Deck of The Day: The Sola-Busca Tarocchi

When the Waite-Rider deck was published in 1910, it was heralded—and probably derided, in some quarters—by Tarot students and scholars alike for what it offered the prospective reader: Narrative illustrations to accompany the 56 “court” and “pip” cards of the minor arcana, or Trumps Minor. This was a revolutionary development in the history of Tarot because up until that time, as far as anyone could remember, the pip cards had been portrayed in the same manner as typical playing cards: The Ten of Cups, for instance, was an engraving of ten goblets. With the emergence of the Waite deck, the differences between the images, and the interpretive freedom the Waite deck offered, could not have been more dramatic. Compare the Waite-Smith Ten with a traditional Marseille Ten:

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As it turned out, however—as an example of “nothing new under the sun”—the illustrations of the Smith-Waite deck were not quite as original as they were first thought (although there is much creativity on display in many of their images), for Pamela Colman Smith drew direct inspiration from an extant illustrated deck of minor cards, dating from roughly 1490: The Sola-Busca Tarocchi.

The cards of the original Sola-Busca deck were prints from copper-plate engravings that were spot-illuminated by hand at a later date. Given some of the engraving’s details, it is believed they were printed in Ferrara (some say Mantegna) in northern Italy, then illuminated in Venice, where the art of  manuscript illumination flourished for much of the 15th Century. Authorship is generally ascribed to the painter Nicola di Maestro Antonio (1448-1511), though it is not known whether he produced them independently or on commission. The letters “M.S.” that appear on some of the cards could refer to the miniaturist painter Mattia Serratti, who was active in Venice around the turn of the 16th Century.

The cards were dated in the 1930s by the English art historian A.M. Hind based on an inscription on the King of Pentacles referring to the year 1070. Hind surmised that this historical marker was based not upon the actual 1070 CE but upon a “year zero” that marked the founding of the Venetian city-state, which has traditionally been dated to 421 CE. Adding the two, he arrived at the year 1491 CE, and no subsequent research on the Busca deck has suggested his conclusion to have been in error. The cards currently reside at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Besides being the first deck to feature illustrated pip cards, the Sola-Busca deck is historically significant in Tarot history for a number of other reasons: it is the first printed (not all-painted) Tarot deck; it’s the first deck featuring both numbers and nomenclature (names) for the cards; and it is the earliest known deck that is intact in its original 78-card version.

During the time that Arthur Waite was involved with the Order of The Golden Dawn, the British Museum had in its possession 23 original color cards of the Busca deck, which it had acquired in the 1840s. In 1907, the museum received black-and-white photographs of all 78 cards as a gift of the Busca-Serbelloni family of Milan. Shortly thereafter, the museum put both the cards and the photographs on public display, and this is likely where Waite and Pamela Smith first became acquainted with this deck. Perhaps the cards gave Arthur Waite the inspiration he needed to devise his own deck! Its influence on the Waite-Smith deck is unmistakable, though, as the following juxtaposed images reveal:

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Screen shot 2015-04-27 at 4.16.32 PMThis is in no way intended to denigrate the work of Pamela Smith by any means—far from it, for by taking the images from an obscure deck of cards and “translating” them for the benefit of a 20th-Century audience, she played as big a role as Arthur Waite (or Aleister Crowley, or the Golden Dawn) in making Tarot accessible to the wider world. Like any astute and resourceful artist, she drew her inspirations from wherever she could find them, and applied her own creativity to “invent” the images anew. Subsequent Tarot artists in turn have drawn upon Smith’s interpretations to create their own impressive works over the past century. Such as it is with the Tarot itself: An ever-flowing, ever-evolving reflection of human consciousness that is constantly in motion, sometimes expanding and sometimes contracting, aspiring ever upward while remaining earthbound, and dedicated to recognizing the illusion of outward perception while remaining rooted to a faith in things unseen.

(Sources: Stuart Kaplan, History of Tarot, Vol. II , 1986Giordano Berti, Tarot: Game and Magic at The Court of the Este Family,  1987; A.M. Hind: Early Italian Engravings, 1935).

Dante DiMatteo

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