This is a place that is full of surprises, and one of the biggest is the number of people who travel here for the pleasure of seeing it. Far from the main roads and with hardly a signpost to keep you right, squads of cars make their way towards a dusty carpark. It feels more like a clandestine party than an artistic experience. Hundreds of curious people pile out of their vehicles with startled children and other loose bits and pieces of that vast industry we know as tourism. Enslaved to our GPS, we wait for someone or something to tell us where to go. Just a few steps away, a new universe awaits: a journey into the mind and work of Niki de Saint Phalle, the woman who used guns to shoot paintings, who created her Nanas –those large female bodies with their outrageous curves and arresting colours– and who built a park dedicated to her great obsession: tarot.
The name, then, is as it must be: the Tarot Garden. The plot of land she chose for her project is in the commune of Capalbio, a place that could almost stand in for Tuscany itself, with its rolling vineyards and old town standing on a hill. A few kilometres away is the Mediterranean, but at its most industrial now: the port of Civitavecchia stands in the background. We are two hours from Rome by car. The site is well chosen, as a stroll along wooded paths reveals this wonderful park little by little. The route takes you around a dreamlike, or nightmarish, cluster of mosaic-clad sculptures, mobiles made of scrap metal and towers whose insides have no sharp corners. It is hard to describe without using a word like ‘bizarre’.
One of the main inspirations behind the garden was Barcelona’s Park Güell, Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece that mingles open-air recreation with strange sculptural forms. The impression in the Tuscan park is similar. Here, a stairway leads to a pond dominated by two silver and turquoise faces. Giant columns create a portico around the main courtyard. Paths lead off to the other figures, symbolizing the 22 major arcana of the tarot pack: the Priestess, the Pope, the Sun, the Moon and many more, all linked to esoteric and occult meanings.
This was Niki de Saint Phalle’s life work. The garden’s website mentions 1955 as a primordial moment. It was then when the 25-year old Saint Phalle, young and in bohemian flight from her conservative upbringing, sat on the benches of Park Güell. She “fell in love” with the ensemble, Art Nouveau at its most audacious. “I found my maestro and my destiny. I shivered. I knew that I too, one day, would build a garden of joy. A small corner of heaven,” she wrote. She travelled the world, making her Nanas and sculptures. She worked in the United States, Israel and Europe, and by the mid-seventies her plan began to come together.
She spent 1979 in central Italy, sketching out her first ideas. Nearly 50 and recently diagnosed with chronic arthritis, she took on the task regardless; work soon began in earnest, attracting a group of collaborators and volunteers. Talking about the beginnings she recalls “we began with the stone paths, and then began the work on the wire mesh on the steel structures to receive the cement. Later, an assistant asked me if he could try his hand at putting the mirrors on the sculptures, and he has become a poet at this kind of mosaic work.”
For much of the project she was accompanied by her former husband, the sculptor Jean Tinguely, who is credited with a number of works in the garden. Some of the pieces are over five metres high, and peep through the treetops of the park. Every one has its own elusive and symbolic meaning, created in a style that might be called pop surrealism. The messages behind these works are obscure, as is the case with everything related to the divinatory world of tarot. Some sculptures are hard to recognize even once we know the names: although this is not the case with the Emperor, the Magician and the Empress, three of the largest works (the last so big that it could serve as the artist’s residence while she was working on the project).
This “astral autobiography”, saturated with so many memories and ideas, opened to the public in 1998. The sculptural group, which was funded by the artist, has many themes running through it: the primordial presence of water (as a vital fluid) and the power of women: “I had the great need to show that a woman could take on such a vast and deranged work. It was as if I was enchanted. The garden is a fragile work of art that needs constant attention. After working on it for 20 years, I don’t want to see its delicate beauty destroyed. My garden is a place away from the crowd and the pressures of time,” she said before her death in 2002. She would be surprised to see how many people, during the garden’s opening months of April to October, come to get away from those crowds.
Photo: Valerio Mei