In the late 1970s, some forty years ago, something big hit the peaceful paradise of the Tuscan coastal countryside. A little outside the medieval village of Capalbio, amid the rolling hills, overflowing olive groves and stretches of sun-baked grapevines a monster was born. Soon after another emerged and within months twenty-two of these mammoth creatures were huddled together atop the Garavicchio Hill, their heads towering over the surrounding foliage, their iron-framed bodies peeping out behind the cypress leaves. As time went by their ferric skeletal shells were engulfed in rainbow skins, an explosion of colour splattered among the soft and muted palette of the Tuscan green.
For the next two decades a constant gathering of artisans and artists, both local and those who had travelled from afar, could be found on this phenomenal site, dwarfed by a backdrop of strange and exotic beings. Laden with fragments of mirror, shards of mosaic and a bizarre assortment of found objects, they were led by the mother of the monsters and goddesses herself, the Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle; the mastermind behind the dreamland they so lovingly built.
In 1998 her creation was complete and Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (The Tarot Garden) opened its gates. In their gigantic forms, the High Priestess, the Hierophant, the Sun, the Moon, the Hermit, the Devil and the rest of the Major Arcana were unleashed; representatives of the human consciousness were reigning over the Maremma land.
Niki de Saint Phalle was not a trained artist, nor did she obey any sense of convention. To the contrary; at the age of 18 whilst her contemporaries were setting out to receive the very best artistic educations at the likes of L’Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris or Parsons School of Design in New York, Niki was wed, throwing tradition to the wind by attending her ceremony in a bright blue knee-length smock. Before her fellow peers would even have graduated, she had given birth to two children. Yet despite her early entry into motherhood, she despised it. This is not to say she was not besotted by her children, but she constantly confessed to her inability to parent. A former Vogue-cover model, a rebellious teenager and infamous flirt, the red-haired beauty together with her first husband, Harry Matthews, were known to leave their children home-alone for hours at a time whilst they embarked upon their bohemian lifestyle with vivacious flare.
A nervous breakdown, an attempted suicide and at the age of 22 she entered an asylum. Born into French aristocracy her own childhood had been rife with societal privilege, yet it bore too the greatest of brutalities. Her father, an established banker, molested Niki throughout her early years. Both her two younger siblings killed themselves in early adulthood. During Niki’s six-week stint at the asylum she discovered her need for art. It was her salvation. She entered the clinic swamped in fear, beaten down with anger; she left a painter.
The fantastical fourteen-acre sculpture park is Niki de Saint Phalle’s magnum opus. Prior to its creation she had prized a glittering career. She had swept from one medium to another; her early paintings, her plunge into performance which had her pointing rifles at paint-packed balloons on canvas and her brightly coloured series of voluptuous ‘Nanas’ that kicked off her love for the colossal. Yet the Tarot Garden and the sculptures within remained her own greatest achievement. It brought everything together, the marriage of a lifetime of work. However, even more than this, the garden, for Niki, was the product and proof of her two greatest desires which had been burning and bubbling within her ever since meeting her “master”, her “destiny”. It was on a visit in her youth to Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona that had her trembling all over. She vowed at that moment to “build my own garden of joy”, “to show that a woman can work on monumental scale”.
And that she did. With the help of her workshop, her partner in art, second husband Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely and a dear Italian friend Marella Agnelli, who, enraptured by the enchanting artist’s ideas, gifted Niki a parcel of her family estate to fabricate the dream into a reality. And there it remains today; a psychedelic story land built upon Etruscan ruins, its abundance of glimmering mirror and mosaic beckoning the circling hills within. An hour and a half drive from Rome and a few hops away from the trendy Tuscan peninsula of Monte Argentario, both adult and child will revel in this garden of possibilities.
All odds are upended with the electric blue Hanged Man, who pledges for alternate perspective with his bottoms up body and web-like form. Caution should be taken in approaching the Devil, whose sly smile, bulging hips and multi-coloured scales only entice his prey. His nemesis, the formidable figure of Justice, neither black nor white but both, awaits him nearby bearing a pair of weighing scales as breasts and a barred-up prison cell just beneath her gut. Raised high above them all, the Empress, (christened as “Queen of the Sky” and “Mother. Whore. Emotion”), commands her land. It was inside the Empress’s gargantuan sphinx shell that Niki lived whilst working on the garden, where she learned to mother after all that time and cooked and cared for her crew. Her bedroom was inside one of the creature’s glittering breasts, her kitchen in the other. To heck with it, I’m moving in!