Michelangelo Tarot

Many are the times I have stopped by my local esoteric shop – a mere ten minutes’ walk from my house – and feared that it may well be the last time I see the door open. Stock has been dwindling and their once full tarot cabinet has been spartan and rather sad of late, so I was delighted when I went in today and it felt that things were on the up again. The tarot cabinet was now fuller, as were the bookshelves, and there was a good selection of crystals, reading cloths, runes, pendulums and all sorts of goodies and signs of life. The owner said that issues had been ironed out with distributors and suppliers and it looked like things had finally improved. I wish them the best of luck and want to do all I can (as I always did) to keep them in business. And I was thrilled today when I saw that among the twenty or so decks now in stock (a vast improvment on the last few visits), they had the new Lo Scarabeo Michelangelo Tarot in stock. So I could do my bit for keeping the local store in business and get a brand new deck release. It wasn’t much more expensive than if I had bought it online, and I haven’t even seen it available online yet from my usual sources so of course I snapped it up and went home feeling very pleased with myself, stopping off for coffee and cake on the way, to break open the shrink-wrap and decide what to make of it. 

I had heard that it was cold. This was an opinion that had reached me. The artwork is by Guido Zibordi Marchesi who also did the Giotto Tarot, the Medieval Tarot (not that “modern” car crash mash-up) and one of my favourites, the Bruegel Tarot, a ribald and grotesque peasant-fest replete with weird symbolism and morbid details. I had seen very few scans of the Michelangelo Tarot which meant that this afternoon I had that lovely sensation of surprise which is so hard to come by in contemporary deck buying. Of course we all know Michelangelo ( it strikes me now; I’m rather glad that we don’t have a reappropriated David in this deck, holding a pentacle instead of a sling) and the images in this deck tend to be drawn from his fresco work rather than the sculptures, which was a wise decision on the part of the artist as they retain a little of the original painterliness and aren’t just sculptures made 2-dimensional. The LWB refers to the neo-Platonism in Michelangelo’s work (which includes his poetry), and tries to link the deck with ancient, hermetic – and by extension, magic –  texts which were popular during the Renaissance. However, after even the most cursory glance at this deck, it is obvious that the central motif here is really The Body.

“The motion of Michelangelo’s figures lies not in the movement itself, but in the strength and interior tension that trigger it; it is the contrasting energies and drives within a space that escapes the laws of natural vision. The muscular and taut figures display and flaunt an inner impetus that generates the action.” (LWB p. 4-5) I’m not entirely sure what this means, but what I do know is that the focus of this deck is very much the twisting, contorting, grandiloquent naked male body. Even the females have male bodies. Like so many Renaissance female nudes, they feel like bodies drawn from male models with what a friend of mine used to call “ice-cream scoop” breasts added at the last minute.  The Seven of Swords is a classic example of this. This, however, is a quality we can see in much manneristic Renaissance art and isn’t something peculiar to this deck. Interestingly, Michelangelo is one of the artists who the historian and artist Vasari in his Lives of the Artists considered to be right at the pinnacle of human artistic achievement. He spawned many imitators (Vasari being one of them) who seized on that anatomical perfection and tried to make it more heroic, more virtuoso, more dramatic, more otherworldly and actually ended up deforming and debasing it. This deck sometimes feels like a deck with nudes by Michelangelo’s rivals, rather than the master himself, as the posturing and gesturing is really rather over the top. Sometimes that gracefulness is lost.

However, I have to say, lest it cannot be read between the lines, I really rather like this deck. I like it a lot, in fact. Of all Lo Scarabeo’s more artistic tarot endeavours, this – in my opinion – is probably the nearest to the Rider Waite Smith model, which may help widen its appeal. Usually with Lo Scarabeo decks there are a few cards which feel a bit “out there” and you may wonder what the artist is trying to convey (or perhaps enjoy being stretched; depends on your perspective) but every single card in this deck contains Rider Waite Smith references, often very subtle and at first glance I think, as a deck, it looks very readable. There isn’t a single card which is unrecognisable from its Rider Waite Smith counterpart. The symbolism isn’t always there but in the gestures and movement, you can see exactly where the image is coming from. The Seven of Pentacles, for example has a figure twisting to look at a tree stump, suggesting hopeful harvest. The voluminous, muscular bodies take up much of the card space and there are some very beautiful cards here. It has to be said that this deck is very homoerotic. So many posturing naked male bodies, so much brazen nudity and writhing. The Fool is totally naked, high on his cliff top, and it would be odd if he wasn’t, since if anything is going to convey carefree abandon, being naked on the top of a cliff for all to see has to be the best way to do it. The Wheel of Fortune feels rather orgiastic, naked men toppling over one another. However, I have to keep remembering that it is the classical not sexual nude, even though I cannot help thinking who needs a gay tarot when we have this one? Apart from the extensive nudity which may bother some (not me), the imagery is generally very elegant and dynamic. I find it much more welcoming and dramatic than the Giotto Tarot which is rather static in comparison.

The over-riding sense in the Michelangelo Tarot is of large muscular bodies conveying their meaning by extravagant body language and poise. What makes it even more likeable is that, graphically, the cards are very minimal and clean. There are no titles on the cards except on the court cards which are named Pedes (Knave, probably from the Latin “pes” meaning foot, maybe footman?), Eques (Knight), Regina (Queen) and Rex (King). A nice touch. These titles appear at the top and the bottom of the cards. The Majors have roman numerals also top and bottom, and the Minors have only the number and different coloured borders to distinguish the suits. There are no multi-lingual titles on this deck, hardly any text whatsoever, and borders are discreet. The box is very eye-catching and dramatic and will surely stand out on tarot shelves everywhere, while the backs of the cards contain a decorative, reversible Florentine pattern. Overall, this is a quality Lo Scarabeo product on quality cardstock, in that size which is perfect for shuffling. The Michelangelo Tarot is a pleasant surprise I have to admit, but then Lo Scarabeo decks always end up being a pleasant surprise despite the standardised format. They are never quite what you expect, which is why I keep on buying them.

About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
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8 Responses to Michelangelo Tarot

  1. woley says:

    I am devoted to Guido’s decks but this one doesn’t do it for me. Not sure why, perhaps the preponderance of male bodies? Similar to all those dreadful female-centred decks that bash men, I find the singular gender off-putting, even if an accurate reflection of Michelangelo’s work. Still it was nice to get an overview of this Michelangelo deck. I quite like that Chariot.

    The Giotto was one of my first decks and I have never found it static. Most people say it is too busy with all the people crammed into the cards with higher numbers; I find that charming, like a secret joke. The Medieval Tarot has some very haunting images, it’s a wonderful deck, and the Bruegel is neat, I use my book on Bruegel with that and the verses for the Netherlandish proverbs. Great stuff.

    I agree with you about the delight and surprise in Lo Scarabeo decks. I am eagerly awaiting the Sacred Sites Tarot later this year. I noticed with the Pagan Cats that LS was veering toward a standardized R-W model. Interesting to hear that they are doing that here too. I will miss their quirkiness if they go too far toward convention. They have a fresh quality to image iand interpretation that I would hate to see subsumed into sameness.

    LS is doing some marvelous deck backs lately too–have you noticed? They used to do the tinted mirror images using a snippet from a card but the ones they are doing lately show much more thought and design. The backs on the Michelangelo are lovely.

  2. And for a while there, I wasn’t getting excited about any new decks…
    But this .. this looks very alluring. I like it’s boldness, it’s lack of titles. I
    adore that Wheel of Fortune.
    Yup, I think this will be the next purchase, eventually!

  3. Le Fanu says:

    PLN, I think you’ll like this deck. Yes, it is very bold and uncluttered. If you like the Wheel of Fortune you’ll love all the brawling, wrestling fives!

    Woly, I often get out the Giotto and think I should like it more but it feels so flat to me though I love what you say about the crammed higher numbers in the minors. Very true. I find his other decks so busy and readable – especially the Breugel – but the Giotto… I’d love to find a way in as I love Giotto’s art and I do think it is a good rendition by Marchesi. I shall certainly pay attention to LoS’ other offerings. They may indeed be tending towards the RWS straight & narrow! And hurrah for beautiful backs. And a reduction in cluttersome titles.

  4. mallowblossom says:

    Hi Le Fanu,
    Love the story about the esoteric shop. Yes, we really should support the small shop owners more. In my town there isn’t a single one. I’d have to drive 400 miles to get to one. Such a shame. As far the this new deck by LS, I think it’s lovely and a very unique concept for LS. You mentioned that you were glad they didn’t reduce the David to a 2D rendering. But don’t you think the Fool card is very reminiscent of David. David happens to be my favorite sculpture of all time. I was on my honeymoon when I first saw him and my husband had to drag me away after hours of just walking around him over and over again. I really think God was with Michaelangelo when he carved this statue, it’s just so startlingly magnificent. Anyway, thanks for the review. I knew I was going to buy this deck as soon as I saw previews of it. And I am also looking forward to the Sacred Sites as Woley mentioned. I have no problem with all the male nudes in this deck either. After seeing the Empress in the Tarot of the Holy Light (all those tits!) this deck was much easier on the eyes. I love Tarot of the Holy Light, but that one card and that one image was just jarring to say the least. One can only guess why it has affected me so.

    Yes, wonderful review Le Fanu! Looking forward to your next one.

  5. Carla says:

    I’m off to Malvern today, and if we see an occult shop and IF I find a deck in there I like, I will buy it. I want to do my bit for the industry. (But the lure of making a note of it, then going off to order it online for half the price is so tempting!)

    • Le Fanu says:

      Oh have a mineral water for me in Malvern, and yes, Carla, we must do our bit for local stores! You need a store like my local one where there is very little difference in price. I wonder how they do it?

  6. Jason says:

    Sold! I read this post, ordered the deck Monday, and got it last night. Ah, the internet.

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