112 pages, 80 photos
Probably the most enigmatic garden in Europe, the Sacred Wood at Bomarzo in central Italy has been called extravagant, mysterious, unholy, surrealist, fascinating and good fun, but it has never been perfectly understood - which is possibly just as its creator intended. It was made in the latter half of the sixteenth century by the then Lord of Bomarzo, Vicino Orsini, a man as intriguing and paradoxical as the garden he left behind him. He spent his most active years as a captain serving in the armies of the Pope. But he was also much involved in the literary and artistic circles of his time, counting poets, sculptors, architects and cardinals among his friends. Although he thought deeply about religion and the need to aspire to purity and goodness, he was heavily influenced by his emotions and passions, particularly in his relations with women. All of this seems to have played a part in prompting him to present his dilemmas and aspirations in concrete form in his Sacro Bosco.
In the valley below his palace at Bomarzo, Vicino had the soft tufa cliffs and boulders carved into grottoes, a theatre and a leaning house. Among fountains, allees and bowers, the shapes of creatures derived from Europe's myths and legends stand out. Monsters, giants, nymphs, gods and fantastic animals people the glades and pathways, accompanied by carved texts as puzzling as the works they seem to explain. The recurring theme of the works is the struggle of man's soul to distinguish between earthly and divine love, to see what is real and what illusion. Drawing on familiar figures from classical literature and contemporary Italian works, Vicino poses challenges to his audience, forcing an intellectual as well as an aesthetic response to the complex landscape of Bomarzo.
The pick of the coffee-table books this Christmas. Independent on Sunday An attractive book, beautifully produced and intelligently written, and to be recommended to all who wish to visit Bomarzo. Garden History This is garden history at its best, and a stirring story of an interesting man of plants, sculpture and letters. The excellent text is matched by sensitive photography by Mark Edward Smith who captures the shady mysteries of the palace and the dappled groves of the garden, You could not do better than to read this if you intend visiting Bomarzo and it is surely a good consolation, if you are not able to go. Museum of Garden History magazine
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Jessie Sheeler, who was Head of Classics at the co-educational boarding school Bedales, is the author of Little Sparta: The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Frances Lincoln).