Last summer, on the suggestion of a friend who had heard we would be travelling through Tuscany, we visited Il Giardino dei Tarocchior ‘Tarot Garden’ by French sculptor, painter, and film maker, Niki de Saint Phalle. The garden – fantastic, in every sense of the word – was an explosion of mosaic-filled light and wonder. It reminded me of another incredible park we had visited 10 years earlier, Parco Dei Mostri in Bomarzo, Italy – built in the 16th century and, as it turns out, one of the inspirations for this garden.
Some history about the artist: born in 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, Niki de Saint Phalle initially rejects the conservative values of her family which dictated domestic positions for wives and strict rules of conduct. After marrying young and becoming a mother, however, she finds herself living exactly the bourgeois lifestyle she had hoped to avoid. This internal conflict causes her to suffer a nervous breakdown and, as a form of therapy, she is urged to pursue her painting. Further encouraged by the American painter Hugh Weiss, who becomes both friend and mentor, she does continue painting in her self-taught style, subsequently moving to Deià on the island of Mallorca, Spain. There she read the works of Proust, visits Madrid and Barcelona, and becomes deeply affected by the work of Antonio Gaudí. Gaudí’s influence opens many previously unimagined possibilities for Saint Phalle, especially regarding the use of unusual materials and objets-trouvés as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. Saint Phalle is strongly influenced by Gaudi´s Parc Güell in Barcelona, as well as Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, the Palais Idéal by Ferdinand Cheval, and Watts Towers by Simon Rodia. She decides she wants to make a monumental sculpture park, too: the first to be created by a woman. In 1979, she acquires several acres of land in Garavicchio, Tuscany, and sets about creating her garden, which would eventually contain a series of 22 fantastical and monumental mosaic-covered sculptures, each a representation of 22 of the mysteries of the Tarot, in addition to numerous other sculptures.
After nearly 20 years Giardino Dei Tarocchi finally opened in 1998, and 16 years later it remains a remarkable wonder for both the eyes and the spirit.