In a small Italian town just 40 miles north of Rome, a secret lurks within the wooded hills. Thousands of years ago, this area was home to the Etruscan civilization, a mysterious people who flourished long before the Romans conquered the region. And here, a sinister relic of their strange culture remains – a pyramid with a dark and bloody past.
Although just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Italy’s bustling capital city, the town of Bomarzo could be from another world. Here, in the heart of Tuscany, settlements perch on the ridges of an extinct volcano. And all across the landscape, ancient woodlands cloak the hillsides in dark green.
Picturesque and bucolic, the scenery has drawn tourists to this region of Italy for many years. However, Bomarzo and the surrounding region is home to its fair share of weirdness, too. And as centuries of different civilizations have made their marks on the region, many have left strange legacies behind.
There are few places on Earth with a history as rich and varied as Italy, in fact. Of course, it’s perhaps most famous as the former center of the mighty Roman Empire. And today, millions of tourists flock to sites such as the Colosseum and the Forum to gain an insight into the power that ruled much of Europe for around 500 years.
Elsewhere, countless famous sights add to the reputation of Italy as an unrivaled tourist destination. Indeed, close to 60 million people visited the country in 2017 alone. And while the vast majority of those will have been bound for the canals of Venice and the streets of Rome, there are plenty of rewards for those who venture elsewhere.
One such attraction is the town of Bomarzo, located in the Viterbo region of central Italy. An ancient settlement that some believe dates back to Roman times, it was historically the home of the Orsinis – one of the most important dynasties of Rome during the Renaissance. Then, in the 17th century, the town passed into the hands of the Lante Montefeltro della Roveres, who consequently became the Dukes of Bomarzo.
Today, Bomarzo is a picturesque town perched precariously amidst the volcanic landscape of Tuscany. Surrounded by thick woodland on all sides, it’s the sort of unspoiled gem that every tourist longs to find. But beneath this superficial charm, a number of strange sights make it one of Italy’s weirdest destinations.
Perhaps one of the best known is Sacro Bosco, or Sacred Grove, a sprawling complex located at the foot of the Orsini family’s ancestral castle. Known locally as the Parco dei Mostri, which means Park of the Monsters, this 16th-century garden is a bizarre concoction of terrifying sculptures and weird structures strewn across the landscape.
Many years ago, the gardens were originally conceived by Pier Franceso Orsini, who wanted to build a memorial to his dead wife. Thought to have been designed by the Renaissance artist Pirro Ligorio, they’re packed with strange symbolism and references to various mythological and fantastical realms. In fact, some believe that the complex may initially have had some kind of ritualistic purpose.
Whatever his reasons, Orsini undoubtedly created something truly magical in the valley beneath his castle. And today, statues of creatures such as flying Pegasus horses and mythical goddesses stand alongside those of bears and whales in a bizarre tableau. Elsewhere, one obelisk alludes to a potential purpose behind the garden, with an inscription that reads: “Just to set the heart free.”
Interestingly, Orsini’s gardens were almost lost to time when his heirs abandoned them and allowed nature to reclaim the area. However, their strange appearance drew the attention of the famous surrealist Salvador Dali, who produced a movie featuring the complex. And by the 1950s, it had been restored to its former glory.
Today, Orsini’s weird and wonderful gardens are one of Bomarzo’s most popular tourist destinations. And a few miles away in the rural settlement of Chia, a lonely tower draws more visitors who are in search of strange and mysterious sights. Here, the Italian movie director Pier Paolo Pasolini spent the last years of his life after becoming enchanted with the 13th-century structure.
According to Pasolini, the landscape around the Tower of Chia was the finest in the entire world. In fact, he chose it as the setting for the baptism of Jesus in his movie The Gospel According to Matthew. Cinematic vistas and monstrous gardens aren’t the only attractions that this remote location is famous for, though. Indeed, something even more puzzling was recently discovered hidden among the wooded cliffs that surround Bomarzo.
Back in 1991 Giuseppe Maiorano and Giovanni Lamoratta – a pair of Tuscan archaeologists – were exploring the terrain around the town when they made a remarkable discovery. There, obscured by the trees, was a strange structure that seemed out of place in the Italian hills. Indeed, it was something that would have seemed more at home among the Mayan ruins of Central America.
What Maiorano and Lamoratta discovered was in fact a stepped pyramid – a triangular-shaped structure constructed from a series of receding platforms. Typically associated with pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Maya, these impressive buildings have also been found in Mesopotamia, Indonesia, Africa and Ancient Egypt.
However, few archaeologists would have expected to find a stepped pyramid in the hillsides of Tuscany. In fact, the only known example of a similar structure in Western Europe is Monte d’Accoddi on the Italian island of Sardinia, some 280 miles southwest of Bomarzo. But while this structure is thought to be more than 5,000 years old, the one discovered by Maiorano and Lamoratta appears to be from a completely different era.
At first, though, the pyramid at Bomarzo surprisingly remained ignored by the scientific community. Then, in 2008 it was rediscovered by Salvatore Fosci, a local farmer. Intrigued, he set to work removing the vegetation that had grown up around the structure and propelled it into the spotlight at last.
So the discovery dubbed the Pyramid of Bomarzo was at last receiving the attention that it deserved. And it soon became clear just how incredible this mysterious structure really is. Hewn from a vast boulder, it reaches a height of more than 30 feet and covers an area of around 50 by 25 feet.
Interestingly, the Pyramid of Bomarzo does not exactly match the shape of its counterparts in other parts of the world. Instead, it’s more of a conical triangle, with a series of staircases carved into its surface. And from the ground, a set of 20 steps rise up towards a stone altar.
Above that, two separate, smaller staircases rise up to the next level. And at the very summit of the structure, a second, larger altar has been carved into the rock. In addition, on one side of the pyramid, a series of channels and grooves travel from the highest point down to the ground below.
Elsewhere, eagle-eyed observers have spotted square indentations in the rock alongside the staircases. And according to some, these are left over from a time when poles and other elements would have been inserted into the pyramid itself. But what purpose was this strange edifice intended for? And who was responsible for its construction?
Locally, the Pyramid of Bomarzo is known as Sasso del Predicatore, or the Stone of the Preacher. And presumably, it’s a moniker inspired by the stone steps and altars that decorate the surface of the structure. But until recently, little was known about the history behind this strange relic of the distant past, which is thought to date from the 7th century B.C.
After Fosci opened up the site, however, experts began to speculate on the true nature of the pyramid and its builders. Apparently, the fact that each individual step has been carved from the rock with great skill implies that those who constructed it came from a sophisticated civilization. But which one?
According to researchers, the most likely candidate is the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization, which thrived thousands of years ago. Appearing in central Italy in around 700 B.C., these ancient people had their roots in the Villanovan culture. And historically, their forebears were known for bringing the Iron Age to the region.
Before long, however, the Etruscans had become a force to be reckoned with in their own right. And as they established trade routes with neighboring Greek and Celtic communities, they developed a reputation for producing luxury goods. The elite of Etruscan society consequently became wealthy and powerful, presiding over a civilization that placed great value on pursuits such as art and literature.
But while the Etruscans were dominant in central Italy for a time, they would prove no match for the emerging power of Rome. And as the empire of the latter spread out across Western Europe, the Etruscans’ influence began to wane. Eventually, in the 4th century B.C., a succession of wars broke out between the two great civilizations.
Ultimately, the Etruscans lost, and their cities gradually fell to the seemingly unstoppable Roman Empire. However, traces of the culture remained for many hundreds of years. And as well as its language – which was still spoken in the region three centuries after the fall of the Etruscan culture – the fading civilization’s religion was also mirrored in many aspects of Roman beliefs.
According to experts, the Etruscans practiced a polytheistic religion, meaning that they worshipped a number of different gods. Moreover, they believed that everything that happened in the world was the result of these deities – and that they could be persuaded to favor certain individuals. In other words, that religion had the potential to influence the affairs of men.
Apparently, the Etruscans worshipped three different tiers of deities, or aisar. At the bottom were gods that were native to central Italy – figures such as the sun god Usil and Turan, who was known as the goddess of love. Then, there came a layer of divine beings that are thought to have their roots in Indo-European culture.
According to historians, these were the sky god Tinia and his spouse Uni, as well as Cel, known as the goddess of the Earth. And finally, there was a third tier made up of deities adopted from Greek mythology. Among them were Aritimi, Pacha and Menvra – the Etruscan versions of the Greek deities Artemis, Bacchus and Minerva.
But if the Etruscan system of deities was complicated, it was nothing compared to the network of officials and priests tasked with overseeing ceremonies and events. At most public occasions, religious leaders known as haruspex or netsvis were present. Apparently, they practiced a particularly gruesome form of divination that involved studying the liver of a recently sacrificed animal.
Moreover, this use of animal sacrifice has led experts to speculate on the function of the Pyramid of Bomarzo. Specifically, some have suggested that blood might have coursed from the altar to the ground via the grooves carved into the rock. So could this structure have been an important site of ritual slaughter for the Etruscans?
Interestingly, it’s not the first time that these channels have been found at a site associated with the Etruscan culture. At Tarquinia, for example, some 40 miles southwest of Bomarzo, archaeologists discovered an altar with similar grooves next to the remains of a child. And again, there was speculation that the site might have been the scene of a ritual sacrifice.
A number of different civilizations have been known to use animal and human sacrifices in order to appease their gods. And according to experts, the Etruscans were among them. As well as killing animals for purposes of divination, it’s believed that they also used such slaughter to honor their deities.
And if the Etruscans really were making sacrifices at Bomarzo, might humans as well as animals have been among the victims? Although scholars have historically been dubious of such claims, other Italian sites have yielded evidence that suggests these practices did indeed occur. In fact, some researchers believe that both children and infants, as well as adults, once met this grisly fate.
Additionally, it has also been noted that the pyramid’s altar points northwest – a direction that for the Etruscans was associated with the underworld. Could this be another clue that the structure was once the site of a ritual steeped heavily in death? Unfortunately, archaeologists have yet to discover any similar sites, making it difficult for them to test these theories.
Amazingly, another ancient site has been discovered in this stretch of Tuscan hills. In fact, just a short distance away from the stepped structure is a primitive building known as the Finestraccia, or Ugly Window. Apparently, the ruin got its name from the strange gaps that punctuate its surface.
According to experts, the structure is what remains of a primitive dwelling that existed on this site around the time that the pyramid was built – the 7th century B.C. Moreover, it’s believed that a type of tomb was once housed within its stone walls. Might the building have been somehow linked to the rituals supposedly held nearby?
“There is a distinct possibility that this tomb was perhaps the resting place of some important Etruscan priest or official, directly related to the sacrificial altar close by,” Aleksa Vučković wrote in a July 2019 article for the amateur archaeology website Ancient Origins. “Such wealth of Etruscan inscriptions and archeological sites that surround this location in Bomarzo certainly signifies a strong and very important Etruscan presence.”
Today, this mysterious pyramid remains hidden in the forests of Tuscany, ready and waiting for curious souls who might wish to explore it. And there are a number of local guides who are more than happy to lead tourists to the ancient ruins. But will the truth about what happened there ever come to light? Like much of the region, the hills and woods of Bomarzo don’t look set to reveal their mysteries for a long time to come.