Off Tuscany’s beaten path and into the Tarot Garden


Off Tuscany’s beaten path and into the Tarot Garden

29 June 2016

Something unexpected hides among the olive trees of southern Tuscany: a garden filled with mysterious, arcane, even psychedelic sculptures. It’s the Tarot Garden of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, and one of Tuscany’s most unique and creative places to visit.

Maremma hides something completely unexpected within its forests. The word "Maremma" may first bring to mind the great wines of this southern Tuscan area, like the dry, coastal red made from Sangiovese called, Morellino di Scansano. For the less oenologically-inclined, it might conjure up images of the Tuscan coast, vineyards sloping towards the Tyrrhenian Sea, and medieval towns like Capalbio and Scansano. Who would think first of avant-garde art, larger-than-life and conspicuously colorful? The fantastical Tarot Garden in Maremma was the pinnacle work of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. It is definitely a stop to put on your Tuscan travel list.

What do you plant in a tarot garden?

The Tarot Garden is constructed on 14 acres of land overtop what once was an ancient Etruscan site. It features twenty-two dazzling sculptures that represent the Mysteries of the Tarot, such as The High Priestess, The Magician, The Empress (which the artist lived inside for five years), The Devil, and The Hanged Man. Made principally from ceramic, polyester, mosaics, and mirrors molded and fitted over steel frames, these monuments are bursting with color. They invite visitors to touch, explore, and open your creative eye. Their buoyant forms are unlike any you’ll see on traditional Tarot cards, showing the artist’s signature style: exuberant, often feminine bodies that curve, bulge, and twist in unbounded expressions of their archetypal characters. The sculptures are fun to visit and 100% kid-friendly, but the garden takes on richer meaning when viewed through the lens of the artist’s fascinating life and everything she spent to make it.

Sowing the seeds of an artist

The art of Niki de Saint Phalle was heavily shaped by her early years. Her privileged yet traumatic childhood, escapades and trysts, trials and artistic triumphs make for an incredible tale on its own (Ariel Levy’s long read “Beautiful Monsters” in The New Yorker is an engrossing, detailed story). Capalbio, Tarot Garden, Death Capalbio, Tarot Garden, Death - © G. Sighele

Born in 1930 to the 13th oldest aristocratic family in all of France, she had a financially privileged but difficult childhood; her mother had a violent and unpredictable temper, and her father sexually abused her when she was eleven. She modeled in New York in the 1950s, and had two children with her first husband, but they proved to be poor parents who often left their kids at home alone, even as infants. Niki did not take well to domestic life or the duties expected of women at the time. Her difficulties were exacerbated by marriage infidelities (from both parties). She eventually spent time in a mental clinic, and something good unexpectedly came from it: she emerged an artist, finding her freedom and salvation in art. Eventually, she divorced her first husband to live an independent, artistic life.

The creation of the garden

If you’ve ever seen Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona, it’s clear that the artistic style of Niki de Saint Phalle was inspired by it when she visited in the 1950s. She said of her time there, “I met both my master and my destiny. I trembled all over. I knew that I was meant one day to build my own garden of joy.” Capalbio, Tarot Garden, The High Priestess Capalbio, Tarot Garden, The High Priestess - © Simone Ramella

She was also known for her large, female “Nana” dancing figures, many of which were made from polyesters. Working with polyesters lead (unknowingly) to an abscessed lung in the 1970s. She transferred to Switzerland for the cleansing mountain airs, and there was reacquainted with a key figure in creating her masterpiece: Marella Agnelli. This lady, from a prominent noble Italian family, was a friend from her modeling days in New York. Marella was captivated by her friend’s idea, and her brothers, who owned land in Tuscany, were also captivated by the lovely Niki with her huge eyes and tall, waifish figure (Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan could have been modeled after her). They gave her land to build. Capalbio, Tarot Garden, The High Priestess Capalbio, Tarot Garden, The High Priestess - © Rensenbringk

The first steel frameworks were laid in 1978, and construction did not stop until Niki’s death in 2002. Imagine how this sheltered place in rural Tuscany came alive! It went from a sleepy village to a hub of local and international collaborators. Niki worked with many people over the years, including her second husband and artistic collaborator Jean Tinguely; dozens of fellow artists and architects; and countless locals. She created a sort of artistic, creative oasis. After learning some Italian, she began to be seen as a mothering figure to her young male workers from town—who took orders from her as readily as they did from “la mamma” in their own lives—and, to the girls and women, as an inspiring female figure who was strong, ambitious, creative, and successful in building this monumental work. Indeed, though she spurned the term “feminist,” she was, in many ways, exactly that. She paid for everything herself. That is, she had no official sponsors, although some well-off friends acted as benefactors during the course of her work. She even brewed up schemes to help her earn more money, like inflatable Nanas for swimming pools and her own line of perfume. Often, this French aristocrat only had enough money to pay her workers until the next month, a fact she kept to herself. The project cost two million dollars, or what would be eleven million dollars today. In 1997, architect Mario Botta built a massive stone wall around the garden. Its distinctly heavy style was purposefully designed to separate two realities: outside and in. As Niki described, it’s “like the dragon who protects the treasure in fairy tales.”

Visit the Tarot Gardens of Niki de Saint Phalle

Today, an annual 75 thousand people visit the gardens every year, scrambling over and walking among the mirrored, mosaic wonders. Give yourself at least an hour to enjoy this wonderland, more if you have kids. The gardens are located 1 hour and 45 minutes from Rome, and 2 hours and 30 minutes from Florence; so a pleasant day trip from either city would be well worth it. Visit the gardens, walk through Capalbio, visit the sea, and—of course—spend time at a winery to taste the local wines! If you go during the first Saturday of the month, Nov.-Dec. and Jan.-March (9:00-13:00), visits are free, as Niki de Saint Phalle desired. Otherwise, the gardens are open daily from April 1 to October 15 (14:30-19:30) at €12 for adults (children under 7 free). Find further information on the official website: