Sola-Busca Tarot by Mayer: a piece of history

15 January 2016

Queen of Discs Sola-BuscaIt rarely happens I treat a deck with reverence. Sure, my tarot and oracle collection is worth a lot to me and I take good care of any deck. But with the Sola-Busca I had the urge to use those white cotton gloves curators of certain museums use before touching a rare, ancient, valuable object. I guess that was the first ‘warning’ this deck is not your average tarot package, but something pretty special. If you’re not an avid reader, you might want to skip to the conclusion of this deck review, because I have a lot to say.

There are three modern reprints of the Sola-Busca Tarot nowadays, but according to art historian Giordano Berti two of those are either incomplete or absolutely distorted for colors and sizes. The only deck that could be described as a perfect copy of the Sola-Busca I just spoke off is the deck that was (re)printed by Wolfgang Mayer in 1998. And this is the one I am currently looking at, while typing this review.


The Sola-Busca 3 of Swords

The 3 of Swords. This card has a remarkable resemblance with the Waite-Smith 3S, but in the Sola-Busca it means silence, or even altruism and suffering for a cause because you think you’re doing good.

Little Sola-Busca history
Here’s a bit of history. I don’t have that curator vibe for nothing, after all.
The original Sola-Busca Tarot was made in Northern Italy around 1490-1491. According to research by the historian Count Cicognara, the cards were printed in Venice with the permission of Senatus Venetus in ‘MLXX ab urbe condita’. Which corresponds to the year 1491 (1070+ the founding year of Venice, 421). Recently, experts of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, determined Nicola di maestro Antonio (Florence 1448-Ancona 1511) etched and painted the deck. It is however unsure if he invented the Sola-Busca or if he had been commissioned. There are several copies of the deck and some public and private collections still preserve a few cards in black-and-white.

The Venetian masterpiece was the first tarot deck in history to include 78 fully illustrated cards -scenics with dynamic figures, not just symbols. Currently it is the only complete 15th century full-colored deck still in existence. The extant original of the Sola-Busca resides in the Pinacoteca of Brera, bought for 800.000 euro by the Italian Ministry of Heritage and Culture in 2009.

If you want to see photocopies of the Sola-Busca you can go to the British Museum. In 1907 the family Busca-Serbelloni, who had it in their possession for at least two centuries, donated black & white photographs of all 78 cards to the British Museum. That led to an exhibit that was most likely visited by a certain Arthur Edward Waite. And the rest is history -too.

Colors and measures (150 x 82 mm, i.e. 5.9 x 3.2 inches) are exactly the same as the Sola-Busca Renaissance deck. Only 700 copies, all including a numbered and signed warranty card, exist in the world. The deck was made, according to Mayer, for “collectors, researchers, and mystery lovers’’.

Sola-Busca book box

This is the book-shaped box my Sola-Busca deck arrived in.

And I can see where Mayer was coming from, because the deck touches all these characteristics in me. My copy, number 488, came with a hand-written note by Giordano Berti and in a beautifully book-shaped box designed by Letizia Rivetti. The box is very nice, but the true art is the deck inside. Before I go all mushy on you, let me first name a few things that I do not like about Mayer’s deck. The cards are printed on very thick, quality white paper, which is excellent. But, they tend to stick together a bit. I imagine that might disappear with more use. Smooth they aren’t either. The Sola-Busca is not laminated and as tarot readers we might have gotten used to that feeling where the cards glide over one another.  This doesn’t happen with this rendition of the Sola-Busca, but again I hope that’ll go much easier after some prolonged use.

The cards are quite long and due to the thickness of the stock it isn’t the easiest pack to shuffle for us ‘manually challenged’ people. However, since they aren’t that wide, it is still manageable.


XVII Ipeo Sola-Busca
XVI. Olivo Sola-Busca
XX. Sola Busca

A few of the Trumps, XVII, XVI and XX.

Also, while the art – getting there – is absolutely beautiful, the backs are a huge disappointment to me. Why? Well, they’re completely white. Nothing is printed on them, so you’re just looking at paper. I wonder why, since it was known the original back looked like a terracotta (reddish) marble tile. But at least it can be used reversed.

The deck is hand-painted and then printed on the cards. While you can see that the actual print has rounded corners, just like the original Sola-Busca from 1491, the cards you’re holding in your hands do not. To me that is a small annoyance. I do not like square edges on my decks. Aesthetically nor practically – it is much easier to damage them. And I wonder why a deck that is otherwise so extremely faithful to the original and is even painted with rounded corners did not get intimately acquainted with a corner-cutter. So I agree with Giordano Berti that it is hardly distinguishable from the original, but there are still some differences.(And I also agree with you, my reader, if you’re thinking those are all minor critiques.)


Page of Discs Sola-Busca
Queen of Swords Sola-Busca
King of Amphorae Sola-Busca
Queen of Clubs Sola-Busca

Some court cards; Knave of Discs, Queen of Swords, King of Cups, Queen of Clubs

The Sola-Busca comes with a leaflet in which you’ll see a summary of the meanings Sofia Di Vincenzo provided in her book* Ancient Illuminated Tarot -Alchemy in Tarot Sola-Busca. And this leaflet is definitely needed in the beginning. Afterwards you can throw yourself down the rabbit hole of history, symbology and alchemy (Girodano Berti wrote Sola-Busca Tarot. Secret code of Alchemy. A bright opaque shell of secret knowledge for this. No idea if it is any good, but it could be very useful). The Sola-Busca does not follow the same card meanings as the Major Arcana we know now. Waite and Smith might have been inspired by the deck, but if you follow the meanings of the RWS (or a Marseille/Thoth type deck) you’ll be in Tarot Trouble.

Most of the Trumps are kings and heroes in Roman-Greco mythology or history and a couple of cards are based on biblical sources. Think Nero for VIII, Olivo for XVI and Nabuchodenasor is pictured on the XXI card. The King of Cups is a Roman consul, the Queen is Polyxena (a mythological Greek princess, daughter of the King of Troy). The King of Money (Discs) is King Philip of Macedon (Ancient Greece, father of Alexander the Great) and so it goes on. The XIII is a little ironic in this deck: Cato the Younger, a Roman politician who committed suicide because he no longer wanted to live in an empire ruled by Caesar.


Sola Busca Ace of Cups
4 of wands in Sola-Busca
2 of Discs Sola-Busca
10 of Swords Sola-Busca

On the right the 10 of Swords that was later turned into the 10 of Wands in the RWS. I truly wonder what would happen if you would apply the Sola-Busca meanings to the Waite-Smith.

The weirdest difference between Sola-Busca and RWS is the 10 of Wands & 10 of Swords card. We all know the 10W from Waite-Smith where a hunched figure is struggling to hold those 10 wands in his hands. What a burden. But what do you know…that is actually the 10 of Swords in the Sola-Busca, which means something like abandoning the fight, isolation and austerity. The 10W is a very positive card in Sola-Busca. One wonders what went wrong there in 1909…

Sola-Busca language
While some numbers from ‘our’ tarot are similar, XV still has to do with self-control for example and VIII with justice (in this case the lack of), not all numbering or accompanying meaninga are the same, so you can’t count on that either. Also, none of the cards are named on the cards. So unless you majored in Ancient history (sometimes I wish I had not chosen Contemporary in instances like this) you’ll have some studying to do. Next to that each card has alchemical symbology, value objects from those times (numismatics), and classical historical references. The deck does have 4 suits that are pretty similar – and thus recognizable – to 20th or 21st century decks. Only the symbols are slightly different. Discs instead of Pentacles, Clubs instead of Wands and Amphorae instead of Cups. Swords is Swords.

In other words: prepare to learn a completely new language. But what a rich, beautiful, poetic language that is. The more I look at this deck, the more I fall in love with it. It is truly a Renaissance masterpiece. If you like bold coloring or very modern art, you might think ‘nah’. But I think: oh yes!!! I am especially enamored by the suit of Amphorae and those of the Discs. The lines, the shapes, the people, the coloring. Everything is a gorgeous, perfect little piece of art, especially if you like that period. But also if you like to have your decks come with a wide array of correspondences. Nothing is strange or comical, almost all of them could be in a museum. Oh wait…they are! Anyway, I haven’t seen a deck so far that comes remotely close to the ancient beauty and wisdom that is imprinted in these cards.

Sola Busca-Discs and Club
Sola Busca-Metelo and Nerone

Sure, you’ll be referring to a leaflet (unless you buy the book) in the beginning, but I can honestly tell you that if you just look at the pictures with most of them it becomes easier to pick out meanings and let your intuition take over. I did exactly that for two readings a few weeks ago and the recipients were still blown away by the answers. The advice of the Sola-Busca is strong, evocative, thoughtful, but sometimes a little harsh. Seeing the deck was created shortly after the Middle Ages with its harsh reality that can’t come as a surprise.

For me this is and will be a deck that I count as a gem within my collection, a collector’s item indeed. It won’t be one of those decks you take out every day if you have a steady client base as a reader or work on personal growth. I think it will be a deck that you’ll read with on special occasions, or that you can use for studying art, symbology, mythology and more of those things. It would not feel good to make it my workers bee. It is a queen. Just like me.

*If you’re interested in purchasing this deck and would like to have the book as well, then definitely check out the January 2016 special offer.


Author or artist Publisher Publication
Wolfgang Mayer Wolfgang Mayer 1998

Wrap Up

Sola-Busca Tarot