Parco Dei Mostri:

Sacro Bosco


An extraordinary garden of the underworld, conceived of by Pier Francesco Orisini, beginning in 1547.




 Copyright 2013 by Lee van Laer


Special thanks to Daniele Petrini, who assisted with translations of some of the inscriptions.


Photographs by the author. No portion of this document may be reproduced without permission.


contact: doremishock@gmail.com





A pervasive and timeless air of mystery suffuses the Parco dei Mostri, Pier Francesco Orsini’s arcane masterpiece of Mannerist garden landscapes. The sculptures seem to emerge from the earth itself as creatures of the underworld—carved, in some cases, from the bedrock itself.

Leave aside for a moment the sheer originality of the sculpture: the idea of carving monumental statuary directly from the landscape was already a departure from high Renaissance ideals. The concept connects the statuary to an elemental bedrock, entirely appropriate to the Gods, nymphs, sprites and Satyrs of classical tradition. It represents a turning away from the structured idealism of perfect gardens such as the villa Lante (in the immediate vicinity) back towards what may seem to be an earthbound, perhaps even underworldly, aesthetic.

But Orsini was up to more than just a clinical exercise in sculptural and gardening innovations. Following his capture as a prisoner of war in the 1550s, on his return to his ancestral lands, Orsini entered into a deep state of spiritual questioning—one that caused him to challenge the standard underpinnings of life as it was known, then and now. The death of his wife intensified that state; and the garden he left stands as eloquent testament.

The original plan (and surely there was a plan, considering the great expense it took to create it) of the garden is lost; and with it, in greater measure, the precise ideas Orsini intended to express in his creation. But surely, the garden was far from casual; and enough remains for us to intuit some of his questions, observations, and meanings—although any would-be interpreter of the Parco dei Mostri has to exercise creative impulses nearly equal to those that which birthed the garden in the first place. We cannot for certain know what his intentions were; so we must invent them anew. And Orsini himself demanded this; the garden is a challenge to interpretation, not a lecture on principles, and his welcoming angels, the sphinxes, state the case.

On the way through this garden of earthly delights, we’ll participate in a journey that crosses innumerable lines of demarcation, and discover an epic that spans multiple traditions.

While the classical references are perhaps evident enough, the surrealistic nature of the Parco dei Mostri touches on territory that defies such facile classification. Attempts to interpret it according to standard modes of thought and tradition are doomed to failure-as Orsini himself knew, and even intended.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch’s acknowledged masterpiece, was created between 1490 and 1510, and, due both to its extraordinary nature and the extent to which its iconography and style were imitated, had to be well known in art circles by Orsini’s time (he lived from 1523 to 1585.) The work on the park was begun in 1547. Populating a landscape with fantastic creatures was Bosch’s specialty; Orsini took it one step further into the literal, creating an actual landscape populated with the denizens of heaven and hell.

Orsini employed Pirro Ligorio, the master architect and sculptor who designed the waterworks at the Villa d'Este,  one of the most famous Renaissance gardens in the area of Rome. He also had a hand in the work at Villa Lante. (For a video of an informal walk-through of the waterworks at Villa Lante, click this link.)


Ligorio,  an accomplished architect, antiquarian, and one of the world's earliest experts on seismology, was challenged to create an entirely different kind of garden here; and he certainly did so.

Because he worked directly with local outcrops of stone in situ, it was impossible to lay this park out according to traditional Renaissance principles of garden design, which prize organization, adherence to precise mathematical relationships and combinations, and elaborate symmetry. But then again, Orsini’s intention was to lay out a map of the human unconscious, which displays no such order. Instead of tapping in to the highly ordered world of the Renaissance, of atomistic materialism and literalism, Orsini’s creation is a primordial return to dream worlds and the realm of the collective unconscious.

The parallels between this garden and the work of Carl Jung cannot be denied; the Garden anticipates Jung’s ideas about man’s psyche presenting us with a collected imagery that touches nerves deep inside the human soul, in places that many dare not look in.

Although it’s fairly certain Goya would not have seen this garden, we can also draw parallels between the imagery here and Goya’s later paintings, which likewise enter territory where reason takes a backseat and cryptic giants stalk the landscape. It’s peculiar that Orsini’s vision, which predates Goya by several hundred years, has achieved nowhere near the same fame, even though it often veers into the same darkly imaginative realms. One can easily imagine that Orsini, having seen war, questioned everything man believes about his rationality; and Goya was certainly cut from the same piece of cloth.


Orsini declared the entrance to his garden with a pair of sphinxes, the classical riddlers of ancient times.

One is inscribed, "He who does not visit this place with raised eyebrows and pursed lips will fail to admire the seven wonders of the world." The other says, "Be very attentive, and tell me if these marvels have come about by mistake, or have been realized according to a form of art."




To the left, we encounter the first absolutely extraordinary piece of statuary in the garden.  Meant—it is assumed — to represent Proteus, it's a monstrous head, set back against a sylvan hill, opens a gaping maw to swallow everything in its path. It's very reminiscent of the gaping maw in the primary fish of Breughel's "Big fish eat little fish;" and if we are willing to accept the analogy, certainly, we are the little fish.














Once we intimate this relationship, the frills at the temples of the head and the whiskers that sweep back from the mouth reinforce the idea of an anthropomorphized fish.



  Proteus is believed to have oracular qualities.  He is capable of assuming many forms, indicating the constant nature of change. He also represents flexibility, versatility and adaptability —something that will be demanded of the viewer as they walked through the garden. In alchemy,  as well as Jungian psychology, he also represents the unconscious. No more apt figure could be chosen to introduce us to the wonders of the garden.


Perched jauntily on the head of this piscine monstrosity, balanced as though this malevolent swallower of all were the very foundation of the world itself, is a globe.



The artist has included spiral elements at the base of the earth, suggesting the rotation of the planet. The reference seems to tell us that the world turns; time passes; and the swallower of all things is time itself, giving us a clue to the identity of the huge head beneath the globe.



 On the globe sits a castle — ostensibly the Orsini castle, suggesting that the Orsinis somehow dominate the world—but the scale of the statuary indicates that this interpretation is perhaps mistaken. What we have is a tiny castle, sitting on an only slightly larger earth, which is completely supported by the huge, dominant swallower. It puts the works of man in perspective: the largest, most stable and impressive structure human being can imagine, a castle, is dwarfed by the figure of time, ending up as nothing more than a decorative tassel on his cap.


 Man, Orsini is arguing, is at the mercy of forces far greater than himself, forces he is unaware of, perched as he is at what he thinks is a lofty position at the top of the dung heap. But the forces of the underworld, the collective unconscious, and time itself, are the unseen darkness that swallows everything we are and dominates the actions that we take. There is far more, he argues, then meets the eye to life; and a high vantage point is not a guarantee that one is seeing everything that must be seen. The biggest things are hidden to us; and this mystery, which lies underneath our very feet themselves is what the rest of the garden will lead us to investigate.



To the left of the swallower, a stream. This carefully engineered water feature, which streams through a naturalistic cleft in the rock—completely unlike the controlled and managed water features at Villa d”Este or Villa Lante, where even the “primordial” sources of water are carefully groomed and managed—manages to create a spontaneous impression.



Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions




There are a number of important elements in the garden leading up to the figure of Time, the swallower. A man and a woman, representing the ürsprüngliche, or elemental, man and woman, flank the path to the swallower; and in their immediate vicinity we meet a statue of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings, transitions, and passageways.



Here we meet, as well, a statue of a god with faces oriented to all four points of the compass. This particular piece of statuary bears a distinct resemblance to the faces at Bayon in Angkor Wat; and we'll see a number of other intriguing pieces that echo this relationship. Remember, traditionally, Brahma has four faces; and given some of the other symbolism and imagery in the garden, one has to wonder whether all the allusions to "world travelers" in the inscriptions are a veiled reference to the influences from asian cultures which appear here in the iconography.


Angkor, one of the world’s pre-eminent temple complexes, not only shares peculiar similarities in some religious iconography; the two culture’s monuments have a strong consonance of appearance in terms of weathering, texture, and even the patterns of lichens on the stone. Any  visitor familiar with the landscapes of ancient Cambodian temples will recognize the affinities immediately.


Man and woman, placed in the landscape, simply serve to sound the introductory notes, reminding us that all mythology is, in essence, a reflection of the human character; not the character of the colorful gods, who are used for illustrative purposes. The two-faced god suggests not only beginnings and transitions, but the environment of duality mankind forever dwells within; and the four faced god indicates a need for vision, attention, and vigilance—the ability to see in all directions at once.


Most of these pieces of statuary intentionally recall Etruscan styles, rendering a direct homage to the earliest known inhabitants of this ancient landscape. Orsini held the Etruscans in high regard, and included a number of references to them in the garden, but I believe their presence here is specifically intended to convey an impression of timelessness.



The next piece of statuary we come across is the aptly cthonic Hercules slaying a giant.  This piece of statuary is absolutely stunning and completely unexpected, even given the scale and unusual nature of Proteus. If the viewer had any doubt whatsoever as to the extraordinary nature of this garden, it is dispelled when one comes across this particular vignette.


It's difficult to convey the scale of this mind-blowing sculpture without a point of reference, so here you go:







As you can see, the scale is positively staggering. It conveys an overwhelming impression of force and mastery. Even the placement in the landscape is masterful, unexpected; it lies partly concealed behind and below a wall, so that coming across it is a truly breathtaking experience. It's at this moment that I understood this was truly a garden of wonders.


The image is reminiscent to me of the Hindu incarnation of Vishnu Narasimha, depicted slaying Hiranyakashipu at Banteay Srei.


Serving as an image of the conquering hero mastering evil, it has a hidden message which can perhaps be best understood by looking at the back side of the sculpture.



Hercules's sword, shield and helmet are parked at the rear of the action: eschewing the tools of the warrior, he chooses to master his opponent using his bare hands alone. The implication is that the hero uses the force of his physical body and his will alone to conquer. He needs no help from props or artifices; his own inner strength is what prevails. This interpretation is consistent with medieval and later traditions, which assign Hercules the moral imperative of battling monsters which represent amoral forces. Here; the monster is distinctly human; and the inference is that Hercules is battling the inner monsters of mankind—corrupted creatures of the soul—not amoral external forces.



Directly above the subterranean plaza containing the statue of Hercules, we encounter a ruined temple, fallen on its side. The guidebook indicates that the monument is in very bad repair, but i doubt this is the case. the fallen nature of the temple—it has collapsed and is lying on its side—implies that the condition is a function of the position. Here Orsini gives us not stock ennoblement, but an iconclastic vision of the classics: they are fallen over, cast off, worthless. Instead of elevating the classical ideal of perfection, as symbolized by gloriously symmetrical temple structures, Orsini's vision has thrown it over. A new vision must be pursued; this is, at the very least, rebellion. Once again, as at the beginning, our conventional ideas are comprehensively challenged. The world is falling down; whatever will replace it?



Immediately past the fallen temple, in a position which allows the seater viewer to stare, very counterintuitively, at the back of Hercules's head, is a bench that seems oddly reminiscent of the stone benches the Etruscans placed their dead on. The similarities cannot have been lost on Orsini, who would have been familiar, above all, with the standard architectural features of Etruscan tombs. Is the implication here that rest is only meant for the dead?



The next heroic piece of statuary is a giant sacred tortoise, surmounted by a victory figure on the earth. Surely the piece reminds us powerfully of primitive myths that the earth rests on the back of a great turtle; and it equally brings to mind the famous image of Vishnu presiding of the churning of the waters to create the milk of immortality, another famous image from the walls of Angkor Wat.



This monument of victory atop the turtle, and the world itself, suggests moral triumph- perhaps the triumph of Love. Its position on the tortoise suggests the victory is hard won and only achieved through patience and long effort.



Lurking ominously to the left of the tortoise, a creature of the underworld—kin to our initial friend the swallower—rears up in an attempt to consume the pair.



Seen from the perspective of the tortoise itself, the maw is perhaps even more alarming.



Mysterious steps lead downwards into a hidden crypt, evoking traditional Etruscan burials. The presence of the underworld, and the unknown, along with the implied threat of missteps and even death, is constant. Even stairways here may lead up from the ground... to nowhere.



But despite the ominous warnings, the overwhelming impression here is one of triumph.



In an extraordinary image of hope, Pegasus takes flight from atop a fountain representing the waters of both life, and the underworld—escape into an unbound world of air.


Leaving the plaza, we're confronted with yet another peculiar reference reminiscent of eastern art: a millstone, but a millstone with overtly phallic overtones that reminds us of the Lingam so common in Hindu art.



The millstone/phallus probably serves multiple symbolic purposes. One is to indicate that time grinds all of life's efforts into an exceedingly fine flour; the other is to point to the generative powers of destruction and transformation, as symbolized by the grinding power of the stones and the grist they process.


Flanking the phallus, on the other side of the path, is a tree that rises from a recessed hole in the earth.



The tree completes a pair of generative phallic indices, this one more exuberantly indicating growth and fecundity.



Click here for a video of the area around the sacred turtle and the Pegasus fountain.


Moving on from the Pegasus fountain, we come across the Nyphaeum and baths, an area once again featuring references to water, but dedicated to femininity and the celebration of womanhood.


 The area is flanked by a handsome pair of lions, sadly deteriorated.





 Take note that the lions have balls under their paws, a  conventional way of rendering lions not only in Renaissance statuary, but also, very typically, in Chinese statues. Unlike Asian lions, these are prone, not sitting up.


 This leads into an extensive area of benches, surrounding an oversized shallow pool, shaped like a bathing tub. It carries subtle inferences of a ritual of cleansing or purification before entering the Nympaheum.



 In this shot, we are looking back towards the Pegasus fountain. The benches are on the left and the right, providing ample seating.


 For a brief context video of this area of the garden, click this link.



 This leads to what appears to be a huge bathing pool, although it's a bit too shallow for the purpose.



 The pool sports two dolphins; it's a fair guess that they used to spout water.



The adjacent Nymphaeum, seen in its entirety. To the left, a vignette of the three graces; to the right, the muses (?) seasons, and the hours. Most of this statuary is so deteriorated that it's difficult to be clear on the meaning without some help.



 The figures to the left definitely appear to represent the three graces. Flanking niches have lost their statuary; we can only guess what may have been there.



 A close-up of the area to the right.



 Four of the five nymphs in the right area. The fifth one is destroyed and the niche is empty.



 The fine statue of Venus—serene and distinctly Etruscan in nature—which follows the nymphaeum gives us a hint of the quality the original nymphs must have displayed. Standing not on a seashell, but on a dragon, she presents as with an offering—perhaps a bouquet of roses, her signature flower—whose exact nature is lost to history. Orsini labeled this Venus a "virile" Venus, implying an aggressive fecundity. Jupiter watches over her; The overwhelming message is one of the sheer power of love and sexuality in the earthly realm. However, given Orsini's interest in the Etruscans and the distinctly water- based themes surrounding both this area and the whole of the garden itself, we can surmise that his venus represents Venus Cloacina, Venus the purifier,a hybridization of the Etruscan water goddess Cloacina.



Jupiter (Venus is located directly to the right.)




The dragon pedestal. Take note this is a distincly piscine dragon.



The theater, directly to the right of Venus. Statuary from its six niches, if there ever was any (see below) is long gone. A typical feature of Roman gardens, but in this case, one with a more specific—rather than general—allegorical purpose in mind. We gather the impression that this stage is set for—and presided over— by love (Venus) but that it's now empty- a fitting and quite perfect juxtaposition following the death of Orsini's wife. The niches for statuary may have been left intentionally empty in order to emphasize the isolation implied by the unoccupied stage.


Underscoring this impression, the theater is flanked by two obelisks with a touching inscription that highlights his spiritual anguish. 


"Vicino Orsini in 1552"
" Only to relieve his soul"


Moving on, we come to another daring feature which defies precedent in comparable gardens of its time. The leaning house, implying a subversion and disruption of stability, the immanent collapse of everything predictable and reliable, looms over the transition to the next level of the garden; and one must pass through this disturbingly altered landscape in order to go forward. It's as though Orsini wanted to reproduce a physical sensation analogous to the death of his wife: a radical reformation of the landscape.


The reformation is not only visual, that is, intellectual; moving through the house we physically experience vertigo and disorientation, meant to mimic the emotive force of bereavement, thus creating an emotional state of transformation that brings us, for a moment, into active relationship with a taste of Orsini's state of grief and questioning.


The leaning house
A vertiginous experience!





Interestingly, this is the only place in the entire garden where Christian symbolism appears. The unambiguous Presence of Christ — with what appears to be Mary praying to her — is puzzling on a number of levels.

First of all, overt Christian imagery seems to be a typical of classical gardens of the type preferred during this period. Secondly, Orsini reputedly had little interest in organized religion, flouting the traditions of his day. Third, the images hardly in keeping with the dominant themes and directions from the rest of the park, which are exclusively Pagan.

Under the circumstances, the viewer is forced to draw the conclusion that Orsini was not irreligious or agnostic; but rather that his religion took on a different, more inner and sophisticated, vision than that of his contemporaries.

This very specific reference in a garden so carefully thought out in every other way cannot be an accident, and his refusal to conform to the conventions of the day speaks against the idea that Orsini was making any concessions when he included this in his garden.

The image shows up to the left of the tilted house, clearly linked to the grief, disorientation, and destruction implied by the tilted structure.

Here we encounter a man of thoughtful prayer and introspection; marching to the beat of his own drummer, yet still reverent.


The inscription on the house reads, "Animus quiescendo fit prudentior ergo"—


"By virtue of stillness, spirit becomes wiser."


We are called here, to a moment where we stop. A moment where the house tilts; a moment where we are out of our element, and our expectations are confounded. The theater is empty, with no love to fill it; the house is empty, and its floors are not level. We must stop, because we do not know this world. It has none of the things we're familiar with in it.


Yet in stopping, our soul sees itself, and we grow.


Can Orsini truly have been alluding to such esoteric secrets? Certainly, he gave us an esoteric garden; and he was a troubled man who had done a great deal of thinking about what life means, that much is evident. Even more evident is the fact that he was unique, and willing to express himself in ways that defy convention. All of these elements suggests that he was a man who expend a great deal of time pondering his life, and who made decisions that belonged to him and himself alone. So all of the qualifications for an original thinker, an inner philosopher, are definitely on the table; and here, if you will, is a call to silence — a call where, confronted with the impossible, we stop, and we contemplate.



As one climbs the narrow stairs next to the house-implying an entire rite of passage in itself— one apparently emerges into a world of much greater, even classical, order; but this, too, is fundamentally deceiving. The stately urns lead us straight into the underworld again... this time, into an even more confusing and perhaps troubled territory.



We encounter the nurturing goddess Ceres, elegant, stately, and reputedly considered one of Ligorio's most successful pieces, due to its perfect proportions. Preserving the same Etruscan flavor that permeates all of the statuary in the garden — an influence much more prominent here than in other gardens of its time — she bears a bowl of fruit on her head, recapitulating the symbolism of the earthly globe seen earlier in the garden. Here, the earth is abundant; not something to be conquered, but, rather held up, lovingly. Ceres' torso is literally crawling with infants, implying a tremendous fecundity; yet her expression is pensive and objective.




 As with most of the work in the garden, the scale here is impressive; and in keeping with the underworldly overtones of the rest of the garden, disturbing elements enter.



 The figures surrounding Ceres are not the florid cherubim one usually sees in period sculpture; instead, they are fairies, elemental sprites, and they don't seem completely benign.



They're holding a third figure upside down, and, given the point of reference offered by Hercules with his upside down and vanquished victim, one suspects that it can't be accidental — and that the gesture, seemingly playful at first glance, may be more sinister. Certainly, it brings up echoes of the hanged man of the Tarot; a curious bit of esoterica that may subtly imply that we see the world upside down.



Cthonic undertones continue to well up from the depths of the unconscious mind, even here; note the figures and faces at the bottom right side, who seem to be emerging from the earth itself.


Moving deeper in the garden, and (temporarily) up the hill away from the main body of sculpture, we come across a crypt or tomb.



The presence here is unclear. It seems perhaps atypical of Etruscan tombs, yet may well have been one; so whether or not it appears in the garden by accident or design is a question, interesting in itself in light of the question asked of the viewer at the entrance to the garden. In any event, it certainly serves as a chilling reminder of our mortality.


At the same time, the tomb is empty; is this perhaps a reference to resurrection or immortality? With the whole garden serving as a referential point for a life beyond the life of the body—a life within the conscious and unconscious principles that drive both myth and reality—the tomb seems to assume a rightness, and one is left with a sense that it belongs here, a notation that must be included if questions on this scale are to be confronted.



Not far from the tomb is the Etruscan bench. The inscription above it reads: "You who have traveled the world wishing to see great, stupendous marvels — come here, where there are horrendous faces, elephants, lions, bears, orcs and dragons." The allusion to world travelers seems to invite an understanding that Orsini himself has been one; and that the questions raised by the inner life are closer to home. There's certainly a bit of irony implicit in putting this sign over a bench where one is supposed to rest. It's very possible that Orsini's sense of humor was being employed here; the garden is not without its light touches, and an air of playfulness surrounds the serious subjects that the statuary deals with.






 The giant urn has heads of Medusa surrounding its base; distinctly Etruscan in character (that is, drawing heavily on Hellenistic sources) the guidebook suggests that the vase may represent Dionysus' (Bacchus') descent into hell with goblet in hand. The God is traditionally considered to have represented a medium for communication between the living and the dead, as well is one who inspires ecstatic freedoms from fear and care. One can't really think a more appropriate deity to invoke in a memorial garden. He was also associated with the world-tree, underscoring the connection with nature and its elemental power, a theme that crops up consistently in the garden. Don't let the photograph fool you; given the simplicity of its subject, this is an enormous piece of sculpture, with a distinct authority conferred by the austerity of its design, its classical lines, and its sheer size.



 and we finally come to what many considered to be the seminal figure in the garden, the one that is almost invariably selected for pictures in the guidebooks. This is Orcus, the ogre, the king of the underworld; and the crumbling inscription around his lips reads OGNI PENSER VOLA— all reason departs.


 The sculpture is formed so that the viewer can walk inside the mouth, standing up, where he or she discovers a huge table taking the place of the tongue of the creature.



 The experience is not unlike, I suppose, standing inside a huge jack-o'-lantern. The entire head is carved of a single piece from the living rock.


The piece would not be out of place in a modern theme park, as long as the theme were Halloween; but lurking here in Orsnini's garden, it assumes more ominous overtones. The overt purpose of every Renaissance and post Reniassance garden was entertainment, presented in a scholarly format; and the grotesque was acceptable. The sinister, on the other hand, was not routine; and without a doubt this figure is intentionally disturbing. It radiates a sense of fear and loathing; and the cipher inscribed on the creature's lips suggest a purpose other than the traditional role of the God Orcus, ruler of the dead, and punisher of misdeeds.



"All reason departs..." an echo of Goya's later work, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which despite its obvious pictorial differences conveys the same dark overtones of fear and loathing.


Why does Orsini invite the visitor into the very head of this monstrosity itself? Surely there is a lesson intended here. Perhaps he invites us to inhabit oursleves, as we are; filled with anger and fear, embodiments of the ogre, and invited to seat ourselves at a table made from his tongue... the instrument whereby he makes his anger known. There is an impulse to see ourselves from within our own irrationality; the enrty into the mouth is, like the tilted mansion, oddly disturbing. It's the second instance where Orsini has provided his visitors with a physical experience meant to upset the inner applecart, only this one is (unlike the house) imbued with distinctly emotional overtones.


For some reason, the figure reminds me of the hollow body of the egg-man in The Garden of Earthly Delights.



Here, as well, the body of a surrealistic or apparently supernatural figure becomes the stage for a table and a meal; and the scene from Bosch's painting is, on the surface of things, as irrational as the state Orsini seems to be suggesting with his ogre's face. The ogre departs from any pretense of the playful, thrusting us into uncertain territory... which is, one wagers, exactly where he wants us to find ourselves.



...And the uncertainty is compounded, as we're once again thrust deep into mythological and allegorical territory. A dragon battles three foes: one clearly a lion, the other two too ravaged by time for certainty. We're told, in the brochure for the garden, that Ligorio considered the dragon as a positive symbol denoting time and wisdom; yet we can hardly be sure that Ligorio's symbologies dominate Orsini's intentions, here or anywhere else in the garden. That being said, there seem to be grounds for interpreting the dragon so: he is clad not in scales, but what appears to be armor, and expresses a nobility of both stance and appearance.  Even his wings adopt the countenance of heraldic motifs. His attackers, on the other hand, are ravenous and craven; raw beasts of a lower nature.





There's something very nearly humorous about this juxtaposition; wrapped in the dragon's tail, the wolf (or lion) exudes something akin to desperation. We're left, I think, with the impression that the attackers are up against a superior foe. Perhaps this battle represents a vanquishing of the irrational elements alluded to in the maw of the nearby ogre.



Even stranger, despite the apparent urgency of the battle, the dragon seems to embody an almost joyful expression. Can this be a creative interpretation of the constant and balanced struggle between the forces of creation and dissolution, each of which is necssary? Or is it a battle between the imaginary (the dragon) and the real, in which the imaginary holds the upper hand? Certainly both the creatures and the juxtaposition radiate Jungian archetypes.In the Sufi esoteric system, the imaginal has more power than the real; and perhaps what we see here is a sculptural interpretation of the concept that the higher realm of the ideal triumphs over the lower realm of the material.




 One is tempted, when one encounters the elephant, to interpret it strictly in terms of Rome, Hannibal's armies, and so on. The overt military content of the statuary encourages such an interpretation; yet it's impossible to limit the symbol to this narrow a scope. Its inclusion in this garden demands that we understand the larger, metaphysical implications of both the creature and the actions, especially when considered in terms of its proximity to the ogre. The pageantry here so far has been one of reason and its dissolution, and the struggle between lower and higher forces. Here, we are confronted with a traditional symbol of good luck in Asian traditions, surmounted by a castle reminiscent of the castle we encountered at the beginning of the park, perched on the head of Proteus.


 A higher principle is once again being expounded here; and we can see from the fact that the driver of the elephant is not clad in military garb that both the driver and the castle represent civilization and peace; the soldier being vanquished in the trunk of the elephant represents the triumph of these positive, civilizing forces over the brute force of armies and destruction.



It's a positivist message; and, like its companion the dragon and Hercules, the elephant is vanquishing forces of dissolution and evil. Again and again, in this garden, we are meant to taste triumph of the human spirit over adversity, illustrated through mechanisms of the psyche that attempt to go beyond the obvious classical and mythological analogies traditionally associated with garden installations, penetrating Jungian depths of the collective unconscious. Orsini and Ligorio lived lives that predated the concept by centuries, but they would have recognized it immediately if they had encountered it. They lived it artistically and emotionally, if not scholastically and academically.




The small courtyard filled with vases whose inscriptions have eroded. We'll never know what orsini intended here; but they still make a significant contribution to the air of mystery, which was, after all, one of his intentions.



The imposing figure of Neptune dominates the section of the garden.



 Neptune is accompanied by another swallower; this time, a dolphin, motuh open as though to swallow the earth itself; and in this, a companion to the creature seen near the winged victory mounted on the tortoise.



 Neptune is the inheritor of a rather confused theology, but there seems to be general agreement on his status as the God of freshwater and the sea.



 His stern countenance implies a stoicism and resignation. One wonders whether he isn't, in fact, an image of Orsini himself, bereft and grieving, despite his power over earth and water. In one theological interpretation, Neptune represents a marriage between heaven and earth; so his presence here may be an indicator of a mediation between the divine and the human.



The dolphin to Neptune's right positively lunges upwards; carved in situ from the local rock, it retains and explosively projects all the geological force imparted by its origins. This paricular piece may, more than any other, capture the protean nature of Orsini's garden. The guidebook cites the dolphin as a positive influence and helper of mankind; but its presence outside the fountain and realm of Neptune's influence implies a wild card, a creature no longer under the sway of conventional expectations. It exhibits, in other words, an exuberant freedom in keeping with the spirit of the garden itself, unleashed from its keeper and master. And its attitude is, unlike Neptune's, decidedly positive.


For a video of this area of the garden, click the link.


The sleeping nymph or abandoned nude is the next figure in this extraordinary landscape.



Her sheer size is difficult to gauge without a model to compare her to.




Watched over by a cheery, faithful hound, her slumber creates an air of mystery. Her fingers touch the earth as though for reassurance; yet surely there is no sign of consciousness here. She projects an air of the forgotten. Perhaps she signifies that all that the viewer has passed through until now is a dream; perhaps her sleep is an allegory of death, or a journey to the underworld. The alert watchfulness of her canine sentinel suggests a faithful presence that accompanies her in her travels.


Or is she dead? Would Orsini have been so bold as to decorate his garden with a physical evidence of his wife's demise?


One thing is certain; her presence is cryptic in the best sense of the word, a provocation to further inner questioning.



This sardonic face lurks over what was once a pool; although the precise significance is lost, the theme of elementals throughout the landscape is reiterated here. Spirit animates all things.



Next, Orsini leads us to a court where lions seem trapped between the scylla and charybdis of two malevolent harpies.


The one on the left is generally understood to represent Echidna, who by tradition gave birth the the enemies of Hercules.



Her fecundity is emphasized by the perhaps embarassingly  frank treatment of her pudendum, opened wide as though about to give birth.



Yet despite the dual tails and fearsome reputation, she's truly beautiful—an Etruscan glory, and sympathetic and even of noble countenance. Perhaps she represents the allurement of evil, or temptation.



Her partner, the harpy, is the original dragon woman, in a literal sense. Traditionally, harpies are snatchers, thieves.



The lions struggle between the two creatures, both female; yet the lions are a male and a female, man and woman—and perhaps, one suspects, man and woman in the guise of noble but still bestial natures. Perhaps the vignette created by this group represents our passions, or our lusts, and the way we fall prey to them; the juxtaposition is suggestive. The small trough in front of the two figures is remiscent of the crypt we encountered earlier, and may be a reference to our mortality. It's a rich and complex grouping.


For a brief video of this area, click here.



Moving into the most impressive courtyard in the garden, we pass bears holding the Roman rose and the Orsini coat of arms.



In the background, the court of the harpies.



The final stages of the walk through Sacro Bosco unveil some of its most intriguing features. First, the courtyard of the acorns and pine cones.



This location creates the most expansive space in the garden, where the fluidity of the unconscious, which elsewhere unfolds in a stream-of-landscape-consciousness manner, yields to a place.


Seated at the end of the courtyard is Proserpina, the Roman analog of Persephone. While the myth of Proserpina clearly carries an ancient, oblique reference to a catastrophic eruption of Mt. Etna, she represents both springtime and the wife of Pluto, God of the underworld.


The invocation of Proserpina, triumphantly presiding over the most expansive space in the garden, represents the union of two levels; as the daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, she's born of the power of the skies and thunder, and of fertility and crops—the abundance which feeds mankind.


Despite her powerful parentage, she becomes the victim of a Godly crime; she's abducted and raped by pluto. Overcoming this dark (and most famous) chapter in her life, she appears here as a triumphant figure.



The acorn, symbol of unity and power- a single seed, representing not only the ultimate singleness of all things, but power and life.



The pinecone, which represents multiplicity and diversity, with many seeds in one cone.


Orsini, by alternating the two kinds of seeds in this area, emphasizes the tension and dialog between unity and diversity that has characterized esoteric philosophies since ancient times. We are one; we are many. The one and the many coexist with equal force in this landscape; and here, both of them contribute to the development of mankind. Goodness and abundance, though abducted and raped—dragged down to a lower level by the manifestion of the material—continue to produce not only beauty, but abundance.



Presiding over all, Propserine exerts a Buddha-like influence. It seems difficult to believe that an artist as sophisticated as Ligorio could have created the statue unaware of this. Hellenism and Buddhism meet in a number of places in classical art; while it's more typical for art historians to find hellenistic influences in Buddhist art, this may well be because of our skewed western perspective, which would rather see "superior" western art influenceing the "inferior" eastern arts. (See Thomas McEvilley's writings for an in-depth discussion of this.) The peculiar atmosphere in this plaza carries distinctive echoes of Angkor Wat.



Several cryptic figures sprawl in the courtyard as though struck down by catastrophe. One is apparently a Satyr.



The other is less identifiable.



The inscription here reads, "Memphis and every other marvel that the world has held in praise yield to the Sacro Bosco that resembles itself and nothing else." Orsini was not above boasting; yet his assertion of uniqueness is perhaps justifed.



The final major piece of sculpture in the garden is Cerberus, who is, tellingly, located at the highest point in the garden.


Cerberus was the child of Echidna and Typhon, whose own mythological genesis is (once again) clearly owed to ancient stories of volcanic eruptions: Typhon is clearly a personification of a pyroclastic flow, evidenced by the fact that he's trapped under Mt. Etna. (see the description at the link.) In this way, elements of classical mythology emerge from ancient traditions of the landscape and its geology, just as the figures in Sacro Bosco emerge from the earth they lie on. There's a subtle and sophisticated symmetry in all of the references here; and yet Orsini, with his positioning of Cerberus, seems to be indicating that all the activity in the garden actually takes place in the underworld. The gods, mankind and his struggles: everything that can be conceived of belongs to this lower level. Above Cerberus lies an higher level which remains undefined.


The manner in which the interaction of landscape, myth, historical geology and culture interact here is perhaps without parellel. Each is recognized; each informs the other.


Orsini added a temple to the hillside above the garden some 20 years after its completion.





Dedicated to his wife, we can assume it was Orsini's attempt to make sure visitors to his garden understood his references to a transcendant realm that lies above not only the heroic struggles of mortals, but even the gods themselves.



Above the garden, Etruscan hills beckon like the gates to heaven.


Sacro Bosco is located near Viterbo, Italy. It's possible to vist both the Villa Lante and Sacro Bosco in a single day, presuming the visitor arranges for suitable transportation.



 All material copyright 2013 by Lee van Laer


Photographs by the author. No portion of this essay may be reproduced without permission.

For permissions, the author may be contacted at Doremishock@gmail.com