“And all other marvels prized before by the world yield to the Sacred Wood that resembles only itself and nothing else.”
Those haunting words are inscribed in stone in the heart of a place known as The Garden of Monsters. Scenes of violence and fantasy are all around as monsters tear into their enemies, and gigantic creatures leer at passing visitors.
The garden’s actual name is The Garden of Sacro Bosco or The Garden of Sacred Wood. It is located about 100 km north of Rome in the town of Bomarzo. It was built sometime during the 16th-century by Pier Francesco Vicino Orsini, an Italian general and duke.
Historians have debated the reasons behind the garden’s bizarre elements for many years. Some believe Orsini was inspired by the description of Arcadia in Virgil’s Aeneid and wanted to create his own Utopia. Others say he wanted to toy with his friend, Cristoforo Madruzzo, who’s garden was filled with scenes of happiness and light. The saddest story of them all is Orsini built the garden as a manifestation of the grief he was experiencing due to the death of his wife, Giulia, and close friend, Orazio Farnese.
When Orsini died, his monsters and fairytale creatures sat undisturbed until 1948 when artist Salvador Dali made a short film about the Garden of Monsters. Later in the 1970s, the park was restored by real estate agent Giovanni Bettini.
A gigantic laughing mask of stone greets visitors as they enter the garden. Guests wander past the statue of a man ripping another in two, a man lying on a stone bed in apparent anguish, and dragon beast battling a lion. Monsters emerge from the depths of the garden soil as a life-sized elephant crushes a body in its trunk.
However, not all the scenes in the Sacred Wood are terrifying. There is a statue of a man sitting quietly in the center of a pond while Pegasus, Sirens, and other mythical figures make their appearance. The structure known as the Leaning House is dedicated to Madruzzo, and the Temple of Eternity is a memorial to Orsini’s wife.
Every year over 30,000 visitors wander these sacred grounds, equally terrified and inspired by the sites before them. Though we don’t know why the garden exists, the fact that it does exist at all is a testament to the Italian engineering and artistic execution of the time.