Sara Pierdonà explores the extraordinary artistic community that has developed in Tuscany's barren Maremma region, inspired by Niki de Saint Phalle's pyschadelic Tarot Garden and the vision of Italian tastemaker, Marella Agnelli



Artworks using oxidation by Maremma-based artist, Pietro Pasolini 


“It is not an accident that I'm making this garden in Italy. There is a reason. My hand is guided. I follow a path that has been chosen for me.” This declaration, written by artist Niki de Saint Phalle in her personal diaries, is how the French-American painter and sculptor (1930-2002) described the location of the Tarot Garden: the mighty, unrepeatable work to which she dedicated the last 20 years of her life.

References to the land can also be found in public letters Niki addressed to Italian tastemaker, Marella Agnelli, “without whom the Garden would never have existed”. The two women, whose destinies had already crossed in 1950s New York, met again in the Engadine 20 years later; Niki was there convalescing from a lung disease due to her work with plastics. “How well I remember our long winter walks amidst the pine trees. Do you remember our five o'clock Russian teas in front of the fire while we took turns reading poems of Cavafy and Akhmatova?" she wrote.


Works by Niki de Saint Phalle, pictured in The Last Swan, by Marella Agnelli


One day, at the foot of a glacier, Niki confided in Marella, revealing her lifelong dream of building a psychedelic garden populated by fantastical figures, somewhere between dreams and primordial archetypes, where the dialogue between art and nature would be uninterrupted. Recalling her sense of urgency, Niki wrote: “If I had not concretised my dreams into sculptures, I might have become possessed by them and ended up in a psychiatric hospital - victim of my inner visions”.

Niki's project seemed to have an immediate hold on Marella who set about helping her find private land. Marella's brothers, Carlo and Nicolo Caracciolo, helped too, driving Niki, and a clay model, to Capalbio. "It looked like a tiny, harmless project," recalled Marella. "Both my brothers and my sister-in-law, Rossella, were enchanted and were happy to give her a piece of the property...They chose a spot in the bush with a natural amphitheatre of rocks that two thousand years earlier had been used by the Etruscans as a burial place. Niki, always ready to seize the signs of destiny, liked this connection with such an ancient and evolved civilization”.

Niki de Saint Phalle's monstrous sculptures at her Tarot Garden in Maremma


It took someone with great experience and vision to accept Maremma's barren, wild landscape. Relegated to the last pages of all Tuscany guidebooks, the Maremma possesses none of the region's famous rolling hills dotted with picturesque, charming villages. Nor does it possess a highway, even though it is the largest province in the region and regularly visited by domestic tourists. A popular song from the early 19th-century describes the region as, "a bitter Maremma", while many draw parallels with the Wild West; Maremma has a centuries-long history of cowboys (‘butteri’) and banditry, still present during the construction of the Tarot Garden.

Indeed, in the early 1980s, Nicola and Carlo warned Niki that the raids of a notorious bandit were coming dangerously close to their land. Undeterred, Niki continued to live alone (she had placed her bedroom within the Sphinx, a large sculpture), but Jean Tinguely, her partner, took steps to armour access to the sculptures. Niki wrote: “So during the day, the Sphinx was open, hospitable. At night, it became a bunker, a fortress. I didn't like locking myself up like that; I wasn't scared."

On 15 May 1998, after a turbulent period of intense highs and lows, Niki de Saint Phalle's Tarot Garden finally opened to the public. Since Niki stipulated that no work should continue after her death - just four years after it opened - certain interventions and statues remain unfinished at the much-visited Maremma site. Also on Niki's instructions, there are no tours: visitors must find their own interpretation.

Artworks by Maremma-based artist, Pietro Pasolini © Pietro Pasolini

Italian artist, Pietro Pasolini, grew up on a neighboring plot, where he lived with his grandmother. She was similar to Niki: outspoken, charismatic, sometimes crude. The community that developed around the ‘construction site’ was equally exceptional: artistoids and libertines who volunteered to help out for irregular periods, sometimes clashing in furious quarrels, other times solving difficult structural problems, and even contributing mosaic tiles to Niki's sculptures. Pietro recalls no boundary between serious art and reckless games: when children broke into the park, the water in the fountain was opened so they could bathe inside the mouth of one of the monsters.

Now an artist himself, Pietro developed a series of works using oxidation (instead of chemical agents). He achieved this through trial and error by exploiting the natural process of live metals exposed to different oxygen conditions. “I got the idea looking at the bronze statues in Rome, that turn green when exposed to the open air. Other great sources of inspiration were Richard Long, Richard Serra, Walter de Maria...”.


Pietro Pasolini, photographed in front of his artworks in Maremma 

Pietro is not the only one of Niki's neighbors to become an artist. Opposite the Tarot Garden stands the family home of Benedetto Pietromarchi, a sculptor. For Benedetto, “it has always been sculpture”, although he occasionally experiments with paintings too, as long as they are material and almost 3D. He likes to use earth, mixed with liquid glue. How is the earth in Maremma? “Clear and fragrant,” he says. “It smells of talcum powder. But it is not an easy soil...nothing grows there”.

While training in London during the 1980s, Benedetto found himself disappointed with art academies. “The schools had absorbed the avant-garde and cancelled traditional programmes, like live painting... a big loss for me, who wanted to learn the technique!” Benedetto left the cultural ferment of the metropolis and went to Carrara, an almost mythological place for an aspiring sculptor, where time seems suspended. There, students were sent directly to the quarries to choose a piece of marble to work on, exactly as Michelangelo had done half a millennium earlier.

“Everything in that period of my life harked back to the past, to history," he says. "I lived and worked in an 18th-century house; I spent my time wandering around, enchanted, in the abandoned 15th-century ironworks on the family land, which looks like a monumental Piranesi engraving; I sculpted very realistic bonzes, inspired by Egyptian art, trying to capture their hieraticity...”.

Designs and artworks in Maremma by Italian sculptor, Benedetto Pietromarchi


Afterwards he returned to London, to live the life of a bohemian artist, where he found the city's East End "the realm of rats, heroin and prostitutes". It was then, before moving to Berlin, that he started to approach environmental issues. "I started sculpting pelicans following an oil accident in the Gulf of Mexico," he says. "It was, in my memory, the first major environmental disaster broadcast live and the images shocked me. However, with art, I do not like to protest in the radical sense of the term. I prefer to stimulate consciences by showing something poetic, something that deserves to be safeguarded”.

After Berlin, Benedetto returned to Capalbio where a special project awaited him: restoring the family chapel – an authentic chapel consecrated by papal bull, but which over the years had been destroyed and converted into a flat. He opted for charcoal and pencil drawings made directly on the white walls, and terracotta sculptures patinated with gold leaf. The altar was made by a local blacksmith, based on Benedetto's design. One theme is St. Anthony and its symbolic lily, which Benedetto was able to use for the decorative elements of his design. "It was perfectly suitable, because years ago there were expanses of lilies all over the dunes of Capalbio...they gave off a wonderful, intoxicating perfume".

The second theme is Mary - "I have always liked Madonnas...I think that in art, Madonnas represent feminine strength” - and the third is the Maremma. In the background of Benedetto's sculptures, hinted at with strokes of charcoal, Monte Argentario, Monteti and all the essential hills around the town appear.

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