Il Giardino dei Tarocchi/La Selva (Capalbio)

In 1978, Niki de Saint Phalle, a French sculptor and filmmaker, began work on 22 giant sculptures of figures depicted on Tarot cards. The sculptures were constructed on top of some Etruscan ruins near Capalbio, about an hour and a half from Rome. They are made of concrete and completely covered in mirrors and ceramic mosaic, making them appear somewhat Gaudi-esque. One of the figures — the Empress — is so big that the artist lived inside of it for months (her bedroom was inside one breast, her kitchen in the other).

This place is nuts, y’all. As was Niki. A former model and offspring of the 13th oldest family in France, she abandoned her children and spent time in a mental asylum before deciding to construct a monumental garden that would use art to heal others the way she believed it had healed her. Prior to this she had spent a number of years being bohemian all over Europe with her first husband, following poets and musicians around and having loads of affairs. She was committed to the mental clinic after a suicide attempt and underwent 10 electroshock treatments. While in the clinic, she collected twigs and leaves and started making collages. After her marriage ended, she took up with sculptor Jean Tinguely and they travelled around Europe doing art and hosting orgies. Niki did this thing where she shot a gun at a pile of knives, scissors, eggbeaters, and baby-doll arms, which she embedded in plaster along with bags of paint. When the bullets hit the paint, the ‘art’ started to bleed.

Niki convinced the brothers of Marella Agnelli (wife of the Fiat president and an old modelling buddy) to give her 14 acres of their land in Tuscany and that’s when she started building the park. Apparently she’d seen it in a dream while she was in the mental hospital. Niki was obsessed with proving that women as well as men could produce art on a monumental scale. She employed dozens of nearby villagers to help, which helped to mitigate local carping about the crazy woman and her monster garden. Her artist friends pitched in as well. The park opened in 1998, after nearly 20 years of work. Today, the Tarot Garden, or Giardino dei Tarocchi, welcomes about 75 000 visitors a year. It is open daily — 2:30-7:30 – from April to October and the first Saturday of each month from November to March.

Here’s just a hint of the crazy. I know nothing about Tarot cards so I can’t really help with interpretation.

This is the Devil. Note the three gold penises.

Apparently the abundant snake imagery in the park stems from the sexual abuse thrust upon Niki at a young age by her father. That could explain some things. Her siblings were troubled also. Both committed suicide.

While you’re in the neighbourhood, you could do worse than to grab a bite at La Selva. Located just off the main road to Capalbio, this seafood restaurant features a lovely veranda and creative twists on Tuscan standards. I had a gazpacho made with beets, buratta and a couple of big fat shrimp. I’ve been trying to replicate it ever since. 

There was a panzanella with tuna. 

Paccheri with swordfish ragu. 

And a herb-encrusted sole that tasted a whole lot better than it looks. 

All very delicious and satisfying. Plus, look at this great veranda! 

La Selva: 58011 Capalbio località Selva Nera 9 (GR)
Telephone: 0564890381

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