Hella S. Haasse
The Gardens of Bomarzo
A literary nonfiction classic
The Gardens of Bomarzo can be read both as a personal essay and as a study in cultural history, but above all it is a historical whodunit. Intrigued by the mysteries surrounding the Parco dei Mostri (Park of the Monsters) in the ancient Italian town of Bomarzo, Hella S. Haasse follows a trail that leads back to a nobleman of the sixteenth century who ordered twenty monsters to be sculpted in stone in his castle garden.
Orsino Orsini, illegitimate, deformed and one-eyed, whose wife was seduced by Pope Alexander VI, built a ‘park of sex and violence’ in order to ‘reflect upon his hatred’ – of the pope (a Borgia), of his unfaithful wife and of a world that refused to accept him. As Haasse attempts to interpret the symbolism of the park with its twenty monstrous statues, she takes us with her to the labyrinth of Knossos on Crete, the ‘rituals and sun-worship of the dawn of history’, to themes and motifs from epics by Ariosto and other Renaissance poets, and to the dynastic squabbles between the Borgia and Farnese families in around 1500.
Other writers and artists preceded Haasse in their obsession with the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Grove) at the foot of the Orsini castle, its battling giants, enormous nymph, elephant, dragon, leaning house and huge head with wide-open mouth. Salvador Dal was the most influential of them; the report of his visit to Bomarzo in 1948 prompted the rediscovery of the overgrown gardens. After him came writers including Mario Praz and Manuel Mujica Lainez, and artists Carel Willink and Niki de Saint Phalle. What makes Haasse different is that she was dissatisfied with existing theories. Why did Orsini, supposedly its creator, ask so many questions in his surviving letters about the figures to be found in his park? Why did he furnish the sculptures with inscriptions that suggest ‘that he, astounded and perplexed, consulted others about those riddles’?
The Gardens of Bomarzo was a chance for Haasse to tell a gripping story about an ‘embittered and obsessed’ nobleman who, like a kind of Minotaur, sits lamenting his fate in a labyrinth of his own making – an alternative to the novel Haasse was initially intending to write. The fact that this book expands upon the central themes of Haasse’s work – the suffering of the outsider and the complex relationship between men and women – makes it all the more intriguing.
- An account of a personal fascination by one of the Netherlands’ most translated literary writers. A classic.
- Provides an unforgettable picture of the Renaissance, centred on the story behind the world-famous sculpture garden of Bomarzo.
- Combines the certainties of the novelist with the hesitancy of the essayist.