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Bomarzo: “Fatte Per Inganno O Pur Per Arte”

Covered over almost completely, as if reclaimed by “first nature,” the garden of Bomarzo remained largely forgotten from the late sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth century when art critic Mario Praz and surrealist artist Salvador Dali created a video about its sculptural contents in 1949 (Dali). May Woods refers to Bomarzo as “more of an experience than a garden,” but, then again, baroque gardens elicit the haptic and optic experience of the world’s complexity and, for that reason, such a distinction between experiences and gardens requires rethinking (Woods 32). In tune with the words of the location’s creator, Bomarzo presents a sacro bosco, a sacred wood. Cultivated between 1552 and 1583, Bomarzo came into existence at the behest of Pier Francesco Orisni, known by his contemporaries as Vicino. Jessie Sheeler describes this evocative place as “a meandering, even deliberately labyrinthine journey, following paths which lead from the valley bottom up through the series of terraces.” To make this sacred wood, “Vicino had cut into the hillside, passing vistas of trees and rocks with buildings and striking sculptures, many carved from the large boulders that litter the site” (Sheeler 8). She interprets the word “sacro” to mean both holy and magical. “His shaping of it is a product of his desire to describe from a reflective viewpoint the conflicting desires, motivations and events that had shaped his life. Of course, sexual pleasure took a prominent place in his thoughts, and he was unashamedly quite frivolous in this aspect of his garden’s purpose” (31). Adding up these descriptions and historical fragments, then, it is possible to produce an initial glimpse of Bomarzo as a surreal landscape, a serpentine pathway through a rugged terrain populated by sculptural works that intone a masculine sexuality. Whereas the masculinity of Valsanzibio inhered in the patriarchal family order at once praising God and itself through the garden’s creation and yet remained somewhat inconspicuous beneath the classical heritage expressed in its statuary, the masculinity of Bomarzo announced itself more boldly and paraded itself overtly in what Sheeler refers to as its “frivolous aspects.”

The masculinity of the art comes across in the enormous size of many pieces: here a giant tortoise balancing an obelisk on its back, there a widemouthed gorgon with predatory teeth. While certainly the extension of an idiosyncratic mind not bound entirely to the norms of his day, Bomarzo also transmits its messages via a familiar classical and Renaissance frequency. The “sacred wood,” after all, calls to mind the locus of Dante’s entrance into L’Inferno. Inscriptions on the sculptures offer wisdom from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Likely due to the academic sophistication of the inscriptions, Francesco Sansovino dedicated his edition of Jacopo Sannazaro’s pastoral romance Arcadia (1578) to Vicino, and Sheeler notes a distinctly Sannazarian feeling to much of the imagery in the sacro bosco (11). Avoiding a full embrace of the anachronistic term “surrealist,” I am tempted to call Bomarzo a grotesque pastoral vision. In antithesis to the sharp lines and clearly demarcated allegorical journey of Valsanzibio, the bulbous and oversized figurines, their esoteric significances and menacing faces, conjure the underside of the baroque pastoral. That is, where artistic expression strives in Valsanzibio to convey the divine perfection of nature (both human and earthly) to the soul of the garden’s visitor, “art” in Bomarzo denotes at once a sleight of hand and a profane human signature. Seemingly unconcerned with the divine and its role in daily affairs, the work of Bomarzo emulates baroque labyrinths, affirms the role of multiplicity and fluctuating meaning in the world, and draws attention to the pastoral rural terrain on which it stands, a milieu that provokes the garden visitor to survey his own imagination and explore the possibilities of human intellect. Inscriptions such as “Nosce te Ipsum/ Vince te ipsum/Vive tibi Ipsi/Sic/Eris/Felix” (know yourself/conquer yourself/live for yourself/thus/you will be/blessed) and “Ede Bibe Lude Post Mortem Nulla Voluptas” (eat drink play after death there is no pleasure) reveal the influence of the classical inheritance on baroque pastoralia, particularly its insistence on self-knowledge and ethics (here, framed explicitly through the works of Epicurus). Like Valsanzibio, the sacred wood does not simply provoke thought; it exists in the world as a tangible mode of thinking.

The garden thinking of Valsanzibio and Bomarzo fuse disjunctively into a dialectical relationship. Together, the light and dark sides of baroque pastoral throw each other into relief in a kind of philosophical chiaroscuro. Comparing two inscriptions from the two gardens demonstrates this effect. The first comes from the sonnet inscribed on the steps approaching Cardinal Barbarigo’s palazzo in Valsanzibio:

Curioso viator che in questa parte

Giungi e credi mirar vaghezze rare

Quanto di bel, quanto di buon qui appare

Tutto deesi a Natura e nulla ad Arte

(Curious traveler that in this location

Arrives and thinks of admiring rare things

Whatever beauty, whatever good you will see here

It is thanks to the work of nature and not thanks to the hand of man)

Here, Nature and Art retain a hierarchical relationship. Synonymous with the handiwork of God, Nature presides over the garden as sole inspiration for the artistic works and as primary referent for all allegorical messages. By contrast, Art connotes the capabilities of man and tacitly implies a humble deference paid by the artist to his inspiration and his Inspirator.

The second inscription is from Bomarzo, and the same one that acts as epigraph to Part I of this book:







In the sacred wood, nature is unavoidable. The rock used to create the sculpture never hides within the form of the sculpture itself; it is as if the artists hired to undertake the carvings (probably Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Francesco Moschino [Sheeler 26]) decided to feature the natural materials instead of their craftsmanship. And yet, nowhere does Nature, understood as a divine creation, announce itself. The inscription invites (almost taunts) visitors to interpret the hermetic wisdom of the park’s arrangement and materials, and by doing this it foregrounds the intellect of Vicino Orsini. Likewise, it compels the intellect to distinguish between trickery and art. If, in Valsanzibio, Art entails a human action ever subservient to the works of God, in Bomarzo it does much more. If the garden exists as a trick, then its success will be to lure the interpreter into a meaningless quest for knowledge, hinting at something like a sardonic nihilism behind the statuary’s scary faces. If it exists as artistic expression that constitutes a mode of thinking, however, then art becomes a provocateur. The garden’s art persists in time and overwrites the bucolic setting of the garden in order to refine the self-knowledge of the individual and lead visitors, by extension, to a more fulfilling life. Baroque pastoral, and its manifestation through garden thinking, makes room for both interpretations: the hierarchical Nature/Art relationship of Bernini’s imagination and the assertive and mischievous intellectuality of Vicino’s lifelong labor. As ground to multiple and at times antagonistic meanings, the baroque pastoral presides beneath a play of forces both seen and unseen, intelligible and mysterious. Garden thinking foregrounds this play of forces and reminds us in the present to attend to its material reality while simultaneously mapping its historically specific allegorical overtones.

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