Gothic Tarot of Vampires by Riccardo Minetti, artwork by Emiliano Mammucari
Review by Lee Bursten
Riccardo Minetti, the author of the very popular Fey Tarot (click here, here, and here for other reviews), has teamed up with artist Emiliano Mammucari to create a tarot deck with a decidedly different tone. Gothic Tarot of Vampires is, as one might expect, a dark, brooding, atmospheric, and violent deck. Upon first examining the cards, the first thing that jumps out is of course the artist’s wonderfully vibrant and dynamic style, which looks like pen-and-ink colored with watercolors. Only a few colors are used on each card, creating a monochromatic, black-and-white-movie effect, against which the few bright colors (such as blood) stand out vividly. Some of the pictures have a slightly sketchy appearance, and this serves to add to the deck’s immediacy. The 78 cards look as if they might have been dashed off in a single night by some vampire artist, and then tossed out the window. Postcards from the edge, so to speak.
Even more striking than the artwork is the unusually well-thought-out conception and construction of the deck; and Minetti has done an excellent job of laying out the themes and structures in his Little White Booklet (LWB). As he explains it, the vampire theme is to be considered a metaphor for humankind’s greed, passion, power and loneliness. Vampires, those mythical humanoid creatures who never die and who sustain themselves by feeding on humans, have been a vivid archetype in many cultures, and Minetti cogently justifies their use as subjects of a tarot deck: “The power and extraordinary charm of the vampire icon come from the easiness of this parallel and therefore from how easy it is for each man or woman to identify with the Vampire.”
Such a vivid and edgy theme ensures that people will react strongly to the deck, either positively or negatively. Many will wholeheartedly embrace it; many will recoil in revulsion. For myself, while I have an undying (bad pun) admiration for the author’s depth of imagination and sophistication of purpose, and while I consider this deck, both conceptually and visually, to be a real artistic achievement, I could never use it to read with.
Now, many years ago I read and was captivated by Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire. In fact, I read it several times (I also enjoyed its sequels but felt they had descended to a comic-book level and thus were lacking some of the magic, grandeur and subtlety of Interview). But watching the film made from this novel was a depressing experience. What had seemed so alluring and mysterious on the printed page became simply gross and evil when translated to film. There have been more effective vampire movies, but I found it ironic that the very qualities which set Interview apart as a novel were the ones which fell flat on-screen. The novel probably worked so well precisely because creating that magic was a participatory experience between the author’s evocative prose and the mind of the reader. By showing us the bloodbath, the film cheapened and uglified the magic which had been evident in the novel. In fact seeing that film soured me on Rice’s vampire novels or indeed on any vampire novels. The magic has fled.
Looking at the cards in Gothic Tarot of Vampires gave me a little bit of that same feeling. Actually a majority of the cards don’t have blood on them, but the ones that do contain blood make such an impact that the overall feeling is of a very bloody deck. For me (and I stress this is a very personal reaction – each person needs to decide for themselves how they feel about the issue), seeing the blood visually portrayed detracts from the significance and evocative power of the conceptual structures of the deck. I’m not the kind of person who needs to have a deck that’s all sweetness and light, but I’ll cheerfully admit that this deck was too much for me. I do believe, however, that many will find this to be an excellent deck for self-examination in certain circumstances. I don’t feel that this would be an appropriate deck to read with for others – unless perhaps you’re giving readings in one of the “vampire bars” which Anne Rice describes in her novels!
Some will undoubtedly feel that violence as an element in a tarot deck (or in a film or a painting or whatever) is inappropriate because it somehow trivializes one of the tragedies of human existence. I feel this way sometimes myself. On the other hand, an equally convincing argument could be made that it’s necessary to examine these parts of ourselves through the medium of art, and that this is indeed one of the main functions of art. I don’t even begin to consider myself qualified to address such issues, but I do want to alert prospective buyers that these issues will probably surface in your own mind as you examine the deck.
In the 22 Major Arcana, the main themes of the vampire metaphor are stated. Tarot traditionalists, beware – many of the Majors have been visually and conceptually altered, sometimes radically, in order to fit in with the deck’s themes and mood. The LWB gives a divinatory meaning for the High Priestess, for example, of “Temptation – Limit, invitation, offer of immortality and knowledge.” Only the last word, “knowledge,” relates to standard interpretations for this card. This is not a criticism, by the way. I think the theme itself requires many of the traditional tarot concepts to be rethought.
Interestingly, there is no precise story which is told by the cards, but rather snapshots from what might be 78 different stories. There is a protagonist, who has been split by the author into two people, a man and a woman, “like twins.” The Fool shows the two together as a young boy and girl, presumably before being bitten and turned into vampires. They stand uneasily on a city street. On the wall behind them, two frightening shadows loom. A wonderful ambiguity… do the shadows belong to two vampires who are facing them, or are they the shadows of the boy and girl, a foreshadowing of what they will become?
This deck is not afraid to show the dark and frightening aspects of the vampire myth, as evidenced by the Chariot, which shows a man on the ground, trying to back a way from a female vampire about to pounce. Although there is no blood, I found this picture to be the most terrifying in the deck.
The spiritual aspects of the mythology are not ignored. In fact, and this may seem odd to some, the author made a particular effort to “place greater attention on the vampire’s spiritual and inner aspect instead of on the more conspicuous and material aspect.” An example of this is the Sun, which, far from showing a sun, instead shows a vampire at night, kneeling in what might be a graveyard, scrabbling at the dirt. The LWB says “The Sun – the Truth – Clarity, appreciation, understanding, looking for the truth beyond the surface of things.” I was quite touched by this scene.
The sun does make an appearance on the next card, Judgement (at top), which shows a vampire exposing him- or herself (it’s hard to tell) to the sun in an act of self-immolation (because, as we all know, vampires are destroyed by the light of the sun) – a somber and very creative and sophisticated interpretation of the standard image of Judgement.
By the way, cards VIII and XI are identified in the LWB as Strength and Justice respectively, but I believe they are either misnumbered on the cards or misnumbered in the LWB. For card VIII (not shown), we see a church altar splattered with blood. The LWB says “Strength – Power – Power for a good cause. Overcoming insurmountable obstacles.” But I think the image better fits the LWB’s text for card XI: “Justice – Consecrated Ground – Awareness that a meaning and higher order exists. Accepting one’s own responsibilities.”
The Minor Arcana cards are quite free-wheeling, but the suits are carefully thought out. Each suit represents “an aspect of the vampire metaphor.” Chalices “reflect the world of the mortals […] and the relationship the vampire develops with it. Pentacles show “those parts during the Vampire’s growth which regard his Power and his greater control over the surrounding world.” Wands reflect “the Natural Order of things, an order to which the vampire, whether he likes it or not, does not belong.” And Swords represent “the darkest parts […] the road of pain, guilt, regret, loss and responsibility.”
The Minor cards show a great diversity in mood and story. Some relate specifically to the most obvious elements of the vampire myth, showing vampires attacking and feeding on victims, and, in a more intimate mood, feeding on each other. Many of the cards show less sensational aspects, for example the melancholy concept of the vampire staying at the same age forever while watching its loved ones grow old and die.
I found that examining the Minor cards was a real treat of discovery, and thus I don’t want to examine particular cards in this review, so as not to ruin the journey for those who will buy the deck. I do, however, want to mention one card – the Six of Chalices, which shows two young children turning away from a sunlit street, walking down a shadowy alley, who don’t notice the vampire who watches them. This card serves as a beautiful metaphor for lost innocence, the “turning down a dark street” which happens to all of us, when we leave the bright, sunny environs of childhood (which probably never actually existed) and begin to discover the darker, more complex sides of our natures. This deck portrays that journey as adventurous, passionate, often disturbing, sometimes terrifying, but ultimately redemptive.
Gothic Tarot of Vampires by Riccardo Minetti
Artwork by Emiliano Mammucari
Published by Lo Scarabeo
Distributed in U.S. by Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN # 073870246-3
Lee Bursten has been studying the Tarot for 25 years. He is the author of a new tarot deck which will be published by Lo Scarabeo in 2004 or 2005. He owns over 170 Tarot and oracle decks and over 50 books on esoteric subjects including the Tarot, playing cards and astrology, and has written over 70 Tarot deck reviews for Tarot Passages. He is available for professional e-mail readings at Aeclectic Tarot.
Review © 2003 Lee Bursten
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes