Sola-Busca: One for the Collection.

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.

An example of the Major Arcana, a small card, and a court card – SBT.

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.

It pleases me that, though the Hermit is absent, Carbone takes up the staff and torch for a moonlit stroll on card 12.

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?

Deo Tauro sits in place of the Chariot.

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.

Some of Pamela Smith’s inspiration.

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.


A Choice of Lovers.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve done what I used to enjoy so much on this blog: analyze a specific card of the Major Arcana. I don’t know why it’s been so long; either I’ve written about something else or I’ve written nothing at all. One of my eventual goals for this blog is to write about each of the Major Arcana at least once, and I think it’s high time I got back on that train.

I’ve chosen the Lovers as my subject today, because its changes over time are a little more apparent than many of the other cards, providing me with ample fodder for discussion. This card has a couple possible meanings depending on the deck used, and I’m going to focus on four particular versions of it in this post.

I’ll begin with the most straightforward version, which happens also to be the first, chronologically speaking. You can pretty much take the Visconti Lovers at face value.* It depicts a marriage, and can be interpreted to mean what it says: love, especially a romantic or everlasting love that joins two people. Pretty simple, right?


Interestingly, this early version of the card is not what many would consider the most traditional – that distinction goes to the Marseilles Lovers, which is more correctly referred to as the singular “Lover.” The central figure is a young man. On either side of him is a woman, and hovering above them is a Cupid-like cherub. Rather than actual love, this card is typically interpreted to mean a choice, as the man must choose which woman to take as his lover. The choice of lovers pictured on the card is symbolic of choice in general – but not your run-of-the-mill, what-do-I-eat-for-breakfast sort of choice. This is the sort of choice that presents itself at pivotal moments in life, the sort of choice that defines who you are.


There seems to be two prevailing ways to interpret the women. Probably the more common of the two is that one woman represents Virtue, and the other is Vice. The Lover must choose what sort of man he will be; will he live a righteous life, or will he succumb to baser temptations?

Alternatively, one woman can be the man’s mother, and the other is his, well, lover, and he must choose between them. You can get Freudian with that if you like, but what this generally symbolizes is the choice to grow up, essentially. Will the Lover choose to leave the past behind and face the future and its responsibilities head-on, or will he falter and regress back into the metaphorical arms of his mother?

Of course, this card can also be taken at face value, in which case it could be interpreted similarly to the love in the Visconti version (although the sole partnership implied in the Visconti is absent).


The Golden Dawn tweaked much of the Major Arcana to better jive with their occult philosophies, and the Lovers are no exception. Now, I don’t know what the actual Golden Dawn Lovers looked like, but apparently they depicted it as the climactic scene of the Perseus myth, when Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster and Perseus flies in like Superman to save her.

Hermetic Tarot

Why does this Tarot card deviate so much from its source? What reasons did the Golden Dawn have for using such an oddly specific story to illustrate this one card? Unfortunately, I don’t really know. Certainly Perseus took Andromeda as his lover after the rescue, but there are so many love stories out there from which to choose.

In a nutshell, the Perseus myth is a Hero’s Journey story, like so many other stories before and since. So far, we’ve seen the Lovers represent Love and Choice. Both of these are important themes in the great human drama, but only the latter is really a prerequisite of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero always must make the difficult decision to embark on his (or her) journey. It is a common trope for the Hero to find true love, for sure, but it’s not required, and anyway, if it does happen, it normally happens towards the end of the journey, not chapter six. When taken as a whole, the progression of the Major Arcana symbolically depicts the Hero’s Journey, and in this context, the Lovers card stands at that turning point, that choice, to embark.

And yet, this is not the moment of the Perseus story pictured on the Lovers card. Some traditions hold that the Lovers should neither be interpreted as love nor as choice, but rather as a test or trial to be surmounted, and this view is mentioned in a pamphlet written by Mathers, who was at the head of the Golden Dawn. Where and when this tradition originated, I do not know, but it seems likely that the Lovers Perseus and Andromeda against the sea monster are meant to be a representation of it.

In the very same pamphlet, though, Mathers wrote that he actually preferred to think of this card in Kabbalistic terms,** as the path descending from Binah to Tiphareth – or in layman’s words, divine-feminine energy descending towards balance, much like Perseus (guided in the story by Athena) flying down in Hermes’ sandals to restore the peace that reigned in Ethiopia before Andromeda’s parents pissed off Poseidon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I am not a Kabbalist, and therefore cannot speak to the validity of the reasoning behind this. However, there is an element of the divine in every version of the Lovers that might attest to this idea, whether its a Cupid or an Angel (or a monster sent by an angry Lord of the Sea). This supernatural third party is a staple of the Lovers card (even the mundane Visconti-Sforza wedding shows a blindfolded angel), and I’m sure there are endless possibilities for interpreting it, although I won’t get into that here.


Of course, for all the influence the Golden Dawn has had on the way we view the Tarot today, their version of the Lovers remains obscure. A.E. Waite, creator of the most popular Tarot deck ever published, was a member of the Golden Dawn, but he ultimately rejected their mythic version of the Lovers in favor of his own.

Universal Waite

The RWS shows imagery taken from Genesis. Eve and Adam are standing beneath the Trees of Knowledge and Life, respectively. In Cupid’s place, an angel of God watches over them. These biblical motifs, whether intended by Waite or not, actually quite ingeniously combine all three traditional meanings covered above. Adam and Eve were literally created for each other, the epitome of Lovers.*** These lovers are then given the mother of all choices – whether to remain obedient and in Paradise, or to commit the original sin and be cast out. Now, we all know how these Lovers chose in the end, but they are pictured in the card as having not yet made this choice. And finally, the choice presented them is a temptation, a trial of faith.

The RWS Lovers is fascinating with all its subtle nuances, and it truly deserves its own post, which I will certainly write (someday). For now, I’m just going to leave it with the conclusion that it does manage to combine all three traditional interpretations.


The fact that all three ideas can be combined in a single picture is significant, because it shows that, while divergent, they don’t have to be exclusive. Every significant choice in life is really a trial of sorts. And every trial is a result of a choice, and is probably a precursor to another choice. And the decision to take a lover can be among the most important choices one makes in life, and no love affair is without its trials and tribulations. So in a roundabout way, these different meanings are rooted in similar ideas. The main point here is that the Lovers, in some way, is essentially a metaphor for a crossroads. Think about it: a crossroads symbolizes both the convergence of two paths on a single point (a wedding), as well as the choice of which of those paths to follow. Also, consider the legend of Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for sick guitar skillz. It’s the classic story of a test of character after the fashion of Dr. Faustus (Faust may have made the wrong decision, but I can’t begrudge Robert Johnson for his).

In every instance, the crossroads represents a pivotal moment, and it is on the querent to step up and do what’s right in that moment, whether that’s to be faithful to your partner, or faithful to the Creator that commands you not eat of the Tree. Regardless of how you choose, God or Devil, it’s your choice.

Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. This card combines many traditional elements with Crowley’s own ideas about the Lovers.


*Actually, since the Visconti Tarots were left untitled, some prefer to name it simply “Love,” and I kind of like that.

**One of the very few times that there is a hint of occult influence in Mather’s pamphlet – despite being Mister Golden Dawn, he evidently aimed this little book at the general populace rather than the select few who would have been familiar with such things as the Kabbalah.

***Yeah, I’ve conveniently forgotten to mention Lilith, but if you think about it, Adam choosing between Lilith and Eve is right on point with the meaning of the Lovers presented in the Marseilles pattern. In the Thoth, these two primordial women are pictured in the top corners of the card.

The Visconti-Sforza Tarot.

I’d considered buying these cards a while back, but ultimately decided upon the Medieval Scapini, instead. While the aesthetic of the Scapini Tarot is certainly derived from the Visconti cards, the more familiar with it I became, the more I wanted an actual Visconti deck for comparison. The Scapini pack is nothing short of amazing, one of my favorites that I never expected to be a favorite, but it is not a historic replica by any means.

An example of the Major Arcana, court card, and small card – VST

Of course, this Lo Scarabeo deck isn’t an actual Visconti deck, either, but a reproduction. I did consider a facsimile pack, which would have been the closest I could possibly get to the original short of traveling around the world and robbing a few high-profile art museums, but decided against it. The original cards, to be honest, just look like crap. Not the art, but the condition, which of course is to be expected of cards dating from the 1450s (I mean, there aren’t even buildings that old on this part of the globe); but why on earth would I want to pay more money for cards that just don’t look all that nice? I compared pictures online of the facsimile editions alongside pictures of the Lo Scarabeo edition, and went for the latter. I think it was a good choice.

These cards are classy. The most noticeable thing about them is the gold foil overlays on the Major Arcana and court cards. The metallic sheen of the Medieval Scapini literally pales in comparison.

Visconti and Scapini

The colors are bright and Alexander Atanassov, the artist commissioned to paint these reproductions, did a really good job. I have no problem believing that this is supposed to be a renaissance Tarot. Some of the people do look kind of ugly, but if anything that’s just a testament to the artist’s skill in mimicking the renaissance style (what is it about renaissance artists that compelled them to paint effeminate men and masculine women? Surely people didn’t really look that way back then).

At its core, the Visconti is just a glorified Marseille-pattern Tarot (which is probably an incredibly historically inaccurate statement to make, but in the Tarot world, the TdM is generally the stylistic point of reference). The Minors are fancy embellished pips, the Magician is a street juggler, and the Hierophant and High Priestess are dressed in ecclesiastical garb. There are some fascinating differences in some of the Major Arcana, however, particularly in the Moon, World and Strength cards.

Strength (I think that’s supposed to be Heracles, but if so, that is one pitiful Nemean Lion), the Moon, and the World from the VST.

I’m going to wrap this post up with the obligatory history lesson about these cards. For those who don’t know, the Visconti-Sforza Tarrocchi are the oldest datable Tarot cards,* and it is for this reason more than any other that makes these cards so popular to collectors today. It was commissioned around 1450 by a lord of Milan named Francesco Sforza, to commemorate the marriage of his family to the politically influential Visconti family – in fact, the Lovers card supposedly depicts the wedding. All of the court cards are [supposed to be] members of either the Visconti or Sforza families (well, aside from the Knight of Coins, as we shall see). The paintings on the cards are traditionally attributed to artist Bonifacio Bembo, although it’s impossible to be sure.

The Visconti deck is not complete; the Devil, the Tower, the Knight of Coins, and the Three of Swords are all missing, and so any Visconti deck sold today needs to replace these four cards to be usable.** Being a simple pip card, the Three of Swords surely posed no problem to the artist, and the Knight of Coins appears to be right at home among the Coins court. The Devil and the Tower are pretty generic (though not at all poorly executed), looking much like they do in any TdM or other traditional Tarot, although a Tarot history blog I read a while back has led me to believe that these versions of the cards use motifs that may be anachronistic.*** Be that as it may, I think the more interesting point I took away from that blog was the possibility that these two cards were purposely excluded from the pack because of their connotations. Of course, this doesn’t explain why the Three or the Knight are missing; and why would the Milanese lord wish for the Tower and the Devil to be removed, but leave the sinister card Thirteen in the progression? I think the more likely explanation is that 550-odd years is a long time for a deck of cards to survive, and we’re lucky to have as much of it as we do. Still, food for thought. It’s not unheard of, after all, for Tarot cards in the middle ages to have been edited for tastefulness (or banned completely, if you weren’t lucky enough to be born into nobility).


*This means that there are possibly earlier examples of Tarot cards, but that we cannot date them with any degree of certainty. It’s safe to assume, however, that the oldest are not older than the mid-to-late-1300s. Ronald Decker’s Art and Arcana, page 8.

**There are actually at least three extant versions of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, all attributed to Bembo, and it’s between all of them that we are only missing four cards.

***I can’t find the blog anymore, otherwise I’d link it. Sorry.