The World of Playing Cards Logo
Published February 07, 2017 Updated July 06, 2023

Sola-Busca Tarocchi

The Sola-Busca Tarocchi, c.1491

1491 Italy History Renaissance Tarot Tarocchi Add to Collection

This is an ongoing research project in collaboration with Samten de Wet, who initiated the discourse.

The “Sola-Busca Tarocchi” contains seventy-eight engravings that make up a remarkable set of illuminated tarot cards, the earliest known complete example as well as the earliest known engraved set. The 22 canonical arcana are replaced by historical and mythical people recalling antiquity, such as Nimrod, Nebuchadnezzar, etc. Heroes of antiquity were in fashion, and each of the 16 court cards also has an ancient name, while the minor cards are pictorial. This deck is believed to have inspired the whole pictorial concept of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot.

The “Sola-Busca Tarocchi” are named after the Milanese family, Sola-Busca, that once owned a complete set that is now in the Pinacoteca di Brera. A number of incomplete sets also exist in other collections. Although several attempts have been made, alas, the identity of the Sola-Busca Master has not been positively established, yet he (or she) remains one of the more intriguing, but elusive, North Italian artists of their day.

Zucker (1997) describes the artwork as follows: “clear, precise contours... irregularly curving outlines... idiosyncratic landscapes... low, rounded, diminutive hills and twisted, oddly-shaped stumps and branches”. An unconventional approach to antiquity and a predilection for puzzling, rather bizarre iconography.

The Sola Busca tarot did not produce any further manifestations of its iconological programme. It was a one-off operation. The root sources can be found in the literature and the esoteric codings are a part of Western esotericism. Although the divinatory aspect of tarot didn't became popular until the 18th century, alchemical, esoteric and hermetic currents appears in some earlier tarocchi decks, such as this one, as well as in the visual and performing arts.

Six of Discs, Sola-Busca Tarocchi, c.1490

Above: six of discs. Card size = 14.2 x 7.5 cm.

In her book ‘An Introduction to Western Esotericism’ [Edwin Mellen, 2008] Nadya Chishty-Mujahid posits that the Sola Busca tarot could have constituted a mutus liber of esoteric initiation for a secret society such as Pomponio Leto’s Roman Academy. When placed in circular formation the 22 major arcana of the deck display a distinct ritualistic pattern whereby a novice undergoes ritual initiation in order to become a fully tried and tested member of the society. Chishty-Mujahid examines how, when placed in this form, the arcana may definitively be viewed as a type of animated sundial form, with the changes from day to night being clearly delineated and displayed. Since the element of fire is a prevalent one in these major arcana [which show the initiate becoming accomplished in the use of fire and the ability to control it] it is likely that this deck represents figurative illumination; hence the society for which it was used was probably an early form of what later came to be known in Europe as the Illuminati.

Sola-Busca Tarocchi, c.1490 Sola-Busca Tarocchi, c.1490

Above: the four of cups with large urns and the artists's distinctive style of nudes. The background landscapes feature low, rounded hills with oddly-shaped trees, often with birds perched in them.

Right: an uncoloured and painted version of the knight of swords, depicting a semi-naked man on horseback wielding an enormous sword, with a scabbard hanging from his waist; a barren, stumpy tree behind.

The artist's sharp and lively lines are often overshadowed by the painting.

Uncoloured version from British Museum, Department of Prints & Drawings Online Collection

knight of swords, Sola-Busca Tarocchi, c.1490

In an article published on the Pinacoteca di Brera website, the author writes “through a decipherment of these images, the [Sola-Busca] deck has been shown to provide a vivid reflection of the kind of alchemical and Hermetic knowledge so dear to the Humanists.” Later in the same article, we read about a “process of inner regeneration that sets out from the exemplars of Illustrious Men of Antiquity, and of contemporary men whom players at the time would no doubt have recognised, and proceeds through various degrees of knowledge – acquired by means of direct enlightenment in a master-pupil relationship.”

Joscelyn Godwin (2002), writing about the so-called Tarocchi di Mantegna, discusses “mapping the hierarchy of being” and “the journey and fate of the soul after death, as taught by Hermetic and Neoplatonic philosophy”. When the soul possesses all the virtues, it is ready to break free of earth and start its ascent through the spheres of the seven heavens. He concludes with “I leave it to others to press these parallels further, in the hope of cracking the code of the Tarocchi — if there is such a code”.

The Game of Saturn: Decoding the Sola-Busca Tarocchi

In his book “The Game of Saturn: Decoding the Sola-Busca Tarocchi” [Scarlet Imprint, 2017], Peter Mark Adams describes how “by the systematic use of ambiguity in the spelling of names and the presence of symbolic counters that point towards deeper, occulted levels of meaning”, the Sola-Busca tarocchi camouflages its true significance as a sequence of ritually themed cards depicting the stages in a pagan theurgical rite.

To illustrate these ideas in his own words, Peter has provided two excerpts from his book and also a podcast interview with Gordon White which was published on 5 Apr 2017:

Astral Imagery Encoded in Trump XIII Catone
An Encoded Saturnian Theme

In spite of the vast trove of research and opinion on the origin of the Tarot, no conclusive evidence has been reached as to who designed the matrix of the “Major Arcana”. Ordinary playing cards probably pre-date the set of 22 trionfi which were added to the tarot deck, yet their enigmatic and striking imagery can be traced back many centuries. Perhaps they represent things that the soul must acquire or master before it is fit to start on the heavenly ladder. This leads us to keep on seeking answers to the question Who had the original vision for the Tarot?

  • Polisena

    There was a young woman named Polisena Cavatorta who was a nun in the convent of San Zaccaria when in 1451 her love story with Giovanni Valier came to surface. Polisena had been placed in the convent at a very young age because of a dowry problem. Giovanni met her as a nun but wanted to marry her. After several moonlit walks in the garden and proposals of marrige, they finally made love. Since marriage was not an option they began a lifetime long affair. Soon their baby boy was born at the convent... From: Guido Ruggiero, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice, Oxford University Press, 1985.

    the original Sola-Busca queen of cups (Polisena), 1491, and the new re-drawn edition published by Lo Scarabeo, 1995.

    In the original (on the left) we can see very clearly the snake in the decorative cup. This is not featured in the modern version.

    Click image to ZOOM

    So crucial for THE INNER MEANINGS - when the details get corrupted – the totality is lost.

    Polisena arcanum 13


Adams, Peter Mark: The Game of Saturn: Decoding the Sola-Busca Tarocchi, Scarlet Imprint, 2017. Reviewed here

Brera, Pinacoteca di: The Sola Busca Deck and the Tarot Game, Milan.  Online here

British Museum: Online Collection

Chishty-Mujahid, Nadya: An Introduction to Western Esotericism: Essays in the Hidden Meaning of Literature, Groups, and Games, Edwin Mellen Press, 2008

Godwin, Joscelyn: The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002

Pratesi, Franco: In Search of Tarot Sources, The Playing-Card vol.27 No.2 (1998) pp.64-68; No.3 (1999) pp.111-116.  Online here

Zucker, Mark J. : The Master of the Sola-Busca Tarocchi and the Rediscovery of Some Ferrarese Engravings of the Fifteenth Century, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 18, No. 35, (IRSA s.c. 1997), pp. 181-194.

1,432 Articles

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.

Related Articles

Woodblock and Stencil King of Diamonds

Woodblock and Stencil King of Diamonds

A limited edition art print of the King of Diamonds 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Queen of Clubs

Woodblock and Stencil Queen of Clubs

A limited edition art print of the Queen of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

Woodblock and Stencil Jack of Clubs

A limited edition art print of the Jack of Clubs 1984 woodblock joker.

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

Woodblock and Stencil Joker

A limited edition art print of the 1984 woodblock joker.

1978 San Paolo Shakespeare

San Paolo Shakespeare

San Paolo Shakespeare, Italy, 1978

1993 Le Carte di Forattini

Le Carte di Forattini

Political caricatures by Giorgio Forattini published by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Italy, 1993.

1983 San Paolo Chekhov

San Paolo Chekhov

Characters from Chekhov’s plays designed by Paolo Fresu for San Paolo Istituto Bancario, Italy, c.19...

Storia del Fascismo - gioco di carte

Storia del Fascismo - gioco di carte

‘Storia del Fascismo’ playing cards depicting persons, symbols and artifacts associated with Italian...

2003 The Lovers playing cards

The Lovers playing cards

Reproductions of old postcards with romantic messages for Valentine’s Day.

1985 I Gatti Originali di Evelyne Nicod

I Gatti Originali di Evelyne Nicod

Etchings of cats on a set of major arcana created by Evelyne Nicod.

1978 Carte Osteologiche

Carte Osteologiche

Skulls and bones of all descriptions have become the suits and pips in this 40-card pack from Italy....

1973 Marcello Morandini

Marcello Morandini

Modern designs by Italian artist Marcello Morandini using the simplest of forms and colours.

1984 Tarot de Madrid

Tarot de Madrid

Black-and-white photographs of models whose faces are made up using elements found on the major arca...

1825 Mythological tarot by Michael Schatzberger

Mythological tarot by Michael Schatzberger

Mythological tarot by Michael Schatzberger, Passau, Bavaria, early 19th century.

1820 Animal Tarot by Joseph Fetscher

Animal Tarot by Joseph Fetscher

French-suited Natural History Tarot deck by Joseph Fetscher, Munich, c.1820.

Mythological and Allegorical tarot

Mythological and Allegorical tarot

Mythological and Allegorical tarot produced by Peter Paul Fetscher junior, Munich.

2023 The Tarot Strikes Back

The Tarot Strikes Back

Roy Huteson Stewart's The Tarot Strikes Back combines Star Wars with Rider-Waite tarot imagery.

Animal Tarot by Andreas Benedict Göbl

Animal Tarot by Andreas Benedict Göbl

French-suited Animal Tarot deck produced by Andreas Benedict Göbl, Munich.

1890 Swiss Scenic Tarock

Swiss Scenic Tarock

Scenic Tarock deck produced by Fabrique de Cartes J. Müller & Cie (Schaffhouse), Suisse.

1800 Costumes of Turkey Tarot

Costumes of Turkey Tarot

‘National Costumes of Turkey’ tarot by Industrie Comptoir, Leipzig, c.1800-1825.

1810 Natural History Tarot

Natural History Tarot

Natural History Tarot published by G M, Germany, early 19th C.

1790 Animal Tarot by J. B Dubois

Animal Tarot by J. B Dubois

French-suited Bavarian Animal Tarot by J B Dubois, Liège, Belgium, late 18th C.

1800 Æsop’s Fables tarot

Æsop’s Fables tarot

French-suited Æsop’s fables tarot produced by Leipzig Industrie Comptoir, c.1800-1825.

1830 Animal Tarot by J. T Dubois

Animal Tarot by J. T Dubois

Early 19th century Animal Tarot pack produced by J T Dubois, Liège, Belgium.

1753 Animal Tarot by G. Larmoyer

Animal Tarot by G. Larmoyer

Flemish Animal Tarot deck by G. Larmoyer, Liège, 1753.

1968 Albano-Waite® Tarot

Albano-Waite® Tarot

Recoloured version of the Rider/Waite/Smith tarot produced by Frankie Albano, 1968.

1989 Storia del Fascismo

Storia del Fascismo

Published by Il Meneghello, this pack provides a visual history of Fascism in Italy between 1919 and...

1979 Morgan-Greer Tarot

Morgan-Greer Tarot

Based on the knowledge, wisdom and interpretation of Paul Foster Case and Arthur Edward Waite.

75: Early American cards

75: Early American cards

An overview of some of the early cards made in the United States.

1996 New Palladini Tarot

New Palladini Tarot

“The New Palladini Tarot” by David Palladini published by U.S. Games Inc., in 1996.

1970 The Aquarian Tarot Deck

The Aquarian Tarot Deck

The Aquarian Tarot Deck illustrated by David Palladini, published by Morgan Press, Inc., 1970.

1967 Linweave Tarot

Linweave Tarot

The Linweave Tarot is actually an elaborate set of paper samples from the Pulp, Paper and Board Divi...

1852 Pomeranian Tarot

Pomeranian Tarot

A Pomeranian Tarot deck with etchings by Georg Pommer published by Conrad Jegel, 1852.

2021 Jack-O’-Lantern Tarot

Jack-O’-Lantern Tarot

Giuliano Costa's Jack-O’-Lantern tarot blends Rider-Waite symbolism with the rich and atmospheric th...

2019 Tarot of the Unknown

Tarot of the Unknown

Inspired by the Halloween Cartoon “Over the Garden Wall”.

1995 De Tarot in de herstelde orde

De Tarot in de herstelde orde

“De Tarot in de herstelde orde” (The Tarot in the restored order) a re-ordered Rider-Waite tarot dec...

1984 Schwarze Katze (or Gioco del Gatto Nero)

Schwarze Katze (or Gioco del Gatto Nero)

Reproduction of a 40-card transformation pack with designs by “WS”, adapted for the game of Black Ca...

2006 Hot-Air Balloons & Co.

Hot-Air Balloons & Co.

Hot-air balloons and airships from the early days to 1988, with designs by S. Baraldi and F. Tacconi...

2000 Carte da Gioco Mongolfiere

Carte da Gioco Mongolfiere

Various hot-air balloons on a pack from a small Florentine publisher.

2007 Marcel Ruijters Tarots

Marcel Ruijters Tarots

Two very remarkable tarots by the award winning Dutch cartoonist Marcel Ruijters.

1975 Mercante in Fiera di Jacovitti

Mercante in Fiera di Jacovitti

Traditional Italian card game with comic designs by Benito Jacovitti.

1981 Le Nuove Minchiate di Firenze

Le Nuove Minchiate di Firenze

Costante Costantini's second Minchiate deck, “Le Nuove Minchiate di Firenze”, was published by Solle...

1906 Bolognese pattern

Bolognese pattern

Standard Bolognese pattern pack by Murari of Bari.

1980 Minchiate Fiorentine

Minchiate Fiorentine

Minchiate Fiorentine created by Costante Costantini, published by Edizioni del Solleone.