Nestled between Rome and Florence, the Italian hillside town of Bomarzo appears calm and unassuming. But with a look down the hill, monsters appear. Just below a Renaissance palace is a 29-acre park, where mystery and wonder emerge from boulders and outcroppings of Tufo stone. More than 400 years ago, artists carved beasts and mythological figures into Pier Francesco “Vicino” Orsini’s land.
“When you’re there, the fantasy of it runs wild,” says art history Professor John Garton, who is working on an international project to preserve the site crafted in the late Renaissance period, between 1550 and 1585. He first visited Bomarzo in 2014.
“You go through a modern entrance and suddenly you realize that there are carvings in the landscape. You first come to these two sphinxes,” Garton says. “Then you start encountering colossal giants one after another — monsters, Greek and Roman gods, old ruined architecture. The patron even had his Renaissance artists carve pseudo-Etruscan ruins so that the visitor could “discover” what seemed to be 1000-year-old ruins from the earlier Etruscan civilization.”
The preservation project was born after Garton met scholar Luke Morgan of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, at a conference and discovered the two had similar interests in researching the sculpture park, which is called the Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo. Garton and Morgan are co-editors and contributing authors of a forthcoming two-volume book, “The Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo: Landscape and Sculpture in Renaissance Lazio.”
Another iteration of the project, Digital Bomarzo, launched after Garton met Cosimo Monteleone, a professor at the University of Padua in Padua, Italy, who specializes in 3D architectural renderings. This digital project seeks to create an open-access, online model of the grounds with high-resolution navigable images of its 36 monuments. Sculptures include Pegasus striking a hoof on Mount Helicon; a dragon fighting with lions; a war elephant; and the so-called Orc or “Hell Mouth.”
Digital Bomarzo will be the subject of an upcoming exhibit on the Clark campus, part of the Higgins School of Humanities Spring 2023 symposium, which explores the idea of cosmopolitanism.
The exhibit opens with a gallery talk and reception in the Higgins Lounge at Dana Commons on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 4 p.m. The talk will address questions about how technology and data can make the Bomarzo landscape visible in new ways. Admission is free and open to the public. The exhibit will be on display through May 21.
Photography major Dan Gillooly ’25 is printing and helping hang the photographs for the exhibition. At the genesis of the project, math and computer science major Cat Mai ’22 helped develop photogrammetry prototypes for grant proposals.
Italians colloquially call the site the “park of the monsters.” There’s no documentation revealing the identity of the sculptors or the reason the park was created.
“Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí made a film on site and others have noted its bizarreness,” Garton says. “It looks like it was created to introduce the concept of the grotesque, the shocking, and the spectacular in a landscape design.”
The park, which is privately owned and in the belt of Italy’s earthquake zone, has sustained damage from 20th-century acid rain and tourists who climb the structures — there aren’t enough guards to patrol all 29 acres. A high-resolution digital survey of the park, besides encouraging research, will allow sculptors to fix or replace pieces in the coming decades.
“We’ll have a record and 3D representation to provide the exact dimensions of what pieces broke off,” Garton says. “The park’s owners can decide if they want to 3D print a replacement piece in another material or carve it into Tufo stone and affix it.”
The team is using drones and aerial topography surveys to document the site. Garton wants to create an easily navigable tool to stimulate discussion about the park and allow people to access it from afar. Images of the project are not yet available online, but photos of the progress that’s been made will be on display at the Digital Bomarzo exhibit. The full digital project will take several years to finish.
Garton also wants to improve physical access to the park, which is not handicap accessible. The team is also recreating the park’s lost waterworks.
“When you visit the park today, you’d have no idea that it once gurgled with the sounds of water,” he says.
Sacro Bosco’s sculptures don’t tell a single story or narrative, but reference many places and myths. Each visitor is intended to leave with a sense of awe.
“Around every corner is something new, novel, and breathtaking,” Garton says.
Learn more about upcoming Higgins School of Humanities events.