Giotto Tarot by Guido Zibordi Marchesi     Review by Lee A. Bursten

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

This is a fascinating deck which combines two rather disparate influences: the work of a 14th century Italian artist, and an early 20th century French book of playing-card meanings.

Giotto di Bondone is generally considered the most important Italian painter of the 14th century. His surviving pieces are all religious works, and he foreshadowed Renaissance art by introducing realism and perspective in his paintings. Guido Zibordi has created a deck influenced by Giotto’s style. The artwork is quite striking, and is very unusual as Tarot decks go. The imagery in the Major Arcana tends toward the simple, and at first glance the cards appear a little plain, mostly following the Marseilles designs. The background is the same on all the Majors, a greenish gold with flecks of red. There are several interesting variations, though; on the Wheel of Fortune the human figures are large and almost obscure the wheel, while the use of perspective for the Tower creates a simple yet powerful image. In fact, I think this is one of my favorite Tower cards of all the ones I’ve seen.

People in the 14th century obviously had different notions of feminine beauty than we do today, so a card like the World is rather arresting when viewed from a modern perspective.

Zibordi has taken an approach with the Minors which is to my knowledge utterly unique. They are illustrated with full scenes, but these are in no way derivative of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith/Golden Dawn meanings. Instead, he has used meanings which derive, according to my research, from a 1906 French book on playing cards called Les Cartes a Jouer by Henry Rene D’Allemagne.

I was able to deduce this thanks to Riccardo Minetti of Lo Scarabeo, who provided the information that Zibordi had used a book called Cartomanzia con i Tarocchi by Brian Innes as a reference for the Minors. Now, this book was published in 1977. I was able to locate and purchase a book by Brian Innes from 1977 called The Tarot: How to Use and Interpret the Cards, which I’m assuming is the English original of the Italian translation referenced by Zibordi. When I received the book, I looked in the chapter which gives the meanings for the Minors, and sure enough, the meanings given are the same as those given in the Little White Booklet (actually a folded-over sheet) that comes with the deck, taking into account the differences that are bound to arise when you take an English text (Innes’s original book), translate it into Italian (the Italian version referenced by Zibordi), and then translate it back into English (for the LWB). To discover where Innes got his rather unusual meanings, I had only to look to the back of the book at his bibliography, where the only non-Golden-Dawn-related book mentioned is the playing-card book by D’Allemagne. The meanings themselves are typical examples of playing-card meanings of a hundred years ago, consisting of short, prediction-oriented phrases which deal mostly with marriage, business and travel.

Even more interesting, however, than Zibordi’s choice of divinatory meanings is the way he chooses to illustrate them. He has taken these playing-card meanings, broken them down into their constituent elements, and found medieval symbols to illustrate each element, and then combined them in an allegorical picture. The result is a set of Minor cards which is illustrated in a completely unique way. Each scene is an exact pictorial representation of the Innes-D’Allemagne phrase for that card.

For example, carefulness is always symbolized by an oil lamp, poverty by a figure with her head in a glass vase, friendship by a vine entwined with an elm tree, and deception by a large fishhook. So on the Four of Wands, we are warned to beware (man with oil lamp) the failure of a project (house in ruins), a huge loss of money (coins falling out of bag), poverty (head in vase), and untrustworthy (hook) friends (entwined elm and vine). As you can see, the pictorial elements are used as words in a sentence, and are strung together in a literal fashion to create the picture. In other cards, a vine standing apart from an elm illustrates separated friends.

For the numbered cards, Zibordi has correlated the number of the card to the number of human figures which appear in the card, so that the higher numbers start to seem a little crowded. In the Nine of Swords, for example, many kinds of misfortune are illustrated in a rather extreme way, including plague (figure with raised sword, sagging breasts, and bandage on head) and cruelty (woman drowning newborn). These examples of medieval grimness may prevent many people from wanting to read with this deck.

According to the Innes-D’Allemagne scheme, the Court cards can be very negative. For example, while the Knave of Swords is a striking picture (illustrating a slothful person), this card and others like it will necessitate the experienced Tarotist abandoning their own system for interpreting the Courts.

The real question here is whether these Minor meanings can be useful in readings today. The century-old playing-card meanings, I’m afraid, seem more suited to parlor-game fortune-telling rather than the more psychological and spiritual uses we put the Tarot to today. To my disappointment, the Innes book does not flesh out the meanings at all, but merely gives the same sentence-length meanings given in the deck’s LWB. One couldn’t really use these card images for intuitive readings, because the artist has designed them to specifically illustrate the given meanings, and the medieval iconography, which is basically used here as a code, isn’t generally suggestive or evocative of anything in particular other than the intended meanings.

I believe these cards could be used for modern readings, but the predictive phrases in the LWB would have to be interpreted very loosely and metaphorically. For example, the Eight of Pentacles (marriage at an old age) could be interpreted as any endeavor which only reaches success after a long struggle.

As a final note, I’ve looked at some of Giotto’s work, and while there are certainly style elements in the deck that are recognizable in the original paintings, as a whole, Giotto’s work looks quite different from Zibordi’s. Zibordi’s illustrations seem very solid and earthbound, while Giotto’s work is filled with color and light. Also, Giotto’s faces are quite lifelike, while Zibordi’s are somewhat cartoonish.

In any event, the striking artwork and the uniqueness of the divinatory approach to the Minors make this deck a worthwhile addition to any collection.

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

Giotto Tarot by Guido Zibordi Marchesi
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo (distributed by Llewellyn Worldwide)
ISBN #: 0738701769 

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Images © 2001 Lo Scarabeo
Review © 2002 Lee Bursten
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes