Behold the Sola-Busca Tarot Deck, the Earliest Complete Set of Tarot Cards (1490)

What­ev­er you think of the pre­dic­tive pow­er of tarot cards, the sto­ry of how human­i­ty has pro­duced them and put them to use pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the last 500 years or so. We’ve fea­tured a vari­ety of tarot decks here on Open Cul­ture, most­ly from the past cen­tu­ry: decks designed by Aleis­ter Crow­leySal­vador Dalí, and H.R. Giger, as well as one fea­tur­ing the char­ac­ters from Twin Peaks. But today we give you the old­est extant exam­ple, and a high­ly dis­tinc­tive one for rea­sons not just his­tor­i­cal but aes­thet­ic: the Sola-Bus­ca tarot deck, dat­ing from the ear­ly 1490s, which L’I­ta­lo Amer­i­cano’s Francesca Bez­zone describes as “78, beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed cards, 22 major arcana and 56 minor arcana, engraved on card­board and hand paint­ed with tem­pera col­ors and gold.”

The Sola-Bus­ca tarot deck, whose name derives from those of its last two own­ers Mar­quise Bus­ca and Count Sola, set a struc­tur­al prece­dent for decks to come by being divid­ed into those sets of major arcana (or “major secrets”) and minor arcana (or “minor secrets”).

In the cards of the major arcana, which trace the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, “Clas­si­cal and Bib­li­cal fig­ures take the place of tra­di­tion­al tarot illus­tra­tions: for instance, the arcana of jus­tice is Nero and that of the world is Neb­uchad­nez­zar. Among oth­ers rep­re­sent­ed Gaius Mar­ius, uncle of Juluis Cae­sar, and Bac­chus,” as well as now more dif­fi­cult-to-iden­ti­fy per­son­ages from lat­er cen­turies. The minor arcana cards, writes Bez­zone, “are also dif­fer­ent from all oth­er decks’, because they are fine­ly and rich­ly illus­trat­ed with scenes of dai­ly life.”

But even the every­day images con­tain secrets: “This is par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in the suit of coins, which appar­ent­ly illus­trates the process of coin mint­ing, but in real­i­ty alludes to the com­plex and secret prac­tices of the Opus Alchemicum, that is, the method used to cre­ate the lapis philosopho­rum, the philosopher’s stone, alchemic instru­ment of immor­tal­i­ty and per­fec­tion.” But “in spite of the refined and del­i­cate artistry behind their illus­tra­tions, the name of the man, or men, who cre­at­ed them remained shroud­ed in dark­ness for cen­turies,” though in 1938 art his­to­ri­an Arthur Mayger Hind deter­mined that, based on the ref­er­ences to the Repub­lic of Venice in the deck­’s art­work, its was like­ly made for a Venet­ian client, pos­si­bly by the engraver Mat­tia Ser­rati da Cosan­dola or, accord­ing to anoth­er the­o­ry, the painter Nico­la di Mae­stro Anto­nio and his­to­ri­an Marin Sanudo.

Il seg­re­to dei seg­reti, an exhi­bi­tion on the Sola-Bus­ca deck at Milan’s Pina­cote­ca di Brera gallery, brings anoth­er Renais­sance fig­ure into the mix: “While large­ly unknown today, the Human­ist and Her­meti­cist Ludovi­co Laz­zarel­li from San Sev­eri­no Marche played a sig­nif­i­cant role in Ital­ian court Human­ism,” and because of “his per­son­al­i­ty, role, and inter­est in Her­met­ic and alchem­i­cal themes” as well as his rela­tions with pow­er­ful courts of the day “is believed to have designed the com­plex icono­graph­i­cal pro­gram of the Sola-Bus­ca tarots.” The tenets of Renais­sance Her­meti­cism held that mankind could trans­form nature by appre­hend­ing it, mak­ing it in some sense a fore­run­ner to mod­ern sci­en­tif­ic think­ing. And while the notion that we can see our future in the turn of play­ing cards may not itself sound wild­ly sci­en­tif­ic, an arti­fact like the Sola-Bus­ca deck, all of whose 78 carts you can see here, still has more to teach us about our past. Decks can also be pur­chased online.

via L’I­ta­lo Amer­i­cano

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky Explains How Tarot Cards Can Give You Cre­ative Inspi­ra­tion

Carl Jung: Tarot Cards Pro­vide Door­ways to the Uncon­scious, and Maybe a Way to Pre­dict the Future

H.R. Giger’s Tarot Cards: The Swiss Artist, Famous for His Design Work on Alien, Takes a Jour­ney into the Occult

The Tarot Card Deck Designed by Sal­vador Dalí

The Thoth Tarot Deck Designed by Famed Occultist Aleis­ter Crow­ley

Twin Peaks Tarot Cards Now Avail­able as 78-Card Deck

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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Comments (3)
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  • Andy says:

    Col­in -
    I’m new to Open Cul­ture, and I’ve real­ly enjoyed your work over the last cou­ple of months. Great sub­jects, (many of which I also have inter­est in), and excel­lent writ­ing.

    This piece prompt­ed me to drag out sev­er­al Tarot decks that I own as well as sev­er­al books on the sub­ject, because I thought that I remem­bered a dif­fer­ent deck was con­sid­ered to be the old­est. I dis­cov­ered that I was kind of right.

    His­to­ri­ans agree (gen­er­al­ly) that the Car­ry-Yale Vis­con­ti Taroc­chi Deck is most like­ly the old­est, putting its cre­ation at about 1441. (Stu­art Kaplan) How­ev­er, the style was quite dif­fer­ent from what we now rec­og­nize as the mod­ern Tarot Cards, with a total of 86 cards as well. While anoth­er deck con­sid­ered to be a few years younger, the Bram­bil­la, had 78, there were still many sym­bols and pat­terns that were a reflec­tion of the wealthy patrons’ fam­i­lies that com­mis­sioned the cards. None of these ear­ly decks are com­plete today.

    It was sev­er­al years lat­er that the illus­tra­tions became more stan­dard­ized and more sim­i­lar to the clas­sic cards of the last cen­tu­ry. So the Sola-Bus­ca cards are, as you say, the ear­li­est com­plete set that is also more rec­og­niz­able as the Tarot most peo­ple know, but not the old­est known deck. And it may be pos­si­ble that you did­n’t mean it was the old­est, but just the old­est com­plete. But you still got me going.

    So thank you for send­ing me down that rab­bit hole and inspir­ing a cou­ple of hours of real­ly sat­is­fy­ing research and learn­ing! It’s some­thing I enjoy very much.
    Car­ry on!

  • jeanne' serrano says:

    Frankly, the 3 of swords thru the heart is as macabre as catholocis­m’s paint­ings of thorns around a heart revealed by an open chest cav­i­ty. If every­one (as all of us who try to recall as a child) would remem­ber that hor­ror, we should all ask our­selves what pur­pose was intend­ed by such imagery as even nec­es­sary? Instead cos­mic themes more con­ducive to ele­vat­ing our thoughts in lieu of shock­ing them? Wrote to both the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric Assoc as well as the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Assoc re: anoth­er form of the ink blot test that could be more encom­pass­ing in scope, an inter­est­ing “lit­tle reveal” when a woman replied to my post­ed reac­tion (of a wildlife pho­to) of a wolf rest­ing under a snowladen ever­green’s bough. Mar­veled at how the wolf’s expres­sion was akin to a wise old Ori­en­tal man observ­ing “fool­ish behav­ior” with aloof dis­tain. Yet all she saw was con­sum­mate evil. Per­haps by not shar­ing a medieval (d/evil) image in our div­ina­to­ry tools, we’d more quick­ly dis­cern the Inner Self more wor­thy of scruti­ny than an arche­type?

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