Italy is renowned for its art. It was the home of the Renaissance masters, it's where Dante wrote perhaps the first epic trilogy the world had ever seen, and it's where the Greeks and the Romans created the rules for Western civilization. For tourists with a taste for the bizarre, or who want to see something truly off the beaten path there's a little spot north of Rome called Bomarzo. An unassuming place, it's also the home of the Monster Park.
Also, if unusual tourist attractions are your thing, you might want to check out The Winchester Mystery House in California (an insane maze the owner built to trap ghosts killed by guns manufactured by Winchester), and the Chicago Pedway (which is a possible inspiration for Undertown in "The Dresden Files").
The Gardens of Bomarzo
The Gardens of Bomarzo, more colloquially referred to as the Monster Park, were created and commissioned by Pier Francisco Orsini upon the death of his wife Giulia Farnese in the 16th century. Orsini, a life-long patron of the arts, called upon great artists like the architect Pirro Ligorio and the sculptor Simone Moschino to help him create a garden of dark wonders. Though some statues are attributed to Orsini himself, much of the work was done at his behest rather than by his own hand. With over 20 separate sculptures and monuments in plain sight and hidden away in niches and corners throughout the landscape, the Gardens of Bomarzo are an excellent representation of Mannerist art.
Here There Be Monsters
So Where Do The Monsters Figure In?
For those wondering what's so strange about a park with sculptures in it, you missed the part about how a rich artist commissioned the place after the death of his beloved wife. Not just any rich artist either; Orsini was called in to finish cathedrals when Michelangelo (yes, that Michelangelo) couldn't on account of being dead. A guy with that kind of street cred needed help to bring his vision to life. So right off the bat you can bet the art was going to be steeped in the genius and madness that we all expect from this kind of lead up.
The Monster Park doesn't disappoint. Whether it's the mouth of Orcus (a huge demonic mouth you can walk into, and whose acoustics make whispers travel to the bottom of the stairs), the leaning house (which is pretty self-explanatory), or the huge sculpture of one of Hannibal's war elephants crushing Roman legionnaires underfoot, these things weren't created to be admired; they were created to shock the audience, and to leave them in a state of wonder. In short Orsini used art as a weapon to smash his viewers square in the face. With dragons and satyrs, demons and dying soldiers the Monster Park leaves a definite impression on visitors who enter its gates.
How Come I've Never Heard Of This Place?
While it's a popular, out-of-the-way tourist spot now, the Monster Park never really caught on during the days of its creator, and the generations that followed weren't that different. The garden fell into disrepair (as if the already creepy grotesques and dragons needed to be covered with a dusting of moss and vines just to complete the horror-movie look), and it was relatively obscure until the mid 1900s. That was when the Bettini family decided to clean the park up, and to restore as much of its gloomy majesty as it could. The results were quite spectacular, and in addition to thrilling tourists the park has inspired artists such as Salvador Dali, it's been the basis of at least one deck of tarot cards, and a replica of the infamous Orcus appears in the 1997 movie The Relic.
If you have the opportunity, stop in and meet the monsters. It's an experience you can't have anywhere else.