Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"The Monster in the Garden": Luke Morgan Reinterprets Italian Gardens

The "Hellmouth"  - It was also a 16th-century dining room.   Parco dei Mostri, Bomarzo.
The "Hellmouth" of the Parco dei Mostri ("Monster Park") in Bomarzo near Rome seems simply a curious anachronism these days.  But in the 16th century, when the park was created, it projected dread, as well as pleasure.  "Pleasurable dread" or "fear followed by pleasure" is the better way to interpret both the Hellmouth and the other monsters of Italy's once famous early Renaissance parks, according to a new book by Luke Morgan, The Monster in the Garden.

The hellmouth is an ambiguous, hybrid structure, Morgan says.  It was used as an outdoor dining room.  And so, he posits, it's the scene of devouring (nourishment, pleasure) and being devoured (death, dread).  There is, according to this author, a theme of violence in the gardens that has been lost or downplayed by other writers.
Another fine monster in the Parco dei Mostri.

With Morgan's new approach to these parks, you too can re-visit them and enjoy them with fresh insights.  He approaches these "grotesques" or "monsters" as ambivalent or contradictory, rather than the "insipid idea of the garden" that has been the province of modern scholarship.  Morgan essentially reclaims the monster/grotesque as a complex, multi-valent figure, rather than simply "ugliness and horror," as Edmund Wilson described Bomarzo.

Focusing mainly on the "Parco dei Mostri" and Tivoli's Villa d'Este, the book is a trove of ideas for looking at their sculptures.  

Among Italian garden aficionados, it's common knowledge that Tivoli has the Rometta fountain, the personification of Rome, at one end, and Tivoli at the other.  Morgan adds to this interpretation by pointing out it's the metropolis at one end, the spa town at the other, another example of polarities.
The "Rometta fountain."  There are many Rome identifiers, including the Dea Roma (Goddess Rome), top center; the
Lupa with Romulus and Remus, above right; the boat fountain from Piazza di Spagna; and the Obelisk.  Villa d'Este, Tivoli.

"Fountain of Nature" - and what are all those spouts?
Villa d'Este, Tivoli.
A closer look at the...what?
animals? on the Fountain of
He also identifies the range of bodily fluids fountains can represent: vomit, sweat, tears. He claims the Villa d'Este's Fountain of Nature - that we've always thought of as the many-breasted woman -  may not have breasts at all.  He says the idea that the fountain's many spouts are breasts may have developed only in the late Renaissance. Whatever she has - nipples, testicles, animals - there are too many, she's excessive, and so she is abnormal, he concludes. 

And he posits, maybe these are not breasts.

The leaning house in Bomarzo: the point between
good and bad.
In Bomarzo, Morgan also has an interesting take on the basic layout of the park.  He says no one is even sure where the entrance was, and so we don't know what the basic walking motif should have been: is it showing a false paradise (the little temple or 'tempietto') leading down into hell, or does the path end at this temple of divine love?  The tempietto in either case, he says, is a state of grace; the house that is distorted and leaning is a turning point between good and bad.  

Bringing up an old example of fake news, Morgan discusses the "false book of antiquities" that argued Viterbo was the cradle of an Etruscan civilization founded by a race of noble giants, surpassing Rome. He notes the park's fake Etruscan tomb that he calls a "deliberate ruin or 'folly' that even has a picturesque (fake) fracture."  In other words, this is a simulated ruin.

A fake Etruscan tomb - this one in Ariccia's Parco Chigi.
Looking for all the concepts Morgan discusses in his book could take one weeks.  Checking out just a few as one visits or re-visits these parks is intriguing, delightful, and good old-fashioned fun.  He has points to make about statuary in Rome as well, such as Bocca della Verita' ("participatory grotesque") and Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona (half-invented creatures).  And while he concentrates on Bomarzo and Tivoli, he also references Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, Villa Lante in Bagnaia and Villa Farnese in Caprarola, both in northern Lazio; Sovana in southern Tuscany; and Florence's Medici Sculpture Gardens.

A threatening (and large-spouted) hybrid female in Villa d'Este.
I recommend Morgan's book for the sheer number of concepts he addresses.  In addition to the few mentioned above, others are: grotesqueness and monstrosity; the world as a giant human body (citing Leonardo); the giant or colossal mode; hybrids (usually female, reflecting male anxieties about the sexuality of women); Renaissance representation of more than one time at once; the role of the Fascist reinterpretation of the Italian garden (to privilege man, the rational, and the male).
Another Villa d'Este hybrid;
this one not so threatening.

A hybrid in Villa Sciarra, Rome (think she's a force for good?
 note the skull).  Once you start looking for these creatures,
they seem to be everywhere.
The full title of Morgan's work is The Monster in the Garden:The Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design.  I saved writing it out until now because I didn't want to scare away lay people from the book.  Morgan also is deeply steeped in lit-crit and other theories. So you have to wade through references to Debord, Bakhtin, Benjamin, Foucault.  But is it worth it?  In a word, yes.
Another Hellmouth - this one in Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati.

And a fine small restaurant
after viewing all those
 monsters l'Ape 50, in Tivoli.
Luke Morgan, The Monster in the Garden: The Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design, U. Penn. Press, 2016.


Tourists enjoying the many spouts.  Villa d'Este.
Required shot of one of the gorgeous Villa d'Este vistas - sans monsters.


Mary Jane Cryan said...

Fascinating. Thanks for this.

Robert Oasli said...

This is wonderfull