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Stone monster with moss growing on it

Park of the Monsters (On the Excesses of Human Love)


A mannerist garden in Italy, rediscovered by Salvador Dalí and admired by Jean Cocteau, recounts an old tale of love.

Human history is full of works attempting to outwit time and to celebrate a great love. This noble feeling fills the world with creations portraying an impulse toward permanence in the face of fleeting and finite humanity.

A true cathedral of poetry, Dante’s Comedy (the epithet “Divine” was added later) was inspired by a superhuman love, albeit, a Platonic one, awoken by one woman: Beatriz. It’s also recorded that the love felt by the Pharaoh Ramses II for Nefertiti resulted in monumental works that aspired toward the eternal. The dark, tangled history of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved was written right into the body of the work of the great German composer. But one category of love seems to move the spirit above all others: the love felt by those widowed. India’s Taj Mahal is a superlative example of this “eternalization” of the beloved. This was for one Mumtaz Mahal. Undertaken by Emperor Shah Jahan, a premature widower, his sighs haunt the marble even to this day.

We could include in this category, as well, the grotesquely romantic Park of the Monsters, also known as the Garden of Bomarzo, located beneath the Castello degli Orsini, in Bomarzo just north of Rome, Italy. The monumental garden was dedicated to the memory of one beloved Giulia Farnese, (niece of the Cardinal Alexander Farnese, who later became Pope Paul III), by the fierce and celebrated mercenary, Pier Francesco Orsini.

At the end of the Franco-Spanish war in 1550, Orsini retired to his famous castle and surrounded himself with artists and writers and devoted himself to an epicurean life. In this legendary era, Italian nobleman lived, often with near-pagan levels of license, nourished by the Italian Renaissance, and thanks in part to the rediscovery and definitive influence of ancient Greek and Roman art.

Stone statue of pegasus covered by moss.

It’s no wonder, then, that the absurd and the monstrous, both deeply Renaissance attributes, still inhabit the garden. Beings somewhere between the terrifying and the beautiful; mythical characters and fantastic beings. Late Italian mannerism, of which the garden is emblematic, had been tolerated by the Church, and the sinister inquisition, for two reasons. First was the prestige that the Greek and Latin classics had recovered by this time. The second was due to the high positions held by the Orsini family, both in the military and in relation to the papacy. Even still, the funereal, lucent resonance represented by the gardens aroused suspicious respect and, above all, a sense of celebrity and a powerful intimacy.

Paradoxically, even somewhat amusingly, the rescue of the gardens, abandoned for centuries, was due to Salvador Dalí (modern avatar of the fantastic and the dreamlike, and devotee of his own beloved, Gala). Dalí shot a short film in the garden, then in ruins. It fit his own extravagant aesthetic so well that it soon captivated the imaginations of other artists, among them Jean Cocteau.

Stone statues of monsters covered in moss.

*Images: 1) Esteban Fernández García – flickr / Creative Commons; 2) Pitichinaccio – Wikimedia Commons; 3) bass_nroll – flickr / Creative Commons

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