Saturday, 28 June 2014

Bomarzo - into the mouth of hell

"This isn't going to turn out to be another 'Black Gang Chine' is it?" asked the Bedsock as we made our way through the modern reception block, along some open parkland and into the wooded gorge that houses the monstrous sculptures of Bomarzo. "Of course not!" I reassured, remembering our disappointment some decades ago when visiting the Isle of White 'attraction'. We found not "a steep-sided river valley where the river flows to the sea"  as chine is defined, but an horrendous, kiddy, theme park.

Dear reader, for once in my life I was wrong, and the Bedsock had been strangely prescient. Monty Don has a lot to answer for.

If Ninfa (see previous blog) was top of my Italian Garden bucket list then Bomarzo was a close second. I hadn't re-watched Monty's Italian Garden Series since it was first broadcast in 2011 but I remember the impact his tour around the Parco dei Mostri had on me, dark, brooding, mysterious and begging to be explored (the gardens that is, not Monty). Created in 1552 by one of the Orsini family and hidden in a 'sacro bosco' (sacred wood) near to their palace in the hilltop village of Bomarzo, Monty described it as a garden like no other. "Fantasies and visions that loom out of the trees ... spiced with horror." and indeed, viewing the programme, it seemed a raw, slightly sinister place,  a complete contrast to the beauty and romance of Ninfa.  We HAD to go there.

Civitella D'Agliano with us last house bottom right

We had rented a gorgeous house in another nearby hilltop town of Civitella D'Agliano. Just for a week but enough to fit in both Bomarzo and Villa Lante in between doing absolutely nothing but read, sleep pillowed on a cloud of jasmine fragrance

float in the pool

watch the hummingbird moths on the honeysuckle outside our door,

or realise that somebody has been watching you watching the hummingbirds..

The Bedsock was most chagrined to miss the whipsnake - I called to him to look out the top window to see the snake from above but he thought I was going to nag him about something and ignored me.

Anyway this has nothing to do with Bomarzo - I just wanted to make you jealous.

Back to Bomarzo and we are wandering along well delineated steps and formal pathways, past rocks roughly hewn into the shape of various monsters and exotics.  The happy, sunny, day dapples its way through the shading trees and the atmosphere is about as far from sinister as a Teletubbies picnic.

Although water is flowing somewhere at the bottom of the not very deep gorge it isn't filling any of the fountains - and there is nothing sadder than a fountain with no water (as will become apparent in a future blog about Tivoli).  Around every corner is another sculpture hewn out of the existing rocks but despite the horrific subject matter of some there is just no shock value - it's all just "yeah..... Next". 

Hercules tears asunder Cacus

Monty had recounted that the garden was "loaded with riddles and anarchic puns" which no-one has ever fully deciphered (how can we know this?). But even the 'Tilted house' that Monty made so much of, its out-of-kilter floors causing him to mis-step due to the visual 'prank', is a tad tedious. I had been excited to enter this and stumble for myself but it's just an obviously, slightly sloping, floor which Monty hammed up.

As we completed our regimented circuit of the statues the Bedsock and I had a little rant discussed why we thought it failed and agreed that the garden needed a misty, gloomy, wet day to set it off. It would have been better accompanied by the thunderstorms that set in the following week, rather than the hot sunny blue skies of our visit.  The sculptures needed to loom out of a mist of moss and damp slime to be truly atmospheric and be hidden from the viewer, by winding, unkempt pathways, so that happening upon one would be a sudden, visual shock.

Puff the Magic Dragon - not shocking enough!

I'm very disappointed that Monty has given me such a wrong idea of the place. No doubt the TV shots hid the railings around the sculptures (which were not so much to protect you from the monstrous statues but to protect them from monstrous children playing on them) but how else had they given us the impression of  gloom and doom so necessary for the garden to work? Was it the deliberately doleful musical score that added to the much needed mournful atmosphere?

We photographed this lady in as 'loomy' a way as possible

On our return from hols I rewatched  Monty's visit (about 35mins in) to see what he actually said about Bomarzo and guess what? IT'S NOT MONTY'S FAULT!  His filming took place in just the wet, misty weather that the garden needed and the statues WERE looming.  Monty tells the viewer that what he absolutely loves is "the green, the way you go from earth to stone to tree with this one green which goes up through" making it all connect.  He even strokes the green mossiness of the statue to make the point. Unfortunately, since he made the programme SOME BLOODY IDIOT HAS CLEANED THE MOSS OFF!

Ironically,  the main theme of Orsini's garden was a revolt against the attempt to apply order.  He may have succeeded in this vision at the time but now my criticism is the order that as been imposed on it.

On leaving the reception area we found a series of posters of old photographs, taken when the garden was just rediscovered.  This must have been the most magical time to see the sculptures, every child's dream to uncover a sleeping monster in the undergrowth

a strange juxtaposition between the farmers flock and a stone elephant

What a shame that in reclaiming the garden it has been too over-formalised for our taste.   Parc dei Mostri - a pleasant place for a shady stroll with sculptures - not a bucket list destination.

Note: Surprisingly Monty informs that the statues would originally have been brightly coloured and painted making it even more like the 'Mouth of Hell' at Blackgang Chine pictured at the top of this blog.


Anonymous said...

I do hope you didn't find yourself sharing the pool with a snake. I quite like them as creatures, and love seeing them up close (I don't mind holding the non-venomous ones), but would not like to be swim with one, however harmless.

I remember enjoying Monty's programme, but I can't say I can remember a single garden from it. I must be getting old

Arabella Sock said...

I suspect the snake was the last of our worries with the pool. It attracted a lot of insect life which had to be scooped out before swimming (I rescued various moths and dried them out on the surrounding bushes)but I noticed in the 'house book' that visitors had seen scorpions around there! EEK!

The reason I remember Monty' series so well is that I made a Sockmovie in honour of it - see Italian Gardens reducted link in the sidebar right of screen.

Anonymous said...

I have to say this wasn't one of Monty's gardens that appealed to me particularly. I'm not sure why but I have to say the demossed version appeals even less. Why do places do that? The elements that make a place unique and special are 'cleaned up' and then the charm is lost. I suppose there are an awful lot of people who like things to be neat and tidy. I remember getting infuriated whilst watching a Sarah Raven programme where she was trying to convince a village to turn its green into a wild flower meadow. There was a lot of huffing and puffing that it would look unkempt and uncared for. In the end they devoted a token jesture of a postage stamp of green to meadow. I also spent childhood holiday walking around various old towns in the Balkans and Italy with my dad saying 'nothing a can of dulux wouldn't fix' about the ageing buildings with their beautiful crumbling facades. ;)

Arabella Sock said...

Wellywoman - I saw that Sarah Raven programme and thought the same thing. No wonder council workers think it is OK to 'tidy' country verges by strimming them away. There is something very lovely about old peeling paintwork - unless you have to live with it next door!