The Tarot of Dürer by Giacinto Gaudenzi
Review by Barry Brenesal

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I admit it: I can be a sucker for a new tarot deck from any one of a number of perspectives. Images provided on a website can intrigue me by their beauty or detail, their imagination, overall vision or unfamiliar imagery. My intuition or aesthetic sense leads me to purchases. (I use the same method when traveling overseas. My logical wife has long since given up on following routes outlined in tour books.) At times, this produces great results, as with the Elemental and Kazanlar tarot decks. Occasionally, my failure is crowned with jackass ears. Then, there are moments where the results don’t justify either a dance around the candles or a wry shrug. The Tarot of Dürer fits into that grey middle ground, for me.

If you aren’t familiar with Albrecht Dürer, save as a name in Renaissance art books, bear in mind that there’s nothing unusually mystical about his work. Contrary to remarks on the box and the brief booklet enclosed with this new tarot deck, the images Dürer used and the way they were arranged in his works were part of the common property of urban Christian culture across the Europe of his day. One can find the same symbols everywhere in artists and artisans of the Renaissance, good and indifferent, celebrated and minor, using metals, paint, tapestries, stone, clothing and ceramics—even in popular folk song and literature, opera and architecture. This could well be an “esoteric” deck as the enclosed notes indicate, but if so, the knowledge was secretly shared with every member of Christian European society throughout a period of several hundred years.

What we actually have in this Dürer tarot is another Waite/Smith variant. The artwork isn’t by Dürer, but drawn from the imagination of Giacinto Gaudenzi and based (we are told) on Dürer’s environment. Gaudenzi has done several past tarot decks for Lo Scarabeo, including the majors-only I Tarocchi dell’Alba Dorata (1990) and the Celtic Tarot (2000). He seems to have a penchant for heavily x-rated decks with only the most tenuous of tarot connections, as evinced by his Il Tarocchi delle Mille e una Notte (1994) and again in his Decameron Tarot (2002). He also revisits and expands his themes: that recent Decameron Tarot was originally majors-only in 1993, while Gaudenzi issued a majors-only, black-and-white Dürer Tarot in 1990.

The two Gaudenzi Dürer decks of 1990 and 2002, however, have no cards in common. At their closest, a few cards treat identical concepts from slightly different perspectives, as in the satyr and human seen in The Lovers card. I find myself universally preferring the new set’s images in any case, as more boldly conceived. For example, the 1990 skeletal Death has a cloak and a farmer’s worn, broad-brimmed hat; he glances down at his hoe, with which he industriously tills a field containing weaponry, a mitre, a crown and jewels. It’s an attractive conceit, Death-as-a-tiller (and one encountered several times in Renaissance literature and art) that nonetheless pales before the same card in the 2002 deck. There, Death still wears a wind-whipped cloak, but his head is uncapped, and strands of long white hair blow wildly behind him. He is turned away from the viewer, and doesn’t look down, but back at you, over his shoulder, as though first noticing an intruder. It is more vivid, and far more personal. Just as change, implied in the Death card, is. From a communicative point of view, it is one of the most effective card in the majors.

The Tarof of Dürer cards measure 4 3/5th” by slightly over 2 ½”, or large enough to offer a good field for illustration without becoming too cumbersome to shuffle. All sides are bordered, with the left border containing the card number, along with its name in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. Each of the Dürer deck majors also bears a motto in Latin. Some are appropriate, such as Seneca’s Vivere tota vita discendum est, “We must during our whole lives learn to live,” quoted beneath Temperance. (Though in fairness to Seneca—not that he really cares any longer, but still—his quote doesn’t end there. It continues: “…and what may astonish you more, we must during our whole lives learn to die.”) Others don’t quite cut it. On The Sun tarot, the anthropomorphized face of the golden orb gazes down, smiling fondly at a pair of cherubs floating over the landscape, but In Hoc signo vinces, “In this sign you will conquer,” seems at odds with the bucolic imagery. It’s even more discordant if you realize the motto was made famous because it was chosen personally for his armies by the militant and militantly Christian Roman Emperor Constantine. Perhaps those cherubs are hiding Kalashnikov AK-74s under the armfuls of ripened fruit they carry. You think?

There’s evidence that Gaudenzi also intended each of the majors to display an animal associated during the European Renaissance with a specific human trait, despite the absence of any animal on four of the later cards in the series. The lion on the Strength card is self-evident (that tarot is also among the most few truly Dürer-like images of the deck), but a greyhound (symbolizing swiftness) lies sleeping around Justice’s feet; a jackal shares Death’s field; a crow caws from a tree near the Fool, who bares his buttocks at us. Other animals appear less suitable, or even satirical, like the spider monkey imitating the Empress’ self-conscious posture, and the fox, slyest of creatures in the French Renaissance fabliaux, that glances up at a slightly befuddled looking, elderly Hierophant.

I admit this bothers me just a bit. It’s always an intuitive shock to see the subjects of a few cards being pre-judged by their illustrator and presented negatively, to grind a personal axe. (The Emperor in Martin’s Quest Tarot affects me the same way. Instead of being the masculine equivalent of the Empress’ all-embracing femininity, his meaning is given as The Establishment. A supernal ideal is degraded into a negative sexual stereotype.) And it is Gaudenzi’s views that we are looking at, here, not Dürer’s; the latter befriended and worked for members of the clergy and aristocracy, though he favored Luther’s then-new reforms. It doesn’t help that the illustrator’s treatment of the major arcana is thematically inconsistent. Judgment and the World are provided with supernatural representations, but the Magician has been reduced to a tinker offering a gambling game to passersby; and the Chariot is rendered as a slowly ambling donkey with a farmer holding the lax reins, a wisp of straw between his teeth. The card’s traditional image—an object of transport, with a man directing animals—has been maintained, while the meaning has been effectively inverted. Waite’s reference to the narrow and limited triumph of the mind has instead become the success of complacency and inertia (though no hint of this appears in the accompanying booklet). Artistically, there’s no question that Gaudenzi has done a masterful job. Insight is open to question.

The minor arcana are another matter. This is one of the few decks I’ve seen whose minors affect me far more than most of their majors. Image after image impresses not just the eye, but the spirit, with their thematic simplicity and originality: the chick hatching in a circle, its four quarters marked with four cups; eight staves, skewering a lion skin to a door. Often-revisited images have a striking freshness—like the five swords that impale the earth as troops move off in the background, under a blood-rust colored sky that almost drips as it fades towards the horizon.

Gaudenzi sets himself a difficult task in not only displaying the suit emblem in appropriate quantities on each card itself, but by linking an animal (again) to each suit. The enclosed notes are specific on this: a dove for cups, an eagle for coins, a lion for wands, and a fox for swords. The overall appropriateness of each choice can be argued; I’ve never thought of eagles as symbolically representative of the earth element. But their use is managed ingeniously in nearly all the minors. My favorite is probably the Ten of Pentacles, where in the background, a perched eagle with one of its legs chained conveys so well the ambivalence of this card’s material success.

Not all the minors are illustrated on this same level of inspiration, of course. The King of Cups sits on a wonderful alabaster throne that literally rises out of the waters, but he looks as grim as a biblical patriarch, which he resembles. Then, there’s the Queen of Pentacles. Baring her breasts I could understand (very Earth Mother), but why is she sticking out her tongue at us, and wearing that cross expression you’d expect to find on a five-year-old? There’s also the matter of cards that contradict their supposed meanings. Take the Two of Swords, on which a fox tries unsuccessfully to clamber over a barrier to get at an oblivious chicken. “Attraction of opposites,” the booklet informs us. The same cynicism that informed the Decameron deck seems to be operating here, and in a few other cards. There’s certainly no evidence of it in Dürer—but then, this deck is really no more about that artist than the Decameron deck was about its supposed inspiration, Giovanni Boccacio.

Aesthetically, there’s no question about the quality of the work involved throughout. Gaudenzi is an excellent draughtsman, one of the best involved in creating tarot decks, with a fine eye for line and detail. His choice of colors is effective and often dramatic, and he knows exactly how to position figures for maximum results. If the entire Tarot of Dürer had lived up the promise afforded by its best cards, the deck would be among my favorites for readings. But though it’s a beautiful deck in its own right, I find myself too often admiring the artist’s ingenuity or chuckling at what could only be described as extremely refined cartoons. The tarot itself is lost in the blaze of Gaudenzi’s cleverness and attitude. Others may disagree, but for me, the Tarot of Dürer falls wide of its mark.

Dürer Tarot by Giacinto Gaudenzi
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
ISBN#: 0738702455

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Barry Brenesal has been a student of the tarot for three decades.

Images © 2002 Lo Scarabeo
Review © 2003 Barry Brenesal
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes