Roger Palmer, Leaves with Pillar, 1972


Commentary on Mujica Lainez's novel

On July 13, 1958, the Argentine writer Manuel Mujica Lainez, accompanied by the painter Miguel Ocampo and the poet Guillermo Whitelow, visited a tourist attraction that was about 100 km from Rome, Italy: a medieval castle and its woods, full of enigmatic statues. It was the castle of Bomarzo and its woods are known as The Forest of Monsters.

Taken by a devastating inspiration Mujica Lainez, or Manucho, as he was called by his friends, began to draft his new novel. It took him three years to write it. Three years of intense research into the intriguing historical character who was the lord of that castle and the builder of its mysterious woods, the Renaissance prince Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo.

The novel was started in June 1959, completed in October 1961 and released in 1962. Recognition was immediate and in 1967 the book was transformed into an opera, with a libretto by Manucho himself and music by Alberto Ginastera. It turns out that opera was banned in Argentina, which was under military dictatorship at the time, and this ban led to the book being sold en masse. Recently, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo includes the book among the 100 best Spanish-language novels of the XNUMXth century.

For my part, I can say that I am in love with this book and that one day I intend to go to Bomarzo Castle and see its woods.

The story

the plot of Bomarzo takes place during the Italian Renaissance and, in a way, it is a book about the Renaissance, whether due to the historical references to the facts and real characters of that period, or due to the thematization of the ethos of the Renaissance man.

The central setting of the story, the castle of Bomarzo, is, at the same time, tragic and sensual. From there we explored Rome, Florence, Venice, the battle of Lepanto and the Italian campaigns. At the same time, we know a world of dukes, princes, popes, cardinals, leaders, artists and courtiers. Let's get to know the plots of the Orsini family, with its four popes, eighteen saints and dozens of princes and dukes.

Next to them, there is a procession of characters from the Italian Renaissance and Europe of that time: Charles V, Francis I of France, Popes Alexander VI, Clement VII, Paul III, Pius V, Miguel de Cervantes. We follow the wars between Guelphs and Ghibellines and get lost in the disputes between the lordly families of this period, in their alliances or wars with the Orsini: the Colona, ​​Medici, Farnese, Sforza, Strozzi and so on.

The book tells the life, as I said, of the Duke of Bomarzo, Pier Francesco Orsini, also called Vicino Orsini, a duke born with a congenital malformation, a curvature of the spinal column in the cervical region. Hunchback, a man in a doublet, as they called him, caused strangeness in Italian power circles.

He lived in an environment in which crime and violence were natural and even habitual, a place full of stories of poisonings, strangulations, murders, betrayals and military exploits. It is the environment described by Machiavelli and many other authors of the time. However, at the same time, it is an environment filled with an artistic atmosphere, in which the sublime, the beautiful and art have a prominent place.

Vicino Orsini is a Renaissance man. He thinks, feels, loves and hates like a Renaissance man. And, therefore, it becomes an excellent key to understanding what this moment in history was.

His singularity, his hump, distinguishes him from his time and even prohibits him from that time. At a time when ideal proportions and beauty are universally desired, his physical deformity bothers him and provokes, in him, a reflexivity that makes him a mirror of the entire period. Even though he has a beautiful face and hands, as is said, his hump bothers him deeply.

Until, at a given moment in the novel, he observes that the word monster – and he is often called a monster, by his family and by his time – also means “I show”, that is, a monster is the person who shows the world as it is. Vicino Orsini thus ends up becoming an archetype of the Renaissance man – a time that was both barbaric and sublime and that showed the world how the world really is. As he puts it: the function of monsters is to show… and part of the construction of their forest of monsters…

The life of the Duke of Bomarzo is a poetic account of a very special time in humanity. A report written with baroque prose full of irony and, at the same time, nostalgia. The book is written in the first person, but, in an unusual way, it is narrated from a timeless point of view: the duke who narrates his life is no longer alive, he is dead and is narrating his life 500 years after it happened, confusing with the temporality of the author himself.

This narrative subterfuge ends up producing its own temporality, which, although centered on the Renaissance, spans the centuries until contemporary times, suggesting the thesis that the spirit of a time endures and can be understood and narrated by another time and by another person. And this game of temporalities is one of the highlights of the work, although it may go unnoticed by some readers, as it is something treated with great subtlety.

The monster park

Finally, it remains to talk about the Bomarzo forest and its statues. This forest, which is also called Monster Park (Park of the Monsters), is considered the most extravagant garden in Italian Renaissance. Just as the hunchbacked duke, with his reflexivity, showed and still shows the world to the world, the grotesque sculptures of the Bomarzo forest function as a mirror that shows the horror of existence.

It is said that Vicino Orsini began building the Monster Park after the death of his wife, the beautiful Giulia Farnese. Theoretically, the sculptures show his pain with this loss, but also his frustration in relation to the story and the ideas of joy and happiness.

The forest also has several stone inscriptions. One of them reads: “You, who roam the world in search of great wonders, come here, where you will find horrible faces, elephants, bones and dragons”.

The interesting thing is that these woods were forgotten, covered with grass and became a forest, remaining that way for more than 300 years, until, around 1950, they were rediscovered, by the family that owns the castle of Bomarzo, descendants of Vicino Orsini, recovered and open for public visitation.

The writer

It remains to talk about Mujica Lainez, the author of the novel. Manucho was born in Buenos Aires in 1910 and died in Córdoba, also in Argentina, in 1984. Belonging to a wealthy family, he was educated in France and England. At the age of 22, back in Buenos Aires, he became a journalist, joining the newspaper La Nación, where he worked throughout his life. He also worked as a translator and art critic, becoming a central figure in Buenos Aires cultural life.

He wrote more than twenty books, including novels, collections of short stories and poems, essays and chronicles. In this work, the historical novel has a special place.

The first part of his work is made up of story books Here they lived, by 1949, and Mysterious Buenos Aires, from 1950. Then came the “Porteño saga”, historical novels set in Buenos Aires, consisting of four books: The idols, 1953; The house, 1954; The travelers, from 1955 and Guests to paradise, from 1957. This is followed by his cycle of fantastic historical novels, which begins with Bomarzo and continues with The unicorn, by 1965, and The labyrinthOf 1974.

After the opera Bomarzo was banned, Mujica Laines became an extremely popular figure in Argentina and her books had their sales multiplied.

In conclusion, I can say that Mujica Lainez is a great author, almost unknown in Brazil, and that Bomarzo It's a sublime, enchanting romance. One of the best books I've ever read and, in fact, I've been rereading it every now and then for over twenty years.

* Fabio Fonseca de Castro and pprofessor of sociology at the Center for Higher Amazon Studies, at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA). How Fábio Horácio-Castro published a novel The melancholy reptile (Record Publisher).


Manuel Mujica Lainez. Bomarzo. Translation: Pedro Tamen. Rio de Janeiro, Sextante publisher, 2010. []

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