The Garden of Bomarzo…. The artists that the garden has inspired include Niki de Saint Phalle and the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, who incorporated some of its images into his paintings and who was once photographed holding a candle and talking to a white cat in the jaws of Bomarzo’s largest monster. The spectacle perhaps drew a wry smile from the ghost of Vicino Orsini.
For example, the origins of Orsini’s gardens at Bomarzo are surrounded in mystery. No archives or tangible documentation exist. The gardens began with a medieval fortress which dominated a rock-strewn valley. The fortress was turned into a luxurious residence and the valley into a fantastic garden. From the perspective of traditional Italian Renaissance garden design, which featured strictly geometrical patterns, vistas, and circulation systems, the Bomarzo gardens are unique as they do not follow any previously known typology. The creator of this environment, Vincino Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo, must have known the works of the late Mannerists, particularly Giulio Romano’s frescoes at the Palazzo del Te in Mantua. It appears that he consciously followed the paths of the fallen giants and gigantic columns from such frescoes, as he turned the bottom of his valley into a world landscaped with monsters and gigantic figures—part human and part animal—which were carved from the existing rocks. A sinister appearance, a sense of mystery, and a feeling of terror are constant companions of the visitor to these gardens, especially at sunset.
The gardens of Bomarzo are indeedan incomparable work of art. There is nothing else like it. But before asking the origins of his idea, it is worth considering what the idea of a garden meant to a cultivated person in sixteenth-century Italy. In Mannerist art, whether tiny, like a Cellinio ring, or monumental, like the Bomarzo gardens, the idea of a marvel centers on virtuosity. This was a conscious game. You selected, or better still, invented, a formal problem whose difficulty would be obvious to a cultivated audience and then solved it with grace and ostentatious ease. The essential dialogue in Mannerist art was between the difficulty of the problem and the facility of the solution.
The connection, between Bomarzo and Surrealist art, then, does not really hold because in surrealism, the exalted status of style does not exist. The surrealist was apt to find an image marvelous because its maker did not understand it; the image was esteemed as the trace of impulses that play through an artist in his role as medium for the Unconscious. Thus, a marvel is not deliberately shaped, not controlled; it is the product of a chance encounter in an odd context.
Granted, Bomarzo seems to have straddled the literary and visual cultures of the time, even if in quirkish and unexpected ways. The garden may have been inspired by Francesco Colonna’s “Love, Dream and the Battle of Poliphilo” ; published in 1499, it is a long allegory apparently popular with humanists and scholars of the day. It tells of a man, who, in search of his ideal lover, Polia, begins in a trackless and frightening wood, emerges from it parched with thirst, falls asleep, passes through two successive layers or states of dreaming, and awakens in an ideal garden landscape, strewn with odd monuments and the ruins of antique temples, culminating in a blissfull union with Polia.
Corolla’s book was an allegory of the descent, purification , and rebirth of consciousness, which resembled Dante’s Divine Comedy. The book was illustrated with woodcuts that resemble Barzomo and it established the concept of artificial ruin as garden architecture.
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