It’s amazing how a fresh pair of eyes can wake you up to things you didn’t realize were around you. We’re so easily lulled into thinking we know what’s going on in our neighborhood, when in reality we just know a small subset of our surroundings. I had yet another example of this phenomenon demonstrated to me with my friends Nancy and Kathy’s visit to Italy several years ago.
You might remember them from the piece I wrote at the beginning of 2012 about our middle-of-the-night adventure titled “A Trite Gothic Horror Story” that included Orson-The-Cat and a bat in the cast of characters. They were there the day I got the horrible smell on my clothes from the thermal bath waters at Saturnia (wrote about that in February of 2012), and also the night I had Gordon the Gecko on my pillow (wrote about that in June of last year). They’re cousins, and it seems that one of their dominant family genes is being involved in slightly offbeat things. If you just happen to write a blog, they’re great to have around because they almost always leave you with a story or 2 to tell.
In 2010, Nancy and Kathy had decided they wanted to spend time the Maremma before coming to stay with me for a few days. The Maremma is a relatively unvisited area all the way down in the southwest corner of Tuscany, very close to the border with Lazio…..a region that Tuscans look down upon with even more distain than they do Umbria to their east. My friend Lou’s favorite town of Pitigliano is in the Maremma, so I know a lot about the area. Or rather, I thought I did.
While The Cousins were doing actual research on the area (as opposed to what I would have done, which would have been to just ask Lou what I should see), they came across the name Niki de Saint Phalle – an artist whose fantasy-like sculptures they had seen in both the US and Europe. In the Maremma, just outside the miniscule town of Capalbio, Niki’s project was a large sculpture garden made up of characters from Tarot cards. When my friends finally got to me in Orvieto, they told me it was absolutely fabulous and I should go at my earliest opportunity. Instead, I put it on my “to do” list.
Finally – 2-1/2 years later — I got around to visiting Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (The Tarot Garden), and I have to say that it was MUCH more wonderful than I thought it would….even with all the hype Nancy and Kathy gave it.
Niki dSP (if I may call her that) took her inspiration from the Tarot figures, but all of the larger-than-life sculptures are her own very original interpretation. After she came up with the ideas, they then had to be constructed. The smaller ones you just walk around, some you can walk in, through or on, and she actually lived inside of one for several years. The frameworks for the largest of these creatures were, as she described it on the website: “made from welded steel bars, formed by brute strength on the knees of the crew.” In addition to working on these projects, Jean Tinguely — her second husband and a famous artist in his own right — also created several mechanical metal sculptures that act in conjunction with her pieces.
When she used the word “crew”, she was referring to an incredible number of devoted artisans in a wide array of disciplines. To complete those larger pieces, after the steel frames were in place, a wire mesh was sculpted over them, then came a coating of sprayed cement, followed by the finished cement, and finally the outer layer: ceramic tiles, glass, mirrors – mosaics of an almost unlimited variety of colors and shapes and textures. She started this project in 1978 and it opened in 1998. When you see how complex the pieces are, it’s amazing that the park was finished in only 20 years. The picture below shows a very small portion of an enormous structure representing The Emperor. I’ve included the photo of these 4 ceramic tile columns to show how intricate and original the work is. No two tiles are the same size or shape. The website explains that each tile was sculpted in place on the structure, then taken off, hand painted, fired and then replaced. Incredible work!
Of all the fantastical creatures, The Empress was one of the most fascinating for me, because she’s the one Niki dSP lived in for awhile, and the “house ” is still on view. The photos I’ve included are a totally inadequate representation of how dazzling it is to walk into living quarters that are completely covered in mirrors. The interesting thing is that you’ll notice that no people actually reflect in them. The mosaics were not set so you’ll see yourself; they were positioned to reflect light and color. I can’t imagine how much wine it would take for me to feel relaxed having a meal with that much visual stimulation going on, but Niki was there for several years, so one must assume she got used to it….or perhaps that was the spark that got her creative engine going.
No picture or written description can begin to do the whole experience justice, and I would HIGHLY recommend going, just as Nancy and Kathy recommended it to me. Unfortunately, Il Giardino dei Tarocchi is NOT easy to get to. It seems to be between 1 and 1-1/2 hours from almost everywhere unless you’re staying on the southern Tuscan coast. And pretty as the part of the Maremma I’m familiar with is, the area around the garden is surprisingly “plain”…..and I’m being very kind. But if you’ve got the time, the car and the gas money, it’s an absolutely fascinating way to wile away an afternoon. Hats off to Nancy and Kathy; they’ve once again given me a story to tell.