Prepare to enter the magical world of the Tarot Garden, a personal gift by the artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) to visitors of the Maremma area of Tuscany. Picture: A hilly area of land so far south in Tuscany you’re almost in Lazio, and close enough to the sea to smell it. Twenty-one statues, some small and made of resin, some large enough to live inside, all decorated entirely in mosaics. Every colour imaginable, but also a lot of mirrors, in a work of art that reflects the artist and the viewer.
What upon first glance might seem a kind of Tuscan Disneyland is of much greater value from a personal, artistic, and symbolic point of view. It can be enjoyed on many levels: I’ve loved exploring this park over three visits, but I’m also finding it very interesting to read more about it now in preparation for writing this post. There is a very complete entry in Italian on wikipedia and I also have the book about the park written by the artist in 1997.
Niki de Saint Phalle is a French artist whose second husband was Jean Tinguely. (Tinguely was previously married to Eva Aeppli, many of whose works are in the Giardino di Daniel Spoerri – the art world is small). Together, Niki and Jean created this sculpture garden in Tuscany on a property “lent” to them by friends. Niki was inspired by Gaudi’s work in Barcelona that she saw on a trip in 1955, and started work on her own garden in 1979, financed by revenues from a perfume line. Five million euros and many years later, the garden was completed in 1996 and opened to the public in 1998.
Experiencing the Tarot Garden
To get a sense of what went into building a place like this, let me tell you about the experience of visiting it. You enter through a rather serious gate designed by the architect Mario Botta as a purposefully masculine and austere contrast to the art that one encounters on the other side. A scrub-lined path leads you uphill until lo and behold, you see something big and blue through an opening in the trees. You come upon this strange new world, a fantastical piazza in which water runs down the front of a big blue two-headed monster and moves metal creations. A gigantic pink-breasted sphynx looms to the left, and other mildly diabolical structures complete the picture. You are engaged in every way, by the colours, the light glinting off the mosaics, the sound of the water and the squeaking of the moving metal sculptures.
Each of the sculptures represents one figure from the major arcana (aka trumps major), 21 cards in the tarot deck that regard majorly significant aspects of life. The artist writes: “I am convinced that the cards contain an important message… The tarot cards have given me a key to better understanding my spiritual life and to dealing with life’s problems.” Niki reveals her innermost emotions and gives us everything – her heart, her body, her mind – through these works. This is written on a tile on the outside of The hangman.
In her words:
This garden was made with great difficulty, with love, with crazy enthusiasm, with obsession, and more than anything else, with trust. Nothing and nobody could have stopped me.
Perhaps the most intimate space in the garden is the Imperatrice (card number III), the female sphynx-like structure. Niki lived inside this structure for about a year, and you can go inside it now. It has a kitchenette, sleeping loft, and bathroom with a shower that comes out of a monster’s head. The whole inside is covered in mirror mosaic, every single surface, even the dining table. On the outside, female symbols predominate, the shapely women for which the artist is famous.
Ugo Celletti, postman and mosaicist
The garden was also made “with a little help from her friends”, as the Beatles might sing. More than a little. Jean Tinguely built and welded about half the metal structures that form the base of the large sculptures (steel beams and metal mesh covered with cement and mosaic). Doc Winsen, a Dutch artist, did the rest. A whole lot of other artists contributed too, but one figure struck me as I read the artist’s book. She says:
Ugo, the postman, started by helping make the stone pathways, and then he worked on the metal mesh. Later he asked if he could try putting on the mirror mosaics onto the sculptures. He became a poet of mirrors. He’s always afraid that there will be no more work for him here. I promised him that there will always be something new for him to do and if needed I’d build the great wall of China around the whole garden and whole generations would be required to finish it.
The name of Ugo Celletti can be found written in venetian-style glass on one of the columns of the sculptural space that represents the Emperor. During my visit the other week, my amazing husband pointed to this name and said to me “there’s a guy over there with this name on his badge, and it says “responsabile giardino”. And so I went up to Ugo Celletti, who lay many of these mosaics with his own hands, and said “how many litres of Windex [Vetril] does it take to keep these mirrors clean? How does one upkeep a space like this?!”
Ugo told me that the inside of the Imperatrice wasn’t all covered in mirrors while Niki lived inside it, though the bathroom and kitchen were. She left for California in 1996 and sent instructions to do this job. Guess who did it. At age 81 he looks quite sprightly and is an important part of the team that deals with constant restoration of the sculptures. He very sweetly posed for this photo, but he’d had quite enough of talking about the park, and proceeded to engage me in conversation about the declining quality of fruit.
90 Photos of the Giardino dei Tarocchi
Did I overdo it? I was enchanted by the details, but also the wholes…
The garden is open in the afternoons from April 1 to October 15 each year, 2:30 to 7:30pm.
Best time to visit: late afternoon, early in the season! The park has finally been discovered by families and groups (when I went 10 years ago we had the garden to ourselves) and it can be quite hot and crowded. I suggest going to the beach at Marina di Capalbio in the morning, and then to the garden in the late afternoon, armed with floppy hat and sunscreen.
The official site is: http://www.nikidesaintphalle.com/
The Giardino dei Tarocchi is part of my Maremma Itinerary (coming soon)