise inaccessible; what can be said about this place? Bomarzo lacks the order and pairing of typical late Renaissance garden design. The idea of Bomarzo is to wander from one “marvel” to the next in which the figures and monsters go by like allegorical figures in an elaborarte sixteenth-century court masque. In short, Bomarzo is a Mannersit work of art, informed by the same kind of bizarre and erudite taste for artificial nature that swept the courts of Europe in the late sixteenth-century.

"One of the largest and most striking pieces of art is the War Elephant. This immense creature carries a castle on its back and an unconcious Roman soldier in its trunk. While elephants carrying castles were a popular symbol in Medieval and Renaissance art, this particular packaderm might be a reference to the invasion of Italy by Hannibal in 218 BC. If so, Hannibal's unique use of elephants in that war to strike terror into the opposing army is forever frozen in stone at Bomarzo. Other experts, however, insist that the elephant is a reference to the story of Eleazar in The Book of Maccabees. Eleazer kills the king's elephant, but is in turn himself killed when he is crushed under the beast."

It was the surrealists who rediscovered Bomarzo. Salvador Dali went there with a squad of paparazzi  in the 1940′s and tried, unsuccessfully, to buy two of the statues for his house in Cadaques. Bomarzo thus sidled into the surrealist canon, and ever since then, most of the writing about it has been done by critics and specialists who reaction to romantic spots and out-of-the-way ruins was steeped in surrealist ideas of fantasy and enigma, even though this type of rhetoric may have had very little to do with the intentions of Vicino Orsini. It seems that the enigmas of Bomarzo are impervious to a surrealist theory of art.

The twists, the puns, and the lietrary elaborations on the stone sculptures are typical of  Mannerist court art; members


a sophisticated minority whose education predisposed them to think in allegories and conceits, and there is nothing intrinsically irrational about them, except the scale and he setting, which Vicino meant to be astonishing.

Read More:

http://www.ice.usp.ac.jp/~wklinger/class/jcmu/McIntosh-Gardens.of.the.Gods.Myth.Magic.and.Meaning.pdf

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