Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Tuesday 26 June 2012


A colossal winged siren of stone at Bomarzo's astonishing Park of the Monsters (Burningmax/Flickr)

Several years ago, while browsing through a series of bookstalls in the indoor market of Bridgnorth, a town in Shropshire, England, I came upon a hardback travelogue book, dating from around the 1950s/early 1960s as far as I can recall, in which the writer described various sights that he had visited during his journeys around Europe (and possibly elsewhere). One chapter particularly interested me, as it described an extraordinary park located somewhere in continental Europe that was filled with huge, grotesque stone statues of monsters and other bizarre entities, but which had long since been abandoned and was now exceedingly overgrown, heightening its nightmarish aspect.

The face of Proteus, Park of the Monsters (Alessio Damato/Wikipedia)

Normally, anything as unusual as like this would have been enough for me to have purchased the book without hesitation, so I still don't understand why I didn't do so on this particular occasion. To make matters worse, I never even took notice of the book's title or author (I can only assume that I must have had other, more pressing matters on my mind that day!). As always happens in such a situation, of course, I later regretted not purchasing the book and resolved to do so when I was next in Bridgnorth (a town I often visit), but, as again always happens, when I did return, the book was gone, and the book stalls' owner did not even remember it.

A grim Janus-faced column in the Park of the Monsters (Burningmanx/Flickr)

Not long afterwards, moreover, he moved out of the market altogether, presumably selling his stock or taking it to set up elsewhere. So any chance of painstakingly going through all of his many books there in case it had been mis-shelved was gone too.

Neptune/Poseidon (Alessio Damato/Wikipedia)

Recently, recalling to mind that long-vanished book, I decided to see if I could discover any information online that may identify the mysterious garden of monsters that it had documented, and, happily, I succeeded! So here is what I found out:

One of the most spectacular works of Renaissance art can be found in one of Europe's strangest gardens. Dubbed the world's first theme park by some, it may be Renaissance by date but in appearance and content it is decidedly gothic. For although its official name is the Garden of Bomarzo (situated in Viterbo, northern Lazio, in Italy), it is most commonly referred to – and for very good reason – as the Park of the Monsters.

A moss-covered Pegasus fountain (Alessio Damato/Wikipedia)

It was created during the 16th Century by Duke Pier Francesco 'Vicino' Orsini (c.1528-c.1588), an ex-military officer who was also a leading patron of the arts, and devoted to his wife, Giulia Farnese. When she died, he established the garden (which he called his Sacred Grove) in tribute to her. It consisted originally of a wooded park at the bottom of a deep valley overlooked by Orsini's castle, but he then commissioned the sculpting of a host of arcane gargantuan statues to populate it, some hewn directly from the valley's natural bedrock, and many representing terrifying monsters or other figures from classical Greek mythology. More than two dozen were completed, plus various smaller exhibits such as a temple.

Cerberus, Greek mythology's triple-headed hound of hell (Burningmax/Flickr)

These awe-inspiring but very macabre stone colossi included Cerberus the three-headed hound of Hades, two mermaid-like sirens, a Pegasus fountain, a scarcely-attired reclining nymph, Neptune/Poseidon, the goddess Aphrodite, a giant (possibly Heracles) sculpted in the act of ripping apart another giant (Cacus?), the shape-shifting marine deity Proteus, and a winged woman sitting upon a vast tortoise.

A giant savagely dispatching his enemy in mortal combat ((Alessio Damato/Wikipedia)

Also present was the bizarre Mouth of Hell – the screaming face of a hideous ogre, whose mouth was a grotto big enough for people to walk through, and inscribed with the words "All reason departs".

The Mouth of Hell ((Alessio Damato/Wikipedia)

Assorted animals included a bear, a whale, and a war elephant of the Carthaginian general Hannibal (carrying a trampled Roman soldier in its great trunk).

War elephant gripping the soldier's dead body (Alessio Damato/Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most outstanding example of Orsini's bizarre statuary, however, was a stupendous sculpture of a winged classical dragon, crouching at bay with jaws open wide as it battled a dog (symbolising spring), a lion (summer), and a wolf (winter).

Bomarzo's great stone dragon battling a dog, lion, and wolf (Alessio Damato/Wikipedia)

Placed in an apparently random manner within the park, these daunting goliaths astonished all who saw them, but some felt that their grotesque, melancholic forms and erratic distribution mirrored Orsini's anguished, deranged state of mind resulting from his wife's death. There is controversy as to who designed and prepared the statues. Some experts attribute them to the acclaimed architect Pirro Ligorio. Others support claims that it was none other than Michelangelo who designed these great works, with some of his most talented students sculpting them. A third school of thought suggests that a team of prisoners of war awarded to the duke was responsible.

Siren and two lions (Samuele Ghilardi/Flickr)

Following his death, this nightmarish park was gradually abandoned, falling into an eerie state of disrepair, until by the 1800s many of the figures had become virtually hidden within a veritable jungle of overgrown vegetation and unchecked foliage. Orsini's forgotten menagerie of immense megaliths remained neglected and unvisited by all but vagrants and ne'er-do-wells (plus Salvador Dali in 1938, a visit that inspired his 1946 painting 'The Temptation of St Anthony') until as recently as 1970. This was when a successful restoration was initiated by the Bettini family owning the land containing this most surreal of gardens.

'The Temptation of St Anthony' (Salvador Dali)

Today, the Park of the Monsters is a major tourist attraction. Countless visitors wander now through its shadowy realm to encounter its frozen fauna of horror, where Orsini's dragon, winged steed, triple-headed hell hound, and all of his other weird figures stand forever in stony silence, as if the very gorgon Medusa had cast her evil gaze of petrification upon their grim gathering.

View from inside the Park of the Monsters, featuring the Carthaginian war elephant (Gabriele Delhy/Wikipedia)

And yes, just in case you're wondering, Italy's Park of the Monsters is definitely on my list of places to visit in the not-too-distant future – so watch this space for plenty of additional information and all-new photographs!

Reclining nymph (Burningmax/Flickr)

1 comment:

  1. Wow I would love to go here someday. Such beautiful statues and not horrid to me at all.

    By the way if the dog symbolizes spring, the lion summer, and a wolf (winter) would that make the dragon fall? Could it be a visual pun with the dragon thus symbolizing the fall of Satan,a common art meme at the time?