The Tarot Garden

This part of our trip; Tuscany with Marie’s parents, was a present to them and included a trip to The Tarot Garden, a large sculpture garden in Tuscany. Marie included it in the History of Art books she wrote me several years ago and ever since I’ve been keen to visit. I’ve been eager all week, each day checking in on when the plan to visit it is. We’re almost at the end of our week together and it’s a Sunday, meaning much of Italy is closed, so a pretty good day to visit. It turns out that the rest of Italy thought so too, but we’ll come back to that!

The garden is only open in the afternoon, so we have a relaxed breakfast and arrive near the Tarot Garden in time for lunch. Eliza has meanwhile had a poo-nami of epic proportions that I attempt to sort out with Francoise on a park bench, which ends up requiring Eliza to be washed in a nearby fountain, she’s so covered. Suitably redressed in a nice clean outfit, we pop into the first restaurant we see, which turns out to be completely great. There’s a large booking beside us, who take around an hour to arrive in dribs and drabs and we discover we’ve made excellent menu choices as we’re pretty much having the same as them, including the wine. Everything is completely delicious. I have a plate of Tuscan crostini (toasted bread with various toppings) and porcini fritti, which is like tempura porcini mushrooms, which are completely amazing. We’re also sharing a delicious baked artichoke with a sweet balsamic dressing and Francoise has yet again made an excellent menu choice with delicious lamb chops. The restaurant also serves pasta with fresh truffle (a local specialty), which I’m intrigued by, but having not really liked any of the variants of truffle I’ve tried so far, 20 euros for the privilege seems a bit of a risk. A couple beside us order it though and it’s cool to see; it comes with a pile of sliced truffle on the top, not the tiny bit of carefully weighed grated truffle I’m expecting. Having now seen it, I vow that if I go back, I’ll try it.

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Lunch finished, we have a small digestive walk through the town, as it’s not yet time for the Tarot Garden to open, and discover a pretty historical centre with plenty of other restaurants, good views and some Tarot Garden inspired statues. It’s soon time, so we take the short trip back to the signs we’d seen and, to our surprise, find ourselves in a very full car park, having expected to be visiting almost alone. It doesn’t matter much though, once we’re in, as it’s completely magical and even Eliza has a great time as there’s so much for her to see and touch!

The Tarot Garden is the brainchild of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle and took over 20 years to form, from its start in 1977 to being first opened to the public in 1998, however Niki continued to work on it until her death in 2002 and it contains a real window into her life and her innermost thoughts and feelings. It’s based on her interpretation of tarot card figures. As we enter, we’re met with a wall of tiles covered in handwriting explaining that they would like to open the Tarot Garden for free, but have to charge and shut it for parts of the year as it’s mostly made from ceramic tiles which need quite a lot of maintenance. Up a dusty slope and there’s large figures poking up above the trees. A little further and we’re met with, what I assume is, everything all at once.

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In the centre is a large blue square face with water cascading out of its mouth down a tiled staircase to a pool below. Above the face is another face, in shiny silver, with a hand coming out the top and a snake weaving down the side. Opposite is a princess confronting a sparkly green dragon and from there, in a semicircle, are several other statues I’m keen to explore. To the left is a lady with a black face, blue shiny hair and large, highly decorated boobs. Beside her is a large multi-coloured structure with what looks like a red rocket coming out of the top. To the right is what looks like a tree, but with snake heads at the end of each branch, half highly coloured and half black and white with writing and drawings all over it. Beside this is a large face that reminds me of the features of a Mr Potato Head, minus the potato. A blue archway with a large bird of paradise with spread wings completes the circuit.

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We set off up some stairs beside the dragon to find some smaller statues ahead of us, including a temple to people the artist has loved and lost through the years. The tiles are all mirror fragments, so you get the effect of seeing parts of you dozens of times at different angles.

From here we go to take a closer look at the woman with large, brightly coloured, boobs. We can see the statue goes back quite a way and conclude it is a mermaid. From up here, it looks pretty different to below and we can see people exploring inside. It turns out that it was the house the artist built herself to live in while she completed the rest of the garden. It seems to be a monument to womanhood and inside is silver, sparkly and reflective all over. There’s a kitchen with all the appliances covered in the same mirror shards, a staircase with a bed above and a bathroom with the shower sculpted into a snake. A large mirror ball sits in the centre, with a dining table below, and every so often Marie points to another feature in the room that I’ve not yet noticed. We also have a climb up the side of it, to a small area on top, covered in shiny deep blue tiles and take a good view of the other sculptures around.

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From here, we continue in a clockwise direction, to Eliza’s favourite statue. From the outside, it looks pretty large and is covered in a hotch potch of different tiles, seemingly at random, but I’m sure it’s full of hidden meaning. Inside, it’s incredible. It is a circular space, with pillars making a small arcade around the perimeter. In the centre is a water feature of several women sunbathing with water shooting from their mouths and nipples. It’s the pillars and the arcade that’s most impressive though, with each pillar and each space in the arcade between them having a different tile or theme. Lots of the tiles are 3D so Eliza has lots of fun touching cones and spikes and skulls.

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I’m a little worried she’s getting overstimulated, despite her having a great time, so suggest we walk in the grass for a bit after this. The path away from the massive statues leads us to several more, including a sci-fi like character that looks like a head stuck on two playing cards, leaning together as they would in a pyramid of cards, covered in mirror shards.

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It’s a little quieter here and Eliza enjoys some adoration from Italian women resting on benches. We head down the slope, finding a golden lady with a skull head atop a horse kitted out in blue sheets, like for jousting or some royal trip. Curiously in the grass beneath her feet are hands and legs sticking out and animal statues on their backs, as if dead or toppled over. [Marie says it’s not curious, as she represents Death…]

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Near to her we find a winged devil with horns, breasts and what looks like three penises and a blue, large bottomed lady atop a golden globe. Back to the main area and we see a hanging man, tower of justice and have a closer inspection of the snake head tree we saw on the way in. It’s really touching, covered in personal writings and drawings, including a set of tiles that read as a letter to her late husband, who completed the mechanical works in the garden.

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Looking down, all the pathways have writing in the concrete. Some simply counting the steps, others in various languages outline the history of tarot or convey other things. All too soon we’ve seen everything and it’s time to depart. Here we’re reminded in no uncertain terms, just how busy it is, with the exit route forcing you through a very tiny gift shop. In the end, I escape with Eliza, leaving Marie to fight through the crowd to buy the book I’ve chosen.

All in all, a fantastic trip, far better than I’d imagined, even hoped, it would be. Definitely the most enjoyable ‘arty’ place I’ve ever been to!

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