Niki de Saint Phalle: The Tarot Garden

by Lorenza Zampa

Niki de Saint Phalle’s esoteric sculpture garden based on the Tarot cards, located in Tuscany, Italy. An astonishing project started in the late seventies and ended when Niki passed away in 2002.

Some parts of the 20 year long venture stand out in particular, starting from the beginning of the project when Niki de Saint Phalle was hospitalized in St. Moritz, in 1974, due to a pulmonary abscess caused by the excessive contact with polyester, raw material of her works. It’s there she finds Marella Agnelli Caracciolo, who she had previously met in New York during the fifties, and is able to explain and describe her the idea of a sculpture garden inspired by the 22 major arcana of the tarots. Marella is immediately enthusiastic and finds her a piece of land in Tuscany, in Garavicchio, so that Niki could start working on the kaleidoscopic Tarot Garden in Capalbio (Grosseto). From an unfortunate event, such as the prolonged convalescence of the artist, a majestic and ingenious project was born. And this was undoubtedly the sign of a fate that became benevolent to Saint Phalle.

What strikes is also how Niki was able to involve a large and varied group of people in creating her park, including locals such as the postman Ugo Celletti, who was responsible for building the small stone paths which outline the itinerary among the sculptures and «a true poet» – as Niki defined him – and master in the art of arranging the iridescent glass fragments, put on the bare bodies of the sculptures made of steel and concrete.

The symbolic and enchanted space comes to life and becomes a place to be fond of. Especially Niki, obviously, is very attached to her sculpture garden, so much that, in 1983 (after 5 years from the beginning of the project) she decides to move and live inside one of them, The Empress, that she defines as the «womb of her mother». Eventually in 1988 she moves again, this time in her new loft apartment she had built herself still inside the garden, in order, according to her, to “escape” from the Empress. At this point the artist is one with her creation and starts to feel the terrible weight of the all-embracing relationship.

The monumental and architectural sculptures that were shaped by the artist and her team, even thought they are adorned with a delicate and chromatic phantasmagoria of the countless mosaic tiles and appear a bit naif, are also powerful and obscure entities that judge silently whoever looks at them or walks through them. The suspended atmosphere that one can feel inside the Garden makes the visitors aware that silence is, in fact, a primary condition for every initiatory journey.

«The Arcana», as Jodorowsky said, «are structures that immediately promote fertile conditions». Fertile as the soft and sinuous bodies of the Tarots of Capalbio which represent the peak of Saint Phalle’s artistic research that started during the first half of the sixties with the first Nanas which marked the definitive break with her recent artistic path.

Among the most fascinating sculptures of the Garden we find The World, the last of the major Arcana: here an egg, symbolic common element in art history – we could mention for example the ostrich egg, sign of maternity and rebirth, hanging by a thread over the heads of the characters of the Sacred Conversations painted during the 16th century, worth mentioning is the Pala di Brera by Piero della Francesca – doesn’t appear over the heads of the characters but it’s instead placed underneath as a base for the feminine figure that stands on top of it on its left leg. There is also a colorful striped snake that wraps the golden egg and comes out from the curvy thigh of the mysterious woman. Is this the legendary cosmic snake that according to an ancient pagan myth holds tight in its coils the shell of the primordial egg that gave birth to life?

That’s hard to say. The word “orbit”, referred to the path of celestial bodies, in that case would come from orbes, the Latin word for the coils of the snake. But even the origin of the game of Tarots and its etymology are uncertain. It seems that the word “Tarot” belonged to several ancient cultures, both in the west and in the east, it is possible that it might come from the ancient Egyptian (tarot = tar+rot “royal”+“path”), or that has Tatar origin (tarot from tan-tara meaning zodiac) or even from Sanskrit (tarot as a combination of tat = “the whole” and tar-o = “fixed star) or Hebrew (tarot from tora meaning “law”); alternatively it could be of Latin derivation (from rota = “wheel”, or orat = “talk”) or also from Chinese (from tao = “the path to excellence”). We are indeed talking about ancestral knowledge with common roots.

Going back to Capalbio, the planning of further works in the Garden stop abruptly with the death of Saint Phalle as she left written in her will. And this is something else that we need to remember if only to underline the poetic essence of the artist’s stance, strict but right. Niki conceived a magical place, she built it and opened to the public still maintaining it uncontaminated and this was, is and will be her personal dream of a lifetime.

Lorenza Zampa

All images > Niki de Saint Phalle: The Tarot Garden

Photo, Fabrizia Di Palma © XIBT