There are labours of love in this world, and then there’s the Ai Pioppi Playground. The brainchild of 79-year-old grandfather and madcap inventor Bruno Ferrin, the Ai Pioppi Playground has been almost 50 years in the making – a miracle of hand-welding, scrap metal and basic physics that has produced something truly unique: a theme park that runs entirely on gravity.
Located deep in the forest outside of Venice, Ai Pioppi has all the makings of a death trap and/or slightly tragic hobby, but thanks to Bruno’s ingenuity and child-like fascination with the world his playground is brimming with unexpected delights and seemingly impossible thrills. Now boasting 45 attractions – from merry-go-rounds to rollercoasters to rides that seem to defy both description and gravity – it looks like a Rube Goldberg machine constructed in Never Never Land.
The story of Ai Pioppi began almost accidentally back in 1969, when a much younger Bruno decided to try his hand at being a restaurateur. So he set up a fold-out table underneath a tree with two jugs of wine, some sausages and a salami. After tasting initial success (read: he ran out of wine), Bruno decided to open a proper restaurant. The first ride he created – a giant slide – was just an attempt to lure more customers through the door. But the act of creation soon became an addiction and the theme park grew and grew until the restaurant itself became next best thing to a side project. (Although, as the theme park is free, they rely on visitors staying around for lunch).
Bruno takes his inspiration from the natural world: “I’ll see a leaf moving in the wind, then think of a way it can be used for an attraction.” Working out of a ramshackle workshop with the kind of tools you can pick up from Bunnings, Bruno uses an eye-watering array of levers, pulleys and pedals to power his giant kinetic sculptures. One particularly legendary offering is called the Bicycle of Death and involves riders pedalling their way as far as they can through a 360-degree loop – and then letting gravity do the rest. This is probably also a good time to mention that all of the rides are unattended. Ai Pioppi is a playground in the real sense of the word.
But in contrast to the soulless, commodified experiences offered by most amusement parks, there’s something refreshing about such a literally homemade endeavour – especially as there’s yet to be a fatality, half a century in. By following his passion, Bruno has created that rarest of things: a genuinely unique experience. It feels almost too weird to exist, but more precisely it’s a dream made real. As Bruno himself describes it: “My life, my joy, my love.”