Dalí’s Elephants and the Monsters of Bomarzo

Fondly known as “monster park”, the sculpture garden of Bomarzo’s Villa Orsini is as viscerally appealing as it is arcane and mystifying. “To astonish rather than to please” is its declared aim, as visitors will be able to read on enigmatic inscriptions in old Italian which, far from explaining anything about the sculptures, repeatedly encourage visitors to relish in their wonder, disbelief and bewilderment, not to analyze overmuch in an effort to detect the method in a madness that, really, is impervious to reason.

Even so, researchers have sought to explain the scenes and characters that populate this garden, and found that—in keeping, I’m sure, with the Italian Renaissance’s love of literature—a plethora of Greco-Roman and Etruscan myths, medieval chivalrous poetry, and Italian vernacular epics, all had a place in the learned artistic imagination which brought forth this park of monsters.

Leaning on the grotesque, not shying away from representing violent strife and the distorted faces of hybrid creatures with toothless grins or uncanny bodily excrescences, these sculptures appeal to “us” today, and yet, since their erection in the 16th century, they have enjoyed only mixed popularity. Full of unclear paths and mysterious forks in the way that lead to unexpected spaces with surprise fountains, or dragons, or nymphs, this grove was unusual already for its own time, when the fashion for garden design was rather to have geometric patterns with straight paths and neat patches. During the late 18th, throughout the 19th, and into the early 20th century, the grove was entirely deserted by its erstwhile admirers and entered a process of slow decay, overgrown by the local vegetation, withering away in its dark and strangely hallucinatory charm.

In 1938, Salvador Dalí paid the park a visit. The metamorphic shapes and faces here, with their intense and yet arcane symbolism, the oneiric topography and the derelict state in which he found them, strongly appealed to the surrealist. Just so, the park appeals to the surrealist in ourselves. A wander around this park—provided that one will, like the inscriptions admonish, suspend disbelief—feels like roaming around the dream of another, like a hands-on experience of Freud’s theory that the unconscious mind is like an archaeological field, where half-forgotten stories and mythologies are aggregated together in their half-decomposed state, only indistinctly recognizable, and shuffled out of order. There is something mad, something personal, about this park. Much as it features traditional patrimony, it is also a memorial to Orsini’s late wife, and the philosophical journey through topics such as love, death, memory and truth which it offers, does smack of darkness at its core.

It is said, although it probably can never be fully proven, that the inspiration for Dalí’s famous painting “The Temptation of St Anthony” came from the monster park. The war-elephant, with a castle on its back, recalls the story of Hannibal and appears in the Bible as well, and was a fairly popular image subject of medieval art. In the 1946 painting “The Temptation of St. Anthony” and a handful of further works by Dalí after that, the iconography of elephant and castle suddenly returns to life and it seems plausible that the visit to Bomarzo had something to do with it.

Dalí once said about his elephants, whom he gave stilt-like, staggeringly high legs with supple joints so that they appear almost spider-like, that they represented the fragility of stability and of balance. Visualizing how a body as big and weighty as that of an elephant stands and moves on such long and thin legs, even balancing castles and pyramids on their backs, can symbolize focus and restraint, but also, as I think, the anxiety of making mistakes and the fear of moving on forward. And that, somehow, takes us back to the monster park and the timeless world of symbolic journeys through dreams and memory, strife and fear, reconnecting the interrupted line of surreal and symbolic iconography, from the 16th to the 20th centuries, and to us today.


References/ Further reading:

Blog on literary sources : http://renaissanceutterances.blogspot.it/2012/06/bomarzo-and-ariosto-moon-madness-and.html

Courtauld Institute slideshow and talk : http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/stories/stonard_bomarzo.html