SACRO BOSCO: THE PARK OF MONSTERS
As is my custom, I zigged when I should have zagged and got on a direct train to Florence from Rome instead of making a stop in Barmoza to visit the Park of Monsters.
I have decided to back track the three hours as the idea of this place has haunted me for months and I just can’t leave Italy without seeing it.
The train ride into the countryside was lovely and I have arranged to meet Paulo at the train station in Vertibo, and he will drive me into Barmoza.
Paulo is a giant of a man, jovial and kind. He speaks as little English as I speak Italian, but I introduce him to the translator app and we get on just fine. As we make thetrekalong miles of winding dirt roads and through the woods, I realize I would never have been able to walk this without tears and regret.
We arrive at Sacro Bosco and all I see is a massive parking lot and a dirt path. I wonder if this is the place, but Paulo assures me it is, gives me a bottle of water and a croissant and promises to return at the end of the day. I feel like a child leaving the bus for a field trip.
There are few cars in the lot and as I walk up the path, I sigh relief at the sight of a visitor center. I pull on the door and it does not budge. I panic a little, as Paulo is long gone. I may be in shock, as all I can seem to do is stare at the door, which clearly states the place is open. I realize I am squishing my croissant and when I look up, a smiling woman opens the door. I try to act nonchalant when I realize it was a push not pull door.
Once through the circa 1960 building, I am handed a ticket, a map and a bottle of water. Italians seem to be big on hydration. I don’t know what I expected, but what I see is a park like area of mowed grass dappled with some small sculptures, washrooms and a modern playground for children. To my relief, this is not it. An iron gateway beckons and I enter an absolutely ancient and enchanted forest.
Along the stone dappled trail, little birds and chipmunks seem happy to see me. The air is fresh and earthy. Sunbeams dance with curled leaves being tugged by a gentle breeze. A bubbling brook with waterfalls seems to disappear and reappear from behind the mounds of mossy rock.
I am so happy and content to be in this wonderland, I almost forget I am supposed to be looking for monsters. In that moment I realize the massive chestnut and fig trees are looming over me. This forest is getting much darker and I feel suddenly small. A warning scribed on the gate revisits me in a menacing whisper“He who does not visit this place with raised eyebrows and pursed lips will fail to see the wonders of this world.” I realize my brows are indeed raised and the eerie transformation of the woods makes me wonder about the exorcism, which was performed on this place hundreds of years ago. I fear it did not take.
As intended, the first monster startles me. A massive fish with a grotesque human face glares at me in silent distain. With bared teeth, his mouth is open wide enough to consume me. A castle is perched on a globe, which balances precariously on the head of the beast. The angst of this place is as undeniable as the beauty.
The park of monsters was created through the misfortune and grief of Prince Francesco Orsini. He was a prisoner of war who returned distraught only to lose his one true love. Orsini hired sculptor Pirro Longorio (the architect who finished St. Peter’s Basilica when Michelangelo died) to help realize his vision. The battles of good and evil, man vs. nature, myths and primordial visions are played out here.
Orsini insisted the massive sculptures of underworld demons, mermaids and monsters be carved into the rock formations of the forest and without relocating them. These rocks, called Tufa, are the violent creation of volcanic eruption and represent the perfect medium to reflect Orsini’s passionate struggle.
The park is a surreal labrynth of mysterious riddles. It reminds me ofWilliam Blake’s writing, “ I give to you the end of a golden string, Only wind it into a ball: It will lead you to Heaven’s Gate, Built in Jerusalem’s Wall.” The massive monsters stare down at the viewer, suspect and menacing. Though it’s unnerving to stand in the presence of these beasts, hidden verse entices one to stand and ponder their meaning. It’s hard to know if the park is to be taken as a whole or if each monster has a message of it’s own. One condescending yet inspiring script suggests they can only be “Understood by the learned ones.” No wonder Salvador Dali was intrigued by this place. His ego would have revelled in the challenge.
When Orsini died in 1585, the once colourful and meticulously manicured park fell into a 350 year slumber. Overgrown and forgotten, the forest tried to reclaim it’s own. The paint of the monsters was licked away by time and rain. Moss and vines softened the sculptor’s cuts as the earth tried to lure the rocks back into it’s bosom.
What a wonderful adventure it must have been for the Battini family who purchased the park in 1970 to gently unearth it. The rest seems to have done the place good and the forest has been groomed to reluctantly embrace it’s scars.
There are more than 25 monsters looming in the shadows. Much as I would like to revisit them all, in harmony with the voice of the park, it’s better to entice you to visit yourself with a tease of a few of my favorites.
Tartaruga (The Turtle) looks as though it is lumbering through the forest on some mysterious quest. On it’s back rides the figure of Liberty suggesting a return from or entrance to battle. Rising from the earth and hidden in the brush is another gaping fish-like monster. The Turtle seems to tread along either unaware or unconcerned by the threat. Both the turtle and fish are completely covered in moss, but as enchantment would have it, Liberty seems immune to decay.
Carved into a cresent wall of rock, The Nymphaeum surrounds me like a forum. Four of five life sized nymphs beckon from arched niches. One niche is empty suggesting one wandered off. Orsini’s “virile” Venus is perched on a dragon eluding perhaps to power or a dark side to her loving. But as I stand before her, she looks off into the forest, seemingly bored and uninterested. There are phallic stones and two obelisks, which stand like viewers in the foreground of this theatre. One simply says “Vincini Orsini in 1552” the other reads “Only to relieve his soul.” I look back up at Venus and wonder if she misses the rumored orgies, which may have taken, place here.
As I walk deeper into the forest and look into the faces of mermaids, demons and mutants, there is always another looking over my shoulder or peering from the darkness of the woods. Even the rock stairways are precarious and tilted. An open crypt is dug into the ground almost inviting me to climb inside. It’s all very unnerving and I love it.
I finally arrive at Orcus, the ogre. Carved from one massive rock and hollowed like a Jack-o-lantern, it’s bulging eyes are windows, the toothy mouth a door into the darkness. I stood in front of this for a bit, but could not muster the courage to step inside. On it’s lips, an inscription reads, “All reason departs.” Indeed.
There is a dragon doing battle with vicious wolf-like creatures, but it’s hard to tell if the one on it’s chest is biting or suckling. I am not smart enough for this place. I ponder coming back and trying to figure it all out, but the sun is lowering and I need to pick up my pace.
I visit more nymphs, Neptune, Hercules and an elephant trampling a soldier. I fall in love with The Harpies, two beautiful temptresses with wings and dragon tails remind me of the Campe in Greek mythology. Two lions wrestle between them and I hurry by lest I draw attention to myself.
Finally I come to the Leaning House. I was curious about this when I read about Monster Park. The remarks by people who have visited here seemed a bit exaggerated. After all, it’s only a crooked building right?
The scroll on the wall reads, “By virtue of stillness, spirit becomes wiser.” A praying figure by the door tells me there is more to this fun house than I thought. From the outside, it looks like an out of place two storey. As soon as I put one foot in the house, the boundaries of my reality are skewed. My other foot does not seem to know where to plant itself and I have to steady myself in the doorway. I give my head a shake, blink a few times and try to navigate across the room. The feeling is overwhelming and bizarre as I bounce from one wall to another trying to find my center of gravity.
Equally bizarre about this place is how those verses, spoken in silent eloquence, come back to haunt me once I give myself to the moment. I decide to do as it says, and stand still. Though the room continues to spin and nothing seems to make sense, an angel whispers; “exactly.”
I close my eyes and imagine Orsini trying to bring his grief and struggle into something tangible. His world was spinning out of control and I think of my own experience and realize this is indeed how our world can so instantly be turned into something surreal by the hand of fate.
Barmoza itself is a dark grey town, content to exist in the past and seemingly happy to be consumed and bared by the elements. The same spirit embodies Monster Park. It is hard to find, difficult to navigate and completely unwelcoming. I suspect few people make the journey, but I am confident those who are awarded an unforgettable, surreal and absolutely enchanting experience.
Once again, I am thankful to have taken this journey solo. I doubt one can really experience the artists intent but in silent contemplation. I for one, cannot hear angels with people nattering in my ears.