The labyrinth of Valsanzibio is comprised of six thousand Boxwood plants (Buxus Sempervirens). The majority of these plants are over 400 years old as they were planted between 1664-1669 when the current garden layout was first imagined.
The labyrinth in the Valsanzibio garden is one of the world’s oldest original plant labyrinths.
The entire pathway of the labyrinth is approximately 1.5 km long. The walls are made up of 8000m2 of Boxwood plants which are trimmed annually. This pruning work takes 1,500 hours, with the help of manual and mechanical cutters, ladders, rulers, levels and plumbed lines.
Then, the work doesn’t stop as there is plant replacement, fertilising and hoeing all to be done by hand. Plus, the treatment of the plants with pesticides and weed clearing…in other words, the annual working hours of a professional gardener are not enough to maintain the labyrinth!
For this reason, the grand labyrinths of the historical gardens, having resisted the challenges of varying epochs for about two or three hundred years, had to succumb to the economic and social metamorphosis of the twentieth century.
The labyrinth of Valsanzibio, like most of the plant labyrinths of the 16th and 17th centuries, has a symbolic meaning like the Renaissance and Baroque monuments, alongside its immediately obvious entertaining function. In fact, it was this symbology that was at the heart of the whole garden design project.
This prestigious labyrinth, along with the rest of the garden of Valsanzibio, was designed by the top Vatican architect and fountain expert Luigi Bernini, under the direction of Saint Gregorio Barbarigo (who was at that time Cardinal). It represents an important stage in the journey of salvation which Saint Gregorio wanted represented in the garden design of Valsanzibio. This journey of salvation starts at Diana’s Pavilion (the monumental gateway to the garden) and reflects the complex voyage of the human pursuit of perfection.
In fact, when arriving at the labyrinth you are still on your journey to salvation and continue to be full of sin, anguish and confusion at your earthly role.
Disoriented by the high boxwood walls, you are taunted by the doubt of whether you have taken the correct path through the labyrinth. However, the correct path to follow to the centre tower in order to finally achieve a clear view on your own life, is never the seemingly shorter one.
Every promising shortcut considerably lengthens the walk; ends up in one of the 6 dead ends which represent the first six cardinal sins (greed, lust or lewdness, avarice, sloth or indolence, anger, envy); or leads to an endless loop that represents the 7th and most insidious cardinal sin: arrogance.
Each error forces you to retrace your steps and repent your sins. Those that do repent and find the right path, will meet new dilemmas and have to avoid and correct new errors that could be easily repeatable.
Only those that reject perdition and who have the faith and hope to ask for and obtain help from above will arrive and easily reach their destination. In fact, towards the end of this path to salvation, once cleaned and purified of your own bad habits and sins, you will arrive at the centre of the labyrinth. From the dominant position of the small, raised up tower you can survey all of the cross-roads that you have overcome to reveal the allegorical essence of temptation, vices or virtues.
Finally, beyond the darkness of the labyrinth, the bright reality that is the objective and reward of the overall undertaking is revealed—from the top of the tower you finally have a clear vision of your role on this earth. Now, with this new revelation and regained purification you can move on to the next area of the garden: The Hermit’s Grotto where you can meditate on what you have just achieved and discovered during your journey through the labyrinth.