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.