The Tarot’s history is certainly steeped in mystique. Strange as it all sounds today, though, with a little digging it turns out that they really are just a pack of playing cards. Not so strange, after all.
We strive to define our past with neat and tidy narratives. It’s human nature to think this way; it is how we can make sense of a chaotic and nonsensical existence. Whether the history is verifiable (that the cards as we know them evolved from a card game conceived in Italy during the renaissance) or not (that the cards were created by ancient Egyptian mystics and disseminated through the generations by Gypsies), it provides a story, a context, and that is greatly comforting to us.
But of course, reality isn’t quite as simple as the histories would have us believe. There are new discoveries every day, new interpretations of things we thought we knew, and sometimes these really shake things up. And new discoveries or no, we can never truly know how things were experienced by folks of bygone eras. We weren’t there, and even with the benefit of hindsight, there’s always a piece of the picture missing. It’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s enough to make a researcher want to tear his hair out. It’s more than frustrating; it’s disconcerting to have your neat and tidy narrative splinter at the slightest touch of contrary evidence (and there is always contrary evidence). On the other hand, it’s exhilarating to find something that forces new perspectives. Even if a complete understanding is impossible, we can always inch our way closer, and there is joy in the unending process of learning.
This is a long and rather dramatic preamble, I know. And it’s really only about a new Tarot deck in my collection: the Tarocchi Sola-Busca. These cards threw a wrench in the Tarot narrative as I understood it. I know next to nothing about this Tarot, but I don’t doubt there are sources out there somewhere that examine it. The Sola-Busca is not remotely a new discovery in the world of the Tarot, but it is new to me, and it’s raised a couple questions about my notions of the Tarot’s history.* But before I get into that, I think I’ll talk a bit about the deck itself.
I bought this one purely as a collector’s item. This is the first time I’ve spent money on my collection for its own sake. I’d fully intended on using every other deck I obtained at the time of purchase, even if some of them did end up as curiosities for study rather than actual use (I’m looking at you, Etteilla). I don’t know if I’ll ever divine with these.
Actually, I will probably give it a try at some point. But this deck is even marketed as a collector’s item rather than a reading deck. It is very nice. It’s so nice, that one of the extra publisher’s cards in the pack was complete with a disclaimer advising against shuffling the cards, because they’re “untreated” and prone to damage with use. That irks me a bit, because I don’t care if they are the most collectible cards in the world, a deck that’s too delicate to shuffle just defeats the purpose. It almost seems pretentious to me.
That’s just a minor annoyance, though, since I never had plans to make this my workhorse deck; and anyways, it’s not like the cards are actually fragile. The cardstock is decent enough, there’s just no finish of any kind to protect the images. I’m pretty sure my Shadowscapes deck is similarly untreated, and they’re holding up fine so far (and I do use those).
So what makes the Sola-Busca so collectible?
For one thing, they are very old. The actual deck I have is a 19th century reproduction (very faithful, according to the LWB) of the original cards, which date to sometime between 1491 and 1523. Even at its earliest, this is not as old as the Visconti-Sforza Tarots, but it is pretty darn close. Like the Visconti, these cards were commissioned by Italian nobility (remaining in the possession of the Sola-Busca family of Milan until only about a decade ago), presumably for gameplay.
But were they really intended for games? The second reason these cards are so collectible is because they are astonishingly atypical of traditional packs. It should be borne in mind that Tarot “tradition” as we know it was not yet fully formed when these cards were produced, but all the same: why are these cards so divergent from their contemporaries? The Visconti cards were certainly for games; surely these can be used for games as well, but what else is going on here?
Structurally, they are the same. 40 small cards, 16 court cards, 21 trump cards, and one unnumbered Fool card. 78 in total. But aside from the Fool, the Major Arcana of the Sola-Busca are not the classic allegorical images to which we are accustomed. Instead, they depict mostly figures from Roman history, and two from the Bible. These include characters from the history of Christianity, Literature, Numismatics, and Alchemy (again according to the LWB – I must admit the majority of the names on these cards are obscure to me). This suggests a possible educational utility, with some hints of what we would call “occultism” today. Other packs of cards that apparently served this dual purpose of gaming and education do exist, like the Minchiate. Why not the Tarot, too?
This blows a hole through the argument that Etteilla and Court de Gebelin were the first people to suggest esoteric uses for the Tarot, even if the Tarots they were using were not derived from the Sola-Busca. Now, the occultism attributed by these men to the cards is not the same thing as anything depicted in the Sola-Busca, and they were still wrong about the origins of the Tarot; but it raises an interesting question about the apparently mundane and frivolous uses of the earliest cards. We know they were used for gambling, but was that all? Is it possible that there was an aura of mysticism about them, even at the beginning? This is a valid question to ask of the Visconti as it is of the Sola-Busca. It is more than probable that the artist who rendered the Sola-Busca cards was familiar with packs like the Visconti. They are from the same country and the same approximate time period. Moreover, for all its differences, there are familiar motifs to be found throughout the Sola-Busca. For example, Deo Tauro, who graces card number seven, could be riding a chariot, and card thirteen shows Catone standing over a severed-and-impaled head. There are subtle similarities throughout. Perhaps the Visconti was only created for games, but if decks like the Sola-Busca were floating around, it’s certainly possible that owners of the Visconti also saw a certain educational and mystical potential in their cards. After all, we only think so because the Tarot’s pictures are so suggestive, and they would only have been more so during the renaissance, a time that these images were current. It’s easy to forget that the line between the sacred and the profane – that is, the spiritual and the mundane, or the intuitive and the rational – was not always as clear as it’s often perceived today.
It wouldn’t have been associated with the divination and occultism that we know, not by a long shot, but the very existence of this deck suggests that Etteilla and de Gebelin’s revelations about the esoteric significance of the Tarot may actually have been the fruits of seeds planted long before them.
And that’s just the Major Arcana. If anything, the Minor Arcana are actually more fascinating.** The suits are typical – Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins – but the pip cards are all illustrated. Whoever designed these cards were centuries ahead of their times. Nowadays we take illustrated pips for granted, but it was only in 1910 with the publication of the Rider pack that they really became popular. Smith’s illustrations were revolutionary for the Tarot, but they were not really her innovation. Photos of the Sola-Busca were available for public viewing in a museum in London while Waite and Smith were working on their cards, and it is fairly certain that these photos served as inspiration for Smith’s iconic drawings. A handful of her Minor Arcana even have direct counterparts in the Sola-Busca.
I won’t go so far as to speculate that the Sola-Busca may have been used for intuitive divination, but it is an awfully elaborate pack of cards for game play. It makes the lavish Visconti cards seem almost plebeian by comparison. These are illustrations, not flowery embellishment. Creativity went into this. Is it an extension of the educational element from the Major Arcana? What are these images supposed to convey? Or are these cards a product of people simply reveling in the artistic extravagance of 15th century Italy?
Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe we already do, and I’m just uninformed. I want to stress again that I actually know very little about this deck. It is foreign to me, and it makes me re-think the Tarot in interesting ways. If nothing else, these cards provide me with new avenues for study and musing, should I ever feel so inclined. And as a collector’s item, it fills a satisfying niche in my collection, bringing together its hitherto disparate ends. The wildly non-traditional modern decks, such as the Mary-El or the Wildwood, now have a historical precedent in breaking from convention. The Sola-Busca brings it all back to the beginning. It is very different, yes, but its differences are a reminder that the Tarot is living, evolving alongside the people who use it, and it always has been.
*The Sola-Busca has been in my periphery for quite some time now, in fact, but I never gave it much thought until I decided my collection ought to have one.
**There are actually many motifs from the traditional Major Arcana peppered throughout the Sola-Busca’s Minor Arcana. I thought that was very interesting. One example is a Cups card which shows a goofy-looking man holding a cudgel on his shoulder while a small dog tears down his pants. This card looks very much like the Marseille Fool, only without the jester cap.