Things are a bit different here. What you see isn’t exactly what you get, at least after first glance. Traveling puts you in different cultures, various situations and, if you’re doing it right, challenges your preconceived notions and conceptions of what you know. These cerebral scenarios are daily occurrences when living or traveling abroad. You will be hard pressed to have the eye-opening experience of cultural awakening, or shock, in the classroom. I wanted to find this out in person, and for my sins they gave it to me. They took me to the place of monsters. They took me to Bormazo.
In the wooded valleys of Central Italy lays a sprawling collection of sculptures, some freestanding amongst the shaded gullies while others emerge out of the natural bedrock. They’re tucked away in the landscape, not so much hiding but waiting to engage you, ready to take you to school in a way you’re most likely unprepared for. At least I was.
Bormazo was built in the mid-16th century, a project commissioned by the very wealthy Pier Francesco Orsini. I was later informed that it was built as a tribute to his beloved, late wife Giulia Farnese. I unwisely assumed it was a fickle attraction, a 400 year old Neverland Ranch, an archaic playground for the Renaissance elite. After spending an afternoon here I realized that I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Orsini was a passionate man, deeply devoted to his wife and an devout patron of the arts and philosophy. His desire for Bormazo was not to entertain his rich friends, tipsy on wine and bored of milling around in his castle that looms on the cliffs above this place. He did not spends tons of his own money, and years of his life, to construct an artsy attraction. No. He wanted to confront, to challenge, to encourage and to enlighten those that came here. This is a place of reflection, emotion and, dare I say, solemnity.
My friend Kay McCarthy brought me here. She is an incredibly friendly and intellectual lady, and I should have known that if she wanted to bring me here then it would certainly be a place of substance, of most interesting qualities. We entered into the forest labyrinth through a stone archway, immediately met by an unpassable hill. “Left or right, you choose, but you’re not just walking straight in,” was the not so subtle implication. This was a signifier of things to come.
We followed the serpentine path to the right, encountering two battling giants, Neptune perched above an empty fountain and a dragon being attacked by wild dogs. “This is not a playground,” Kay reminds me. Moving deeper into the hills I was confounded, mentally searching for the meaning of all this. Orsini was smiling from the grave no doubt. I felt a gravity to my surroundings as a I gazed upon the dramatic figure of a reclined Ceres. She balanced a bowl of fruit on her head, while I felt like I was standing on mine. Engravings of philosophical phrases speckled the area, a reminder of Bormazo’s deeper nature.
Through the trees I see a somewhat regular looking building, but by this time I am hesitant to even trust my eyes. I gingerly walk closer with sheer curiosity. Sure enough, it is a home, two stories high with a typical design for its period. But there is something very different. It looks like it’s about to damn near fall over, literally. Its lean supported by an invisible crutch. I explore the slanted interior, eventually becoming accustomed to its tilt. And when I exit, returning to the once familiar world on the outside, I am off balance on the perfectly flat land. Orsini has affected me again with this absurdly simple, yet poignant display. What seems normal can quickly become abnormal; and what was once bizaare can become ordinary, even comfortable, if you change your environs with an open mind. Bormazo taught me this, and “La Casa Pendente” drove the point home.
My lesson in perception went on. “From the point of philosophy, there is more than meets the eye,” Kay tells me as a prelude for our next encounter. I saw a massive face staring at me from a distance. Under a canopy of branches and fractured sunlight, my steps took me face to face with the famous monster of Bormazo; The Ogre. Its gnarly mouth agape in a silent howl, its hollow eyes scowl under a furrowed brow. This guy does not look happy or welcoming in the least. If Disney has Mickey Mouse, then Bormazo has this fella. Are you getting the picture now? A latin inscription in faint red letters on the Ogre’s upper lip read “OGNI PENSIERO VOLA.” Loosely translated in English it says, “All thoughts fly away.” Yep, that pretty much sums up my afternoon here. I peered into the the dark depths of the monsters mouth, and I saw table. Am I actually hallucinating now? The inside of the monster’s skull is a cavernous, but inviting room with a sitting ledge wrapping around three sides. It was a dining room in the ghouls jowls. An inviting place where one could find protection from the elements, light a few candles, break out the cheese and wine with some friends and have a good ol’ time right inside what is only a wicked-looking monster head. The Ogres snarl wasn’t to deter visitors, but rather an open door into a warm retreat. This was fantastic! A revelation of sorts for me.
Orsini, in his insightful and heartfelt way, yet again took my, our, predetermined, culturally ingrained views and turned them inside out. He wanted us to open our eyes and minds to new ways of observation. I think he had a compassion for humanity and wanted to offer them a gift that riches could never buy: personal liberation through an open mind. I was impressed. I was bewildered. I was at times silenced with shock. I was offered a new perspective from carved rocks made by a dead man, and I was more than grateful for the lesson.