Scusi, Do You Speak English?


Day 7: Gardens, Sacred and Profane

My last full day with the group began early. Brian had firmly insisted that everyone be ready to leave promptly (by 8:30 if I recall correctly), as we had a long drive ahead of us. And everyone managed to be on time, a remarkable achievement for our merry band. We piled into the vans and headed south, towards the Giardini di Tarocchi by Niki de St. Phalle. The garden is located in the very southwest corner of Tuscany, about a 3 1/2 hour drive from the Castello di Montalto.

The drive gave us the chance to experience the high-speed Autostrada. High-speed it was, too; no matter how fast we drove (John later mentioned that he spent much of the trip cruising at 145 km per hour), there was always a Mercedes passing us as though we were standing still. We knew that we were traveling into a warmer, more southern climate when we looked out the window and saw rice fields! (Thanks to Francesca for later pointing out that this assumption was incorrect: since water is more critical than temperature, rice fields are actually more common in the north of Italy.) As we approached our destination, it became apparent from the terrain that we were near the ocean. I looked at a map later and saw that we were very close indeed. It would have been nice to stop at the shore, if only to see the Mediterranean for the first time. But with all the events planned for the day, there was simply no time to spare.

I had a really interesting conversation with Francesca during the trip. Somehow it came out that the stereotypes of northern vs. southern Italy are extremely similar to those in the US: northerners think that southerners are stupid, ignorant and lazy, and southerners think that northerners are cold, pushy and rude. I grew up in the northern US (Delaware) and now live in the South (North Carolina), while Francesca was born in northern Italy (Piacenza, near Milan) but her family is from the south (Sicily). So we each stand with one foot in the north and one in the south, so to speak, in a position to vividly see the pointlessness of such prejudices. (My friend Charles later told me that the same sort of stereotypes can be found between northern and southern Germany. Is this some sort of universal bigotry principle?)

The Giardini di Tarocchi, seen from a distance
The Giardini di Tarocchi, seen from a distance

As we approached the Giardini di Tarocchi, we had a moment of panic when we thought we had lost the Genettis: fearing a speeding ticket, Ken had dropped back, not driving nearly as fast as John and Mike. When our exit came up, they were too far behind us to see us turn off, and they missed the turn! Brian went running back up the off-ramp to try and catch them, but was too late. Dejected, we headed on to the Giardini, only to find the Genettis there waiting for us! I guess they must have taken the next exit and doubled back, while we were waiting by the off-ramp. What a relief!

Unfortunately, there had been a miscommunication of some kind, and the giardini wasn't open yet. We could see those amazing, brightly color sculptures rising out of the trees, but a large stone wall with a very locked gate stood between them and us.

We headed on to the nearby town of Montalto di Castro, to have lunch while we waited. Brian explained that Castro means "castle" in the local dialect. How fun to have left "Castle on the High Mountain" (Castello di Montalto) only to arrive at "Castle on the High Mountain" (Montalto di Castro). Georg noticed that the fountain in the center of town was a sculpture of the stylized bumps that we'd come to recognize as the symbol of mountains (the same bumps, accompanied by olive branches, show up in the symbol for Monte Oliveto).

Most of the group headed off to a nearby cafe for lunch. Georg, Francesca and I joined the Williamses and the Genettis on a picnic. We had hoped to eat in a park beyond the parking lot where the vans had parked. But it turned out to be a highly inhospitable park, with tall grasses, no benches, and no place to picnic. So, we picnicked in the parking lot instead. It was not the most picturesque or scenic place I saw in Italy, but we made the best of it. We were standing in the shadow of an old castle (I guess that would be the castro in Montalto di Castro), and we joked about enjoying the view of the historic castle, complete with historic weeds growing out of the cracks and historic laundry hanging from the windows.

With the food we had brought, plus supplies from the local market, we had a veritable feast: bread for sandwiches, plus tomatoes, lettuce, that marvelous pecorino, and a smidgen of prosciutto. We shared the pecorino (and our bread knife, which Georg had wrapped in protective cardboard and brought along) with the others, and Brian shared some incredible mozzarella bufala with us. After eating, the Williamses went on a tour of the castle, while Francesca, Georg and I wandered over to a cafe, to have a drink and sit in the air conditioning for a while. I surprised myself by deciphering a newspaper headline: it said that tiger mosquitoes, zanzara tigre, a pest which plagues us in North Carolina, have been seen near Rome. (The tiger mosquito, in case you haven't had the pleasure, is a small black mosquito with white stripes on its body -- thus the name -- which doesn't make a sound. So you don't know it's there until it's already bitten you.) I confess I was rather proud of myself for being able to read even those few words of Italian!

Francesca asked if we could tell the difference between her accent and that of the people who worked in the cafe. Alas, I couldn't. My comprehension of Italian was not good enough to notice what was a regional accent, and what was just personal vocal characteristics. Though I could tell that they were going to some effort to be mutually understood; it wasn't the perfectly smooth conversation that I saw her have with people in Florence or Siena.

La Luna by Niki de St. Phalle
La Luna by Niki de St. Phalle

Finally it was late enough that we could get into the famed Giardini di Tarocchi. After spending days immersed in graceful, luminous Renaissence religious art, it was a wonderful change of pace to experience the explosion of color and emotion that de St. Phalle had created.

The garden is a series of sculptures that depict the Tarot trumps, most very large. They are full of exuberent energy, covered with mosaics made of brightly colored ceramic, mirrors, and fimo clay. The sculptures all entice the viewer to touch, walk around, peer (sometimes walk or crawl) inside, or climb over. De St. Phalle's work was a collaberation with her husband, Jean Tinguely, who created metal sculptures in motion. (My father, familiar with Tinguely's work, later told me that he was famous for building sculptures that, when set into motion, destroyed themselves).

For example, Justice was a massive, rounded woman in black and white ceramic, holding huge scales. Inside Justice's belly sat a macabre, noisy work by Tinguely, a contraption of rusty metal and dessicated animal bones which screeched as it moved. The Tinguely sculpture, padlocked inside Justice, represented Injustice, according to a caption written in the concrete sidewalk in front of the work.

The sculptures could be delicate, lovely, and full of grace as well. Another favorite, The World, had a voluptuous World Dancer by de St. Phalle on top of a very large metal sculpture by Tinguely. The World was somewhat isolated from the main sculptures, down a dirt path. A motion detector on the path sets the sculpture in motion. So if you were lucky enough to come across the World when no other viewers were present, you could see it spring into life as you approached.

I think my favorite of all was Temperance. The Temperance Angel was fluid and graceful, standing on top of an igloo-shaped structure. Inside the igloo was entirely mirrored, creating a kaleidoscope effect. The room was a tiny chapel with photos of collaberators on the project that have died (Tinguely, and a friend of de St. Phalle named Riccardo) on the altar. A lovely Maria con Bambino watches over the photos.

Of course, I can't discuss the Tarot Garden without mentioning the Empress and the Emperor. Shaped like a Sphinx, the Empress served as de St. Phalle's home while she worked on the project. There was a patio on the Empress' back, reached by climbing a narrow staircase made of fimo clay. To enter the home was like walking into a mirrored womb (we entered between the Empress' legs!). Every inch of the interior was covered with tiny mirror fragments, even the kitchen countertops, sides of the bed frame, etc. Light and movement flashed off the mirrors, reflected a million times.

Several people mentioned that it would drive them crazy to live in a space like that. I think it would drive me crazy too, but it wasn't meant for me to live in, it was meant for Niki. I can imagine how inspiring it must have been for her to live like that, surrounded by her work and her incredible imagination every moment of the day. Inside the Empress were a few of the smaller works: the Chariot, a lovely little Star that reminded me of Matisse, and Judgment was on the wall (ok, that was one break in the mirrors).

Georg, Francesca and Sarah with La Forza by Niki de St. Phalle
Georg, Francesca and Sarah with La Forza by Niki de St. Phalle

The Emperor was a castle, the largest structure in the Garden (I think). Pillars were decorated with ceramic shapes: curvy red horns, pointy little pyramids, black salamanders, kissy lips. Panels along the walls illustrated various scenes, some beautiful and some horrific (for example, a simple human figure in white ceramic that had been torn and painted with blotches of red). In the center of the courtyard was a fountain shaped like four women bathing together in a small pool. You could climb up to the second level and walk around the castle, look down at the folks inside the castle courtyard and peer in the windows of the Tower (which appeared to serve as an office: I saw a stack of three ring binders and a small sculpture sticking out of a plastic bag). On the second level there was a red rocket ship you could walk under. Look up and you would see another marvelous kaleidoscope, made by tiny mirrors covering the hollow interior of the rocket. My main impression of the Emperor was running around the castle, finding something new to see and touch every few feet, giddy with delight at the wonderful extravagence of it.

With so many elements to see and feel and explore, the Emperor was a little overwhelming. In fact that's true of the entire garden. I feel that I am not doing it justice, that I couldn't possibly describe it adequately. I hope that you all have the opportunity some day to experience this remarkably inventive expression of one artist's Tarot vision. There are some nice pictures of the garden on this website:

The site is in German, but I didn't have any difficulty finding the pictures. I have to mention here that many, perhaps most, of the other turisti I noticed at the Tarot Garden seemed to be German. In fact, at one point I asked Moonchild, a member of our party who hailed from Switzerland, to teach me how to say excuse me in German ("schuldigen Sie mich"), because I felt silly saying scusi to people who were obviously German. I wonder if de St. Phalle is particularly popular in Germany and if so, why.

After a couple of hours exploring the Tarot Garden, I felt a bit tired and warm, so I took off my shoes and soaked my feet in the cool water in the fountain that spilled out of the High Priestess. It was so nice to just sit, watching two teenagers, with skirts tucked up, wading in the pool. While I was sitting there, cooling my feet in the water, Brian came over and commented that no one asks permission anymore, they just wade right in. I allowed as how Niki must have wanted people to wade in the pool, since she had painted footprints all over the bottom. Brian responded, as delicately as possible, that he didn't think that was paint. I gingerly ran my toe across the bottom and he was right! What I had taken for painted footprints, to encourage wading, were actually real footprints in the thin layer of green scum that coated the bottom. Icky!

After the Tarot Garden, our next destination was the Sacro Bosco (sacred forest), also called Parco dei Mostri (garden of monsters), at Villa Orsini, near the village of Bomarzo. This garden is actually in the neighboring province of Umbria, about ninety minutes north of Rome. I believe that this is not a very well-known tourist attraction, as I just spent the past hour searching on the web, finding precious little information and only a few snapshots. Unlike the Museo Civico in Siena, for which I found those nifty 3d online tours in a few minutes.

Some of our sight-seers were tired after the Giardini di Tarocchi, and stayed in the snack bar rather than explore the sculptures. I considered staying behind too, but once we got out there, I knew that would have been a mistake. The garden was apparently built in the late 16th century, in the backyard of the Villa Orsini, to delight, amaze and horrify viewers. It is dotted with massive stone sculptures, some pagan, some mysterious, some gruesome. For example, twenty-foot long reclining Greek gods and mermaids; an elephant with a tower on its back, crushing a soldier with its trunk; Hercules breaking an Amazon's back over his knee. One of the most memorable pieces was a massive face carved into the side of a hill. You walked inside the gaping mouth, and inside found a small dining area. The only light was provided by the eyes and mouth. The table, a stone slab, strongly resembled an altar. The space also resembled a tomb. How decadent Orsini's guests must have felt, dining on a hot afternoon inside that cool, darkened tomb.

There was also a "leaning tower": a structure deliberately built at a significant angle -- 10 degrees perhaps? I'm not good at judging such things by eye -- so that the entire building leaned to one side. Going inside the tower was noticeably disorienting, much moreso than I expected. It made me feel a little dizzy! Brian pointed out that this crazy, drunken, leaning tower was a true representation of The Tower of the Tarot trumps.

Like many of the places I have attempted to describe, the Sacro Bosco transcends verbal description and really must be seen. Here are a couple of web pages with pictures: (this one has some good photos, apparently from some guy's vacation, complete with amusing commentary. I wish he had written more!) (there are pictures of several places on this page; look for the ones called "Bomarzo: garden monsters") (this one has a description, but only in Italian)

Brian had hoped to take us to the nearby town of Orvieto, which I hear is very scenic, for dinner. But by this time, everyone was feeling tired, so we decided to head straight back to our Castello di Montalto. On the ride back, I sat with Simon Howard and had a really interesting conversation. Simon is a professional photographer, with a fascinating perspective about how photography, capturing experiences with a single image, tends to narrow our memory of the experience. It was great to get the chance to talk with him.

It was very late by the time we made it back to Montalto. About half the group headed down the hill for another lavish dinner at the Monastero d'Ombrone. Georg, Francesca and I stayed at the castello and had a quiet dinner with Brian, John and Ann, Maria, and Simon. After all the excitement and sightseeing of the past week, I was really glad to have a quiet, simple dinner with friends.

Brian entertained us with stories of "the good old days" -- three years ago! -- when there was little Internet presence in Italy, and hotel reservations all had to be made by phone, imitating the old Italian ladies with whom he would often try to communicate ("Can you call back? Papa's not here!" "Signora, I'm calling from California, it's 3am, can you please --" "Call back later! Papa's not here now!"). He also told us about being locked out of his hotel, many years ago, and the hotel manager yelling down at him from a second-story window, "What's wrong with you Americans! You stay out too late! There is no nightlife in Florence!"

We finished the meal with a wonderful Italian dessert of fresh fruit, chilled until almost frozen, with red wine poured over it. Simple and elegant, the perfect end to our final meal at Montalto.

This was in fact our farewell dinner, though the group was staying for another day, because of a scheduling goof. We had made our plane reservations through, where we got a decent price. Unfortunately, when you book with Priceline, you are not allowed to specify the time of your flight, only the date. So we were stuck taking a 12:30 flight from Malpensa airport, in Milan. The only way to catch that plane was to take a 6 am train from Florence. And the only way to catch that train was to be in Florence first thing Saturday morning.

So even though Brian would be delivering the group to Florence on Saturday afternoon, the three of us had to leave on Friday. With much sadness, Georg and I gave Brian our leftover pantry supplies (half-filled bottles of wine and olive oil, a head of garlic, that sort of thing), and made plans for our departure the next morning. We retired to Scuola just as the other dinner group was returning from the monastery.

Next time: Saying goodbye, and another look at Florence.

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Castello di Montalto official website



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