Major Arcana. Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, Capalbio

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be in a place I had long wished to visit, the Tarot Garden (Giardino dei Tarocchi) built by artist Niki de Saint Phalle in Garavicchio, Capalbio, southern Tuscany. Go there, by all means.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) is easy to misunderstand; her feminism in a pop dress made her somewhat of a niche artist, known for her Nanas and her 1971 marriage to fellow artist Jean Tinguely, but without the gravitas of, say, a Louise Bourgeois. Yet, the Garden is such a masterwork that, after visiting it, it is hard to deny her greatness.

First conceived in 1979, the Garden was completed in 1996 and opened to the public in 1997. The concept for the Garden is a sculptural representation of each of the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Most of the Arcana are cement figures covered in mosaic; some are structures you can walk into, some are mosaics inside another figure, some are simpler free-standing fiberglass sculptures. The choice of the Tarot, of course, carries with it the full weight of their spiritual and esoteric content; walking through the Garden gives you a glimpse of the artists’s struggle throughout the project, her loneliness as she lived inside the Empress for long stretches, and her nightmares as she worked on the Devil.

It also shows you Niki de Saint Phalle’s leadership: for it is not enough to have a vision, it is necessary for the artist to execute it. The project needed fundraising, getting help from friends, dealing with Italian bureaucrats (!), creating a team of artisans, technicians and crewmen ready to commit to the project for years at a time. And the Garden needs maintenance and preservation work every year, carried out by the Fondazione Giardino dei Tarocchi in the months when it is closed to the public, because it is a fragile work and without the necessary care it would be run over by the wilderness in the space of a few years. It is, I think, a triumph: you come out of it a bigger person than you walked in.

Don’t hesitate to bring kids. They will love it and, I hope, they will be able to go back as grown-ups, as they’re playing out the cards they have been dealt.

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