Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Tuscany

Predicting our future: a first date at Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Maremma

The time has come for me to tell you about my first date with my husband, on the occasion of our 8 year wedding anniversary (next week) and of the one year anniversary of the Italy Blogging Roundtable, of which the topic is (drumroll please) anniversaries.

The day I fell irrevocably in love with Tommaso was June 3, 2000. For our first date, we went to Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in  Southern Maremma. I should have been more aware, then, that if a girl tells a guy in his early 20s that she wants to go to a sculpture garden and he readily agrees, he just wants to get into her pants.

If you want to skip the emotional story and just read about the art park, scroll halfway down this page. Otherwise, read on, for how this first date came to be is a fun story in itself.

mosaic niki

Mosaic detail from Niki’s park

In preparation for grad school, while I was working as a teaching assistant in Florence after my MA, I took German classes. A young engineer who had just graduated and who was beefing up his language skills was the only other cool person in the class. He consistently denies this version of the story, but I insist that it is true: he asked me out every class. Twice a week, a new German grammatical structure that I never retained and a new invitation for some party in a villa outside Florence. Brought up not to accept dates from which I could not return home independently, we only frequented each other socially twice between January and June, in group circumstances.

My birthday was coming up and it fell on a weekend, so I asked Tommaso to do something together on June 3. He said what, and I said that I’d heard about a sculpture garden somewhere between Tuscany and Lazio and I only knew the artist’s name – Niki de Saint Phalle. Lo and behold, he found the place on the internet (remember, this was still an early era of digital communications) and although it was over three hours away, he agreed to take me for the day, noting that it was also near a great beach, so to bring a bikini. For some reason, I agreed.

On the appointed day – it was hot out – I wore a blue cotton dress and packed a picnic. I still remember what I made, because it was quite absurd: vegetarian sushi rolls (I was living with Japanese girls at the time). Tommaso picked me up in a borrowed car, his father’s red Alfa Romeo, not wanting to disappoint with his mother’s run-down Peugot. And off we went, unsuspecting, to Maremma.

How many couples do you know with a photo from their first date… in a sculpture park?

I credit Maremma with our love. It was instant and certain. It was the longest and best day ever; we experienced some of the best of the area in a beach, an art park, a thermal springs and a medieval hilltown. After 2000, we have returned to Maremma for our anniversary each year, sometimes more often, and finally bought a home here, to which we escape as often as possible.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Park

And now, about the park. We’ve been to this magical place a number of times, but nothing can ever beat the memory of the first time because we felt like we’d discovered it all by ourselves. Over the years it has become rather more crowded, but is still perhaps the one must-see that Maremma has to offer from an artistic point of view. Looking at the photo above, I realized that the place was full of tourists even then, but we thought we were alone. Like I said, young love…

Niki de Saint Phalle was not the first artist to discover the Maremma area – Mirò, too, was influenced by it – but she was probably the first foreign artist to settle on land here and and build something permanent. The land belonged to friends, but was eventually donated to a Foundation that still today maintains the park. The artist died in 2002.

Niki de Saint Phalle garden

Jean Tinguely fountain in the foreground

Work on the garden started in 1979 and was completed in 1996, for a cost of 5 million euros! The artist was inspired by the Gaudi she saw on a trip to Barcelona in 1955, and while there is a lot of Gaudi here both in the undulous forms and in the use of mosaic, Niki’s own personality strongly shines through. There is also a significant footprint of her second husband, the artist Jean Tinguely, who is clearly behind some of the fountain pieces but who contributed by doing a lot of the heavy welding and construction work under the large mosaic structures.

Ugo Celletti

Of course, the two artists were not the only people to build such a complex art park. On a recent visit Tommaso spotted an elder but sprightly man whose name tag said “responsabile giardino” and we realized this was Ugo Celletti, whom I had read was the local postman who proved talented at laying mirror mosaic. I went up to him and asked him some questions about the garden, but he was rather more interested in discussing fruit.

21 sculptures in total make up the garden, but some are huge architectural structures, while others are “just” more normal sized installations. They are the figures from the major arcana of the tarot deck which the artist said was an important key to dealing with her own spiritual life.

So important that she built her own house in one of the cards’ figures. The large busty sphynx at the center of the garden was Niki’s residence while working on the space. Inside it is a large and irregularly shaped main room with a table and kitchenette, a sleeping loft, and a bathroom. Which sounds entirely normal until I tell you that it was entirely covered in mirror mosaic pieces (installed by Ugo, he told me).

Tommaso in the mirrored house, 2010

The garden has a tiny chapel with a mirror-encrusted interior, a huge Gaudiesque structure with a high area you can walk on, a tower of Babel and various fountains.

Deeper into the woods of macchia Mediterannea (a type of vegetation typical of this area) you’ll discover other works, like solid feline chairs made of resin, hollow colourful tube structures, and one imposing mosaic figure of death.

Death

Needless to say, calling this a “sculture garden” is reductive. Tommaso was more than pleasantly surprised when the place some art-obsessed girl asked to be taken to turned out to be a magical world of mosaics, perhaps with a love-spell thrown in.

Me in 2000 and 2010. The only thing that is constant is the sculpture and my bad taste in comfortable shoes.

Visitor info

Giardino dei Tarocchi
località Garavicchio-Capalbio (GR)
Open afternoons only, April 1 to October 15, 2:30 to 7:30pm
www.nikidesaintphalle.com

Love – mosaic detail

Italy Blogging Roundtable

This is the one-year anniversary of the Roundtable in which 5 lady bloggers write about a chosen, common topic each month. We’re celebrating by writing about Anniversaries. Here’s what the others have to say – and I’m quite sure they each be very different takes on the topic, so be sure to read them all!

By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Georgette-Jupe/519377065 Georgette Jupe

    what a great story! and I love the “before and now” photos :) If I was to do the same it would be decidedly less romantic at an 80′s party in a florentine locale… lol 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=849689865 Joanne O’Sullivan

    This is one of my favorite places in Italy- what a great story about it!

  • http://zerotheone.blogspot.com/ Katerina Bon Vora

    how wonderful to read about your story. so pretty with the blue dress toO! a first date out at the tarot gardens – destiny! ;) now I’m more excited to go visit this place come September. happy anniversary!

  • Gloria

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much I have enjoyed reading this! Kudos to Tommy for a) persistence; b) not being scared by the vegetarian sushi rolls and c) requesting not just a bathing suit but a bikini! Way to go boy! LOL
    And I guess in the last pictures, besides the taste in shoes, which you know I thoroughly agree with, I guess the other thing that is the same is the loving photographer!
    Un bacio grande!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    You are so sweet!!!

  • http://a-sense-of-place.com Erin

    Love it! I’ve only seen her work in Atlanta, DC, and in the train station in Zurich (or Luzern?).  I need that Mirrored House in my house.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    I think the mirrored house would be terrible for a look/weight complex! and so hard to clean…
    I first saw Niki in Nice, actually, when I went to see the Foundation Maeght (see other recent article on this museum) for the first time with my parents the year I graduated from my masters, Dec 1999. I immediately loved her playful works. She must have been quite crazy though to build the park, don’t you think?

  • http://twitter.com/brasilnaitalia brasilnaitalia

    Hi Alex! I knew you’ve been to this incredible garden before, but I didn’t know it was such a romantic place for you. :) It was nice reading your story, and I had so much fun with the first paragraph! Time runs fast, isn’t it? Auguri for your wedding anniversary!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    thanks babi! I don’t usually write such personal posts, as you know!

  • Tilak Durga

    Hi, lovely story. We are from India, planning to visit Italy in September. We will be traveling from Florence to Rome and would love to visit Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Maremma. Can you help me to plan the detour? We would prefer train or bus travel instead of a cab.
    Thanks,

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Durga
    I am answering your note on facebook – the only way i know how to get to this garden is by car, but perhaps there is a bus to nearby… if you like walking!
    Alexandra