Tarot of the Secret Forest, artwork by Lucia Mattioli, idea and graphics by Lucia Mattioli and Pietro Alligo, instructions by Riccardo Minetti
Review by Lee Bursten
Examining this deck for the first time, I was deeply happy, not only because of my reactions to the deck itself, but also because of my sheer delight in seeing a deck from Lo Scarabeo which is quite unlike many of their offerings. Over the years, the majority of Lo Scarabeo decks has consisted of pleasant, if not groundbreaking, art collectible decks (with some notable exceptions). Some of these have been quite lovely, while others were whimsical novelty decks. With Tarot of the Secret Forest, I feel Lo Scarabeo is entering a new era by publishing decks which make a strong statement, which are strikingly original, and which seem to have been initiated by the creative energy of the artist rather than by a concept developed by committee which an artist is then asked to illustrate.
Tarot of the Secret Forest is unusual in several respects. Lucia Mattioli has a wondrous talent, and the depth of her artistry is evident in every card. Done mostly in muted tones of brown, tan, rust, and olive, the cards illustrate a fairy world in an overgrown forest. The fairies shown on the cards, however, are not Disney-ish creatures, but rather are powerful and often disturbing denizens of our own subconscious. As Riccardo Minetti explains in the little white booklet (LWB), the cards do not, on the whole, have precise symbols, but rather are meant to be explored intuitively. The overall mood and tone of a card will often be more significant than the individual objects, people or animals seen in it.
The haunting, shadowy artwork is a bit suggestive of Brian Froud’s popular non-tarot deck, The Faeries’ Oracle, and readers who enjoy Froud’s work will probably find the Secret Forest deck very satisfying, especially if they like the idea of that kind of artwork applied to a traditional tarot structure.
Another innovation, at least for Lo Scarabeo decks, is the lack of titles on the cards. The Majors are marked only with a Roman numeral at the top and bottom borders, and the numbered Minors have an Arabic numeral at the top border and a single suit icon at the bottom. The Courts have the same suit icons at the bottom, and at the top a graphical icon representing the rank (a flower for the Page, a horse’s head, like the knight in a chess set, for the Knight, a crown for the Queen, and a more elaborate crown for the King). The only Lo Scarabeo deck I can think of whose cards are similarly untitled is Minetti’s and Emiliano Mammucari’s Gothic Tarot of Vampires. I very much like the lack of titles, especially for Lo Scarabeo decks, which usually contain the titles repeated in several languages. The excessive verbiage sometimes proves distracting when one is trying to concentrate on the image. The device is particularly appropriate for Secret Forest because the deck’s art appeals to our intuitive side rather than to our intellectual or verbal side.
The most important innovation in the Secret Forest deck is the fact that the reverse side of each card, rather than containing a generic image which is the same for all the cards in the deck, shows a black-and-white image of the front of the card. So, for the Moon, for example, the front of the card shows the image in color, and the back of the card shows the same image in black and white. The monochromatic sides of the cards all contain the same borders and numbers, so one could really use either side for reading. The best thing about this feature is that the black-and-white images aren’t simply monochromatic printings of the same painting, but are new renditions of the same image. They seem almost like preliminary charcoal sketches for the final painted color images. Interestingly, the black-and-white images often have different details, or different emphases, than the colored side. This means that essentially you’re getting two decks for the price of one.
The aforementioned Moon card is a good example of the suggestive and slightly disturbing mood of the deck. The moon shines with unearthly light through twisting branches. On the black-and-white reverse of the card, there are no branches; instead, thin concentric circles emanate from the moon, forming a celestial tunnel. In both images, the figures’ wings are strangely organic and fleshy.
Insects figure prominently in this deck, which is appropriate, since winged fairies probably have their mythic origin in primitive peoples’ perceptions of flying insects. There is an interesting tension in the deck caused by the dichotomy of the humanoid fairies and the inhuman insects which loom over them. In Judgement, a fairy with butterfly wings ascends from the dried-out, skeletal husk of her cocoon.
The numbered Minors have pictures which at first glance don’t seem to have much connection to the standard Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) designs, but Riccardo Minetti’s explanations in the LWB reveal that they actually do follow the RWS pictures in general atmosphere and tone, if not in pictorial composition. For the Six of Cups, the LWB says “Recollection. Nostalgia, memory,” and the picture shows a dog sitting before a garden gate, which does indeed call forth an atmosphere of nostalgia, an accepted interpretation of the RWS picture of a child handing another child a cup full of flowers. Sometimes the connections are interestingly indirect, such as in the Six of Coins. In the RWS deck, this card shows a man handing money to two indigent people. The Secret Forest LWB lists for this card, “Gifts. Communicated emotions, dialog.” The picture shows shooting stars, which could certainly be thought of as a gift. I like to see creative choices like this which still maintain some connection to the RWS standard.
Not all the cards are shadowy and gloomy. I particularly liked the warmth of the Three of Coins, representing creativity.
Minetti’s excellent LWB is thoughtfully written. It begins with a poetic passage by the artist, explaining her perspective. “Living on the edge of a forest […] I’m familiar with the period of the courageous and hairy spiders and the month of those very green hopping grasshoppers. On September nights, I cry like an owl’s sister.” Minetti encourages us not to resist dark emotions that might be evoked by the cards, but rather to let them flow. He suggests different ways of working with the two different sides of the cards. We can use only one side or only the other, or we can shuffle the cards in such a way that some cards when laid out will be color and some black-and-white. In this case, Minetti supplies suggestions on how to interpret the two sides differently, leaving it up to us to decide how to handle it. For the divinatory meanings, Minetti uses a scheme according to which the color side represents an emotional perspective and the black-and-white side an intellectual perspective. There is also what Minetti calls a “Changing Reading,” in which after a normal reading, one flips over certain cards in previously-established positions, and uses the differences in detail or tone revealed on the flipped-over card to change the color of the reading.
The LWB points out the differences between the two sides of a card in the divinatory meanings. Using, again, for example, the Six of Coins: “Gifts. Communicated emotions, dialog,” we see the LWB’s meanings for all the cards, the first word (“Gifts”) is a general keyword, and the following two phrases refer to the colored, emotional side (“communicated emotions”) and then the black and white, intellectual side (“dialog”). This pattern is followed for all the cards. Of course, the phrases wouldn’t necessarily apply if you were using a different scheme to differentiate the two sides (such as conscious or unconscious aspects, another possibility offered in the LWB).
The Tarot of the Secret Forest is exactly what I like to see in a new tarot deck. The artwork is highly skilled and reflective of an intense vision; both the artist and the author are knowledgeable about tarot archetypes; and in the two-sided cards, the publisher has used a unique and daring device which offers new possibilities for experimentation. Cheers to all involved in this project for a job well done.
Click here to see a sample reading with this deck.
Tarot of the Secret Forest, artwork by Lucia Mattioli
Idea and graphics by Lucia Mattioli and Pietro Alligo
Instructions by Riccardo Minetti
Published by Lo Scarabeo
Distributed in U.S. by Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN # 073870763-5
Lee Bursten is the creator and author of the Gay Tarot ( published by Lo Scarabeo), and wrote the accompanying guidebook for Ciro Marchetti's Tarot of Dreams. He has written many tarot deck reviews for the Tarot Passages website, and has served as a professional tarot reader and forum moderator for the Aeclectic website.
Images © 2005 Lo Scarabeo
Review © 2005 Lee Bursten
Page © 2005 Diane Wilkes