The deck I love is snubbed by many (if not most) historic deck buffs. At a tarot party, this would be the deck whose arrival would cause instant and awkward silences, badly disguised mutterings and discreet pointing. It’s not pure, you see. Not pedigree. It has been tweaked, and it wasn’t exactly “original” to start with. Yet I love it and as time passes, I love it even more and nothing and nobody will persuade me that it isn’t worth loving. The Ancient Tarot of Marseilles, published by Lo Scarabeo is a reproduction of the famous 1760 Conver. Except it isn’t a Conver from 1760; it is basically a mid-late 19th Century reproduction of a mid-late 18th Century deck.
The original surviving 1760 edition is known as the Bibliothèque Nationale model and yet this one was printed sometimes between 1860-1880 (I keep reading varying dates) and the colours are very different from the original copy. This may or may not be due to the reaction of the pigment over time. Also, it appears that round about 1860, industrial printing presses were introduced for the first time so the deck was no longer printed by hand and, as a result, there is a noticable lack of subtlety in the colouring. This deck, the Lo Scarabeo Conver, has six colours (I can detect two distinct shades of blue, a darker and a lighter blue, which would count as two different colours). We have red, yellow, dark blue, light blue, green and a very sparingly used pale pink. The primary colours are very bold. You might even say flourescent, but I have always loved these colours from the very beginning. Even worse, it has a reconstructed card because one card is missing from the original. There is no 6 of Batons, so the 7 of Batons has been doctored (see photo below), but for me, if it hadn’t been doctored then this edition would never have seen the light of day. I’d rather this deck be out in the world and available than locked up in an archive because it is one card short and – let’s face it – it’s a pip card so hardly serious stuff. A doctored Queen might be a bit too much but there’s no serious harm done by erasing a baton. The deck is still readable.
Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree, maybe it isn’t because it has had a card tweaked that nobody likes it. Maybe it isn’t because of the colours that nobody likes it. Maybe historic decks are simply a bit dull for most people. Maybe it’s just one Conver too many on the market. There are quite a lot of them and more and more seem to come out each year. Another close favourite is the ISIS Marseilles that I have reviewed here which – unlike this deck – isn’t a photo reproduction. Of the facsimilie Conver decks, this one is my favourite by far. I like its warmth, its gentleness, its softened lines. I like the homogenous tone, the beige backgrounds and the flashes of dazzling colour. I like how random and improbable the colouring appears to be. Take the Ace of Swords; I think I’d have done the sword blade as yellow (as in gold), but no; here it is blood red. In the Death card, the ground on one side of the scythe is bright yellow, the other uncoloured (like Dorothy stepping out into Oz). And what is that ruby set into the base of the Grim Reaper’s spine? Some cards are flawlessly coloured, see La Justice and how the different colours of her robes are perfectly “sewn” together (largely) without overlap to create a billowing effect.
I have three copies of this deck and never tire of coming back to it and looking again at its faces like old friends. Lo Scarabeo decks are the perfect size for shuffling, no matter how big your hands. Half the battle in loving a deck for me is finding one that rests nicely in the palm of your hand, not too big, not too small. My most used one lives in the weathered, supple, roughly stitched leather pouch pictured at the top of this post. The box has been taped and the cards begin to look a little worn around the edges. I like that. I find it comforting. I read with it but only really for myself as I have a way of reading Marseilles decks (much of it picked up from Enrique Enriquez’s “Eye Rhymes” approach) homing in on gestures, movement between cards, undulations, parallel rhythms, looking at where eyes are focused, where hands point. Better to quote Enriquez himself;
What are Eye Rhymes? Eye rhymes originate in poetry. The notion that two words with a similar sound can be exchanged to create a play of words. This is the idea of two words sharing a similar shape that can be used interchangeably for amusement or communicative purposes, and led me to think that if the tarot’s shape isn’t auditive but visual, many images have a similar “sound” that can be appreciated at plain sight. They are rhymes for the eye. I saw this represented for the first time in Temperance and Le Bateleur, in the form of their posture, arms, heads, hats, etc, they rhyme!
I find it hard to read for others in this way as I need to feel inspired and introspective and it doesn’t come easily with someone sitting in front of me waiting for answers, while I wait for the rhythm to flow. Yet it’s good to have a special style of unhurried reading and a favourite deck for those introspective moments, free of stipulated meanings and this deck works for me in that way. I feel that with a three card spread I can pick up where the stress and patterns are falling in an issue, where there are ruptures, blockages, dissonances or a lack of empathy. I love how the fronts of these cards are exactly how their fronts should be; no additional text, no translation of titles, no added border in line with contemporary taste in graphic design. Just the cards, with inoffensive backs. I love it that way. As with any favourite deck, sometimes just shuffling it is enough. I am glad I got my back-ups when I could as I see that it is now listed on amazon for $9,450.00. Not that amazon is a reliable guide for prices, but I certainly don’t see it around much now (it being officially out of print) and there don’t seem to be any plans for Lo Scarabeo to reprint it. Nobody seems to be asking, nobody really talks about it, nobody refers to it for serious historical evidence of anything, but I love it and reach for it often. There’s a secret- but very real - pleasure in liking what everyone else dislikes or ignores. I wallow in it.