The Dante Tarot - An Examination by Paula Gibby

Evaluating a deck that is a visual representation of one of civilization’s greatest literary works is a daunting task indeed. How exactly, does one attempt to encapsulate in a tarot deck review the epic depth and spiritual/religious drama of Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy? Then, to that great work, add the Convivio, Dante’s philosophical treatise, an unfinished work predating the Commedia. A work that, like the Commedia, introduced an important concept in philosophical writings…for they were the first such works of this genre to be written - not in Latin - but in the vernacular of Dante’s homeland.

If this deck were less than what it claimed to be (a deck based upon two of the great works of Dante), a review would actually be quite easy. And very short, because I don’t waste my time writing lengthy reviews about decks that don’t merit the time spent. Anyone who collects the tarot has encountered problems and frustrations with what many of us call "theme decks". You read about a new deck claiming to be based upon some book, concept, philosophy, religion, folklore, etc. It may encompass a particular subject matter for which you feel great enthusiasm. So, you run out, buy the deck, open it excitedly – only to find out that the cards are, in actuality, only a very superficial treatment of that subject. OR even worse, you find that the artist/author had no real knowledge at all of the subject matter with which they claimed to be familiar and what you have in front of you is a hodgepodge of themes and ideas that are fraught with errors, misconceptions and are painfully evident of a poorly researched subject. In essence, something created especially to relieve you of your hard-earned money and nothing more.

But with the Dante Tarot, we have something very different – and very impressive. For it is NOT less than what it has claimed to be. In fact, it is exactly what it says it is – a deck based upon two definitive works penned by Dante. For within these 78 cards is an impressive recapturing of the structure, imagery, events and characters populating the Convivio and Commedia. Not only are larger concepts portrayed and rendered, but also the oh-so-splendid details.

But before we launch ourselves enthusiastically into the cards and their meanings, let’s take some time to step back and look at the overall deck…its presentation, packaging, artwork and detailing.

The first impression this deck makes upon the viewer lies in the incredible artwork. In fact, even if you have no other interest in the tarot except as collector, you will be ecstatic because the work of Serio is so alluring and exotic. It has such an organic feel to it, as if each image lives and breathes. There is a constant sense of motion in these cards – not an easy thing to maintain through 78 images.

The choice of artist was actually quite innovative and inspired. It would have been easy and tempting to render the Dante Tarot in the artistic style of the period, along the lines of Giotto, for example. This would have been a logical choice and is a visual concept that has already been presented in the only other Dante Tarot I am aware of…the large, opulent (and very rare) I Tarocchi di Dante e dei Fedeli d’Amore, Produzioni Editoriali D’Ami, Milano, Italy (1983).

Interestingly enough, Lo Scarabeo issued a Giotto Tarot around the same time the Dante Tarot came out, so obviously they had an artistic resource that could have rendered the Dante Tarot in a more medieval style.

I’m glad Lo Scarabeo resisted this temptation and instead chose an artist who has gifted us with a much more contemporary representation of Dante’s work. It reinforces the message that the Commedia is timeless, a work that can be appreciated (both artistically and by actual reading) in our time just as easily as 700 years ago. The art is more inviting and accessible, enticing the viewer to find out more about the meanings lying behind these liquid, exotic images.

Like any rare and beautiful jewel, such beautiful artwork deserves a worthy setting. Lo Scarabeo has done an excellent job of showcasing the art. My interest in the tarot is multi-faceted and one of these interests is as a collector. Wearing that "hat", I have high regard and appreciation for decks that are presented well. From the box, to the art, to the cards themselves, on an aesthetic level, this deck delivers and does not disappoint. Lo Scarabeo is to be congratulated in producing such a lovely deck, somehow managing to avoid that "mass-produced" aura that accompanies so many of the decks published today.

As I said, Serio’s work is quite lovely and Lo Scarabeo has chosen to offset the luminous, flowing art with card borders of solid black. This lends a contemporary sophistication to the cards and really brings attention to the art. Too often, card borders (usually in that unattractive, stark white) lead the eye away from the art. In the Dante Tarot, the black borders frame the images and draw the eye immediately to their hypnotic beauty.

Card titles are rendered in yellow. Again, this is a relief from all the white that one sees nowadays on cards. And it mitigates (to some extent) a continuing gripe I have – all those translations of the card names. Even though I understand that publishers want everyone to know exactly what the title of a card is without having to scramble for the little white booklet (LWB), I still think it is unattractive and visually distracting. In fact, I don’t really like anything that takes away from what I think is the most important part of the card – the imagery itself.

Maybe my problem is that, every time I see large white borders and lots of printed type, I inevitably think of those business cards that everyone seems so fond of handing out these days. Name, work address, job title, phone number, fax number, email address.

When I look at tarot cards, I want to focus on the art without the distraction of the "business" side of the card (border, card title identification, etc.). Besides, if the art is doing its job, then I shouldn’t have to constantly refer to the card title to identify which card I’m looking at. In other words, I want the information, but I want it to be more aesthetically presented…and much more unobtrusive. I don’t want it to be the first thing I notice and I don’t want to continually have to move my eye away from it. In the Dante Tarot, Lo Scarabeo has managed to present all of this information as pleasingly as is possible. I just happen to think less is more as far as card titles go.

The Dante Tarot comes in one of those standard, flip-top card boxes, but again, Lo Scarabeo has gone beyond attending just to the functional. The Dante Tarot box is in itself a luscious work of art. Serio’s evocative images seem to envelop the box, flowing from side to side to side. It’s just lovely.

So, all in all, for a standard, non-collector’s edition, Lo Scarabeo has done an outstanding job in the presentation of this deck. Fans of contemporary tarot decks will want it. Those tarotists who will never be able to own the first Dante Tarot, but who love the idea of a visual portrayal of Dante’s work, will want it. And collectors will find the deck aesthetically pleasing and artistically interesting enough to collect it on those merits alone.

Now let’s move along and discuss how the deck is structured.

I have read the Commedia several times, so when I first heard that Lo Scarabeo intended to publish a Dante Tarot, my first thought was how the major arcana were going to be portrayed. Major arcana are "big theme" cards and big themes (themes tantalizingly syncretic with many of the major arcana cards) abound in the Commedia. The difficulty lies in attempting to apply the thematic concepts in the Commedia to the major arcana in a consistent manner.

You can’t – that is, not completely.

Because, at the very beginning of the Commedia, we find that Dante, the "pilgrim" of this hero’s journey, enters the story at the very mid-point of his life. Like all of us Fools, he entered this world, enthusiastic and impetuous - and the world has given him quite a ride. We are first introduced to Dante as, jaded and weary, he begins to experience those thoughts and feelings that can be the portent of a significant spiritual awakening.

"Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

If you read the first cantos carefully and get a clear idea of what is happening, you find that Dante is the Hanged Man…precariously dangling upon the poetic tip of the abyss. And fall he will, for the Dark Wood is a metaphorical gateway - the threshold of Death. A threshold that, in this great poem, he will cross, meet his guide (Temperance as personified by the great Virgil) and descend into the depths of Hell, ultimately encountering the dark lord himself – the Devil.

The similarities and ties to the ideas intrinsic to the major arcana continue, for what is the Commedia but another beautiful story of what many people refer to as the Hero’s Journey? A search for the holy grail or any other spiritual/magical ideal - a search for perfection and redemption.

As you can see, it would be quite tantalizing to base the major arcana upon the Commedia, except that then you would only have 10 major arcana cards (Hanged Man through World). The problem then becomes, what about the other 12?

So you can see why my curiosity was piqued even before the deck was published.

Instead, Serio and Berti have wisely turned to the Convivio and used it as the thematic foundation for the 22 Major Arcana. This decision works exceedingly well, for the Convivio is nothing less than a treatise (albeit unfinished) reflecting Dante’s philosophical, religious and political ideas. Penned shortly after his exile from his beloved Florence, Dante wrote the Convivio to defend his reputation as a philosopher of note. Although, up until this time, "serious" philosophical essays and treatises were written in Latin, Dante deliberately chose to record his ideas in Italian. He wanted it to be a document that all his countrymen could understand.

It became the forum for the articulation of all of his ideas and views up until that point in time - ideas encompassing philosophy, government, religion, wisdom and truth. It does not have the lyric magic of the Commedia; rather it is a painstaking, carefully thought out description and justification of Dante’s major philosophical ideas. In the vernacular of our times, the Convivio is in essence a doctoral thesis. It presents each idea, provides supporting "documentation" for those ideas and summarizes (several times) each of those ideas. For those of us who can only read the translated work, it can be rather dry, repetitive and certainly pedantic. But it is an important work because it is the brick and mortar upon which the lovely and lyrical Commedia is built.

So, to recap, in the Convivio, we find big ideas and themes carefully explored in both poetry and prose. It is a perfect resource to turn to for the major arcana without the constriction of adhering to a particular storyline. We have reason to thank Giordano Berti for avoiding the pitfalls of attempting some awkward correspondences between the tarot majors and the Commedia - instead using the major arcana as the vehicle to present the breadth of Dante’s ideas.

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