Like many other Italian Renaissance gardens, Vicino’s Sacro Bosco was anything but ornamental. Constructed rather with images and ideas, the garden and its statues can be read by the enlightened visitor like a book, providing a philosophical journey through themes such as love, death, memory and truth. Vicino’s garden-book is, however, obscure and ambiguous, and requires a knowledge of poets such as Dante, Petrarch and Ariosto to unravel; every reading produces a different set of ideas that reflect the complex personality of Vicino himself.
The visitor is nevertheless spared carrying around a library of Italian medieval and renaissance poetry by the many inscribed quotations that Vicino placed around his garden. On the pedestal of one of a pair of sphinges found in the garden is a typically gnomic sentence:
CHI CON CIGLIA INARCATE / ET LABBRA STRETTE / NON VA PER QUESTO LOCO / MANCO AMMIRA / LE FAMOSE DEL MONDO / MOLI SETTE
(He who does not visit this place with raised eyebrows and tight lips will fail to admire the seven wonders of the world.)
Vicino is boasting of his garden, but also paraphrasing Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso, suggesting that the theme of the poem, unrequited love and loss, is one of the keys to his philosophical garden. Further clues to the meanings of the sacro bosco may be revealed by looking at a few of its many statues and monuments.