The Game of Saturn, Decoding the Sola-Busca tarocchi | Review

13 May 2018
The Game of Saturn Review The Queen's Sword

Cover of the paperback, including bookmark flap & blurb.

In the last few months I felt like two people fighting to write a review. The Game of Saturn, Decoding the Sola-Busca tarocchi by author Peter Mark Adams (Scarlet Imprint) is a tough nut to crack. The Game of Saturn is the first extensive scientific research in the English language on this rather special historical tarot deck, but that is also where my difficulty lay: I am not just a tarot reader. I am a historian as well and both parts of my brain read the book in a different way. After starting over several times I finally decided which course to take and this is the result.

The Game of Saturn might just be the most talked about book of the last year in what you could loosely call ‘the historical tarot community’. With his thesis esotericist, tarot reader and professional energy worker Peter Mark Adams delivered the first scientifically charged book on ‘that weird deck’, which also happens to be the oldest surviving complete tarot – and a museum piece at that. Up until now historical tarot readers had scarce materials about decks older than the Waite Smith, and the Sola Busca in particular, and there’s still a lot of ‘discord’ or at least disagreement over content and ‘meanings’* amongst them.

Bold and no divination
Adams’ book is the first extensive English research on the 15th century deck, but I don’t think it is about to change the disagreements. While his final conclusions make a rather bold statement, based on distinctive – and loads of – research it is…like I said:  a bold statement that isn’t going to ‘click’ with just everyone.

The Game of Saturn Review The Queen's Sword

The book shows the Sola Busca cards all around and some – the Major Arcana – are even actual sized. It makes this book a delight to look at.

On top of that, what Adams is giving you was never meant to be any kind of divinatory material. If you were saving up to buy the book in the hopes of finally being able to read from the box with The Game of Saturn in hand I have to sorely disappoint you. The author is all about his theory that the Sola-Busca is a dark grimoire meant to do sorcery in the name of the deity Saturn (and there you have your title). He even explicitly states in the intro that he’s not into meanings and reading with the deck. It’s a thesis, not a tarot study book.

However, an author who didn’t provide you with ‘meanings’ per se, might have done so without knowing. In that regard, if you came here to see if Adam’s book could still be useful in divining with the Sola-Busca…still read along.

Reviewing this book was no mean feat, as said before. It is a book that, in a way, could be compared to the piles and piles I had to read at university. But still different. A semi-scientific approach (I’ll come to that in the Peer Review) that – and this is addressed to you, reader – takes some determination if you’re not used to analyses of paintings, references and an author’s determination to link all these to support a thesis. Peter Mark Adams not only describes the ideas and way of life of the Renaissance elite and how they delved into Pagan rites (bad, bad Catholics!), he also delves into bits of malefic astrology, literature, mythology, sorcery, art-history and what not. It is something that you need to like in order to appreciate the material. And it is also exactly what made me be at war with myself.

The Game of Saturn Review The Queen's Sword

The minor arcana of the Sola Busca usually show up in a smaller size in The Game of Saturn, but it does not make them any less beautiful. The cups in this deck are my favourites actually. They have a very classic feel to them.

If you’re here to find out if Game of Saturn is sound research, a well-written scientific thesis, I can only refer you to the peer review I happened to end up writing anyway. The only question the rest of this review will answer, is if The Game of Saturn, Decoding the Sola-Busca tarocchi could be useful for you or perhaps a wonderful piece of coffee table art. (To that last bit the answer is simple: no matter what else it is…that is a sure fire YES).

Look & feel
I am reviewing the paperback of The Game of Saturn. All the hardcovers – limited edition – were sold out long ago. Not surprisingly, in a matter of weeks. The title was much anticipated, and it simply looked like a piece of art in the way only art-history books can. For the purpose of this review I actually think reviewing the paperback is much better though. It is, with its 40 GBP, much more accessible to a wider rang of wallets than the hardcover options ever were ;-).

That is not to say the paperback is what you’d expect from the word paperback. It can hold its own. The book is huge. It is slightly wider (1cm) and just a tad shorter than an A4 and still counts 301 pages. Granted: strangely enough those pages have loads of white space on the sides, but carrying the book with one hand is definitely challenging. The cover is made out of a thick black paper in matte black and those flaps on the ends that give you a summary of the book, but can also be used as bookmarks (at least, I do that sometimes :D). As does the rest of the book, the cover gives you a huge full color picture of one of the cards – in this case XIII Cato…a good example of the weirder, gruesome imagery in the Sola-Busca  – and the back has card 0, one that looks remarkably like the historical Fool in other decks.

In order to come to conclusions the author of The Game of Saturn also consults existing paintings and lays them next to the cards. Here Queen of Swords Polisena next to a painting of the same character.

Collector’s item
The Game of Saturn looks quality all around. Scarlet Imprint, the publisher, knows how to make a book that stands out. I’ve been ooo-ing and aaah-ing over the Tarot Encyclopedia series by Lo Scarabeo with its glorious hardcover and many full-colour pictures, but even without the hardcover The Game of Saturn can compete. The paperback’s cover is a boisterous luxurious material, and every page in the study is glossy and thick. I am sure the rather steep price comes from the large amount of source paintings and other full-colour pictures. When it comes to references to the cards – many are actual size and in the colours of the Scarlet Imprint Sola Busca deck. It is truly a delight to simply browse the book for all that material. The Renaissance and the classics (on which the Renaissance was built) were, after all, two eras with beautiful art.

As a collector of historical tarot items it would be worth having for sure because of what the book IS. If you’ve read my peer review you’ll realise I see some issues with the contents of this study and there is the fact the author has not entirely convinced me of its premise. However, the word entirely is a good clue here. It means that he has still convinced me of several parts. The Sola-Busca Tarot is an enigma for everyone who has ever studied tarot history or the game of tarocchi (and tarocchino). We can assume a few things, but we know nothing for sure. One of the things that makes the deck so enigmatic, is the fact it has no real brother or sister in the tarocchi family. All other decks have that typical Renaissance elegance and it has nothing in common with the Visconti Sforza either, other than the fact both have 78 cards.

The Game of Saturn Review The Queen's Sword

The Saturn cult (and many more complicated words for it) plays a huge part in the thesis. These images have to do with that part of the research. The book is worth having for all the extra information you’ll be gaining on this period and paganism during the Renaissance.

Hidden clues
The Sola-Busca has 22 Majors, 16 courts and 40 suit minors – exactly like a current day tarot deck. But that is basically where it ends. The art and what we *think* the images represent can’t be found in other decks. Not in the same way, at least. There are important Roman politicians in the deck, but many others are barely illustrious…some are even unknown to us now. In the courts we have a literary representation of Alexander the Great, with mythological figures and deities: stories that led him to become that great historical figure. Not the actual, remarkable things he did. And then there are plenty alchemical references throughout the deck, as well as the sometimes gruesome and ‘ugly’, weird paintings of the Sola Busca. (TSQ: I personally think the Sola Busca is not weird & ugly, but weirdly beautiful. I just write ugly here, because the rather different and often violent paintings in the Major Arcana are considered ugly by many – or at least ugly by comparison.)

It is exactly that weird art and unexpected combination of figures and references that led author Peter Mark Adams to theorise this deck must be used for other things than education or celebrating important people throughout history. It brought him unto a road of hidden clues and eventually the thesis that Sola Busca Tarocchi “reveals the existence of a pagan liturgical and ritual tradition active amongst members of the Renaissance elite and encoded within the deck”. (…). In the deck we will “encounter scenes of homoeroticism, wounding, immolation and decapitation redolent of hidden meanings, violent transformations and obscure rites”. Some of those things, I still don’t see. But Adams has it exactly right when he says that the alchemical references raise questions and that it might very well not celebrate the classics in the common Renaissance way.

Sola Busca companion?
If you believe the story Adam’s weaved around the cards might not even be the most important point. The beauty of tarot has always been and always will be the fact we can read as much or as little into the imagery as we want to. Tarot de Marseille decks, Ancient Italians and certainly the Sola-Busca are victim of a seriously lack of information. We don’t know for sure when divination became a real thing for these decks and if we can derive some ‘core meanings’ from what we know now. If you subscribe to my personal opinion that divining with historical decks leans on knowing the history of tarot and the period in which the deck was made, it will be that what makes The Game of Saturn interesting.**(*)

Peter Mark Adams used a lot of material to come to his conclusions and this bibliography could be a stepping stone for anyone interested in more.

Adams delivered a 300 page-thick book with information on the Renaissance period, on the important NeoPlatonistic stories, the myths used in art in that period, the most realistic choice of artist for the deck and a whole lot of possibilities for who or what is seen in the 78 paintings. Also: you have plenty sources from the bibliography to jump on if you want to do further research on your own.

What I want to say is this: Whatever else The Game of Saturn, Decoding the Sola-Busca tarocchi has to offer you in thesis, it is and will stay forever a book that makes use of a whole lot of period sources and points you to possible stories that can be used as guidance.

Peter Mark Adams might not have focused on cartomancy. Adams might not have written a thesis everyone can support. But he did deliver a quality book with extensive, necessary information for anyone who is traveling the road to divining with the Sola-Busca.

Buy The Game of Saturn
The book, the paperback version, can be acquired through Scarlet Imprint.

Peer Review on The Game of Saturn

Scarlet Imprint chose rivalry to have The Game of Saturn reviewed by peers. In other words, by offering The Game of Saturn as scientific research, a scholarly study of this Renaissance deck, proving a thesis within a theoretical cadre, the most logical conclusion was to deliver copies to & have it checked out by (other) historians. An exception was made for The Queen’s Sword. Perhaps because I happen to be a peer as well, or maybe because the author is a very nice guy. Who knows ;-).

I am a Contemporary historian and got my masters degree with honours at the University of Amsterdam, for anyone wanting to know.  And while I am not specialised in the Renaissance period, or art for that matter, any historian worth its salt should at least be able to come to a general conclusion on a colleague’s work. Because…well: there are rules to writing a history study book and calling said book scientific or scholarly.

To a tarot reader the scientific excellence of The Game of Saturn and whether Adams follows generally accepted research methods might not be of much interest. If you happen to arrive on this page and do want to know here follows a second review based on how I read the book as a historian.

Thesis of The Game of Saturn
Peter Mark Adams has delivered a vast array of background information on 15th century Ferrara – the birthplace of the Sola-Busca -, Renaissance art, the Neo-Platonian cultus, usage of alchemical symbols in art and games (educational purposes) and sketches a decent image of the elite playing the games we nowadays use for guidance or fortune telling. He needs to do that in order to arrive at his conclusion, namely that the Sola-Busca is a dark grimoire and not a ‘logical’ and typical tarot deck of its time.

He succeeds in that part, whether I agree with his main premise or not, but the biggest miss of the book – and as a peer I find this the most damaging to his thesis – is that he does not discuss earlier research, nor earlier theses on the Sola-Busca.

‘Alternative’ research
It is common to use earlier work from (art) historians to strengthen your own, by either discrediting their claims (f.e. that the Sola-Busca is an educational deck or used as the game), by offering up new evidence, or by using (parts) of their research to add to proving your own. It is also common to pick up a few theses, or maybe just the one if material is scarce as is the situation with this tarocchi, that counterpoint your thesis and disprove them to show you are the one looking in the right direction. He does none of those things and that weakens his general theoretical cadre.

A historical thesis is based on books, documents, visual sources (paintings) or interviews that could all count as one thing: evidence. Alas, Adams didn’t show a type of history that has a basis in all that. Too many things hinge on meagre evidence, assumptions and general theories, solely propelled towards “The Sola-Busca is a dark grimoire”. It is an alternative kind of historical research. A peer review simply has to point that out.

The Game of Saturn Review The Queen's Sword

Peter Mark Adams, author of The Game of Saturn, Decoding the Sola-Busca tarocchi.

Literary strengths
He however does make several convincing points, from a literary standpoint mostly, and there lies its strength as a book. It could not entirely convince me on its premise of the Sola Busca being used to connect to Ammon-Saturn, but it did convince me as being a study that does credit to the historical library on tarocchi’s. And I do not say that lightly, despite my previous comments.

Calling it a scholarly study does have its merits on other grounds. When Adams created a story around the cards he used several subjects and researched those thoroughly. Therefore the book is made up of little stories, all parts of a bigger story. One that shows you a very good picture of the Renaissance elite, Paganism in an era where the Bible played a major part in people’s lives, and a good explanation on several mythological figures and their story.

As a result Adam’s research can certainly be an excellent source for others investigating the oldest surviving tarot deck, count as a reference book for a reader and a tarot historian and is – in general – an eloquent informant on things that touch the tarot game in that period. The bibliography alone is a great place to start looking even deeper. The Game of Saturn might not be what I expected, but what I did get offers food for thought and many, many new paths to walk on.

Peer Review The Game of Saturn


* Historical deck readers rarely subscribe to keywords per card. They don’t have something like the Pictorial Key that tells how to read a card. Everything can be used – as the Tutorial on Tarot de Marseille already showed – from bits of plants circling around a coin, where the people are looking, if they hold out hands and then come symbols, possible ideas and meanings behind imagery. You work with the concepts of its age and therefore you might say there are universal concepts and vibes, but usually not just a ‘meaning’ per card that could change or expand by adding extra cards. However, for the purpose of the article and understanding one another, this (meaning) is the best word to use.
**(*) First of all because interpreting a 15th century deck with f.e. Waite’s or Crowley’s 20th century meanings would be weird. Secondly, because many decks in the early days of tarot were created for families – their environment – or as educational decks on history, politics, geography and even Christianity. By knowing the stories spread *then*, by knowing the zeitgeist, the political climate *then*, you are quite possibly close to the actual ideas that support each figure in the cards. Even with a weird deck like Sola Busca.
(*) My tutorial on the Minchiate Etruria Tarot will already give you some pointers. I would extract the moral of the myth, what exactly happened historically or the meaning of symbols and apply that idea to the card, using the moral of the story as guidance. For example Polisena, the card some people call the Queen of Swords in this deck, can stand for betrayal (myth of Polisena and Achilles), vengeance, or dying for a cause even – depending on which myth you prefer and how you explain them.