The Gilded Tarot by Ciro Marchetti; Companion Book by Barbara Moore
Review by Kim Huggens
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
I often get asked by beginners for deck recommendations. What deck is easiest to read? Which is the prettiest? Is there a deck that everybody uses and understands? Can I tell them about a deck that has lots of books written for it? Which deck should they obtain to get a good grounding in the basics before moving on to other decks? Inevitably, I have to give a reply I do not like--the Rider Waite Tarot. I dislike the deck immensely, viewing it as uninspiring, ugly, inexpressive, and old-fashioned. Yet it truly is a beginner’s deck that can be used by anybody, and that gives a good basic understanding of tarot. What’s more is that, after using the Rider Waite Tarot, the tarot student can move onto pretty much any deck they like and be able to understand it.
This is my long, convoluted way of introducing the Gilded Tarot, a new creation by graphic designer Ciro Marchetti. You see, Ciro has not just created another tarot deck- he has created a modern alternative to the Rider Waite deck that retains the paradoxical simplicity and complexity of the Rider Waite, along with much of its imagery and symbolism, but adds extra details that bring to light more depth than is first conceived of at the initial glance, and which does so with flair and stunning beauty.
The Gilded Tarot was initially published as a Limited Edition of 200 copies only, at a rather steep sum of $355. Luckily for the tarot world and the poorer tarot enthusiasts among us, Llewellyn mass produced the deck and made it available at the usual deck price. As such, we all owe Llewellyn a hefty debt of thanks, because it would be a shame to see such a beautiful deck available in such limited numbers and for such a high price. The fact that this is a deck that would be ideal for beginners also shows how useful it is that it is available to all at the nearest book shop. As with all recently published Llewellyn decks, the Gilded Tarot is packaged very nicely with the companion book (written by Barbara Moore), an ubiquitous white box for later storage, and a black organza drawstring tarot bag. Personally I would still like to see a more specific box for each deck, instead of the same boring white one, but it is a small comfort to think that the money saved by producing the white box can be spent on making the deck better. This is shown instantly by the beautiful deck backs. Whereas earlier Llewellyn Tarot decks had fairly boring, two-toned backs (the Robin Wood Tarot being an example of this) and colourful individual boxes, later Llewellyn decks with white boxes have colorful and attractive backs. In this case, the backs really epitomize the deck itself--colorful, beautiful, stunning, golden, jewelled, yet simple.
As you may have already guessed after reading Ciro’s profession above, this deck is created through digital art. It seems that many decks these days are being created in this artistic medium- maybe tarot is finally being dragged into the techno world! Some people shy away from digital art in tarot decks for some reason, possibly because they think back to the horrible attempts at this from the 90’s, but this need no longer be the case. The Gilded Tarot’s digital art is reminiscent of the airbrush technique that many are so fond of, the only difference being that more detail is achieved through digital art--more textures, more intricate patterns, which are used to great effect throughout the deck. The detail achieved is impressive, and sometimes you can almost imagine the scenes in the cards moving, or hear the sounds they make. A great example of this can be found in the Queen of Swords: can you hear the disdain oozing from her every pore? Can you hear the sharp words that are about to be spoken by her? Can you see her nonchalantly caressing the blade of the sword and contemplating how to cut you down to size with a few well-placed words? Arrogant fool! How dare you contradict and question her! (As you may have guessed, I am particularly fond of this Queen of Swords!)
Before I get carried away in the wintry glare of this Queen, let me talk some more about the construction of the deck: its borders, its suits, its titles. Each card has a gold frame about 5mm from the outer edge, with a large jewel at the top of the frame, two smaller jewels on each side, and a golden plaque for the card’s title at the bottom. It immediately brings to mind a picture frame, and this has the effect of turning the cards into portraits, as though the people in them were members of your family or ancestors long-dead, but once very much alive. On the one hand, this is visually very effective, but on the other hand I can’t help feeling that the beautiful artwork is somewhat trapped by the frames--it would seem so much more open without any borders at all. The jewels in the borders are one of five colors, depending on the suit of the card: Orange for Cups, Blue for Swords, Green for Pentacles, Red for Wands, and Black for the Major Arcana. This color scheme is slightly unusual, since Cups (the suit of Water) are usually associated with Blue. I am assuming, however, that Ciro has associated instead each of the four suits to a season (the greenery or lack thereof, and the clothing or surroundings of the people in the cards indicate this.) Pentacles become Spring, Wands become Summer, Cups becomes Autumn (hence the color orange), and Swords, Winter.
The imagery throughout is fairly standard, deviating slightly whilst keeping the traditional meaning of the card. For instance, the Nine of Cups in the Rider Waite deck shows a large man grinning broadly, dressed in finery, whilst behind him are nine cups on a table. The card shows happiness, satiety, and social events. The Gilded Tarot Nine of Cups however shows a brewer surrounded by barrels of his product, upon which rest eight cups. He raises the ninth cup in a joyful toast. Ciro has also added more animal symbolism, with birds, bees, squirrels, mice, moles, rats, cats, beetles, dolphins, and more animals of all shapes and sizes abounding in the cards. These animals are unobtrusive, but they express a lot. The resourceful and cunning weasel appears on the Ace of Pentacles; the swift attacking bird of prey resides regally in the Knight of Swords, ever watchful; the industrious spider spins a web over the studious man in the Eight of Pentacles.
Some deck artists like to have their symbols of each suit different throughout: Wands sometimes appear as pens, or as battle spears; each Sword is different for each character; the Pentacles become rocks or coins. But the Gilded Tarot keeps the one image of the suit symbols constant all the way through: the same Wands appears in all the Wand cards, the same Sword appears in all the Sword card, and so on and so forth. The suit of Pentacles however does not have pentacles in it at all, but instead golden and green things that bear a striking resemblance to the Chocolate Frog cards from Harry Potter! I would have preferred that the suit was called something other than ‘Pentacles’- ‘Coins’ or ‘Discs’, for instance, to remain consistent with the symbol of the suit.
Apart from that, all the images in this deck are visually stunning, with sumptuous colours and characters dressed in garments from the Medieval-Age-That-Never-Was. Whilst picky historians would terrorize this deck for daring to portray such a whimsical view of the Medieval Age, tarotists will find it aesthetically pleasing an conducive to interpretation. Damsels, queens, chivalric knights, pages, craftsmen, jesters, peasants, noblemen, holy men, and merchants cavort in the cards going about their medieval business. Many of the images really strike me, such as the Lovers, where a young warrior and his lady joyfully dance in the water. The image itself is so simple, yet it speaks volumes to me- it speaks of the Golden Dawn imagery of Perseus rescuing a maiden from a sea monster in the Lovers card, and it speaks of the continual struggle of the animus to be reunited with the anima. The Hermit looks like he’s shining his lantern down into the depths of a ravine and staring into it, trying to fathom its secrets- certainly an image that links to the hermit’s role as the psychopomp, the guide in the Underworld, or as somebody who is not afraid to contemplate his own Underworld and darkness. The Nine of Swords is a very claustrophobic card, very dim and grim, evoking the feelings of night terrors and anxiety symbolized by this card. And we’ve already seen how much I love the Queen of Swords! If you take a close look at the Fool card you may see a resemblance to George Bush in his face- whether this is on purpose or not I don’t know, but everybody who I have showed the card to and asked ‘who is that?’ has immediately seen George Bush.
The Court Cards are a little disappointing, because they are not as expressive or symbolic as many of the other cards (the Queen of Swords being the exception to this rule!) They do seem to follow a system though, which isn’t spoken about in the book, because all the Kings are seated on a throne in a similar setting, at nigh time; all the Queens are standing by the sea with a pillar to their left in what looks like the afternoon; all the Knights straddle their horses in a clearing amongst trees at what looks like sunset; and all the Pages stand in a walled or fenced alcove or balcony at what looks like sunrise. The most interesting thing about this is that the portrait effect created by the frames of the cards is doubled when you compare all the Kings, Queens, Knights and Pages- they look suddenly like people of your family who held the same position (such as Grandmother) but at different times, and whose portrait was painted at the same place but at a different time.
In some places, it seems that the background in the cards is lacking- it is just variously colored clouds, or a body of water. This is a shame, because the characters in the cards (especially the Kings, who are floating in the middle of pretty-colored nowheres on thrones) are given no context, and you can get a lot of symbolism and meaning in a decent background. There is, however, a lot of planetary images and images of the zodiac, and I wish the companion book had described what the planets in the cards symbolized.
Overall, the imagery in the cards is very good, and could have universal appeal, especially for beginners. Ciro has managed to remain traditional in the images, yet add his own symbols, so this will also provide a more advanced reader both with a reading deck and a study deck that is useful for comparing with other decks.
The companion book to the deck, written by Barbara Moore, is very obviously aimed at the barest beginner. It gives information about the standard things: spreads, how to conduct a reading, the card meanings, reversals, significators, and the Fool’s Journey. However, I can’t help but feel the descriptions of the cards are lacking, since they do not explain the symbolism found in the cards very much. Instead, the book focuses on the traditional card meanings. I found this to be a great disservice, as you can get the traditional card meanings from many other tarot books, but you cannot find out, for instance, whether that really is George Bush in the Fool card from any tarot book. Yet such things are not addressed in the companion book at all. There is more to the deck than the book lets on, and while it may be helpful to the beginner, there is not much on offer to the more advanced reader who’ll just have to look for answers elsewhere.
In the book Ciro wrote a few pages called ‘Artist’s Notes’, in which he said that his aim was to please “… the majority of the Tarot community.” (p.ix.) When I read this, the uh-oh reaction sprang immediately to my mind, as I recalled the old saying that if you try to build a house to every man’s specifications, you end up with a wonky house. But after studying the deck, I have become aware that Ciro has actually managed to achieve his goal. He has created a readable deck which appeals to many people of all ages, religions, and experience with tarot. He has reinterpreted the stuffy old Rider Waite into something more modern while retaining the sumptuous images of the Imaginary Medieval World. Throughout the deck, you will see strange machines, cogs, and sextants, and it seems that machinery is an excellent motif for the tarot. On his website, Ciro says describes these machines as “[e]xotic machines, somewhat dated in style and engineering, yet capable of function beyond the current capacity of today’s real world science.”
These machines are a bridge between science and faith, he says. And what is the tarot, if not a machine that is somewhat outdated in style and engineering (Cards? Hah! What use are they in a world of nano-technology?!), yet capable of function beyond the current capacity of today’s science? What is the tarot, if not something that is perpetually in motion, always working, always retaining the same ‘laws of motion’ though it’s outer casing changes? This is what Ciro has done. He has retained the dated style and engineering of the traditional Rider Waite deck, yet given it a new casing, a better casing, and, for me, a more usable casing. Watch out, folks, because the Rider Waite deck has just hit the modern age!
All the cards can be seen at the author’s website.
The Gilded Tarot by Ciro Marchetti
Companion Book by Barbara Moore
Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN No.: 0-7387-0520-9
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
You can read other reviews of this deck here, here and here and see a sample reading with it here.
Kim Huggens is a 19 year-old Pagan Tarot reader, reading Philosophy at Cardiff University. She has been studying tarot since the age of nine, and runs talks and workshops on different aspects of the tarot. She is President of the Cardiff University Pagan Society, and runs an online tarot course here. She lives with her boyfriend in Cardiff, and currently has a tarot deck collection of over 150 decks.
Images © 2004 Llewellyn Worldwide
Review © 2004 Kim Huggens
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes