Sola Busca Tarot

The Tarot masterpiece of Italian Renaissance


Editing by Andrea Vitali and Michael S. Howard

The Tarot masterpiece of Italian Renaissance


Book published together with the reproduction of the Sola Busca deck in the Museum Quality series by the Lo Scarabeo publishing house, Turin, 2019 ( under license from the Accademia di Brera.


cm. 18,5 x 12
pp. 127 


Historical essay by Andrea Vitali (In English and Italiano)


Meanings and Interpretation section by Lunaea Weatherstone (In English, Italiano, Español, Francais, Português, Pycckͷͷ)





This precious Tarot deck previously belonging to the Marchessa Busca, born duchess of the Serbelloni family and married into the Busca family, was acquired by the Italian Ministry for Cultural Resources and Activities in 2009 and assigned to the Brera Gallery (Milan). It is a deck of 78 cards measuring 144mm x 78mm, illustrated in the antique style. The cards were lightly engraved in copper, as strokes of the burin can be clearly seen through the superimposed colour, where traces of the lines are clearly visible.


The presence of cards belonging to the same deck but not coloured has suggested that the deck in Milan after being engraved was then painted by a Venetian artist with the addition of various inscriptions. The result is a deck where the number of cards, divided into Triumphs, number cards and courts, is identical to the known standard structure of today, which is 22 Triumph cards (Major Arcana) and 56 number and court cards (Minor Arcana). The year of the pictorial intervention has been deduced from the text that appears on Triumph XIV (Bocho): permesso del Senato Veneto written in the year ab urbe condita MLXX (1070), which should correspond to 1491, given that the Venetian era ad urbe condita begins in the year 421 of the common era and not from 453 as was believed in the past.


The Brera scholars have identified Nicola di Maestro Antonio, of the Marches region of Italy, as the person who created the deck. He was trained in Padua in the style of Squarcione and is documented from 1465 until 1511. But the idea of the project should be attributed to Lodovico Lazzarelli, a humanist born in 1447 in San Severino, also in the Marches. He was very close to the hermetic culture of that time. Other than the inscription MS added to the aces and other cards, the same scholars believe that the possible commissioning of the extra work done could be ascribed to a Venetian man of letters Marino Sanudo the Younger (1446-1536).


There is a great difference between the Triumphs of this deck and the canonical figures, in that - apart from the Mato [Fool] which was drawn according to a generally common iconography of the time - the remaining Triumphs represent famous personalities from ancient Rome and biblical times (along with others that are not easily identifiable). This follows a baclward-looking tendency, as can be seen from the cycles of “Famous Men” in the 14th century, of exempla to imitate. Among the ancient Romans there is Mario, probably Caius Marius, Trump IIII; Deo Tavro, Deiotarus, VII; Nerone, i.e. Nero, VIII; Catone, Cato the Younger, XIII; and Bocho, in all probability Bocchus, king of Mauritania, XIII. Among the historical personalities described in the Bible, Nenbroto, XX can be recognized as Nembroto, an alternative name for Nimrod, and Nabvchodenasor, who is Nebuchadnezzar, XXI.    Meanwhile the others, according to the art historians at the Brera Gallery (where an exhibition was held of this deck in 2013), have uncertain identities, including Postvmio, II; Catvlo, V; Sesto, VI; Tvlio, XI; Carbone, XII; Metelo, XV; Lentvlo, XVIII; Sabino, XVIIII; Panfilo, I; Lenpio, III; Falco, VIIII; Ventvrio, X; Olivo, XVI and Ipeo, XVII. For these historians, as they wrote in the exhibition catalogue, every attempt to reach a correct identification remains destined to fail “until a full analysis of the classical sources and the medieval compendiums available from the 1400's is undertaken in relation to the individual personages”.  


Regarding the court cards, the role of the King of Swords is assigned to Alexander the Great, while in other cards various famous persons can be found, such as King (Rex) Phillip, the father of Alexander, on the card of the King of Coins; Helen of Troy as the Queen of Coins and Olympia, mother of Alexandria, as the Queen of Swords. The court cards are based on medieval romances that drew parallels between figures of the Trojan War and others from the life of Alexander the Great.


The iconography of the number cards has left room for various interpretations. One of these is proposed by the scholars of the Brera and is based in part on the descriptions of alchemical procedures. Taking the Three of Swords, the heart that is its representative is proposed as a symbol of fire, a vital component of alchemical procedures. However other experts have hypothesized a different interpretation, explaining them as an expression of moral Christian teachings. But a Christian orientation, Prof. Howard says, is best demonstrated in the Three of Swords. As the alchemical illustrations do not show flames or other items that corroborate the indications of the Brera scholars that the Three swords as they are positioned could represent gold, silver and mercury exposed to the flames of an alchemical process, it is therefore necessary to consider the contrary, that the image of  rays that pierce the heart of the believer was quite usual in Italian art between the end of the 14th and the first half of the 15th centuries. A point of reference can be found in a passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine, Book IX: “You have pierced our heart with the arrows of your love” (Saggitaveras tu cor nosrtum caritate). Some painters depicted Augustine showing his heart pierced by rays emanating from a vision of the crucifixion. Filippo Lippi (1437-1438, Florence), painted him with his chest pierced by three rays emanating from a vision of the Trinity. It therefore seems more probable that the cards make reference to this tradition.


The historian Chiappini does not believe therefore that the initials M.S. refer to the Venetian man of letters Marin Sanudo the Younger (1466-1535) nor to the Ferrarese miniaturist at the end of the 1400s, Mattia Serrati da Casandola, as the iconographer Hind presumably had assumed. The marriage between Rino Fieschi and Masina Spinola ocurred in 1584. The cards therefore were produced from that date onwards, not prior, otherwise there would be no logic in using the two initials of Masina Spinola. Nevertheless, in order to determine the probable date of their production there appears the fateful inscription on the shield of Bocho (XVI): Anno ab Urbe codita MLXX. Making an anagram of the phrase in question we get: “XX abbiam de l'anno Turco”. The year of the Turk referenced here is the celebrated Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when on the 7th of October the Holy League composed of the Genoese, Venetians and Spaniards, defeated the Turkish armada at Lepanto.


Having determined that 1591 was the most likely date when the anonymous Venetian artist contributes his variations on commission of the Genoese noble Rino Fieschi, Chiappini attempted to identify the possible commissioner and executor of the original deck. The only help in this instance was from the inscriptions present on the Triumphs, and there were only two:


- S.C., written on the chariot of the Triumph Deo Tauro (VII) and on the small flag at the top of the pole of the Triumph Metelo (XV).


- S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populusque Romanus) on the quiver of the Triumph put in relation to Carbone (XII)


What is written without any ambiguity, S.P.Q.R. on the quiver of the Triumph Carbone (XII), relates to the person represented, Gaius Papirius Carbo. From the tribunal in 131 b.c.e. he had approved the lex tabellaria, much desired by the public, which extended the written, and therefore secret, ballot (tabella, tablet) to legislative meetings. It was already in force in the electoral and judiciary meetings. Of this law and its proponent, Cicero (De Leg. III, 16) said: “The third, on ordering laws or vetoing them, belongs to Carbo, a seditious and wicked citizen.”Carbo, initially a proponent of democracy, changed sides in order to attain a consular role, and passed over to the side of the aristocrats. In 120, as consul, he defended Lucius Opimius, the assassin of Gaius Gracchus, betraying both the law and his long-standing friendship with Gaius and his brother Tiberius. The following year he came to be put under indictment by Lincius Crassus, and once defeated, “it was said he took cantarella” (Cic., Ad familiares, IX, 21, meaning that he poisoned himself. Carbo was therefore considered a traitor, and the association with the Hanged Man, traditionally number XII of the Triumphs, is a perfect testimony to these facts.