Bursting out of the forest in this remote western corner of Tuscany is what artist Niki de Saint Phalle called her “Garden of Joy.” It’s a contemporary art park (opened in 1998), filled with twenty-two exuberant sculptures that represent her take on the
major cards of a tarot deck.
The colors! The sculptures are made of a mix of day-glo mosaics, mirrored glass, and ceramics. They’re curvy, oversized mythical creations, some standing three stories high. They entice you to reach out and feel their textures, or walk inside and find yourself surrounded by sparkling colors and mirrors. Fountains created by Niki’s husband, the Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, add to the exceptional magic. Olive and oak trees,myrtle and rosemary bushes, blend with the art. The garden has a playful ambience, infused with Niki’s childlike spirit. She even put a bright spin on the Devil—a smiling winged woman poised on a pedestal with a flame between her legs.
Towering over the whole scene is The Empress, a shining, blue, mosaic sphinx with enormous multicolored breasts. Niki lived inside it while the garden was being built—hard to believe
because it’s so glittery in there. One breast was the kitchen, and she slept in the other. The nipples are windows. She said it was her “protective mother” for the project she worked obsessively on, relying solely on her instincts to lead the way.
Niki was a drop-dead gorgeous woman—lithe, with high cheekbones and delicate features. She was born in France in 1930, then moved to New York and modeled as a teenager, appearing on the covers of Vogue, Harper’s, and Life. When she was eighteen she eloped, and a few years later,moved with her husband and daughter to Paris. While studying acting there, she had a nervous breakdown. She’d been abused as a child by her father, and finally facing the trauma, started painting to work through it.
She was self-taught and got encouragement to stick to her naïve style, showing her paintings in a Paris gallery in the mid-1950s. It was there she met and fell in love with the sculptor Tinguely. They both divorced their spouses and became life-long partners.
Niki’s “Shooting Paintings” catapulted her to worldwide recognition in the early 1960s. They were created in galleries, bringing out the performance artist in her. She’d strut out in a white jumpsuit and black boots, whip out a twenty-two caliber pistol, and shoot at a blank board, where she’d imbedded bags filled with paint. Colors would explode and form spontaneous paintings. After three years of wowing fans from California to Amsterdam, she gave it up, saying, “I’ve become addicted to shooting.”
Having worked the machismo stuff out of her system, Niki moved on to explore feminine archetypes. Inspired by a pregnant girlfriend, she created Nanas—huge pop-art styled fertility goddess sculptures. Expanding that theme, she rocked the art world with a room-sized Nana in Sweden. Visitors would enter through the sculpture’s vagina and find inside a milk bar and screening room showing Greta Garbo films.
Ever since the 1950s when Niki saw Gaudi’s Park Guell in Spain, she’d felt it was her destiny to create her own sculpture garden. In the 1970s she was given this land in Tuscany to begin the twenty-year project. She died four years after it was completed, in 2002. She was seventy-one and had suffered from emphysema, brought on by polyester fumes she’d inhaled while making those Nana sculptures. Her creations are exhibited all over the world, but the Tarot Garden is her greatest legacy. To visit it on a sunny day, when bright light bounces off the sculptures, is spectacular.
My favorite story of a traveler discovering this place comes from my friend JoAnn Locktov, who showed up here in the midst of a thunder and lightning storm. Since there are loads of metal pieces in the garden’s Tinguely fountains, the tour group she came with decided to stay in the bus, terrified they’d be struck by lightning. But JoAnn, a mosaics fanatic, was determined to get in no matter what. The guard who answered the door after twenty rings tried to stop her. JoAnn rushed past him and took in the marvels, running her hands over textured archways, awestruck by the rich designs. Caught up in JoAnn’s enthusiasm, the guard turned on the fountains for her. She said to herself, “If this is where I was meant to die, it’d be okay.”
The Tarot Garden: Il Giardino dei Tarocchi, open April-mid- October.
Golden Day: Visit the Garden and spend time exploring nearby
Capalbio, a tiny medieval hilltop village. Eat there at Trattoria
Da Maria (Via Comunale 3, 056 4896014), which also has a budget B&B attached. For luxury digs at the nearby seaside, stay at the Pellicano Hotel (www.pellicanohotel.com), a Relais Chateaux property.
Travelers’ Tales Tuscany edited by James O’Reilly and Tara Austen Weaver