If you’re looking for an interesting place to visit on a day trip from Rome, none come more visually fascinating than Bomarzo Monster Park. Officially named Sacro Bosco (literally “Sacred Grove”), Bomarzo is a Mannerist garden that’s so bizarre, and perhaps even frightening, that it’s earned the nickname “Parco dei Mostri” – Park of the Monsters.
Situated just below the Castle of Orsini across a wooded valley in the heart of the Tuscia region, Bomarzo is packed full of monstrous sculptures and statues – all overgrown by surrounding vegetation – that make it a fantastical destination to whisk yourself to. And at just 90 kilometers (55 miles) from Rome, it’s an easy and wildly rewarding day trip.
Brief History Of The Parco Dei Mostri, Bomarzo
Though you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s ancient – especially with a name like Bosco Sacro – the gardens at Bomarzo are a relatively modern construction. The garden is almost 500 years old and was commissioned in the 16th century by Pier Francesco Orsini, a military leader and member of the noble Orsini family.
The layout of the garden itself is down to architect, painter, and garden designer, Pirro Ligorio (1512-83). He already had some pretty important design credentials under his belt, having worked for Pope Paul IV and Pope Pius IV, designing fountains and other elements of the gardens at Tivoli.
It’s said that when Pier Francesco Orsini’s wife died, he decided to commission the garden in 1552. The thought is that the garden was a direct outpouring of grief. Orsini had in the years previously fought in a bloody war in 1553: he himself was held as a prisoner of war in Germany for many years, and one of his good friends – Orazio Farnese – also died in the battle. He finally arrived home in Bomarzo to find that his wife had died.
To help him create a “villa of wonders” in the midst of his sadness, Orsini hired Ligorio. Ligorio himself was well known by this point, having taken on the completion of St Peter’s Basilica after the death of Michelangelo (and then the Tivoli Gardens). He is also known for his role in helping to restore the ancient Roman aqueduct, the Acqua Vergine.
And so, as you might imagine, the job of designing such a bizarre garden was definitely a different commission for Ligorio.
However, this is one romantic side to the story. It is also theorized that Orsini wanted to create a garden to rival that of another noble in the region, Cristoforo Madruzzo, whose nearby gardens were considered a depiction of light and goodness. Therefore, Orsini wanted to do the exact opposite: a strange garden, filled with darkness.
We will never know the real reason why Orsini created the gardens at Bomarzo. The only thing we can do is visit and interpret the meaning for ourselves.
After Orsini’s death in 1585, the garden was left abandoned. Nature took its course, and many of the structures and sculptures throughout were covered and overgrown by plants. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that restoration of the Park of the Monsters of Bomarzo was undertaken. This was down to a couple, namely Giancarlo and Tina Severi Bettini, who restored the garden throughout the 1970s. Both of them are laid to rest in a small temple in the garden.
But before the restoration, one notable visitor to this strange landscape was Salvador Dali. He visited in 1948, when he created a short film about the garden. The garden – or its strange figures, at least – later appeared in his 1964 painting, The Temptation of St. Anthony.
Main Sights Of The Park Of The Monsters, Bomarzo
The Sacro Bosco at Bomarzo spans three hectares of woodland. There are variously sized sculptures scattered throughout. These strange, otherworldly creations often depict mythological creatures, Roman gods, buildings, and animals – these are connected to the Classical world.
Most unusually of all, these throw convention out the window: Classical aesthetics and perspective are eschewed for distortions, all in an attempt to shock and confuse visitors.
Sadly, the current arrangement of the park differs somewhat from the original. Many sculptures are in different positions from where they stood in the original layout, which is down to the Bettini family’s restoration.
All of the sculptures are made from basalt, a volcanic stone that is relatively available in the area. You may notice when you walk around some strange or enigmatic inscriptions adorning many of the sculptures.
There are many, many structures to admire. Some of them are very small, but some of them cannot be missed. Here are some of the most interesting showstopper pieces.
Crossing over the entrance into the woodland of the Park of the Monsters, you’ll find yourself confronted by two sphinxes. These classical depictions of a lion with a woman’s head seem to simultaneously guard the park while ushering in visitors.
Both of the sphinxes are adorned with inscriptions. The one on the left reads: “Whoever does not pass through this place absorbed and in silence, does not even appreciate the famous seven wonders of the world.”
On the right, it says: “You who enter here, think carefully and then tell me if all these wonders are made to astonish or for art.” It’s definitely food for thought!
The Leaning House
One of the main attractions of the Park of the Monsters Bomarzo is the Leaning House. This small structure is a strange addition to the woodland scene: a deliberately off-kilter house, feeling a little uncomfortable to look at (or to walk inside). It feels like something out of a fairytale.
This house is apparently dedicated to Cristoforo Madruzzo – whether genuinely or ironically, it’s up to you to decide.
Orcus is a Roman god of the underworld, and his depiction in Bomarzo Monster Park is one of the most iconic sculptures. The wide-open mouth of Orcus seems to shout in anguish, while his eyes are open and hollow in a fearful expression.
The sculpture is so big that you can actually walk through his open mouth and into a secluded grotto. Here the tongue of Orcus actually serves as a picnic table.
Curiously, on his top lip is inscribed the words: “All thoughts fly.”
This is due to the fact that even a whisper that is uttered inside the grotto can be heard at the bottom of the steps leading to it. So, you should be careful what you say or who you talk about when you’re sitting inside!
Pegasus is the winged horse from Greek mythology, who is ridden by (among others) Perseus, famed for killing Medusa. The depiction of Pegasus in Bomarzo Monster Park is dramatic, as the horse seems to emerge from the basin of a fountain.
This is an enormous statue of two giant individuals: the hero Hercules and Cacus, the fire-breathing giant. These are the largest figures in the entire Parco dei Mostri. They used to be surrounded by a squadron of stone warriors, but these have since been eroded over time.
The Turtle and the Whale
Close to the giants you will find a sizeable turtle. On the turtle’s back you will see a statue of Nike, the goddess of victory. Symbolizing the union of the earth and the sky, the turtle seems to gaze longingly at the nearby sculpture of a whale. Along with its wild eyes the whale’s mouth is open, displaying a fearsome set of sharp teeth.
Another famous structure in the Park of the Monsters of Bomarzo is the elephant. This is symbolic of Hannibal’s defeat at the hands of the Roman Republic during the Punic Wars (264 BC – 146 BC). Hannibal, the great leader of Carthage – an offshoot of the Phonecian civilization – led an army consisting of thousands of troops along with elephants across the Alps to conquer Rome. Ultimately, he failed.
However, the elephant at Bomarzo holds a Roman legionary in its trunk, as if it is trying to crush him. A symbol, perhaps, of what might have been if Hannibal had succeeded; or maybe simply a reminder of how terrifying that war must have been.
Known as the Temple of Eternity, this small structure is set away from the main path in Bomarzo Monster Park. It was built a couple of decades after the main structures of the park. Its intention was to honor Orsini’s second wife, Giulia Farnese, a member of the noble Farnese family, who tragically died while Orsini was at war in Germany.
The temple is made up of a selection of different architectural styles, including Renaissance and Classical. It seems to have been modeled on the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The temple is also the final resting place of the Bettini couple who restored the garden in the 1970s.
Practical Guide To Visiting Bomarzo Monster Park
Now that you know a little more about what this fascinating garden has to offer, no doubt you’re interested in visiting. It always pays to know the best way to get there, and other helpful information about visiting the Parco dei Mostri, so here it all is to help your trip run as smoothly as possible.
Parco dei Mostri Bomarzo opening hours and tickets
The Parco dei Mostri Bomarzo is open all year round, every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (November to February); 9:00 am to 7:00 pm (March to September) and 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (October).
Tickets for adults and children aged 13 and over are €13. For children aged four to 13 years old, it’s €8 Euros. Children under four go free. The gardens are also free for those with disabilities.
Do you need a guide to visit Park of the Monsters?
You don’t need a guide to visit the Parco dei Mostri, and you are free to visit and wander around as you please. It should take around two hours to stroll around, generally. Once you get your tickets you will also be handed a map of the park, and that will detail the various statues and landmarks you are going to see.
However, for more information and insight into the history of the garden, a guide is a great idea.
Another good thing about having a guide show you around Bomarzo Monster Park is getting to know a bit of the symbolism involved in the sculptures throughout the park. Being able to ask questions of the guide is always a plus, too. Never hurts to know more about what you’re looking at!
There are no tour guides available at the park itself, and no audio guides are available either. However, it is possible to arrange a guided tour from Rome, which may include transport to and from the garden, as well as a guide who will explain the gardens to you. More about this below.
How to get to Parco dei Mostri from Rome
As I mentioned, there are guided tours of the Parco dei Mostri available that can take you from Rome to Bomarzo, and back again. Most day trips from Rome to Bomarzo usually stop in other nearby cities / attractions too.
For a guided tour to the Parco dei Mostri, Palazzo Farnese and Calcata, click here.
Being so close to Rome, the gardens of Bomarzo are quite easy to reach by car. I recommend renting a car in Rome and driving along the A1 highwayway. You then exit either via Orte or Attigliano, and then follow clear signage to the Parco dei Mostri di Bomarzo. It’s about one hour and 25 minutes drive.
Check out the prices of car rental here.
Should you want to spend a few days in Tuscia, you could base yourself in Viterbo and from there easily reach Bomarzo and the lovely Soriano right next door – they are a 20 minutes drive from Viterbo.
By public transport
It’s not easy to reach the Parco dei Mostri by public transport but if you have time and patience it is doable. The best option it to take the train from Rome (either Termini or Tiburtina station) towards Viterbo and get off at Orte Scalo. From there you have to take the Cotral bus towards Bomarzo.
The train journey to Orte Scalo takes about 40 minutes. The bus journey takes about 30 minutes – though keep in mind you will be dropped off at Bomarzo town and not at Bomarzo Monster Park. From there, it’s a 20 minutes walk to the Sacro Bosco.
Timetables can change depending on the season so it’s best to check online in advance.
Make sure to also read my posts:
- Should You Be Driving In Rome
- All The Train Stations In Rome
- A Curated Guide To Tuscia
- The Essential Guide To Civita Di Bagnoregio
- A Curated Guide To Viterbo
- A Complete Guide To Soriano Nel Cimino
- A Guide To Visiting Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola