Friday, February 13, 2009


There are mysterious places in the world. I know it's sort of out of fashion to acknowledge that but I really believe it's true, places where empirical reality gives way to something older and more intrinsic. I have a sense that the whole world was such a place in the beginning, back when the arc of God's stars meant more than the ticking of our little clocks. These once vast and dangerous places have surrendered territory over the course of the last few centuries, now they are so small you have to seek them out.

In the summer of 1988 I was hunting such places with a zeal that can only come from being young and in love with creation. I was traveling in Europe and had read about a place called Bomarzo, or the Monster Park. Nearly five hundred years ago a Soldier, Poet, Dreamer and Duke named Vicino Orsini had built a place of wonders that broke all the rules of the art of his time. The park was filled with statuary described as anachronistic. Most of it looking as if it were something done by Etruscan or Roman artisans... Not the sort of thing one expected to see in a high Renaissance garden.

The few photos that the magazine article had were enough to wet my appetite and I wrangled my best friend Grant into the adventure. We broke from the tour we were on and headed south from the city of Florence by train. Neither of us spoke a lick of Italian and where we were going there weren't likely to be a lot of English speakers. "You really think this is wise?" Grant asked as we boarded the train to Attigliano. "Hell no." I said as we took our seats, "I'm just sure it won't be boring."

By the time we got to the station in Attigliano it was already afternoon. We found signs in the little town that indicated Bomarzo was about eight kilometers up into the mountains. Being broke and having no real way to communicate we simply started hiking. It turned out to be a long hard slog. The central Italian heat was the sort of thing one finds in Kentucky, lots of humidity, but the fact that I had experienced that sort of climate back home didn't make the packs we were carrying any lighter.I recall that Grant had made the mistake of carrying a gym bag instead of a backpack and it seemed that no matter how he arranged it on his shoulders it was never really comfortable. On a couple of occasions he wondered if he should stash it somewhere on the road and retrieve it later. I cautioned him against it as I felt it would surely be pinched. He took my advice and soldiered on, later, in the city of Athens he would put his scheme to the test and suffer the consequences, but that's another story.

I'd read that the place we were headed had been reclaimed by nature about a hundred years after it's completion. The trees had wound their roots around stone structures that had been carved straight out of the bedrock and into the sides of hills. It wasn't until the later part of the twentieth century that the park began it's resurgence. Thanks to the interest of the Spanish Surrealist painter Salvidor Dali who drew inspiration from the things he saw there. this was the sort of thing I was thinking about and kept pushing me forward up the steep terrain through the heat and humidity.

We didn't get into the little town of Bomarzo until early evening. The place was still a medieval style village and had very few public places. We found the only reseraunt just as it was closing for the evening and discovered that the towns only inn and coffee shop had long since closed for the night. What to do? Faced with the daunting prospect of an eight kilometer hike back down to Attigliono, I suggested we just hike a bit out of town and rough it on the side of the road till morning. Grant wasn't too wild about the idea but he also wasn't very excited about the hike down to Attigliano either.

So off through the little medieval streets we went, onward to the outskirts of town where we found a small stone slab beside the road. We threw down our packs and proceeded to call it a day. As we drifted off to sleep I starred up at the sky and marveled at how clear the air was and how bright the stars seemed. A few hours later we both awoke at about two o'clock in the morning with chattering teeth and goose flesh from head to toe. Neither of us had been prepared for the impressive drop in temperature that happens on a summer night in central Italy. We were also dressed in light summer clothing. Staying where we were was unthinkable.

Loading up packs we struck out for Attigliono in the wee hours. Dead tired, and chilled to the bone we made our way back down the mountain, as we hiked the blood began to flow and our spirits raised. Even with the fatigue this trek was far more enjoyable than the hike up. There was a three quarter moon and the little farms and houses were bathed in soft blue light. My memories of that evening are vague at best, I can't recall what Grant and I were talking about but I do remember a great deal of laughter. The whole thing had taken on a surreal quality as if we had stumbled into a production of A Midsummer's Night's Dream.

At around four in the morning we hiked into the train station at Attigliono where we racked out on what I'm convinced were the most uncomfortable benches on Earth. No doubt designed that way to discourage just the sort loitering we were engaged in. We awoke to the sound of an arriving train and the cold stares of locals unhappy about two disreputable looking American boys lounging around their station house.

Outside on the sidewalk we took stock of our situation and decided what to do next. Grant was really over the whole thing by this time and was ready to catch the next train back to Florence but I bitched, pissed, moaned and generally cajoled him into making one final attempt at seeing the park.
Off we went back up the same long road we had traveled twice already. The heat on the second day proved be even worse than the day before but we pushed on. we stopped at the road sign to take a couple of pics that documented our fatigue then shouldered heavy packs and marched on. It's funny what one remembers. I vividly recall seeing a cat that had been hit by a car on the side of the road. The poor creature had had it's lower body crushed and lay panting on the hot asphalt waiting for it's death. I was deeply upset by the sight and wanted to put the thing out of it's misery, but looking around we saw farmers at work in the field near by who seemed to be watching what we were doing. I remember both of us wondering if killing the animal would be seen as the right thing to do by the peasants who stared at us. Would they think our actions humane or cruel? Would they be offended? I really didn't know the answer to those questions as I was a stranger in a strange land. In the end we walked on, and to this day I've regretted it, I feel as if I should have ended that cat's suffering no matter the local opinion or consequence.

We arrived in Bomarzo just before noon and this time found the place filled with people who were friendly and curious about the two young Americans walking the streets. No one spoke English but we were able to communicate that we were hungry through sign language. We were shown to the coffee shop where some of the locals stood us food and drink when we showed them the American art magazine that featured the article on the Park and they began to understand that we were art students come all the way from the other side of the world to see the Monster Park of Duke Orsini.

They escorted us into the street and made it clear that I should do a drawing of their town before we left for the park. I sat down in the middle of the main thoroughfare and proceeded to draw. I was shocked to see a crowd gathering to watch the American artist do a small sketch. Grant took a few shots with his camera and said to me, "These people seem to really love their town so don't screw up that drawing Lister." I chuckled and said, "Thanks pal, no pressure there."The drawing turned out pretty good so I signed it and gave it to one of the guys in the crowd. I've often wondered what became of it, and even fantasized about returning to Bomarzo one day with Grant's photo and using it to track that drawing down. The locals led us to the outskirts of the town and put us on the road to the park. It proved to a short distance down the road that we already become far too familiar with. We got the gate, bought the tickets and entered the Park.It remains one of the few times that reality surpassed my imagination. The park was a stone menagerie of mythical beasts. Everything from dragons to elephants seemed to be clawing their way up from the bedrock of the mountain and all the structures were covered with rioting vegetation. As we wandered through the place I felt that I was loosing all sense of time. The stone carvings and wooded areas were devoid of any indication of the modern world. No signs with explanations or aluminum guard rails to keep visitors away from designated areas. Just a large wooded area filled with carved Chimera. It was hard not to let the imagination run wild and see the place as some of of gateway to a much older and mysterious era. There was no question for Grant or I that all the things we had gone through over the previous two days were worth it.I find that when I try to write or describe the things that I saw there words simply fail me... I hope that some of the pictures I post here will inspire people to visit Bomarzo. I think it is something that needs be experienced first hand.

I should like to point out that the wonderful photos of Bomarzo that are featured on this page were taken by Robin Blair Riley who even twenty years ago was an artist without peer. Anyone interested in seeing more of her work should see her website...

No comments: