Review by Bonnie Cehovet
Interesting when life morphs from art, to book, to movie, to Tarot! This is exactly what happened with the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. I am excited to be working with this deck, partially because I admire the artist, partially because I found the book so surreal, and partially because I think that a work like this can be incredibly educational.
The LWB that accompanies this deck is one that I find to be quite interesting - it is "small book" size (5" by 7 3/4", 63 pages), and ever so much easier to read that the typical "minuscule print" format of the LWB's that accompany most decks. The nature of this LWB is also unique, in that it not only addresses the Tarot, but the life of the artist, Leonardo Da Vinci.
Da Vinci is known primarily as an artist, but he was also an engineer, inventor, and mathematician. He came into this world with many gifts - the undeniable gift of a thirst for knowledge, the gift of physical beauty, and the gift of being able to communicate through many different venues. Coming from a humble beginning, he was apprenticed at the age of fifteen to master artist Andrea del Verrocchio (who taught Botticelli and influenced Michelangelo). Under del Verrocchio, Da Vinci was exposed to a wide range of artistic venues, including painting, metal work, and sculpture.
An interesting note in the LWB is that Da Vinci more than once did not finish a commission. It is not stated, but my impression here is that Da Vinci's mind worked at warp speed, and it was hard to hold his attention for lengthy spans of time. Another interesting note is his appointment as personal engineer and architect to Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. Sketches in his notebooks from this time include everything from churches to submarines (it is a bit scary to see the best and the worst of life in one person). It is possible that Da Vinci did encounter the Tarot during the eighteen years that he held this appointment.
The aim of the artists connected with this deck was to adapt selected elements from the Master's work with the archetypes, themes and divinatory meaning associated with modern Tarot. This is one way of rediscovering the genius that was (and still is) Da Vinci.
The LWB presents the cards without scans of any kind. Each card is broken down into: Encourages (basically the upright meaning of the card), Cautions against (the reversed, or ill-dignified nature of the card), Illustration notes (notes on the background of the card, where the images were adapted from), Commentary (a short discussion of the nature of the card), and Exploration Questions (questions that can be asked to focus the energy of the card, and how it is appearing in your life).
There is a short section on working with the cards that includes two spreads specific to this deck: The Pentacle Spread, a five card spread inspired by Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man"; and the Da Vinci inspired Insight and Inspiration Spread, a five card linear spread that focuses on a specific problem or challenge.
The cards themselves are approximately 2 5/8" by 4 3/4", of good quality card stock, but would need to be handled with care. The card back shows a depiction of the figure from the Queen of Wands, placed at the right hand corner of the card (on both ends) so that it would not be possible to tell if the card was drawn upright or reversed. The card titles are placed in the four corners, in English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and Dutch. Looking closely at the Major Arcana, you will see (in the background) the card title written backwards (in Italian script). The numbers for the Major Arcana and the Pips appear across the middle of the top of the card.
The colors for this deck are very sepia toned - muted olives, browns, and gray/blues. The style is very reminiscent of Da Vinci's style of painting (we have all at least seen the Mona Lisa!): attention to detail (especially the muscular and skeletal detail of his subjects), with clean lines and, at times, a surreal quality. The Da Vinci Tarot is also unique in that separate artists did the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana: Lassen Ghiuselev completed the Major Arcana in 1992, while Atanas Atanassov completed the Minor Arcana in 2002. While the differences between the Major and Minor Arcana are discernible, the quality is good throughout, and the cards do flow together.
I am not well versed in art appreciation, but I will say that I felt the drawings were lifelike, even though the faces showed universally stoic expressions. The clothing was of the period, and the lines overall are crisp and clear. The Major Arcana feature Da Vinci's masterpieces (or scenes inspired by them), while the Minor Arcana show scenes appropriate to the period, with the suit symbol in the upper right hand corner.
The Fool shows Da Vinci's bat winged flying machine soaring above a castle. Of all the depiction's of the Fool that I have seen, this is the most eerie. Even putting out the idea that man could fly in the time of Da Vinci was a risk - it was just not done! The High Priestess is a take off on the Mona Lisa, showing her wearing a crown (following the thought of the Papesse being a female Pope). The Hierophant shows a side view of a Pope sitting next to a window, and is based on Raphael's portrait of Julius II. In the window we see a glyph taken from Da Vinci's plans for an unfinished basilica (representing the "squaring of the circle", or perfection expressed through geometric form).
The Hermit gives an initial impression of a very skeletal person, i.e. perhaps someone who has been a prisoner of war. It is based on Da Vinci's "St. Jerome", who chose to go into the desert in order to translate Scriptures. In an interesting aside, the image has been reversed from the original. The Hanged Man in this deck is interesting, as he is hanging from the neck, with his hands behind his back, and his legs straight down, feet pointing towards the floor. The image comes from Da Vinci's study of the Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli.
I love the image of death in this deck! According to the LWB, it is an allegorical sketch of Envy, raising her arm to block the gaze of heaven. What I found so interesting is that she is kneeling atop one of Da Vinci's inventions - a multi-bladed battle wagon. In her right hand she hold aloft a skull based on one of Da Vinci's anatomical studies. Temperance has been adapted from Da Vinci's "Annunciation". The image here has been reversed from the original, as was that of the Hermit.
The Aces in many deck can be incredibly boring - but that is not the case here. The Ace of Wands shows an image of an unborn child, taken from one of Da Vinci's sketches, seated in a valley, above a town. The Ace of Chalices shows the image of a mother and child, adapted from the "Litta Madona", which, according to the LWB, is questionably attributed to Da Vinci. The Ace of Swords is based on the legend of St. George, and shows a rider, cape flying, seated on a rearing horse with is lance through the dragon. The Ace of Pentacles will be familiar to everyone, as it is based on Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man".
The Five of Chalices is based on one of Da Vinci's male nude studies, and resembles what "The Thinker" might look like in a standing pose. I found this to be a very strong card. The Four of Swords is adapted from Da Vinci's "St. John The Baptist". His right hand points upward, towards the four swords int he right hand corner of the card. The Seven of Swords is another stunning card. At the bottom of the card we see a horse, with rider, drawing a "weaponized" chariot. In the background we see another chariot that has overturned, with bodies lying on the ground next to it. In the upper right hand corner are seven swords. In essence, this card naturally divides itself into three pictures.
While I generally find Tarot decks that fall into the category of "art" (as this deck does) interesting but a bit "standoffish", I was drawn to this deck. For someone who is interested in the Renaissance period, or someone who is a collector, this is a must have deck. It is a deck that requires some knowledge of Tarot basics to work with, so it would be more appropriate for an experienced reader than for a Tarot novice. While the nudity is appropriate when it appears, this deck would not be acceptable for all audiences. Used with discretion, the Da Vinci Tarot brings with it the great gift of wisdom, and a wonderful opportunity to peek into another time.
© February 2006
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.