If the must see sights of Rome get a little too much and you need a break from the bustle, consider travelling 60 miles north for a dark journey through the imagination. Well off-the-beaten-track in the small town of Bomarzo, this curious but magical Renaissance park is the only one of its kind in the world.
The Park of Monsters (Parco dei Monstri) was commissioned in 1552 by the grief stricken Prince Pier Francesco Orsini, and is a unique monumental complex of giant sculptures. Legend has it that the Prince had endured years of bloody war and imprisonment, during which his best friend was killed, then finally came home only to have his beloved wife die. Completely devastated the Prince wanted to create a shocking Villa of Wonders to express his sadness and anger at the world.
He hired Pirro Ligorio, a respected architect and artist who had worked on the Cathedral of St Peter in Rome to help build his vision. The park is filled with bizarre, magical, grotesque and fascinating sculptures all carved in the bedrock. They include Hannibal’s war elephant, the three-headed dog Cerberus, a giant tearing another giant in half and a huge screaming head with the inscription “all reason departs.”
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After Francesco’s death the park was forgotten for almost 400 years, and was slowly reclaimed by nature, creating an even more macabre atmosphere. Then in the middle of the 20th century it became popular again after Giovanni Bettini bought the land and restored the sculptures to their former glory. Artists of all kinds have been inspired by the surrealism of the place, including Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, with a novel, libretto, and opera all based on the park.