“If life is a game of cards, we are born without knowing the rules, yet we must play our hand throughout the ages, poetry, philosophers, alchemists, artists have devoted themselves to discovering their meaning” – Niki de Saint Phalle, 1995
Sorry to get all philosophical on you, but this quote is etched into the cement path in Niki de Saint Phalle’s breathtaking Tarot Garden near Capalbio, which I visited recently and was completely swept away.
This beautiful garden is so unexpected, it’s startling. From the moment you step through the gates, it’s as if you leave Tuscany behind and enter a world of massive tarot cards – represented by huge ceramic and glass mosaic sculptures, too beautiful to believe and too strange to belong to this world.
Niki de Saint Phalle was a French-English artist whose long and turbulent life of acting, oil painting, writing and set design eventually led her to this patch of land just off the highway to Capablio. She loved Italy and Italian art and was inspired to leave her own artistic treasure among the treasure chest of Italian masterpieces.
Inspired by the works of Anthony Gaudi in Barcellona, she began the Tarot Garden in 1979 and through sickness and good health she placed the last hand-cut glass square and hard-shaped ceramic mosaic in 1995. Every one of the 21 tarot cards are represented with their own massive sculpture.
Some are easier to pick that others, like Justice (above), who, with her scaled chest, is neither black nor white, but both. In the place where her stomach should be, she holds a rusted jail cell where a mechanism of animal bones and twisted steel turn ceaselessly.
Then there’s the World, which spins tirelessly on a broken down scrap heap. Her globe is a golden egg and a multicoloured snake winds its way up her leg. She spins and spins and you wait patiently for her to turn around, but she never does, her blue head is featureless.
But my personal favourite is the Devil. She doesn’t look malevolent, but is strangely inviting, decked out in a suit of bright colours with a blood red claw and human hands. She is flanked by a pink woman and a red swirled man.
Whether you’re into modern art or not, this garden is something you simply cannot miss. Niki intended it to be an example how art should be treated – with respect, but also with integrity and not to be something to be used to make money with.
You might not believe it, but the garden is also the perfect place for children. Niki spent much of life creating art that was could be enjoyed by children, and this garden is no exception. When I was visiting, there were children running everywhere, climbing the stairs up to the observation deck in the Empress and exploring the little glittering niches inside the various statues.
I visited in summer and the place was packed with people, but I think the statues are at their most beautiful when the mirror and glass mosaics catch the light and sparkle like something out of Alice and Wonderland.
For more information about the park, visit www.nikidesaintphalle.com.