As you drive along the Via Aurelia towards the sea, near the turn off for Capalbio, a flash of psychedelic color catches your eye, emerging from the silvery blur of olive groves and ilex trees on the scrubby, Maremma hillside. Prominently displayed are the tip of a red rocket aimed at the sky, a three-tiered gilded onion dome, a decapitated tower with a bicycle wreck at the top, and a huge, blue laughing clown face with a waggling hand growing straight up out of its head. Other gaudy figures peep out from beneath the tree tops, resembling the rides of some crazy carnival that has just pulled into town, but instead this phantasmagoria happens to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest landscape artworks, the Tarot Garden created by the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 -2002). For Saint Phalle, this garden was a corner of paradise achieved through an inner itinerary of sacrifice and spiritual growth.
The giant figures, some of which are inhabitable buildings, represent the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot, refashioned according to Saint Phalle’s understanding and experience of them over the arc of a lifetime. The tarot is not just a card game, Niki claims, but conceals a philosophy of life. Key cards for her are the Hanged Man, Strength, the Magus, the Sun, the Empress ( manifested in the garden as a sphinx whose breasts are rooms you can live in – where indeed Niki did live while working on the garden), and the Angel of Temperance, who became her spiritual guide.
Entering the austere enclosure of tufa walls that form a barrier to the outside world, you step into a dream, inspired not only by the Tarot, but by fairy tales and the art works of Matisse, Miro, and Picasso. The figures are covered with mosaic tiles, mirrors, and ceramics in lollipop colors, arranged in kaleidoscope patterns, bedazzling and bewitching, changing by the minute in sun and shadow.
The spark for creating this garden came when Niki visited Gaudi’s Guell Parc in Barcelona in 1955, an experience so overwhelming that it made her tremble with a sense of destiny. “ I knew someday I would make my own Garden of Joy,” she wrote. She dreamed of her garden for years, seeking the right spot, which she thought might be Africa or South America, a place that would contrast starkly to the urbanization of contemporary life. By chance or fate, the chosen spot turned out to be a former quarry in the Tuscan Maremma, on land belonging to the brothers of a friend.
There could have been no better place than here in Maremma, just over the border from the province of Viterbo where several of Italy’s greatest esoteric gardens are located : Villa Lante, the Sacred Grove (aka the Park of Monsters) of Bomarzo, the gardens of Villa Farnese in Caprarola. By placing her garden here, Saint Phalle had connected up with the local tradition of landscape narratives and healing gardens. In the mannerist tradition of the sixteenth century, those gardens were to be “read” with the heart and mind as much as they were to be enjoyed by the senses. The placement of fountains, trees, and sculptures obeyed a narrative strategy that might reveal a secret doctrine, heal an illness, enhance political power, point out the route to spiritual enlightenment, or simply alter fate. Such gardens were magic books hewn in stone, in which the visitor, while wandering about, became the actant or performer of an ever-changing story, a necessary element in the garden’s magic.
As you explore the Tarot Garden, you will note allusions to Bomarzo. For example, the Empress who greets you with melting, blue mosaic stairs flowing from her open mouth, — vividly evokes the Hell Mouth, the signature sculpture of Bomarzo. Unlike the Bomarzo cavern carved of dark tufa with its unsettling tomblike atmosphere, this is a gushing fountain of life. The glassy green dragon guarded by a maiden, representing the arcanum Strength, resembles the dragon of Bomarzo. But here the atmosphere is playful and joyous, the beast is kept in check and does not threaten us. By contrast, the Sacred Grove of Bomarzo seems steeped in a twilight gloom, yet it too was meant as a healing itinerary for its original creator, Pier Francesco Orsini, suffering from deep depression after his wife’s death.
Niki de Saint Phalle financed and built her Tarot Garden, costing millions of dollars, mainly by herself, although she was helped by fellow artists, workmen, friends, local people, lovers, admirers, and enthusiasts. Along the way, she encountered many obstacles, including illness. Severe rheumatoid arthritis disabled her from working for long periods. She also struggled with the fervent opposition of local residents who objected to her project, which, it turned out, had been undertaken without first receiving official building permits from the town government. In the end, a white knight appeared as in all fairy tales to rescue what is good and true: Mitterand saved the garden from Italian bureaucratic censure – and possibly from being torn down — by declaring it a national monument of France, and therefore not subject to the Italian building code.
Paths seem random through the Garden, and, at Niki’s request, there are no guided tours. The point of this garden is to discover it yourself, and while doing so, discover yourself. There are however two main routes to explore – one departing from the Sun, takes you up a wide, easy, well-paved path. The other is harder to find. You must climb over the dragon’s tail, then follow a narrow, slippery trail. From here you encounter more directly the Moon, the Devil, and Death, with whom the artist had to come to terms. Hardship, love, enthusiasm, obsession went into making this garden, writes Niki, but above all, faith. “Nothing and no one could have stopped me.”
This garden engenders joy and delight in children and adults, and teases our thoughts as to its meaning. But upon exiting her magic world, you will also feel a deep gratitude to the artist for never giving up until the garden was done, and for her generosity in sharing her vision.
Photocredits S. Baldassarre and Linda Lappin