Manuel Mujica Láinez

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The figures chiseled out of Etruscan boulders include a 19-ft.-high elephant crushing a warrior in its trunk, a giant dismembering a man, a goddess with each pubic hair clearly delineated, and a 20-ft. satanic head whose mouth opens into a large chamber. These overwhelming creations are 50 miles north of Rome. It is known only that they were carved between 1555 and 1585 at the command of Duke Pier Francesco Orsini.

But are they part of a kinky Renaissance Disneyland for a bored nobleman or projections of a tortured soul? When he visited Bomarzo, Argentine Art Critic and Writer Manuel Mujica-Lainez opted for the latter. He had moreover, an odd feeling of having been there before—perhaps in another life.

Combining a scholar's passion for detail with a novelist's fertile imagination, Mujica-Lainez set about constructing from the few known facts a sumptuous fictional Doge's Palace of the mind. Like that famous seat of the Venetian Republic, whose ceiling, walls, and floors constitute a convulsion of visual splendor, Bomarzo's pages glitter with descriptions of processions, land and naval battles, landscapes, and courtesan's sultry rec room and a cabalist's murky study.

Mujica-Lainez conveys not only the well-known creative energies of the Renaissance but its less understood anxieties as well….

Mujica-Lainez focuses this aesthetic and religious conflict in the mind and body of Bomarzo's Duke Orsini. He recreates him as a hunchback who tells the story of his life as an omniscient observer not only aware of his own time but of events from the time of his death until the present. Mujica-Lainez's implication is clear: Orsini's true immortality resides not in the few historical facts and artifacts we know but in his recreation as a fictional character.

Bomarzo's Orsini combines Gothic deformity with a beautiful refined face and a graceful pair of Tintoretto hands. Yet it is Orsini's genetic baggage, "the rucksack of my misfortune," that shapes his soul. In his childhood, the hump fostered his father's disdain and his brother's malice. When he was a youth, it caused impotence and self-disgust as Orsini had to view it multiplied in a harlot's mirrored chamber.

Like Philoctetes' stinking wound a classical symbol of the relationship between art and abnormality—Orsini's back is the burden of his genius. It compels him to refine everything into art, including cruelty and murder….

But procreation, high fashion, and grand frescoes prove too ephemeral for Orsini. Only the stone of Bomarzo could preserve his suffering and redeem his miserable existence. "Love, art, war, friendship, hope, and despair—everything would burst out of those rocks in which my predecessors had seen nothing but the disorder of nature." It is an outcry that invites both admiration and pity, a strong but unstable mixture that Mujica-Lainez keeps bubbling with an alchemist's patient intensity.

Like alchemy Bomarzo is based upon a richly human and dramatic scheme of symbolism and metaphor. It does not create any real gold, but fine fiction has always been essentially a ritual of appearance.

"Long Live the Duke," in Time, Vol. 94, No. 24, December 12, 1969, p. 104.

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