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  • Bomarzo ou les incertitudes de la lecture: Figure de la meraviglia dans un jardin maniériste du XVIe siècle
  • Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto
Anne Bélanger . Bomarzo ou les incertitudes de la lecture: Figure de la meraviglia dans un jardin maniériste du XVIe siècle. Études et essais sur la Renaissance 74. Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 2007. 324 pp. + 13 b/w pls. index. illus. gloss. bibl. €59. ISBN: 978-2-7453-1487-1.

This book is about the Sacro bosco at Bomarzo, an Italian mannerist garden located roughly twelve miles east of Viterbo. The garden was constructed in the second half of the sixteenth century by the Duke of Bomarzo, Pier Francesco Orsini. Unlike other Renaissance gardens the Sacro bosco does not follow the rules of symmetry and its main path is a sinuous one that unwinds through a forest scattered with gigantic sculptures, some of them monstrous, accompanied by inscriptions carved in stone, whose significance is puzzling. Scholars have often focused on the reconstruction of a coherent narrative that would help uncover the original meaning of the garden and its parts. By contrast, Anne Bélanger maintains that coherence is not suggested by the garden, and that Orsini's intention may have been to present the visitor with a series of contradictions that foster the garden's illegibility and provoke the visitor's disorientation. An example of this, according to the author, is the difficulty of interpreting the iconography of the garden: its statues cannot be identified with certainty. When one thinks to have seen attributes typical of a Roman deity, other factors contribute to contradict one's original reading. Thus Bélanger describes how some scholars are inclined to believe that the sculptures in the garden are polysemous, while others suggest that they lack any meaning.

By explaining a typical phenomenon of Renaissance culture, namely, the learned interest toward mottoes and emblems that produce meaning through the combination of words and images, Bélanger offers a convincing interpretation of the Sacro Bosco's sculptural elements and their epigrams. Their plastic and verbal mode of expression is a sort of truncated syllogism in which the only two existing propositions express a thought or concept that is unveiled through the reasoning of the beholder. At Bomarzo, however, the beholder's understanding is continuously baffled. This the author explains through the poetic of meraviglia, to which many of the garden's inscriptions refer. The Renaissance philosopher Francesco Patrizi explained that meraviglia is obtained by means of a combination of words and images that are logically incompatible with each other and by presenting the impossible under an appearance of verisimilitude and coherence. The dialectic tension of such combination of opposites provokes the beholder's astonishment and marvel. Bélanger indicates that the small house found within the garden is a typical example of this. On its external wall the visitor reads the inscription "while resting, the soul grows wiser," but the house is visibly tilted and provokes the visitor's vertigo more than allowing him to rest. Finally, Bélanger links the eccentricity of Bomarzo to Patrizi's rejection of commonplaces, or "opinions," and proposes that the figure of meraviglia may have been used by Orsini to present his guests with his personal view of a world in which the truth resides in doubts and the suspension of all judgment.

Bélanger's exegesis of the Sacro Bosco is original and convincing, but it suffers from being presented in the last chapter of the book. Taking into account the point [End Page 1261] of view of the visitor to the garden, the previous chapters focus on the application of semiotics to the study of gardens and offer a comparison of several scholarly approaches. These, however, are often excessively detailed and do not seem entirely necessary to the author's argument. Moreover, while Bélanger points out the flaws and limitations of other scholarly approaches, she also accepts most of their results. Thus, for example, she reiterates information often taken for granted, such as the existence of a Neoplatonic academy at Careggi, which has been put into question by James Hankins's study of Plato in the...


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