Saturday, November 12, 2011

on why I love the Ancient Italian Tarot

I absolutely adore this deck of tarot cards.  Let me count the ways.

My relationship with it has been like a passionate love affair.  I don’t use these cards all the time, but when I do I fall in love anew each time.  This was the deck that got me excited about the historical reproductions.  It was this deck that inspired me to delve down to the historic roots of tarot and as a result it changed my tarot world view.  I feel as if each time I shuffle or look through the cards I am sucked into another world, a world I love and one that makes me feel truly alive.  I wanted to share some of the things about this deck that makes me so attached to these particular images.

These cards were published by Lo Scarabeo in 2001 as part of the ‘Ancient’ series of decks.  It is a reproduction of an Italian deck from 1880’s which was based on the 1835 Soprafino deck by Carlo Della Rocca.  While the symbolism is based on the Marseille pattern, there are some distinct variations.  Incidentally, it would seem that the original Della Rocca deck was based on a deck which has also been reproduced by Lo Scarabeo as ‘The Ancient Tarot of Bologna’.  Should you be fortunate enough to get a copy of both they are interesting to compare.

These wonderful Italian decks are a joy to work with as they offer a distinctly different atmosphere to the Marseille style woodblock decks.  While the earlier Della Rocca deck has finer details than the Ancient Italian, I do prefer this later version as to me the figures are much more approachable. They are full of expression; they meet your eyes and draw you in to the cards and into their world.  Below you can see some of the Courts from the Cups suit where I compare the two decks. the Della Rocco on the left and Ancient Italian on the right.  This isn’t the Il Meneghello Della Rocca, which I don’t have, but the Lo Scarabeo Classical, which is another reproduction of the same deck.

While the Della Rocco images are so very fine, and the details so clear, the expressions of most figures in the deck tend towards grumpiness for me.  There is a general sense from them that life is hard and there isn't much to feel good about in their world.  In the Ancient Italian on the other hand, I feel like life is good and I want to hear what they have to tell me about the places they are from.

'Il Bagatto is a card that distinguishes this pattern from many others.  The first image below is from the Ancient Italian, the second is the Della Rocco and the third is from the Ancient Tarot of Bologna, on which the Della Rocco was based. 

Although in the Marseille pattern there is much variation, he is generally seen as a trickster or street performer.  In more modern Golden Dawn influenced decks we see a ritual magician, but in both the traditional and modern versions he usually holds up a wand or staff.  In the Ancient Italian and Della Rocco patterns we see a different representation, the cobbler, or artisan who holds up what appears to be a glass of wine.  I have also read of a theory that rather than wine he holds a glass of balsamic vinegar.  Considered somewhat of a cure all at the time it could be used to polish shoes, heal ills and was consequently quite valuable.  Perhaps il Bagatto is a vendor of magical elixirs as well?  Somehow I see the representation in the Della Rocca and Ancient Italian decks as the link that connects the traditional street performer to the ritual magician.  As a street performer he relies on sleight of hand and trickery to achieve his aim, which I expect would be to make money or to gain some benefit.  As a craftsman he actually has to produce something tangible in order to gain something, while as a magician he is dealing with universal forces to achieve his outcomes.  It’s an interesting development and I like the idea that our Ancient Italian ‘Bagatto’ is somehow the portrayal that links the traditional to the modern.  

I also love the gorgeous Empress, sitting serenely and looking so beautiful and poised.  She looks completely in control and yet I like the way her crown is tilted ever so slightly to one side.  Her gaze seems to be looking right into my soul and despite her calm appearance, it’s as if she could smile at any moment, or laugh even.  Her fingers hold the staff so daintily and I sense from her a compassion that I often feel is missing from some of the earlier Empresses.  To me, she is the perfect figure for this card.

‘Il Papa’ is another interesting image.  I’m always drawn to the curious man at the bottom right who is one of my favourite features of the entire deck.  He looks quite out of place and I’m intrigued as to who he is and why he’s there.  He reminds me of the Hierophant from another deck I’m so fond of, the Cosmic, and so I’ve included the image aboe as well.  When I look at the Ancient Italian card I sometimes imagine him there listing to the sermon in the 1880’s, considering what he has heard, and making a decision to one day do things his own way.  Then, 100 years later in the 1980’s there he is again is the Cosmic Tarot, this time as the Hierophant in a totally different world doing things a totally different way.  Crazy really, but it’s just a connection I’ve made and now every time I see this card it’s like a portal between worlds.  It really highlights the theme of this card as a conveyer of wisdom.  The Pope or Hierophant being the bridge that connects spirit with humanity, the one who passes on the tradition. 

The next three cards above are my favourite images in this deck and I adore the colouring in this reproduction. 

When I look at this Tower I just feel so much energy and movement.  It’s like there is an action film on the television and you’ve hit the pause button.  I can almost sense the fear of the figure at the top of the tower; I can hear the noise as the falling debris begin to hit the ground.  I can sense the loss, the change, the destruction, and the freedom that awaits.  

This Star is without doubt one of my favourite tarot images of all time.  I have chosen her for my blog background because she’s like a shining light, guiding my way.  My daughter calls her Aphrodite and I quite like that connection, to me it seems to work with her gorgeous red hair.  This is an image that makes me feel glad for all that is good in the world.

I love the humour in this rendition of the Moon.  Where we normally see a crayfish or lobster swimming in a pool, here it appears instead on a plate.  Two dogs still howl at the moon regardless of this delicious feast on offer, perhaps demonstrating that power the moon has over us all.

The court cards in this deck are a delight and I’ve included some examples below. While I have come to love the Marseille style woodcut decks I did initially find the courts quite difficult to connect with. These images however gave me no such trouble. To me they are all so full of emotion and expression; they meet your gaze and draw you in.

The suit or pip cards are not scenic but they are delightful none the less and their arrangement is in the same style as the Marseille decks.

Finally, to complement the sublime imagery of the card faces, the backs are no less than a perfect match.

Sadly, I understand this deck is no longer in print which to me seems a devastating tragedy.  Fortunately I have stocked up and have myself a couple of back-ups just in case.  The good news though is it that for now it is still relatively easy to find a copy.  If you are not yet in possession of this beauty I wouldn’t waste much time.  It is a purchase I am quite sure you would not regret.  And if you already have a copy then hopefully this will inspire you to dig it out again, and enjoy.


  1. A lovely paean to a lovely deck. You're right about how much softer this deck is compared to the Gumppenberg. I love your observations about the Pope. That figure in the bottom right hand corner reminds me of those mysterious unidentifiable figures which inexplicably appear in ghost photography! I'd never really noticed him before. You will always have a soft spot for this deck for the journey it sent you on.

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  3. Wonderful blog!