Uncovering Italy’s Superlatives in people, places and things

Niki de Saint Phalle by Marella Caracciolo Chia

Marella Caracciolo Chia is an author of The Light In Between and Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan, and contributor The New York TimesYahoo News MalaysiaVogueArchitectural DigestELLE DecorELLE DECOR ItaliaT: The New York Times Style Magazine SingaporeT Japan.

1977 is a year I associate with colours and not just because Rai, Italy’s National Tv network, ceased to air it’s programs in black and white; nor for the increasing presence on the Italian scene of the so-called ‘Red Brigades’, the terrorist group that kidnapped and assassinated Aldo Moro, our former Prime Minister, that same year. I associate 1977 with colour thanks to artist Niki de Saint Phalle who that year stormed into my life and that of my family and of the community of Capalbio, in southern Tuscany, like a summer tornado, bringing with her an array of new experiences and of primary colours.

A dear friend of the author, Giulio Pietromarchi has documented the construction of the Tarot Garden since 1972, collaborating with Saint Phalle. This picture was taken in 1982 while cement spraying the iron skeleton, the Tarot garden, Tuscany.

If I try to conjure the genesis of what would become the internationally renown sculpture garden, which she later named The Tarot Garden (and which my family affectionately renamed ‘i mostri’, the monsters), the picture that forms in my mind is of a grayish day in spring at Garavicchio, our hill-top summer home. It wasn’t exactly cold but the air was filled with dampness and wood logs had been set alight and were crackling in the fireplaces. Niki’s arrival that day had been preceded by ironic and somewhat worried speculations on the part of the male members of my family. All my father Nicola (a documentary maker and environmentalist) and my uncle Carlo, (a publisher who had recently founded the progressive daily La Repubblica), knew about Niki – aside from the fact that she was a longtime friend of their sister Marella Agnelli – was that she was an outspoken feminist and that she had a project in mind for Garavicchio. Might she want to place one of her exuberantly rotund Nanas in our romantic garden? Was she looking for a home to place some of her sinister bride sculptures made with bits of old dolls and lace fabric sprayed white? Or was she eager to explode a monumental golden phallus the way she had done with Jean Tinguely, her longtime artistic and sometime romantic partner, a few years earlier in Milan? No one knew the answer.

Niki captured by Giulio Pietromarchi

Niki – always one to defy expectations – made her appearance that day wearing a black silk dress with enormous fuchsia polka dots given to her by her friend, flamboyant designer Thea Porter, topped by one of her signature straw hats, this one flaunting a small community of exotic birds. In between her hands – such fine, beautiful hands she had – she held a tiny clay model. Peering into it, I discerned a large staircase entering into a mouth belonging to a head with a hand jutting out of it. All around it were fantastical looking creatures including a sphynx with two enormous boobs and an equally enormous bottom, a winged bird and tentacular-looking trees. Niki came straight to the point: “I need a corner of your land,” she told my father and uncle, “in which to create a sculpture garden inspired by the symbols of the Tarot cards.” Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona, which she visited when she was young, and the 16th Orsini garden in Bomarzo, with its mysterious sculptures, were, she explained, her main inspiration.

As she spoke, Niki radiated beauty and the self-assured charisma that only a strong vision can generate. Her charm did the rest and within minutes the worried doubts that had hovered in the air before her arrival melted away giving way to expressions of enthusiasm and admiration. I can still feel the soft rain falling lightly on my face and the feeling of excitement as, after lunch, we went off to explore the hill and find a place where Niki could build her dream. She chose a place where rocky cliffs formed a natural amphitheater and which the ancient Etruscans, who had colonized this area 3000 years before, had elected as a burial ground. Niki revelled in this ‘Etruscan connection’. Despite her radical, avant-garde approach to art, she was attracted by the archaic.

Within a handful of years Niki, with the help of Jean Tinguely and of his assistants (somber Swiss guys with thick beards and strong muscles), transformed the amphitheatre into a land of dreams. I can still see Filippo, my baby brother born the same year of Niki’s first visit, making his way on four legs into the stomach of a giant snake. I can see Edoardo Agnelli, my beautiful and dreamy cousin, then in his twenties, immersed in philosophical conversations with Niki inside the sphynx where she had her studio. Finally, I can conjure an image of myself as an adolescent pottering around her studio pouring my heart out to her on questions about love, a subject that endlessly delighted Niki, and about which she had many opinions. Twice a year – no matter what – she insisted on reading my tarot cards and, in retrospect, I can see how she directed my sentimental journey with wisdom and humour. One thing impossible to forget was the anger of a handful of neighbours who were so put off by her project that they would drive many extra miles every day just to avoid laying their eyes on our hills and its sculptures, which they regarded as the ultimate breach of good taste and good sense.

More than four decades have gone by since that damp spring day in 1977 and the world is a very different place. Niki is no longer with us and other beloved presences have long gone but new generations of visitors and family continue to revel in the colourful presence of these ‘monsters’ who keep radiating and expanding Niki’s energy and joy of life.

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