Review by Le Fanu
First of all, I should assert at the very outset that this review comes with a forewarning. Much as I would like to think that a good review offers an even-handed, balanced critique, outlining all the good aspects and all the negative aspects, in this case, I simply cannot offer a so-called balanced review, in keeping with tradition. I just can’t do it; the reason being that this is quite simply the most beautiful deck in the history of tarot, and I have no qualms about saying so (my opinion, of course). Whether it is a good reading deck or not will invariably depend upon each individual, but in the history of tarot art, this deck is quite simply up there in a league of its own.
This is a Meneghello limited edition reproduction of the definitive “soprafino” deck, an Italian word denoting a rare and precious style. The word literally means “super fine” which might translate as “ultra refined” or “excessively elegant” (this is how I translate it to myself and does, I think, sum it up), and was originally published by Gumppenberg in Milan. Looking at the King of Batons, the name of the engraver C. Dellarocca is inscribed on a plinth, and the accompanying card, bearing which number you have (out of a total of 2,000), also lists the date as 1835. The deck comes in one of two different types of boxes. Mine is in a two part box, lined on the outside with paper which has illustrations of tarot cards and on the top of the box is The World card. It also has a red wax seal as is customary with Meneghello limited edition decks. There is another model of box which is tied by a ribbon and the deck is slid in through the side. The small, slightly off-white cards are lightly laminated and have square corners. The backs have a uniform, discreet and regular pattern of dots. The fronts of the cards do not appear to have been cleaned up, as blemishes of age and acid stains from the original cards are reproduced. There is no LWB or instructions of any kind. Those with little prior tarot knowledge will have to look elsewhere for guidance.
It has been argued that it was the French who invented divinatory uses for tarot gaming cards and certainly the French cards of the Marseilles tradition have become justifiably renowned for their part in card history. However, you could say that the Italians took this tradition and ran with it. What they did with the basic Marseilles model (of which this deck is one) was to take it to even greater heights. One of the charms of historic decks is how they are relics which have survived from the general populace and give an insight into popular culture. All kinds of people played tarot, but with the woodcut Marseilles, you feel you have something in your hands which was a product of, and generally pertained to, the general population, to the world of taverns and brawls. With the Soprafino decks – and this one in particular – you feel you have something aristocratic. With tarot cards, of whatever period, I often feel that artwork has always been subordinate to their uses as gaming or divination tools. Often, when a renowned artist has designed a deck, it hasn’t quite worked as tarot. However, even a casual glance through the Soprafino deck and you know you are looking at high quality artwork. This deck is a masterpiece of 19th Century engraving, expertly tinted with delicate colouring which really makes the cards come alive. Strength has a faint blush to her cheeks as she wrestles with the lion. The poses of some of the figures, like the rider in the Chariot and some of the Kings, echo the elegance of Classical poses or of war heroes in baroque portraiture.
The first time I saw this deck, I was struck by the costumes; richly coloured drapery, brocade, ermine, jewelled clasps and ornate scabbards, a kind of 19th Century interpretation of extravagant regal attire which doesn’t really fit exactly into any specific historic period, but which gives a general air of sumptuousness and riches. Some of the Kings’ leggings and shoes look medieval, some of the hats look Turkish (Strength and the Knight of Coins). The hats on the King of Spades and Page of Coins look theatrical rather than princely. The Queen of Cups has a huge 17th Century style starched ruff around her neck. The Page of Cups has flowers in his hair, rouged cheeks, long flowing tresses and Ottoman-style pointed slippers, exuding the sensitivity for which these tarot pages are known. Perhaps only the dancing couple in the Sun card wear clothes which could be considered vaguely contemporary to the 1830s.
It is this exotic mix of styles and references which makes the deck so memorable and also makes me think that anyone with even a passing interest in the history of costume will adore this deck. Curious details jump out at you the more you inspect and work with this deck. The Wheel of Fortune has a flaming urn billowing smoke (is this an oracle of some sort, like that at Delphi?) Subtle portraiture techniques abound; there is drapery hung behind the heads of the High Priestess and the Empress which really sets off their faces much more than a plain background would do and which draw us into their individuality. The Devil has snakes in his hair, like the legendary Medusa who turned her enemies to stone. For anyone with time and inclination, there are hundreds of fascinating details in this deck which do not resurface in other historic decks.
The Moon – I ought to add - is a card I always have to verify to see whether I will love, or merely like, a deck. Here it is everything which a Moon card should be. The moon peers from behind clouds over a harbour scene. There is a crayfish on a dinner plate, you can almost hear the dogs howling. It is such an odd, unsettling scene, with flowers, ships and an intangible atmosphere of mystery and weirdness. In fact, what I most love about this entire deck is that – for me – it captures all that first drew me to tarot; the deck feels knowingly mysterious, exotic, antique and unfathomable.
Of course, the Soprafino deck, as a pre-Rider Waite Smith deck, does not have scenic pip cards. For those who really do not like non-scenic pips, this deck may hold little attraction. Yet for those who would love to start thinking about using traditional, non-scenic pips but who find the woodcut Marseilles decks a bit too rough and unappealing, this may be an excellent alternative. I tend to think that anyone who sees this deck close up will love it so much that it will be the spur they need to set them on their way with historic decks. I don’t like to emphasise too much the fact that the Soprafino deck, and the other Italian decks in this style, are part and parcel of the Marseilles tradition. True, all have non-scenic pip cards, but a deck like this really deserves a category of its own. And will reap ample rewards if taken on its own terms.
Le Fanu bought his first tarot deck at the age of 12 and has been collecting on and off ever since, with a particular fascination for historic decks. Other interests include Victorian Spirituality, true ghost stories and paranormal phenomena. He lived for many years in Brazil which deepened his interest in Spiritism and divination.