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A Renaissance Tarot

  • designer/artist/author: Brian Williams
  • publisher: US Games, Inc.
  • first appeared: 1987

This is a very special deck. It is one of very few modern decks that actually draws deeply from the 500-year-old Italian roots of the tarot, rather than simply recycling occultist speculations of more recent vintage. As the proud owner of reproductions of several old Italian decks, I think the Renaissance Tarot does an excellent job of bringing the artistic and cultural feeling of those ancient decks into the modern world. This is also a deck that celebrates humanity: the human form, the human intellect, the human spirit--all idealized in a way we seem to have almost forgotten how to do.

First, the book. You can buy the deck separately, but that would be missing a lot. Brian Williams's book is an important piece of tarot in its own right, serving up a much-needed art history perspective. The tarot is placed in the artistic and literary context of the renaissance, with many drawings and quotations. The drawings taken from non-Tarot Renaissance art are especially appreciated. My mother is an art history fan (without much academic background), so we had all these great books around the house when I was a kid. I'm thrilled that someone else has pulled renaissance art and tarot together, as I doubt that I would ever have found the time to do so. But what rewards! It cuts right through a lot of the ignorance regarding the tarot's origins. (And, incidentally, provides an eloquent justification for some of Williams's own artistic decisions.) I also enjoyed the literary citations. I'm one of those freaks who actually kept taking Latin year after year, against all the conventional wisdom of the land-grant university I attended. This deck and book stir up some fond memories.

Renaissance art, of course, was engrossed in both classical and Christian themes. Williams works the classics into his deck in two ways: correspondences are made between the Olympian deities and the major arcana, and the number cards of each suit depict sequential incidents from an appropriate classical myth.

The Olympian deities are depicted with some subtlety in the corners of the major arcana cards. It's not overwhelming, but it's there if it interests you. I like the book's discussion of classical deities with respect to the cards, although, as Williams recognizes, it's a better fit in some places than in others. I don't think it's fair to sever Saturn from the Hermit. I'd rather have seen Vulcan left dangling or put with the Hierophant. But all in all, very nicely done. Makes me wonder if there might be a market in this postmodern world for a non-tarot deck of Greek deities? Some of them itch to crawl out of the corners and take center stage.

One major arcana card that initially rubbed me the wrong way was The Fool. He seems young and show-offish, which is not at all my image of the Fool. But to be fair, I've never met a Fool image that I like. To me, the essence of the archetype is King Lear's fool, who seems utterly real and vivid when I read the play, but always completely wrong when given visible form. Isn't that odd? He's neither old nor young, neither humble nor proud . . . someone who stands outside the whole drama and yet manages to remain unnoticed by the dramatis personae. I'm sure that if I ever see the Fool properly rendered, it will be some kind of mystic experience for me. In the mean time, I guess I just take what I can get. After some study of this deck, though, I came to see Williams's rendition of the Fool in a different light. He now strikes me as a sort of "royal housepet", perhaps a renaissance Kato Kaelin, whose place in life is to hang out in close proximity to people who can pay his way, and appear attractive, entertaining, and amusing. Perhaps this is how King Lear's fool got his start.

This is a good point to comment on the general feel imparted by the personalities portrayed in the deck. It's a great vibe! They're all quasi-aloof, like demigods intent on their affairs, full of human concerns but keeping their distance from the viewer. That's nice. They have dignity without being statues. It's the linkage with the tradition of renaissance art that makes this possible.

My favorite cards among the majors are the Sun and Moon. Absorbing these cards was a wonderful experience. I buy decks hoping to find that somewhere among all the re-interpretations of traditional motifs will be a true artistic insight, something that takes the energy of the card and runs off with it in a way that enriches my understanding of the whole tradition. The Renaissance Tarot Sun and Moon cards did that for me. Here's how.

The Moon card depicts two women playing music; the Sun depicts two men reading poetry. The first impression is that of intimacy; both couples seem bound together with sensual and emotional energy. The observation then led me to thoughts of the psychological basis for homophobia in our culture, which then zeroed in on one interesting factor: the scariness of the isolation of the genders. The feeling of exclusion a man feels when seeing women together, complete among themselves, or vice versa. Heterosexual marriage is an institution that serves (among many other functions) to diffuse the anxiety regarding the alienation of the sexes. (Men don't need to understand women, they can just marry them instead!) Suddenly I understood a facet of my reaction to the Moon card in other decks: it's a female thing--I don't belong here. The two women sharing an intimate moment of song and relaxation on this card brought home the point from a very fresh angle.

Still reveling in this discovery, I took a look at the Sun card and the parallelism with the Moon. What a coup! Traditionally, the symbolism has been patriarchically driven, so that it's natural for the moon to arouse these feelings of alienation and gender mystery, while the sun gets to be "clear as day", something no one would give a second thought to. But right there these cards issue the challenge. If the Moon is a "girl thing", then the Sun is a "guy thing"--how about that, huh? I love it. Now at last we have the Sun and Moon in the intricate, challenging kind of parity they deserve. The Sun is not the answer to the Moon--it's the other half of the same question.

After reading through the book and examining the deck card by card a couple times, I tried a reading. I'm getting so many decks these days, that I've taken to asking each one what it is for. It's a good get-acquainted strategy. Oddly, I can never seem to remember what spread I use to answer the question from deck to deck, So I asked the Renaissance Tarot using a standard three-card spread: 1 = body = the problem; 2 = mind = the process of addressing the problem; and 3 = spirit = the nature of the solution. I got 1 = Three of Swords; 2 = Knight of Coins and 3 = Seven of Swords.

The fist thing I noticed was the beauty of the spread. I'd been studying the cards individually, but I was struck by how nice they looked in a row. Lots of class and elegance. Like an intentional triptych, rather than a rabble of images. Impressive. The next thing I noticed was that the swords are drawn differently on the three than on the seven. How did I miss this before? The three has passionate, idealistic swords, with those rubies glaring out at me; the seven has exuberant, self-satisfied swords with plump little pummels. This is the kind of stuff tarot enthusiasts live for!

Well, I guess it's time to make a long story shorter. The spread told me that the deck was ready to deal with grown-up problems, with reliability and prowess. What a classy resume: "Acting with the determination and acumen of the knight of coins, I transform divided impulses into valiant solutions". The deck and I exchanged proper bows at this point. :) None of my other decks came up with swords in answer to this question. But then there's that whole swords = fire thing to work out. (Williams reverses the usual association of staves and swords with fire and air. If I just say swords = Achilles, then the deck and I are both happy.)

Now with a little work with this deck under my belt, I think one of the things I like most about it is the minors. The pips take center stage, with little scenes from classical mythology worked in around them. The vignettes and keyword labels are available and yet unobtrusive. This is great. It's a delicate balance. There's enough there to encourage thinking about the mythic correspondences, but not so much that it becomes mandatory. By the way, the whole idea of relating the numbers of each suit to the scenes of a myth is very creative, and very useful. (The Mythic Tarot, which was designed independently at about the same time as the Renaissance Tarot, also makes use of this idea.) Whatever numerological system one uses for the minors, the jist of it is to pick up on the rhythms of change that permeate human life. What better source for this than literature? I'm really surprised at how smoothly this idea works its way through in this deck: the plots employed provide every bit as much structure to the minors as do the occultist systems, but they are more accessible, and less intrusive if you choose to work a different way. This is a really valuable Tarot innovation.

I think of this deck as my "daylight tarot". Instead of the occasionally creepy emphasis on the subconscious and the occult found in many modern decks, this one exudes a optimistic, humanistic clarity. The renaissance exalted the human spirit above the fears of the night. So does the Renaissance Tarot. Instead of a deck for candles and incense, this one is for a sunny terrace on a summer's day. This is a very substantial deck, in terms of art, scholarship, and personal utility for me. Well done.

Copyright © 1998-2008 Tom Waters