In this TdM month, named Traditional Tarot with a Twist, I’ll review several TdM’s & Tarocchi’s, traditional reproductions or reinterpretations, that can be recognized as Marseille/Ancient Italian-like. However, their deviations and differences, might invite discussion on their pattern of ‘true’ TdM/Tarocchi-ness. Regardless, they are all unique and gorgeous in their own way.
1. Sola-Busca Ferrara by Lo Scarabeo | Anima Antiqua Series 2017
2. Eros: The Garden of Love Tarot: burlesque TdM by Uusi Studios 2017
3. Minchiate Florentine Etruria 1795 by Il Meneghello 1994 (+ Minchiate El Leone)
4. Le Tarot Noir: a medieval inspired TdM by Matthew Hackiere/Editions Vega 2013
Tarot de Marseille (and its Italian predecessors/cousins) is slowly stepping in the limelight. New Facebook groups are forming, old ones are growing and the amount of tarot designers reproducing or reinterpreting this traditional pattern is growing rapidly. It is one of the reasons I issued the Tarot de Marseille theme on The Queen’s Sword in 2016 to begin with. The 2017 rendition is a month to show you that while I embrace the many facsimiles and repro’s of historical work there is more to the traditional tarot ‘branch’. It has more to offer and to love. Including the very new, the very old and some decks that simply deserve the name classic despite its age. This review revolves around the latter. Some brand it a TdM, others say not (the designer is part of the first group by the way). It is a little quirky, but according to yours truly also beautiful in its own way. I am talking about Le Tarot Noir.
If you, like me, have been roaming the pages of the internet to find a TdM-pattern that appeals, but haven’t been lucky so far, Le Tarot Noir might make you a happy camper. It did me. While the Pierre Madenie facsimile by Yves Reynaud** is probably my favorite Type II, and perhaps my most favorite classic Tarot de Marseille (which is maybe all the review you need, hihi), I – for the most part – tended to drift towards the elegant Tarocchi’s, sometimes also called TdM’s*. A true Marseille deck suitable for my go-to pile had not landed on my doorstep though. While I like reading with pip-decks, I blame the crude woodcut & stenciling artwork of the average TdM to block my divining flow. And that’s when I finally decided to look towards the Modern Marseille’s – as I like to call them. It is a long intro, but it serves to explain the fact that Le Tarot Noir is in a way the ideal answer for readers who want a pattern that is (really close to) TdM, preferably a design that was inspired by old work, subject to the same techniques, but necessarily also a deck that is NOT close in art*style*, without being super modern either.
And there I’ve described Le Tarot Noir in a nutshell. I think comparing my unboxing of Le Tarot Noir with love at first sight is an adequate metaphor. It didn’t take me long to be quite taken with the deck. While it has a few little minors or ‘complications’ when using it in a professional setting, it does so many things very, very right.
Companion & commentary
Le Tarot Noir by the French artist Matthieu Hackiere & companion writer Justine Hernel comes in a black, large box with one of those ‘book cover’ lids, including a glossy full color paperback with pictures and text. The companion is entirely in French though. It adds to its charm, but not to its accessibility alas. My secondary school French came to the rescue and I could read large parts of it, but it will be a shame for those readers that don’t have the memory of quirky French teachers to sustain them. It is truly a pity the designers Hackiere and Hernel never came round to an English PDF on their site, for two reasons:
1. The binding of the guide is atrocious. It looks very pretty: a nice black cover with golden-yellow ‘medieval’ lettering, showing an image of the Two of Cups. The pages are all gloss with huge full-color examples of the cards. After a short intro every Major Arcana gets its own page with information and a full color image. The suits each get a general text on the pips as a whole and on all the Aces, and then show 2-10 in large pictures . For the courts it is largely the same. Everything is in elegant black and gold. That’s why the quality of the guide came a little unexpected. After two or three times of leafing through the book, it comes apart. You don’t even have to play rough. Just open the book in order to read both text and see image and very soon several pages come loose. It is a big thumbs down for the package as a whole, but luckily this is not exemplary for the deck.
2. While the companion isn’t in English and also not a tutorial-type guide, the information provided is still useful. I think you could see it as a card-by-card commentary on how the artwork ties-in with Medieval times. Le Tarot Noir is largely inspired by its counterparts from the Middle Ages, the very early tarot decks of 15th century Italy, and those that came after. It is also influenced by the art & symbolism most used then, as well as cultural customs. And all that comes back in the cards and in the description. Sure, it doesn’t go super deep, but I found it interesting. Author Ternel provided Le Tarot Noir owners with enough historic information on any of the cards to actually give you a different way of ‘how to’. By explaining some of the symbolism you get meaning after all.
Le Tarot Noir Companion Commentary
Here are three of the examples you’ll get to read in the companion (if you understand or have the patience to translate it). I kept them to the Minors since those are the cards that usually are seen as ‘difficult’ in TdM decks and you’ll see this could help:
The commentary on the queens cleared up a question I’ve had for a long time. Why the long faces? They all seem to look somewhat sombre and demure, even sour at times, despite being dressed in the finest garbs. That is easily explained by the creator: women of a certain nobility were prepped for marriage and marriage only. They were raised from childhood with the notion to sit and look pretty – nothing else – since they needed to be useful in just the one way: extend daddy’s land and titles by marriage. Now, however pretty your dress is, that tends to make anyone look sombre and sour, right? These are but a few examples of explanations of history, culture and the influence on tarot decks of that time. And: the influence it had on the design of Le Tarot Noir.
Look & feel
I am not sure if the word Noir is indicative of the sense of humor the creator has (the sarcasm in the table above on the queens was added by yours truly) or implemented in the deck. But, the images of the Le Tarot Noir do have something ‘darkish’ and quirky, whimsical even, about them. There are hints of Patrick Valenza’s style, but the name that also came to mind, a good way to put this deck in its ‘artistic tarot box’ is Tim Burton. The muted palette, the typical faces and sometimes the rather dark approach in imagery. But more about that later.
Where the companion of the deck could be a disappointment to some, the rest of the deck is quality for sure. The box it comes in is sturdy enough for storage, although with many kits like this, the deck needs to be divided into two piles.
Stock & border
Many will be pleased with the chosen stock, despite the fact it also has gloss. Not the gloss that a lot of mass market decks have, but a relatively modest and simple layer to help the color palette look its best (I think decks like Starlight Dragon and Orbifold Tarot come close). The cards are all golden edged, which really fits this deck and the box. Somehow I almost expected it and it definitely fits. Luckily I haven’t experienced any transfer from the edges. The little lamination prevents the dark borders from chipping.
Indeed…there is a border. You all know my stance on borders, but there are exceptions: when they are part of the concept (like the earlier mentioned Orbifold) or when the border fits or becomes one with the art. The latter is the case with Le Tarot Noir. True to its name, the border is dark, and thick and pencil-thin gold lines alternate in a black-gold-black pattern to frame creamy backgrounds. The back of the cards have a different kind of elegance and could be reminiscent of a simple coat of arms: pure black in a golden frame, with in the centre an encircled lonely golden fleur-de-lis.
Because the deck is stacked in two piles and the companion isn’t really necessary help with readings, I bought a big travel pouch for Le Tarot Noir. When I say big, I mean it: Le Tarot Noir has very large cards that could almost seem ‘educational’ rather than reader material, due to their size (someone online said the US size is: 4” by 5 ½”, but that seems a little off. Amazon tells me: 3,5×5,25″ and I guess that is correct. That means, in centimeters, something like 10 by almost 13cm. It is close to my Large Thoth). It makes the deck look very majestic, but to be honest…a little challenging too.
Yes, having decent enough stock is a plus (it isn’t the best stock ever -the largeness of the cards makes it looks thinner than it is – but it is quite sturdy and acceptable), but the combination of size and thicker cards creates a rather hefty pile. Other than a slight stickiness in the beginning from its glossy top layer, the cards feel and definitely look great. However, the total size of Le Tarot Noir makes this deck a little harder to use from a professional point of view. Especially most female readers might deem the pack one size too large.
And another thing: doing bigger spreads with Le Tarot Noir is also difficult. Unless you have a dining room table or large desk you will be forced to – actually like many TdM readers choose to – use a maximum of 5 cards, preferably 3. With a possible audience that might also like to use modern techniques, as well as typical TdM reading spreads, that is quite the negative for Le Tarot Noir. I have small hands and can manage the shuffling…but barely and definitely only with a vertical overhand shuffle. Still, when it comes to TdM decks it is my undisputed number one…
Old & new
The beauty about Le Tarot Noir is, that it could potentially interest someone who has been looking for the same imagery within a different ‘frame’ as well as tarot readers who like to abide by this classic decks. Le Tarot Noir’s designer isn’t just someone who did something ‘marseille-ish’. Hackiere (and Ternel, the companion writer) really paid attention when they were creating their Modern Marseille from Medieval times. Le Tarot Noir is a TdM through and through…just made with other art supplies. While the Le Tarot Noir has its own style the Minors copy the well-known Tarot de Marseille decks very closely.
This is especially clear if you want to consider the so-called type of this deck, as is done with classics. With many purely ‘inspired’ decks that is hardly possible, since the decks are a mixture of just about everything or the people-cards are too different. That is not the case with Le Tarot Noir.
Ode to the classics: Type I & II
Yes, as with most ‘later’ TdM decks, Le Tarot Noir is a mixture of Type I and II (and might have some Italian influences as well). The only truly modern thing is the Roman numerals. those are 21st century and not additive***. In my initial check, based on a large amount of Major Arcana (or Atout, as they can be called within TdM reading), I almost thought I was dealing with Hackiere’s version of the Dodal (1710), an important foundation for the Type I-decks. And, indeed, in many cases the Majors copy that old deck. The Emperor looks the same, La Papesse is a spitting image, Death is facing the past, Hanged Man is numbered XII and there are several others. The Aces also look remarkably like those seen on Dodal’s work. In that regard it could qualify as a Type I.
But once you really pick up some research and you look further I realize that type-casting Le Tarot Noir leads to only one conclusion: it is a Type II. And like all classic Type II’s it has a decent foundation in the I, but shows expections. In this case Le Tarot Noir also shows Conver and even Noblet touches and a few alterations that are ‘designer’s choice’. Quite typical for a Type II deck where artists weren’t always copying but also adding. So, for those who find this important: Le Tarot Noir has a decent body of work rooted in the Dodal drawings, plus references to other 17th, 18th century decks. But in the end the ‘curtains’ of the Chariot, the naming of The Fool (Le Mat), the lack of a halo on L’amoureux, the woman in The World and The Star and its bird make it a Type II.
Back to basic
Like in most, if not all, Marseille decks the suits are Coupe for Cups, Deniers for Coins/Pentacles, Batons for Wands and D’Epee for Swords. All suit symbols are easily recognizable and there are a number of elegant embellishments on the pip cards, making pattern reading excellent. Where the Aces & courts show a bit of the later explained typical Noir style, the pips themselves look remarkably like every other TdM you might have seen. From old historical pictures or nowaday-fascimiles. They simply show the suit symbols, in the exact same way as most reproductions do (Batons straight, swords curved) and there are plenty of embellishments – mostly fleur-de-lis – to read with. That is not to say that the deck is the same. Because otherwise you would have bought one of those many reproductions, right?
What makes the Le Tarot Noir so interesting are the deviations from the pattern, the styling and the art. So let’s dive into that part.
Pattern & Palette
The colors are hard to photograph. Most TdM’s usually have a tricolore of dark blue, yellow and red/orange tints on stark or light creamy white. This modern French artist-duo chose a more muted palette than the aforementioned primary colors, but it translates into a wonderfully elegant combination. Alas, the creamy-bone backgrounds, the golden brown of buildings and burgundy and royal blues of the draperies and clothing do not capture greatly on film, so it’s hard to show here. But trust me: it makes this deck look rich despite the – typical – blandness of faces at times.
The art catches your attention immediately. Unlike most TdM’s Le Tarot Noir has a multitude of fine lines and draperies (in the clothing etc of the people-cards) and of course the cards are twice as big. The designer of Le Tarot Noir managed to create a very interesting reinterpretation, while following a few Tarot de Marseille-rules: a limited color palette, fleur-de-lis embellishments and -pretty much – the exact same pattern and content in both Major & Minor Arcana. Style-wise it has hints of Valenza’s Trionfi decks, but definitely a highly watered down version of that. Also, I am sure Tim Burton would approve.
So, what are the Modern variations? The Minors are pretty standard, though the Noir-touches shine through in the vegetation. Due to its muted palette those little flowers can look like flesh-eating plants ready to pounce. Most of golden chalices, pretty coins, broadswords and (numbered) Batons look decent enough. But the weirdness starts in the huge tree branch in the Ace (although very ‘Dodal’ too) or dangerous looking club the Baton courts are swinging.
For Le Tarot Noir the ‘different’ part is honestly mostly reserved for the Majors. Le Tarot Noir in general is melancholic and funny at the same time. Several of the human ‘extra’s’ are beast-like creatures and all the animals look a little weird. What is big in a regular TdM, might get a hysterical exaggeration in Le Tarot Noir. At times it crosses from quirkiness into simple darkness. It is whimsical with a touch of horror.
The cape of Le Papesse is quite in your face for example, even more so than in the originals and Le Pape seems to conceal two little worshippers who aren’t human. Same goes for the ‘uprooted’ 2 of cups and the mask wearing beasties on The Wheel. Death seems to wear a gas mask of sorts, hands rising up from the soil, no heads and a lonely (wilting?) flower in the back. Le Soleil is a cranky face, urging its galloping rider on. Cupid in L’Amoureux isn’t a cute baby, but a long-nosed face with wings floating in front of the sun and The Devil is an ugly Pan, sprouting leathery wings from his back while playing master of puppets. Those art-choices give this Modern Marseille its twist. And to me those choices, the humor, the fine lines, the coloring….it made all the difference in appeal…and reading.
Reading with the Le Tarot Noir is easy. At least, it is for me. Here, the large cards felt also as a bonus instead of only a hindrance. Every detail is ‘out there’ and hard to miss. If you have knowledge of Marseille decks or other traditional tarot it’ll feel like you’ve known each other for ages. And still, there is also plenty to discover. As a beginner’s deck (in the TdM branch of tarot) it would do well too. The great thing is, since it is such a marriage between traditional and modern art you can use any number of existing TdM study books. I can guarantee you the same materials and techniques can be applied without problems. First of all, the images of the Majors speak to you loud and clear. Plus, the many embellishments in vegetation make sure you can combine any previous knowledge on tarot with numerology, elements and pattern/eye reading. Thirdly: the pattern is so close to its classic Tarot de Marseille predecessors, like Dodal and Noblet, that old references will help you too.
As said before, the shuffling will definitely take some getting used to and I mainly stuck to a maximum of 5 cards. You might lose oversight otherwise. Since I personally rarely use more cards for Marseille decks I didn’t mind, but sure: that is a no-no for some, I agree.
Despite its quirkiness though I didn’t feel like I couldn’t do any serious readings with it. On the contrary. I think it’ll respond well to personal growth questions, career and will do fine in fortunetelling if that is your thing. For some reason it doesn’t ‘feel’ like a romantic deck, but that must be the art. In all other regards, it has quite the take-me-serious edge and will not be ‘an extra’ in your tarot cupboard. It can function as a full go-to.
Conclusion: classic on its own
If you ask me it will be the deck to beat when it comes to modern interpretations. Especially those that could classify as an actual TdM. For me this deck is a classic in two ways. It is a ‘new deck’ that will surely lure more people towards traditional reading, and it is as classically founded as can be, without being a reproduction or fascimile. I know that for some only the woodcut reproductions count as TdM’s, but *all other* systems/names in tarot are purely based on their pattern and imagery – which is what I did for this deck too. By simply looking at pattern, drawings and contents this can’t be other than a 21st century Type II. Not ‘inspired by’. No, a TdM, made with current-day tools and the signature of Hackiere.
Le Tarot Noir is a great deck. I might just call it grand. That grand includes a compliment and its negative sides. It points towards its luxurious feel, wonderful whimsical art and the truly marvelous combination of traditional pattern and cool alterations. But it also references the negative of its hard-to-handle hugeness, the pretty gloss that needs a bit of handling first…and perhaps the ‘grand failure’ of the guide’s binding. Despite its faults, to me this deck is an excellent choice if you don’t mind a pinch of horror and a healthy wink with your Tarot. If you like its style it is a traditional interpretation with huge potential.
All art evolves, so do TdM’s.
BUY Le Tarot Noir
Sometimes Le tarot Noir is hard to find and it can be beneficial to check which Amazon store offers you the best price. I got mine in the French store back then, because with shipping that turn out to be the sharpest price to The Netherlands. Hackiere’s site seems to have disappeared. So I put the most used or cheapest Amazon stores for you down here:
Buy Le Tarot Noir on amazon.com
Buy Le Tarot Noir on French Amazon
Buy Le Tarot Noir on Amazon UK
NB. * The Italian cousins of the Tarot de Marseille, sometimes predating them, sometimes made in the same centuries, are called – by some – TdM as well. But do not make the mistake of calling them TdM as in ‘de Marseille’. In this case the M refers to the fact that many decks originated (like the Della Rocca deck, known through f.e. Il Meneghello’s Tarocchi Soprafino) from Milan, hence the similar abbreviation. Granted, using this will usually result in a discussion on what constitutes a TdM, which decks we can refer to as such, et cetera. Little note of interest though: a lot of Tarot de Marseille decks that are seen as true TdM’s by everyone with a bit of interest in the subject weren’t printed in that French city *either*. The Madenie I mentioned, a true type II, was created and printed in 1709 Dijon. To make things clear I will speak about the type I & II French decks as (derived from) Tarot de Marseille and TdM. The Italian cousins – whether younger or of the same age – will be referred to as Tarocchi’s or Ancient Italians.
**The Madenie deck and several other more elegant types of the woodcut style – their repro-makers seem to have an eye for them – have been reproduced by a French artistic duo called Reynaud & Houdioun. Their web boutique refers to the name Heritage quite apt
*** In older times the Roman Numerals were written differently and they added the first numeral to the second. In the Dodal IV is 1+5=6, the Lovers, instead of what we are used to now: IV is 5 minus 1, 4, The Emperor. Hackierre used our modern reference to this Roman numbers and IV is Emperor.