Out of Office: Italy

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Earlier this year, my husband and I had the (overwhelming, outstanding, ecstatic) pleasure of spending a few weeks on vacation in Italy. To make the most of our time, we focused on the northern half of the country, traveling a big loop that began and ended in Rome. While there are an astonishing number of sights to see – too many, maybe – my biggest priorities were two of arguably the most fantastic art environments out there – Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden and Sacro Bosco a.k.a The Monster Park of Bomarzo. Luckily, with Rome as our first and primary stop, visiting these sites turned out to be pretty easy. 


Colorful sculptures emerge from trees with a blue sky and clouds above

Clouds over The Tarot Garden


Large sculptures of Hercules & Cacus at Sacro Bosco

Hercules & Cacus at Sacro Bosco


After several days of sightseeing and pasta-eating, we picked up our rental car (a tiny, red Fiat, naturally) and started our journey to the art environments. It’s possible to get to both locations from Rome by taking a train and transferring to a bus; however, it’s definitely not convenient and would also make it impossible to see both sites in one day, like we did. Driving also means you get to experience one of Italy’s greatest treasures – the Autogrill, food counters in many gas stations that serve fresh, delicious sandwiches, pizza, espresso, and more. You’ll never look at a 7-11 hotdog the same way again. 

Sacro Bosco, commissioned by the Duke of Bomarzo Pier Francesco Orsini circa 1550, opens at 9am, so we made it our first stop. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive from the Fiumicino Airport, where we picked up the rental car, to the small town of Bomarzo. (Both sites were very easy to locate using Google Maps.) We pulled into a small parking lot adjacent to the site, and I was easily able to purchase same day tickets at the entrance. The walk to the primary sculpture area is through an open field installed with contemporary sculpture. Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the park and wear comfortable shoes as it’s pretty spread out. 


Visitors stand in front of Proteo-Glauco, one of the first sculptures in the park.

Visitors checking out Proteo-Glauco, one of the first sculptures in the park.


Though the vegetation is very lush compared to vintage photos of the site, it and the sculptures appeared to be well maintained. Most notable was the huge difference in the amount of plant matter clinging to the stone artwork. Photos from about ten years ago show many of the works nearly completely covered in plant growth. Since that time, all of the work has been scrubbed clean (though some lichen is creeping back), vegetation has been trimmed, and protective railing has been installed around the primary sculptures. 


Moss overtakes the Ogre. Photo: Monika Swuine, circa 2010


A pretty clean Ogre in 2022


After a leisurely walk through the fascinating Sacro Bosco, we hopped in the car to head to our second destination, Niki de Saint Phalle’s magnum opus The Tarot Garden. The one-hour drive through the rolling Tuscan landscape is worth the trip alone. 


The Tuscan Countryside


The first evidence you’re arriving at your destination is the glint of the burgeoning mirrored structure at the very top of a tall hill. Though we arrived before the site opened at 2:30pm, there was already a line forming at the entrance. (I’d recommend purchasing tickets ahead of time, just in case. To note: the Tarot Garden is open from April 1st to October 15th.) After walking up the long gravel path to the sculpture area on a swelteringly hot August day, being greeted by a waterfall flowing from the mouth of the looming High Priestess was both a refreshing sight and horribly unfair. 


Saint Phalle’s Empress on the left and High Priestess on the right. My desperation to swim in the murky green pool tells you how hot it was (very hot).


Though I was momentarily distracted by my urge to jump in the water, I soon found myself overwhelmed by the magnificence of Saint Phalle’s work. The bright mosaicked sculptures loomed all around me, simultaneously dominating and perfectly coalescing with the terraced landscape. It’s no wonder that Saint Phalle so thoroughly dedicated herself to the realization of this project, including living inside the dizzying mirrored rooms of The Empress from 1983 to 1990. 


The view from the lofted bedroom down into the kitchen/ primary living space inside The Empress.


Perhaps most affecting about this place is its position high on a hill looking out toward the sea. Saint Phalle could not have chosen a more perfect home for her work.


Standing atop the elevated pathway connected to The Emperor looking out toward the not-too-distant Tyrrhenian Sea.

Standing atop the elevated pathway connected to The Emperor looking out toward the not-too-distant Tyrrhenian Sea.


This was the most incredible day of an overwhelmingly incredible trip. Don’t hesitate to make the trek, if you have the opportunity. And please reach out if there’s anything SPACES can do to help you plan. Happy travels! 


Visit the following SPACES pages for more photos of The Tarot Garden and Sacro Bosco. 


 All photos taken August 2022 by Annalise Flynn unless otherwise specified. 


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