Italy's fantasy garden

The Lovers
Artist Niki de Saint Phalle created her “small Eden” in Tuscany and exorcised her personal demons

 PESCA FIORENTINA -- Fifty years ago, during the summer of 1966, French artist Niki di Saint Phalle exhibited her gigantic and controversial work “Hon/Elle” at the Moderna Museet of Stockholm. It consisted of a grotesque female figure, 28 m long X 6 m high and 9 m wide, lying flat on her back in the process of giving birth. Visitors entered through her gaping vagina, while her left breast contained a planetarium and her right breast a cafè/bar. Even for liberated and progressive Sweden in 1966 this was a bit much. Saint Phalle's reputation as one of the most controversial artists of the 20th century was firmly established.

 Thirteen years later, she began what she considered her life's work. On a half-acre of land  donated by friends, the aristocratic Caracciolo family, at Garavicchio in Tuscany, she began to create her magical Garden of the Tarocchi. The work took seventeen years to complete and cost over £5 million. When it finally opened to the public in 1996, however, times had changed and it no longer created a scandal. Her whimsical interpretations of the twenty-two esoteric figures in the Greater Secret (Arcani Maggiori) of the Tarot cards were considered almost on a par with a Disneyland fantasy. Saint Phalle, however, was not joking – or, at least, not all the time. Her eccentric creations are loaded with hidden meanings, many of which refer to her personal life.

 Niki de Sant Phalle was a poor little rich girl. Born in France in 1930 into an aristocratic family (her real name was Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle), her world was uprooted when she was seven. Her father, Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle, was ruined in the 1937 stock market crash and transferred with his American actress wife and young daughter to the USA. Niki did not settle. Rebellious and undisciplined, she was shuffled round a series of schools that could not cope with her erratic behaviour. When she was 19, she eloped with the budding writer Harry Matthews. The young couple moved with their first child to Paris, where she tried a career as an actress and dabbled in painting. But emotional pressures of the past caught up with her. In 1953 she was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown and that was where she discovered her raison d'ètre. The art course she was prescribed as therapy became her springboard to her future career as an artist.   

 Her debut in the exhibition circuit, in the early 60's, cast her irredeemably in the mould of disquieting eccentric. In actual fact, she was following up her therapy to its logical conclusion. She put on show a series of so-called “Shooting Paintings”. In these, either she herself or members of the public could aim a gun at a plaster relief. The impact of the bullet released hidden bags full of paint that exploded in great splashes of “blood”. Many of these works featured the outline of a man. This was how Niki took her symbolic revenge on her father, who she claimed had molested her when she was a child.

 Her career was consolidated, however, when she met Swiss metal sculptor Jean Tinguely. They formed a partnership that was to last until his death. Tinguely's support and influence was vital for Niki's development and led to some of her most famous works, like the Stravinski Fountain at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, the three cavorting “Nanas that Conquer the City” at Hanover and – her most celebrated legacy - the Taroc Garden, where she wanted to create “a small Eden where man and nature meet.”.

 Entrance to the garden is through a stone pavilion designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta. High and unadorned as a medieval town wall, it is intended to be a total contrast to the Wonderland within. The garden is laid out on a landscaped hillside, full of flowering shrubs and plants. As you walk up the main path, you begin to get glimpses of brightly coloured monstrous forms emerging from behind screens of trees. 

 The impact with the circular piazza surrounded by a jumbled and dazzling collection of shapes and figures can be quite overwhelming. The cogs of the Wheel of Fortune turn laboriously in the middle of the blue pool fed by a cascade of water emerging from the mouth of a hideous High Priestess. She has a snake slithering down her right side and a large creepy-crawly climbing up the left side of her face, while a silver Magician squats on the top of her head. Behind rears the shining Tower of Babel with its top rent and tilted and what looks like a broken bicycle perched on the fissure. All around, in a blaze of psychedelic-like colours and forms, stand the Emperor, the Pope, the dragon controlled by a faceless maiden, personifying Strength, the Tree of Life with snakes for branches and the Sun, whose straddled legs form an archway over the steps leading up to a second area, enclosed in a circular cloister of niches and colonnades.

 Flights of ceramic- covered steps lead up and around the heads of the sculptures, with portholes opening onto views of the surrounding countryside. Every inch is covered in ceramic tiles, mirror fragments and coloured glass. The colours she used all had their meanings. Red meant the creative force, green original vitality, blue embodied depth of thought, ardent desire and will, white was for purity and black stood for vanity and the sorrows of the world. Gold appears abundantly, symbolizing intelligence and spirituality. Every shape is curved and flowing. Saint Phalle did not like rigid straight lines. The pathways around the monumental creations are sinuous and winding and covered with names, signs, letters of various alphabets, symbolic marks and inscriptions carved into the concrete.

 Wandering through the garden, you come across the other sculptures, like Death on his blue horse, the Devil with multi-coloured wings, the Hanged Man dangling upside down in the entrance to the igloo-like chapel of Temperance, the Fool, the Lovers – most people's favourite as they are so clearly recognizable for what they are. There is the Hermit, with his austere silver beard and Justice that encloses a Tinguely scrap iron mechanism that screeches horribly as it grinds round in slow motion allegory. The dancing Star is a voluptous female in the best tradition of Saint Phalle's popular “Nanas” (or Great Mother figures), in stark contrast with their creator who was small, slim and so beautiful that in her young days she had featured as a model on the front cover of “Vogue”. 

 The inspiration of the Guell Park created by Gaudi at Barcelona is evident, but Niki was also influenced by the 16th century Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo, near Viterbo. She was fascinated by the figures on the traditional packs of tarot cards, which are thought to have originated in the mid-15th century in Northern Italy. Originally they were called “carte da trionfi” (triumph cards – leading to the term “trumps” in English)

 The greatest Nana of all and the highlight of the garden visit is the Empress-Sphinx that towers above the pool of the High Priestess. It is a flashback to her first major work – the scandalous “Hon/Elle”. A sprawling pink body, topped by a black face with a blue veil and a red crown, this was actually Niki de Saint Phalle's house while she was living here supervising the work. The inside is entirely covered in a mosaic of mirror shards that reflect fractured images like some fairground sideshow. It is, however, a proper dwelling place, with all facilites.  It has a kitchen and a bathroom, a dining table and a winding stairway that leads up to her bedroom inside the Empress's head.

 Ironically, the garden she had loved so much contributed to her death. She died in 2002 of a lung disease, apparently caused by the toxic gasses released while she worked with polystyrere and the other resins that formed the base of many of her creations. 

 However, “nothing could have stopped me” she writes in her testimonial beside the entrance. “This garden was made with difficulties, love, wild enthusiasm, obsession, and most of all faith.”


 Info. The garden is open afternoons only from April 1 - October 15.

 Tel. ++39.0564.895122


A small fountain
High Priestess, Wheel of Fortune and Magician