My father bought an apartment in Bomarzo in the 70s. It’s a tiny place, and very old. The building appears in a 1520 drawing and was already a few hundred years old when the drawing was made. It’s the house with the stepped outside staircase in the foreground, and it has changed very little. The stairs are so worn and bowl-like that it is hard to go up or down them without feeling you might lose your step. Still, they reinforce ideas of time.
The drawing is in Siena’s Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati, and is part of a sketchbook known as the Taccuino Senese which contains drawings associated with Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536). Peruzzi and his half-brother were hired by the Orsini family to build a wing for the palace, the Orsini Palace, in Bomarzo and for the building of the road leading south to Soriano nel Cimino and Viterbo. The drawing concerns the road project. It is the road which skirts the town on the left side of the sheet. A couple of workmen are engaged in roadwork – they are almost stick figures and can be seen below the collection mark.
Bomarzo’s terrain is uneven and the town itself is built on a massive outcrop. The rock is volcanic and is called “peperino,” referring to the color of black pepper. Bomarzo is most famous for its garden, Orsini’s Sacro Bosco, now often known as the Parco dei Mostri or Monster Park, which makes use of the great boulders that are naturally present. The genius of the garden is that it makes use of what many people would consider a hindrance – the rocks – transforming them to fantastic sculpture. The steep hill at nearby Villa Lante, similarly, works a liability into an advantage.
There is still a lot of mystery about the Sacro Bosco. Pier Francesco Orsini, known as Vicino Orsini (1523-1583) had the garden built sometime after the death of his wife in 1557. The name of the architect Pirro Ligorio is sometimes advanced, but there is nothing sure there. Here is a link to the BHA/RILA page on the subject.
The draftsman most associated with the Bomarzo area is the Dutchman Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598-1657) who spent about ten years living in Rome, starting in 1619. That Breenbergh was in the employ of the Orsini is probable, although undocumented. Most of Breenbergh’s existing 200 or so drawings figure Italian views. Below are some of Breenbergh’s views from Bomarzo, Mugnano, and Chia.
Mugnano in Teverina is a hamlet with a population of about 300 people and is, governmentally, part of Bomarzo (c. 1,800 for entire pop.). As an aside, Angelo, Bomarzo’s bar owner and font of every type of information, let us know about a recent discovery–the bricks used to make Rome’s Pantheon, the Baths of Caracalla and other important Rome monuments came from Mugnano kilns. Here is a link to an article on the topic, with a photo of a beautifully designed and very 1960s looking brick maker’s mark. Mugnano is very close to the river Tiber, which was navigable in the Roman period.
This past weekend I walked around Mugnano with my son. We were hoping to find a similar view, but couldn’t. The same road is still used to access the town, but the huge rocks have been incorporated into the buildings, so that you can hardly see them anymore. Either that, or the Albertina drawing isn’t of Mugnano. Google’s Street View, jut below, is only vaguely related. The height of the rock is very different.
Locally, the tower below is often called the Torre di Pasolini because of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the poet and film director who first rented the medieval complex in the 60s and then bought it in 1970. It’s more correctly called the Torre di Chia. Chia is not part of Bomarzo, but part of Soriano nel Cimino. Fortunately, the ruins are not much changed from the early 17th century when Breenbergh drew them.
Michael Miller’s photographs can be seen here: michaelmillerphoto.com