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Mantegna Tarot

  • modern publisher: Lo Scarabeo
  • first appeared: Ferrara/Venice, c. 1460

This deck is a modern artistic recreation of the Tarocchi del Mantegna, a classic series of 15th-century Venetian engravings depicting tarot-like subjects. There are 50 cards, divided into 5 series of 10 each (the ranks of society, Apollo and the muses, the arts and sciences, the virtues, and the celestial spheres). Although not a tarot deck, it has many intriguing parallels with the tarot. The Mantegna series clearly depicts an ordered, philosophical system, giving an explicit logical structure to the planes of existence. The designs were previously available only as a collectible monochrome reproduction issued by Il Meneghello. Although in some ways the Il Meneghello set is more faithful to the originals, it is not actually "authentic" either, being a reproduction of line drawings made long ago for book illustrations, rather than reproducing the original engravings themselves. The Lo Scarabeo issue can be regarded as an alternative means for modern tarot enthusiasts to become acquainted with the basic subject matter and symbolism of the Mantegna prints.

The Mantegna Tarot is really quite beautiful--the effect of the silver just doesn't come across in photos. (Each card has a silver background decorated with a Renaissance floral filigree design, the color of which changes according to which of the five Mantegna series the card belongs to.) Although this background is sometimes a bit distracting, it lends such a look of beauty and extravagance to the deck that one can hardly complain.

I was very impressed with the quality of the drawings themselves (they were done by Atanas Atanassov, who also did the artwork on Lo Scarabeo's Visconti Tarots). The original Mantegna prints, of course, were uncolored engravings, and these cards do not attempt to duplicate that look. Nevertheless, they are faithful to the original in all the details of symbolism, pose, etc. The coloring is very tasteful, with a lot of pastels and careful cross-hatched shading. The coloring complements the silver backgrounds well, and, although bright and vivid, doesn't seem gaudy or inappropriate to the 15th-century designs.

The artist did not duplicate the original title lettering; instead there is a border around each image and the card titles and numbers are printed in modern type on the bottom border. The top border gives a translation of the title into four modern languages (English, German, French, and Dutch). I would have preferred they left this off, as I think the Italian titles present little difficulty, being often proper names (the muses, the planets) or easily recognizable terms. Strangely, the three "genii", Iliaco, Cosmico, and Chronico, are translated as "Intellect", "Vital Functions", and "Senses". These terms have no basis in the Italian titles of the cards, and are not even warranted from the allegorical imagery they depict. This is a minor irritant in what is otherwise a faithful presentation of the ancient designs.

There are only 50 cards in the Mantegna series, but the publisher decided to fill out the package with 25 extra cards giving divinatory meanings. Each of the extra cards shows reduced images of two of the cards, and gives a divinatory meaning for each, in six languages (the additional language being Spanish). This is a creative and attractive presentation, and probably quite helpful, as people new to the Mantegna series can look up meanings by matching the pictures rather than titles. Considering that 25 cards are devoted to presenting divinatory meanings, the meanings themselves are quite terse, being only a word or short phrase for each card. Also, except in cases where card subject has a pretty obvious interpretation (the virtues and planets, for example), the divinatory meanings assigned seem rather arbitrary. As with many of the Lo Scarabeo decks, the keywords don't show much evidence of research into the symbolism. If I decide to use this deck for divination, I'll probably be working out my own meanings. The booklet that comes with the cards repeats the divinatory meanings, gives a bit of solid history regarding the series, and includes an interesting, novel divination method: one basically plays a sort of "solitaire" came with the deck, and interprets only the cards that are still in play when you have no possible moves left.

The card backs are a very attractive white-on-navy Renaissance floral design. The cards are also a good size, just a bit larger than most of the publisher's earlier offerings.

Despite my quibbles, I'm very happy with this deck. The quality of the artwork and the attractive clear colors make this deck something you actually want to look at and work with, rather than file on a shelf. Because it is being distributed by Llewellyn in the US, it gives American tarot enthusiasts their first easy access to the Tarocchi del Mantegna. Although I expect divination with this deck may take some concerted study (and be hampered by the complete absence of "dark" cards like the Tower and Devil), the combination of its historical interest and strikingly beautiful presentation is sure to make it a welcome addition to many deck collections.

Copyright © 2001-2008 Tom Waters