The Sola-Busca Tarot
The Alchemical Symbolism of a Renaissance Masterwork
Peter Mark Adams
The ancient Egyptian hieratic script was used for religious texts, demotic for ordinary purposes. Similarly, the tarot also presents us with two languages or ‘grammars’ each of which reflects the divisions within Renaissance society: the world of the elite and the world of the common people. Each utilized tarot decks that reflected their unique position in the world, their range of interests and the financial means relative to their realization.
The tarot that arose within the elite segments of society can aptly be described as the ‘noble tarot’. It was commissioned by noblemen from noted Renaissance artists, presumably at great expense, and handcrafted using the finest materials. Whilst some of these decks were used for gaming purposes others appear to have been commissioned as luxury items (possibly wedding gifts) and were considered, even at the time, to be collector’s pieces – which accounts for their survival over the last 500 years or so.
It was with such masterworks of the card maker’s art that the tarot realized its fullest symbolic expression. A distinguishing feature of such ‘noble tarots’ is that they could be structured utilizing elaborately coded systems of meaning, symbolism and references that appealed to their intended audience. If there was to be a deck whose symbolism was to be based on esoteric principles, then it would probably be one of these ‘noble’ decks.
A perfect example is the magnificent, hand painted late-15th century Sola-Busca tarot. This is the oldest (circa 1490) surviving full deck of tarot cards. It consists of 22 trumps and 56 suit cards in four suits each with 4 court cards. Despite this conformity with the structure of most modern decks it is in other ways quite idiosyncratic.
It was, presumably, either commissioned or owned by the Venetian Venier family, descendants of the Roman Emperor Valerian, whose coat of arms (three red bars on a silver background with an optional gold diagonal band or belt that signified a specific branch of the family) may appear as many as seven times throughout the deck, though it is sometimes difficult to discern. For example, each of the 4 Aces bears a coat of arms but only the Ace of Swords retains sufficient definition to allow us to discern the Venier arms. In addition, trumps IIII ‘Mario’ (above), XIIII ‘Bocho’ and XV ‘Metelo’ all appear to display these arms.
The deck itself was created by the anonymous ‘Master of the Sola-Busca Tarocchi’ who, based upon a detailed analysis of the stylistic similarities between this work and other engravings of the time, is now known to be Nicola di Maestro Antonio.
The symbolism of the deck is ostensibly based upon heroic figures from classical antiquity. But its highly decorated cards appear to contain a deeper layer of symbolism based upon the stages of the alchemical opus. For many centuries Alchemy was indistinguishable from the science of its day. But whereas today’s scientist maintains a certain distance from his subject matter in order to minimize bias, the path of the alchemist demanded a complete emotional absorption in his work so that the subjective and the objective crossed over one another and merged.
The classical stages of the alchemical opus – Nigredo (blackening/decomposing), Albedo (whitening/purifying), Citrinitas (yellowing/emerging) and Rubedo (reddening/realizing) – match the stages of any profound process of psychological individuation and spiritual transformation. And this psychological process in turn mirrors the inner or energetic transformations, and their accompanying visions, of that universal ‘yoga’ that constitutes the mystical path.
Alchemy, despite its centuries long incubation of the science of Chemistry, was in its highest sense, a path of inner cultivation and individuation. Much of the obscurity of its imagery and classic accounts relates to the difficulty of translating such otherworldly experiences into the language of everyday life, and not just to a need to retain the secrecy that all spiritual practices required in the face of the belligerent politico-religious power of the Vatican.
One clue to the hidden layers of meaning within the deck is the presence of Alexander the Great (King of Swords). But his depiction, with a Gryphon drawn chariot, connects him not with the historical personage but with the romanticized figure of the ‘Alexander Romance’ literature, collections of tall stories and fabulous exploits that grew up around his name.
His centrality to the symbolic structure of the Sola-Busca is underlined by the appearance of people closely connected with him amongst the court cards: his mother, Olympias (Queen of Swords) and father, Philip of Macedon (King of Disks). We also have the father Alexander (modestly) claimed to be his true father, the god Zeus Ammon (Knight of Swords). Based upon the Alexander Romance literature, we can add Alexander’s other ‘true’ father, the last Pharaoh of Egypt, Nectanebo (Knight of Cups). After the king had fled Egypt his people asked the oracle of Serapis where their king had gone only to be told that he would return not as an old man, but as a youth, setting the scene for Alexander’s conquest of Egypt. Serapis is represented amongst the court cards as Serafino (Knight of Disks). Finally, Alexander’s father, Philip, consults the oracle of Apollo at Delphi to learn who will be king after him (the answer is, of course, Alexander), and so Apollo also appears amongst the court cards (Knight of Batons). In the Alexander Romance statues are to be erected on Alexander’s death to a number of figures including Hercules (his first ancestor) and Pallas Athena (Queen of Batons). In conclusion, we have at least 7 of the 16 court cards directly related to the mythical Alexander of the ‘Alexander Romance’ literature. We can therefore infer that this constitutes a second level of interpretation of the Sola-Busca deck.
As we will see, Alexander appears amongst the suit cards as well.
In the Sirr Al-Asrar (Secretum Secretorum or Secret of Secrets), a text that purports to be instructions from Aristotle to Alexander (though in fact a 6th – 7th CE compilation), Alexander receives advice on a wide range of subjects including Alchemy.
Through translations of these texts the complex, multi-layered figure of Alexander the Great – at once a historical, mythical and now alchemical figure – entered European culture depositing further layers of symbolic significance onto Alchemy’s already overloaded surface.
On first acquaintance the alchemical significance of the cards is quite obscure, even for someone with knowledge of the stages and symbolism of alchemical processes. One of many clues to the existence of a deeper layer of meaning, and therefore of an alternative system of interpretation, is trump XVI wherein we see a figure in red, the Sun and an alchemical animal, the Basilisk, described as a dragon with the head, wings and feet of a cock. The Basilisk was reputed to kill at a glance.
In alchemical terms the Basilisk represents the merging of Sulphur and Mercury and symbolizes the merger of our higher and lower natures (spirit and soul) to form the ‘Child of the Philosophers’. In the Alexander Romance literature, Alexander the Great is reputed to have killed the Basilisk by showing it a mirror so that it died from looking at its own reflection. The kingly figure depicted in trump XVI is looking away from the animal as he holds some object by its handle – presumably a mirror – over the Basilisk’s head. If so we would be justified in claiming this card to be a representation of the ‘Alchemical Alexander’.
All of the symbols depicted on this card are connected with the fourth and ultimate stage of the alchemical opus, the Rubedo. The red figure, the Basilisk and the appearance of the Sun serve to pre-figure the completion of the Great Work.
In the classic alchemical text ‘Ripley reviv’d: or, an exposition upon Sir George Ripley’s Hermetico poetical works’ by Eirenaeus Philalethes (George Starkey) the 17th century alchemist writes:
‘Then shall the heavenly fire descend and illuminate the earth with inconceivable glory.
The crown of thy labours shall be brought unto thee, when our Sol shall sit in the south, shining with redness incomparable.
This is our Tyre, our basiliske, our red poppy of the rock, our Lion devouring all things.
This is our true light, our earth glorified.’
Work on the hidden symbolism of the Sola-Busca Tarot continues. My comments rest upon the research of many fine scholars over the years. It is therefore fitting that the contribution of Sofia di Vincenzo, Giordano Berti, Laura Paola Gnaccolini, Mark J. Zucker and Andrea De Marchi be acknowledged here. Also the many expert contributors to the Tarot History Forum: http://forum.tarothistory.com/index.php.