The Sola Busca Tarots: the oldest tarots in the world

The Sola Busca Tarots are the oldest Italian deck of cards in the world, and were named after their last owners, Marquis Busca and Count Sola. In 1924, the Ministry of Public Education recognized the value of this complete collection and its illustrations, and claimed first option to buy it – which it exercised in 2009, when the deck was put up for sale. The cards are currently kept at the Pinacoteca di Brera, which in 1971 had already acquired the Brambilla deck, a set of late-Gothic cards made for the Duke of Milan.

There are 78 cards in the Sola Busca Tarots: fine miniatures colored with tempera and gold, featuring original, fascinating and elusive images. Traditional subjects are replaced by condottieri from ancient Greek and Roman history and two biblical heroes – Nemrod and Nabucodonosor; the court and number cards are enriched with symbols, allegories and scenes of daily life. Traditional Italian suits – swords, batons, cups and coins – are transformed into discs (coins), amphorae (cups) and clubs (batons). The deck was given different interpretations over time, but today experts agree it was closely tied to the late 1400s’ hermetic-alchemic culture. The artist who etched the deck was long unknown, and generally identified as “Sola Busca Tarot Maestro”. Recently, based on the resemblance with other works, the cards have been attributed to Ancona-born painter Nicola di Maestro Antonio. It seems that the background coloring was added by Marin Sanudo, a Venetian humanist and historian.

The Sola Busca tarots were the only known deck with dynamic figures for four centuries. In the early 1900s, they inspired scholarly mystic Arthur Edward Waite and his follower, Pamela Colman Smith, to create the famous Waite-Smith Tarots – now the most common tarots in the Anglo-Saxon world and to this day a source of inspiration for anyone interested in occultism or simply in the iconography of these particular cards.

Few people realize that the bond between tarots, divination and occultism was formed only in 19th-century France. In the 15th century, tarots were known as “triumphi” and were simply a pastime for the rich, which rose to great popularity in courts at the end of the century. The word “tarocchi” (Italian for “tarots”) was first recorded in a document no sooner than 1505.

By Barbara Palladino

The Sola Busca Tarots: the oldest tarots in the world

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