The Sacred Grove of Bomarzo

Via: A&A by art historian John-Paul Stonard

Like many other Italian Renaissance gardens, Vicino’s Sacro Bosco was anything but ornamental. Constructed rather with images and ideas, the garden and its statues can be read by the enlightened visitor like a book, providing a philosophical journey through themes such as love, death, memory and truth. Vicino’s garden-book is, however, obscure and ambiguous, and requires a knowledge of poets such as Dante, Petrarch and Ariosto to unravel; every reading produces a different set of ideas that reflect the complex personality of Vicino himself.

The visitor is nevertheless spared carrying around a library of Italian medieval and renaissance poetry by the many inscribed quotations that Vicino placed around his garden. On the pedestal of one of a pair of sphinges found in the garden is a typically gnomic sentence: CHI CON CIGLIA INARCATE / ET LABBRA STRETTE / NON VA PER QUESTO LOCO / MANCO AMMIRA / LE FAMOSE DEL MONDO / MOLI SETTE (He who does not visit this place with raised eyebrows and tight lips will fail to admire the seven wonders of the world.)

Vicino is boasting of his garden, but also paraphrasing Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso, suggesting that the theme of the poem, unrequited love and loss, is one of the keys to his philosophical garden. Further clues to the meanings of the sacro bosco may be revealed by looking at a few of its many statues and monuments.

The Wrestling Colossi

Though the meanings of the statues in Vicino’s garden were consciously determined, their placement was not; they were carved directly from large stones as they were found in the landscape. The two massive stone figures near the original entrance of the grove must have been carved from an enormous lump of stone, and their titanic struggle certainly reflects the task of their unknown sculptor. The significance of the figures was lost for centuries – there are no records hinting at the meaning of the two colossal figures struggling, one apparently ripping the other in two. An inscription on a wall nearby however provides a clue that they may have been derived from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso: SE RODI ALTIER GIA FV SVO COLOSSO / PVR DI QUESTO IL MIO BOSCO ANCHO SI GLORIA / E PER PIV NON POTER FO QVANT IO POSSO (If Rhodes previously took pride from its Collossus so by this one my wood is glorified and further I can do no more than I have done)

In his poem Ariosto had compared a garden – in his case a garden of love – with the wonders of the ancient world. The standing Collosus has further been identified with the hero of the poem Orlando, who, during a particularly frenzied stage of his adventures, as he is wandering through a forest, driven mad at the loss of his beloved Angelica to another man, comes across two woodsman, one of whom he slaughters by exactly the method depicted by Vicino’s giants – he catches him by the legs and tears him in two.

The combination of these two references suggests a garden dedicated not only to divine love, but also to the violence of passion and the madness of loss, reflecting, perhaps, the state of Vicino’s mind at the loss of his wife Giulia.

The War Elephant

Elephants carrying castles were popular symbols in Mediaeval and Renaissance art. They stood for both strength and restraint, and often referred to ancient history, in particular Hannibal’s famous use of Elephants to invade the Italian peninsular. The Bomarzo elephant is a curious instance of this tradition, especially so since it holds a presumably wounded or dead Roman soldier in its trunk, who in turn holds an unidentified object loosely in his right hand. According to Lang (1957), this elephant and castle refers to a biblical story, that of Eleazar in The Book of Maccabees. Eleazar slays the elephant of King Antiochus V Eupator, but is killed in turn under the weight of the collapsing beast. Although this is possible, the Bomarzo soldier is being lifted by the elephant rather than crushed. The biblical elephant would, as Bury (1985) points out, certainly have been an Indian elephant, whereas the Bomarzo is African.

The Dragon Fighting a Pair of Lions

In Medieval iconography, the lion is the noblest of animals, and likened to Christ. The dragon is likened to Satan and represents evil. Darnall and Weil’s  interpretation of the Bomarzo Dragon and Lions, based on this confrontation of virtue and vice, and suggestion of the sacrifice of divine love, has been challenged by another view that reverses the relation, seeing the Dragon as representing prudence, the lions, strength. J.B.Bury bases this interpretation on the precedent of a Leonardo drawing of the same subject, in which the Dragon and Lion are labeled with their respective virtues. That the Dragon is not overpowered by the lions, and holds a lion cub without harming it in his tail, symbolizes, according to this interpretation, prudence overcoming force. Bury suggests that the Dragon is therefore an emblem for Giulia, to whom the garden is dedicated.

The Mouth of Hell

The crumbling inscription around the lips of this extraordinary infernal vision; OGNI PENSIERO VO(LA) (all reason departs) can be completed by Giovanni Guerra’s drawing in which he noted the inscription as LASCIATE OGNI PENSIERO VOI CH’ENTRATE (abandon all reason, you who here enter). The reference to Dante’s inscription above the mouth of hell is clear, although Dante’s damned are told to abandon hope – speranza – rather than reason. Inside Vicino’s hell there is a picnic table, formed by hell’s tongue, and seating space for a small party.

The Covered Bench

There are a number of shaded and hidden seats in the garden, notably in the Nymphaeum, inviting lovers to linger. This covered bench has a well preserved inscription that dwells on the type of worldly visitor that the garden required, for all its nuanced meanings to unfold: VOI CHE PEL MONDO GITE ERRANDO / VAGHI DI VEDER MARAVIGLIE ALTE ET / STUPENDE, VENITE QVA, DOVE SON / FACCIE HORRENDE, ELEFANTI, LEONI, / ORSI, ORCHI ET DRAGHI (You who have travelled the world wishing to see great and stupendous marvels, come here, where there are horrendous faces, elephants, lions, bears, orcs and dragons)

The Harpies and Mermaids

Many of the features of Vicino’s garden were based, through archaelogical and literary investigation, on ancient Roman models. This was certainly the case with the Hippodrome garden – a large, race-track shaped garden that Vicino based on those common in Roman villas. Those entering the garden, if sufficiently iconographically trained, are warned of a potential threat by the presence of large pinecones and acorns decorating the perimeter. Acorns emblematise the Golden Age, pinecones death, making the Hippodrome a false paradise for unprepared visitors. Such a threat becomes more pressing in the form of three female figures who roam the Hippodrome; one with bifurcated fish-tails, one with a dragon’s tail, claws and wings, the other surmounting a bench on which only the most foolhardy would sit. These Harpies, according to Darnall and Weil, make another connection with Orlando Furioso, the episode where the King of Ethiopa, Prester John, is rescued from harpies by the hero Astolfo, who drives the harpies into the mouth of hell using magic. Bury contests the identification of the fish-tailed figure as a Harpy, pointing out, rather sensibly, that she is more likely to be a Mermaid.

Also in the Hippodrome can be found part (the socle) of a copy of the Meta Sudans, an ancient fountain that once stood in Rome between the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine. The inscripition carried on this base reinforces the idea that the Hippodrome represents a terrestrial paradise: CEDAN ET MEMPHI ET OGNI ALTRA MARAVIGLIA / CH HEBBE GIA IL MONDO AL PREGIO AL SACRO BOSCO / CHE SOL SE STESSO E NVLL ALTRO SOMIGLIA (Memphis and every other marvel that the world has held in praise yield to the Sacro Bosco that resembles itself and nothing else)

Mask of Madness / Fortified Sphere

This highly curious combination of grotesque mask, given a distinctly Aztec appearance, and sphere topped by a castle has no clearer explanation than many of the other features of the Sacro Bosco. The combination may refer again to Vicino’s distraught, disturbed state at the loss of Giulia; the sphere (sfero), as Lang suggests, can traditionally, via a pun, represent hope (spero), particularly hope for love.

The Tempietto

The philosophical journey through the sacred grove ends at a strangely constructed temple. This was built by Vicino as the culmination of his memorials to Giulia, and as a symbol of her constancy. We know this latter detail from a book published in 1556, Le Imagine del tempio della signaro Giovanna Aragona, by Giuseppe Betussi, in which Giulia Farnese Orsini is referred to as amongst the most virtuous ladies of Italy, on account of her constancy, having remained faithful to Vicino during the long periods when he was absent at war. Drawings by Giovanni Guerra show that the temple, now quite bare, was once adorned with a number of symbols including the zodiacal signs, crucifixion and resurrection scenes, and a sun that looked out from the east overlooking the Sacro Bosco. Solar light symbolizes the revelation at the end of the philosophical journey through Vicino’s Sacro Bosco, the visitor emerging out of the wood, with its fantastical and cautionary bestiary, to the idea of divine love, emanating from the purity of Giulia, and embodied in the architecture of the Tempietto.


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