Sola Busca Ferrara XV (LS) | Review

15 September 2017

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 both tarot and 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

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[Editor’s note: Even though there is already a Sola Busca review- on the Mayer 1998 – on the site, this one also includes its historical significance and all the differences with other older and new tarot decks]

The Sola-Busca is ‘hot’ at the moment. For whatever reason this very special 15th century deck is gaining repro-brothers*. This review is about the most recent addition to the Sola Busca stacks: Lo Scarabeo’s latest reproduction of the deck*. Enter Sola Busca Ferrara XV from their Anima Antiqua line.

Look & Feel
The Unboxing of Lo Scarabeo’s Sola Busca Ferrara XV (after this called Sola Busca Ferrara) is a nice little moment. The decks in the Anima Antiqua line are promising to be of the more luxurious kind. The box this Tarocchi comes in, is a beautiful deviation from the normal tuck boxes. It is a high quality container with a textured linen surface, reminding me of luxurious parchment, printed allover with a beige/creme kind of background and embellished with several Sola Busca images. The top of the box comes off, just like a square perfume bottle cap and leaves a red indentation between lid and container.

The right side of the whole box already gives some interesting information. The lid says Tarocchi Sola Busca Ferrara XV Century. The little crate continues with: philological reproduction, numbered and limited edition 2999 copies, Tarocchi Sola Busca (Sola Busca Tarot) Anonymous, Ferrara – XV, century, 78 cards 77x144mm. I like the fact Lo Scarabeo printed ‘Anonymous’ on the side. Despite the fact this work is well-known under deck collectors, and many (tarot) historians have attempted to find the name of its intriguing engraver/painter, no identity has ever been confirmed. The art-consultant for this 21st century edition though is definitely known – none other than Christina Dorsini (usually linked solely to Il Meneghello’s treasures).

The Sola-Busca deck is a special kind of tarot deck. It is certainly not a TdM-type and while it *is* a Tarocchi, or Ancient Italian with the 78 cards, 22 trumps and 4 suits, it is very different from the Italian decks that eventually led to the Marseille decks. Even though there are several very weird cards in the deck (grotesk faces with wands through them for example) and the lines are bolder and thicker than most Tarochhi’s – the Sola Busca misses that softer elegance – you can’t mistake the deck for 15th century Italian art. I personally like the style and the more I look at it the more I can appreciate it, but for an ‘almost Renaissance’ deck it is out there.

Historical significance of the Sola Busca Tarot

Whether or not it is different from anything you’ve ever seen tarot-wise, the Sola-Busca is historically invaluable for us tarot readers & collectors. It is the oldest surviving *complete* tarot deck – originally created for a rich Florentine noble family as a game. It is the first deck (that has survived) with numbers (and titles…ish), and the first that was printed instead of hand-painted. Pretty special for the time. And if your go-to tarot system now is the Waite-Smith and you will look upon a Sola Busca for the first time your mouth might just fall open ;-).Most tarot historians agree on the fact that a visit to the British Museum so many decades ago, with the Sola Busca on display in 1907, inspired Pamela Colman Smith in painting several of the WCS minors. As a fellow historian and reader myself and say there is no doubt about it the WCS-artist based a lot of her work on the deck. The three of swords, the ten of swords, the six of disks…all of them come back in the Waite-Smith.

Then a few histo-facts: Sola-Busca, as far as we know, is the only historical tarot deck that has scenics. That would not happen again (based on historical and ‘archeological’ delivery) until the beginning of the 20th century thanks to Arthur & Pamela. It was (we think) the first deck using the 78 card construction with 22 Trumps and 56 minors: courts and suits. And as said, it influenced the most popular deck in the world that would introduce tarot to a mainstream public many centuries later. Trust me: you will recognize several of them – even if you are still a beginner. Even though Colman-Smith (or Waite) switched the scenes around or altered them slightly. It is as if the Sola Busca made tarot come full circle in a way. From the oldest to the (then) newest.

Other historical significances of the Sola Busca are the predominantly reddish color palette many of the Italian decks would later show (though diminished), as well as the fact that 15th century painters – just like their 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century counterparts (lets add 20th and 21st to that too, shall we)  – had a penchant for creating biblical and mythological figures on their Tarocchi’s and Tdm’s. Though in the Sola Busca you will see that the art leans heavily on figures from Roman history (politics/heroes in the Majors) and Greek (minors) heroes, gods and legends. So in a way this tarot deck has its traditional side, but the twist is much larger.

 

 

If you had visions of making your Sola Busca deck your go-to readers deck, I should warn you. While it isn’t impossible, for many the choice to buy any Sola Busca will be more of a collector’s choice than a reader’s one.

Sola Busca Trumps 1 The Queen's Sword

Right click and open new window for the large 4 card picture.

Hurdles?
So let’s go back to the deck on display here. The LS Sola Busca Ferrara does not have a LWB with meanings and reading tips and there is good reason for that: the original meanings and interpretations are simply not known and I think Lo Scarabeo decided it was not up to them to come up with some. In the box there’s an extra thick card, looking like vellum, that holds your limited edition number and a very thin parchment-colored booklet/leaflet proving you with some of its history, a reference to the Waite-Smith scenics and the Majors with all their names. This might sound useless, but it is not.

All the names on the Majors are written in Latin and are sometimes a little illegible. Just as much as their roman numeral counterparts – sometimes you have to search for them. On a deck that has no typical tarot titles, nor names in neat banners below the image that makes it hard in the beginning to identify them – the Majors for sure. The scenics (minors) just carry the Arabic number and count until 14 for the courts. For example: 13 is the Queen of [look at symbol in the cards], 9 will be on any 9 of Disks/Amphorae/Clubs/Swords. The suit is not mentioned but they are pretty clear. So while getting acquainted that little leaflet will be good support.

That is the first hurdle in reading the Sola Busca. Another is, like I said,  the fact that there is hardly any and certainly any English material written on the deck and what is readily available is more focused on art-history than actually useful for diviners. It is obvious that Lo Scarabeo opted for the collector’s angle with the Sola Busca Ferrara. That becomes even more apparent when you see that the limited edition copyright card with your number will also have a warning on the back: in order to provide all buyers with a more ‘historical feeling’, when touching the deck, the cards have not been treated with a chemical varnish that is usual for a tarot pack. Due to the lack of coating they might not be as easy to shuffle as you’d like – thereby making it harder using them as a regular reading deck. While there is indeed a certain roughness to especially the backs and they don’t ‘glide’ as smoothly as most decks, shuffling isn’t entirely out of the question. But ‘comfy’ is another thing. I will come back to that.

Right click and open new window for the large 4 card picture.

Copy of a copy
Lo Scarabeo has done their utmost best in creating a reproduction that is close to the original, with the options provided to them. Their Sola Busca Ferrara, or Sola Busca Tarot, contains 78 images that are optimized and digitalized versions of two different sets of pictures: public domain pictures and a 19th century (“extremely faithful” according to the LWB) copy of the original – currently in a private collection. They are, however, not derived from the cards in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the museum that holds the only complete deck. That is a bit of a setback when you’re battling with the other Busca’s for the worthy title ‘faithful reproduction’, but Lo Scarabeo is definitely holding its own.

The backs have a marbled red decorum that is similar to the original, though it seems to hold a darker red going towards purple at times, fixtured on a whole lotta of black. That is different from the pictures of the original or other faithful copies I have seen so far, but my guess is that the differences I will encounter can be explained due to the fact this deck is a close copy of a close copy. There will be something lost in translation. The sizing seems the same as any other Sola Busca I’ve had my hands on, so I gather this is similar as, if not equal to the original.

The Sola Busca Swords. Here is the card that inspired Pamela for the well-known picture of the Waite-Smith 3S.

The Sola Busca Swords. Here is the card that inspired Pamela for the well-known picture of the Waite-Smith 3S.

Having the whole deck in your hand creates quite a stack, telling me the card stock is a lot thicker than most LS decks give you. The cards are more in sync with what we now recognize as card stock (if you happen to own a Mayer…they do not seem similar in the least), but there is a hint of stiffness to them. Picking up one card shows flexibility, but with half a pack it already becomes rather difficult. However: I can’t imagine anyone wanting to riffle-shuffle a limited edition historical reproduction anyway (or is that just me getting the shivers now?). The backs feel a little rough, the front is smoother. I love the fact the corners are rounded. This makes the deck so much easier to handle. It might not be a 100% true to the original, but I feel this LS Sola Busca is an ‘in between’.

It is obvious these are photographs and ‘made better’. Here and there the pictures and lines are vaguer than you would see in a painting – in others actually more striking – and the colors are a little different.

Modern plusses
The beauty in the ‘modern’ additions is that we as readers also like to have our comfort for example. Those rounded edges might have been uncommon for medieval decks, but my hands thank the 21st century Italians for this. In some cases facsimiles or reproductions are copied onto other stock, giving unnecessary borders or give a copy/paste feeling. That is also left out here and I feel I am holding the deck and nothing else: again a huge plus for the Anima Antiqua Sola Busca Ferrara.

The Cups, or better said, Amphorae of the Sola Busca. Most of the image have a face or a mythological like creature, or cherub.

The Cups, or better said, Amphorae of the Sola Busca. Most of the image have a face or a mythological like creature, or cherub.

Something that can bug me in reproductions is the fact that creators can have the tendency to ‘buff up’ the color palette, thereby satiating the paintings with red for example or making them look ‘fake’. That is luckily not the case here either. As promised, they’ve tried to keep as close to the originals (available to them). If I see it well, it might even be possible the Sola Busca Ferrara colors are actually more muted on the Lo Scarabeo deck.

Divining with the Sola Busca
If you are taken with the deck and want to use it for divining, you need to heed my earlier warning(s): the shuffling is a little on the rough side and more importantly: there is no information on possible divination meanings. The Sola Busca Ferrara Tarot has no LWB in that capacity and there is limited info out there by others anyway. A few websites are dedicated to the deck as well as several academic writings, but don’t expect them to focus on the actual ‘reading the deck’ part.

The Sola Busca has plenty of weirdness in the cards. This 3W (3 of Clubs) is a good example.

The Sola Busca has plenty of weirdness in the cards. This 3W (3 of Clubs) is a good example.

The few tarot historians who have tried to do just that, looked for our current day tarot counterparts, but honestly: with the Sola Busca that would never be my choice. You will be searching, if not reaching, in many cases to find the right combinations.

The Sola Busca is completely focused on important events (and the people that played a role: mostly consuls) during Roman times, occult practices (alchemy being number one in that) and more than anything the deck shows historical, mythological and literary heroes from an Ancient period. Whereas the WCS (and also the TdM decks) are full of Biblical references,  the only place you’ll see the Bible in the Sola Busca is in the cards Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar. My advice: it won’t do you much good -as with most traditional decks – to copy paste what you know of 20th century tarot onto the Sola Busca. If you want to honor its art and their meanings you need to either go full on ‘pattern & intuitive reading’ or make a study of the Sola Busca and its characters.

Practical tarot
Nothing what I wrote above stopped me from trying though (but I have had the pleasure of owning a Sola Busca deck already, doing research yet again for the review of the Lo Scarabeo Sola Busca and I happen to have a Masters in History ;)).

So, I did try a little divining** and to my pleasure it responds to my own tarot ‘rules’ beautifully. I did realize immediately after really trying for a couple of spreads the shuffling is definitely much harder without the regular coating. But the rounded corners make sure it won’t be too uncomfortable. The pack is on the thick side for small hands, but because the cards are a little bit bigger you’ll have a good oversight of the art (and they aren’t so big they get in the way of a larger spread). The color palette, with its blue, red and cream, is limited. That means that the color reading so many do with WCS isn’t (literally) in the cards. But there is plenty detail and history in there to focus on.

There is plenty in the Sola Busca that looks slightly or very familiar if you read with the WCS. The Disks cards are an exception though - The cards have remarkable scenics but apparently they didn't inspire the Waite-Smith. Honestly: The Pentacles have never been my favorite, but the Sola Busca Disks are amazing.

There is plenty in the Sola Busca that looks slightly or very familiar if you read with the WCS. The Disks cards are an exception though – The cards have remarkable scenics but apparently they didn’t inspire the Waite-Smith. Honestly: The Pentacles have never been my favorite, but the Sola Busca Disks are amazing.

The huge advantage of this Sola Busca Ferrara showed when I was divining. And well…it is a psychological reason. With the more expensive Sola-Busca’s I always had a mountain to climb before I tried any tarot reading. I mean…we are talking about quite the amount of $$ for the deck and I feel a little uneasy using it for more than meditation or study then. The same goes for taking it with me. The Sola Busca Ferrara is currently standing on a table on the Greek island of Crete actually and I feel okay about that. Basically the Lo Scarabeo deck has done what no other Sola Busca deck did for me before: offer me a Tarocchi that would look great as a collector’s edition, but that also has a price that doesn’t make me squirm when it comes to actually drawing some cards and divine with the deck. Same for (well protected of course) ‘throwing it’ in my suitcase to go on a holiday and write my review on the tarot from there.

It is what I meant with ‘in between’. You can honor it as a pure museum piece, it is definitely a great price reproduction item, and store it in a nice cupboard. But… it could also be used as more than a study deck. It isn’t a 100% either, it is a little bit of both: in between.

The courts in the Sola Busca refer very often to the heroes from Greek mythology and a few to Kings and Queens. The Pages aren't named.

The courts in the Sola Busca refer very often to the heroes from Greek mythology and a few to Kings and Queens. The Pages aren’t named.

Conclusion
So, I guess that sums up my conclusion. The Sola Busca Ferrara isn’t the most faithful reproduction I have ever seen, but as part of a historical reproduction line it is a great try. The box is great and it comes definitely close to the original in the Pinacoteca – especially considering what they had to work with. Price-wise this deck gets the biggest thumbs up. So, if that is a deciding factor, this is my recommendation: whether you are a collector or a reader with her/his eyes on loads of study-hours, you can’t go wrong with the Lo Scarabeo Sola Busca Tarot. The Italian publisher is offering good quality for a ditto price. So, off you go before those 2999 decks are all gone and you have to wait another decade for a new Sola Busca to show up…

BUY:
Sola Busca Ferrara on Amazon
Sola Busca Tarot on Bookdepository

NB’s.
* The Italian publisher had already released a rather popular Sola Busca Tarocchi by the name of Ancient Enlightened Tarot, but that one is OOP. And its current prices on Amazon will buy you a decent plain ticket or even a complete holiday. So after many requests the Italian Tarot creators decided to add a new Sola Busca to their recent historical reproductions line, Anima Antiqua. Want to read more about that line, then go to the exclusive interview I did with Andrea Chiarvesio.
**I decided to leave my reading with the Sola Busca out of this review. Like I said: there is not much agreement on who the characters on the cards are, let alone on their interpretations and meanings. This would have been a personal interpretation, how I think “How to read the Sola Busca Tarot”.  Curious? I asked the deck what it wanted me to know about its characteristics, its personality and got 13D Elena+ XVIII Lentulo+13C Polisena. 

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