CAPALBIO, Italy — At a distance, fantastical creatures peek over the trees, providing the first hint of a surrealistic city tucked above the Tuscan farmlands. Only after we enter those grounds and walk up a dirt road do the structures unfold before our eyes, evoking a psychedelic Disneyland. Welcome to the Tarot Garden, an esoteric sculpture park whose placement in rural Italy only adds to its wondrous surprise.
Inspired by Antonio Gaudi’s colorfully abstract Park Guell in Barcelona, the New York-bred French artist Niki de Saint Phalle dreamed of a colony of sculptures based on the symbols of the tarot cards. She found a home for the project near the west-coast village of Capalbio, midway between Rome and Florence.
The first Tarot Garden denizen that we meet face-to-face is the High Priestess, a misshapen visage that sends water down her tiered tongue of steps to a pool where the three-gear Wheel of Fortune stands. Perched atop the Priestess, the goggled Magician laughs, a giant hand reaching out of his head like a plume.
But there’s little time to soak in that multistory, double-headed monstrosity of a fountain, although the hum of rushing water will follow us around the park. Our eyes quickly scan left to the Empress — a hulking sphinx that once served as Saint Phalle’s home — and right to the Tree of Life, an intricately etched, Medusa-like mass of serpentine heads that squirm toward the sky. And on the hill behind them, a tower with a teetering top and a red rocketship await.
Saint Phalle enlisted a brigade of friends and townspeople who helped realize her vision, beginning their work in 1979 and continuing until her death in 2002. The sculptures were shaped by iron frames and wire mesh, covered with cement and embellished with a tiled cacophony of ceramics, glass, mosaics, and mirrors.
The main path winding through the garden’s maze of arcana opens through the azure archway of the Sun, guarded by an Aztec-styled bird, and leads left to the Hierophant, its floating facial features depicting a prophet. While that positive path leads up into the main attractions, a right turn detours to Death (a golden reaper on horseback) and the winged Devil.
Not everything is static. The blossoming figure of Justice reveals a padlocked jail door within her massive cloak. Inside, a cable-wound contraption jerks through its own injustice, patched with animal skulls and a toy skeleton. Gears also clang in the cracked top of the Falling Tower, the imagined target of a lightning strike.
That tall tower hovers over the heart of the Tarot Garden, a courtyard centered by a fountain of bathing maidens and ringed by distorted columns, each casting a different décor: winding beads, red-chili horns, spiral cones, skulls, spiders and snakes. The eye candy continues in every direction. Walls pop with their own three-dimensional figures, from harlequin faces to a rhino with a red splotch (in the 1960s, Saint Phalle caused a sensation by shooting a rifle at artworks with hidden paint bags to simulate bleeding). Mirrors reflect checkerboard stairs in a disorienting climb to the richly encrusted upper level, where a rippling catwalk leads us through the legs of the rocketship. Anyone who can appreciate the courtyard’s excessive, eccentric energy will likely spend much of their time in and around that bustling beehive.
Well, there and the Empress. The sphinx’s exterior alone commands attention: a black madonna with star-dappled cobalt hair, rainbow-quilted toes, and bulging bullseye breasts — one a flower, one a heart. But inside are quarters where the artist ate, slept, and held meetings with her crew for several years, and it’s a home as astonishing as one might expect. We enter its huge hall of fractured mirrors, where a chandelier gets lost over a dining table. The fringes reveal a kitchen as well as a separate bedroom and bathroom, and portholes let us gaze across the sprawling valley below.
Children and adults alike can find fun and fascination in Saint Phalle’s crazy world. From April 1 to Oct. 15, the Tarot Garden is open from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. Admission runs about $14 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and free for kids under 7. It’s free for everyone in the offseason, but generally only open on the first Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The park is best reached by car, just over 1½ hours from Rome or 2½ hours from Florence. Intrepid travelers can also try a train to Capalbio and then a cab, and there are hotels and restaurants within a few miles.
And no, you can’t stay in the sphinx.