Bomarzo - Il Parco dei Mostri

Bomarzo, a sleepy little Laziale town just a few kilometers from the Tuscan and Umbrian borders, has a lovely little secret. The most un-renaissance-like of the renaissance gardens, the Monster Park (il Parco dei Mostri, also known as the Sacred Wood/il Sacro Bosco). It's hidden away, as the name suggests, in a wooded area in the valley around the town. Hidden yes, but not hiding, as it still attracts visitors from far and wide.

You can see why. Perfect for kids, with plenty of allegorical and historical layers for the most cultured of adults, the park is a pleasure on a sunny day. Built in the 16th century by the Duke of Bomarzo, Pier Francesco Orsini, the park is like no other Italian garden. Perhaps designed by Pirro Longorio and Simone Moschino to astonish and shock, the entrance gives way to a fantasy world, with surreal interpretations of ancient texts and sometimes, frankly weird sculptures. It is a good way to spend a few hours.

Coming in at 10 euros per person, with a 2 euro discount for kids (and no senior citizen discount), the park isn't particularly cheap. The entrance fee includes an A4 map of the park, which is useful as there is little signage in the park (which is a nice change, making it feel more like an exploration). With 37 sculptures in Italian, and 35 in badly-translated English (hey, I'm a master at bad translations so I understand, but I am paying 10euros for the pleasure, and why miss out two sculptures?), it took us about 2 hours to go round the whole park. The 'monsters' are sculptured out of the local peperino, a gray/brown stone composed of volcanic ash, dust and cinder. Unfortunately it is hard to work this stone as well as other stones such as marble or granite, so the sculptures are rather more crude and less defined than in other gardens. For me, this adds to their charm, as they really are very different to sculptures seen elsewhere.

My favorite was the dragon sculpture (number 20 on the English version). According to the guide, the dragon was not a symbol of destruction but rather of time and wisdom. In the statue, the dragon is in the midst of a fight with a dog, lion, and wolf - symbols of spring, summer and winter, or, apparently, the present, future and past. I'm not too bothered with the symbolism, I just like it as the dragon looks like he's smiling.

Another favorite is perhaps the most normal. A lovely temple, built 20 years after the rest of the garden by the Duke for his late wife Giulia Farnese. The ceiling of the portico is decorated with Orsinian roses and Farnese fleur-de-lys, making the portico seem a little like King's College chapel in Cambridge, even if the roses and fleur-de-lys were from very different families! It's perfectly formed and quite charming.

After the death of Giulia Farnese, the Duke fell on harder times. With his link to the rich Farnese family lost, and his relatives having richer Orsini fiefdoms, he receded from history. Il parco dei mostri fell into disrepair until 1954 when the current restoration began.

The casa pendente act as a passage to the upper garden.
The adjacent town of Bomarzo itself is worth a visit. The Palazzo Orsini, built between 1519 and 1583, is a wonderful example of an Italian palazzo. Yes, there are plenty around (the one in Castelnuovo di Porto is the closest good example to Rome as far as we know, while Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola is the best preserved), but the views, combined with the fact that the Palazzo is open to the public and used for art installations and conferences make it worthwhile. Palazzo Orsini is made up of two main buildings which occupy nearly half of the centro storico. Incredibly, people live in the outer walls of the Palazzo, with external staircases (profferli) typical of the Province of Viterbo, extending up into the walls. Bomarzo itself was a bit of a disappointment. Beautifully preserved, with lovely views on the surrounding countryside, but far too quiet. We tried to find somewhere for coffee, but most of the shops were closed (many permanently) and the only place that was trading was the realtor, with plenty of second homes for sale. Perhaps simply a consequence of the hard times we're living in, but it did seem a shame that the town appeared to be dying, without even that very staple of every Italian town, the bar.
Bomarzo from the Palazzo. Note the distinct lack of life.

A trip to il Parco dei Mostri and Bomarzo by public transport from Rome isn't easy. A train from Rome would get you to Orte, but buses in this part of the world operate on the level of local folklore, so sadly I wouldn't recommend trying to get to the park by public transport. However, Bomarzo is an acceptable drive  from Rome, thanks to the A1 autostrada del Sole (head towards Firenze and take exit 11 for Attigliano). While the roads in this part of Lazio are very picturesque, road signage is a little lacking so I would recommend bringing a GPS/SatNav (search for il Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo).
The Orsini obviously thought a lot of themselves. That's one of their castles on top of the world, which is also draped in their insignia.

Overall then, I can recommend a trip to the monster park and Bomarzo. I'm not sure it would be worth it as a day trip from Rome, but if you stay overnight and combine it with Viterbo, Orvieto or Civita di Bagnoregio, it would be well worth a visit.
For more information of the art historian type, click through to this excellent post on the Rome Art Lover site.

All text and photos copyright 2013.


  1. Great post about a truly wonderful park. From the Castelli, we drove with our two boys (7,9) and had a perfect day. We toured the park, ended with a picnic near the entrance, then wandered the palazzo and sleepy town of Bomarzo. I stumbled upon a blog like yours before the trip or we would have missed it! So thank you for sharing it with all. :)

    1. Thanks Sharon, and thanks for leaving a comment! Day-trips like yours are the reason why I blog! :)

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