Tuscany’s Secret Garden

Not far from the fashionable harbor town of Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast is the little known Giardino dei Tarocchi – The Tarot Garden – where, for an enchanting afternoon, you can experience a whimsical alternative reality. An enchanting modern sculpture garden beckons with a surrealist landscape of twenty-two vibrant, massive, fantastical, multicolored depictions of the Major Arcana depictions of the Major Arcana of the mystical and mythical Tarot cards

The garden is the public art masterwork born of the fertile imagination of self-taught French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. A vibrant celebration of feminism, the garden represents a beguiling fusion of pop, folk, outsider art and surrealism. A great lover of Italy, de Saint Phalle was granted the land to create her magical world after a chance encounter with Marcella Agnelli, sister of Fiat industrialist Gianni Agnelli. She began work in 1979 and the colossal project consumed nearly two decades of her life.

Fully immersed in personally designing and building the statues (most measuring between 39 and 49 feet tall), de Saint Phalle hand-painted and decorated each with ornately detailed mirrors, mosaics, multi-colored ceramics and Murano glass, creating a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and shapes. The garden’s largest sculpture is of the Empress, symbolizing the great mother archetype as voluptuous woman-sphinx. An enormous hollow shell, its interior served as de Saint Phalle’s home while she worked on the garden. One of the figure’s breasts housed a lavishly-embellished living, dining and kitchen area and the other, a bedroom and bath.

Throughout the project’s lifespan, the artist enlisted a group of skilled collaborators in her “garden of joy.” Chief among those was her husband, Jean Tinguely, whose mechanical skills helped motorize and breathe life into several of the garden’s features and monumental sculptures. But the overall phantasmagorical design could ultimately be the brainchild of only one supremely gifted individual.

In Giardino dei Tarocchi, a visitor can not only admire the art but interact with it, whether climbing the Tower or playing the Wheel of Fortune. Niki de Saint Phalle meant for her Eden-on-earth to be touched and enjoyed by adults and children alike with all their senses . . . an evocation of – but also a brief respite from – the lifelong game of chance that is the story of the tarot.

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