Just twenty-minutes from my house in a medieval village in Central Italy stands a 16th century sculpture garden which still today represents an enigma to art history scholars: The Monster Park of Bomarzo, also known as the Sacred Wood. Peopled by monstrous creatures sculpted directly from outcroppings of volcanic rock, half-hidden by a thick fringe of ferns, this park is unique in the history of Italian garden design. The brainchild of Duke Vicino Orsini, the Sacred Wood has been interpreted variously as a pagan itinerary of initiation, a sculptural representation of Orsini’s weirdest dreams and nightmares, an allegory illustrating his political career, or a series of emblems concealing an alchemical formula for making gold. Some of the structures in the garden have been ascribed to the architect Vignola; others are believed to have been sculpted by inexpert pupils of a local atelier or perhaps by Turkish slaves. Scholars are undecided if the layout of the park is a random arrangement or whether it conceals a design intended to create a certain effect on the visitor’s mind. For the great gardens of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque era were more than just collections of plants. They were models of the universe and even instruments for changing the awareness or destiny of those who held the key to these gardens’ secret meanings. Today the park of Bomarzo stands off the beaten track, occasionally visited by busloads of tourists, when the tiny ribbon of a road through this hilly country allows. In recent years, the road has often been washed out for months. The Sacred Wood unfailingly excites the imagination of all those who wander in among its terrifying figures caught in moments of extreme violence or emotion, who seem to come at you as in a dream, popping up from behind masses of vegetation or crumbling walls. In centuries past, the local people believed that the stone figures moved about at night.
The Monster Park/Sacred Wood of Bomarzo inspired the story and setting of my new novel, Signatures in Stone. This mystery novel recounts the misadventures of Daphne Dubois, an aristocratic detective writer with a hashish habit, who stumbles into a private hell and then finds redemption after being accused of murder when her rival is found strangled in the park. Daphne’s solution of the case depends upon her intuitive gift for reading “signatures,” signs and omens of future and past events scattered on the scene or embodied in the sculptures themselves. While solving her own mystery, she also solves the mystery of the park’s origins and meaning.
In writing this novel, I was deeply influenced by the local soul or spirit of place. Still today, the general area, called Tuscia, an hour’s drive north of Rome, remains the heartland of Etruscan culture. The landscape here is riddled with Etruscan tombs, gashed by dramatic canyons, strewn with moldering ruins: Etruscan, Roman, and medieval walls & towers; ancient altars like step pyramids furred with moss; abandoned convents overgrown by vines all set in amid hazelnut and oak groves. In Tuscia, Etruscan lore has blended with the medieval belief in witches, devotional cults of angels, folk customs of dowsing and healing, and with the intellectual neo-paganism of the Renaissance to create a rich and fertile terrain of imagination, very much alive in popular superstitions and local customs. I have roamed and researched this territory for over twenty years, finding in the soul of Tuscia an inexhaustible treasure. My first mystery novel The Etruscan ( Wynkin deWorde 2004), set in the same time period as Signatures in Stone
( the 1920s), celebrated the peculiar effect that these Etruscan vestiges had on an American photographer who had come to Italy to research Etruscan sites for the Theosophical Society. In Signatures in Stone, I once again take up the question of psychic influence transmitted through art and through locale across centuries to show how the primordial spirit of place sometimes moves our actions, colors our dreams, and fires our hearts. The novel also ekes out the fine line between illusions and reality, and illustrates how waking life, intuition, and dream are much more interfused than we normally admit.