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What’s the Sola Busca?

The Sola Busca Tarocchi was created about 1490 in Northern Italy, and is named for the family who owned the deck until 2009, when they sold it to the Italian government and it was placed in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

There are two theories about the deck’s creator: either he was an artist named Nicola who had connections to Florence and Ancona; or he was an unknown Ferrarese artist living in Venice; or perhaps it was printed in Ferrara and colored in Venice. We don’t know if the artist created the deck himself, or if it was a commission. A small number of decks were printed from the plates, and a handful of unpainted examples from four different decks are scattered about in museums and private collections. The 78-card Sola Busca in the Pinacoteca di Brera, which was painted a decade or so after it was printed, is the deck that Mayer and Il Meneghello used as the basis for their recent facsimile publications.

The trump cards are illustrated with figures from the late Roman republic plus a few Biblical characters. A few cards resemble the Tarot de Marseille: In Trump XX, a man is struck by lightning while the top of a tower is being sheared off; Trump VII shows a man wearing a laurel crown sitting in a fanciful purple chariot; and Trump XII is a bearded old man leaning on a staff and holding a lamp or torch. The roman numerals on the trumps are the earliest examples of card numbering. The Fool is numbered zero, showing that 19th-century occultists weren’t the first to think of this.

Sola Busca Lo ScarabeoMany fanciful details give this deck a magical, other-worldly feel: heads growing out of branches, a basin of blood, lots of winged cherubs and severed heads, and men sprouting wings.

The court cards are numbered 11, 12, 13 and 14 and are named for historic and mythic characters. All the Queens are mentioned in Bocaccio’s 1362 book De Claris Mulieribus (On Illustrious Women). The pip cards are fully illustrated and have little Arabic numbers tucked among the illustrations. Pamela Colman Smith saw photographs of the cards at the British Museum and modeled several Waite Smith cards on them.
What make this deck historically important?

  • It’s the earliest deck we have with all 78 cards intact.
  • It’s the first deck we have that’s printed instead of hand-painted.
  • It’s the first deck to have illustrated pip cards. We don’t see this again until the 1909 Waite Smith deck.
  • It’s the first deck to have names and numbers on the cards.
  • It’s the first example of someone using the structure of the 78-card tarot deck to create unique illustrations reflecting their personal interests and philosophy.
  • It’s the first deck to be deliberately associated with an esoteric tradition (alchemy). The next esoteric deck is Etteilla’s hermetic deck published in 1789.

Books About the Sola Busca Deck

Sola Busca Tarot by Sofia de Vincenzo with a preface by Giordano Berti. Published by US Games Systems, Inc. in 1998 with illustrations from the Lo Scarabeo deck. Description, divinatory meanings and alchemical symbolism for all 78 cards. The preface by Berti speculates on the deck’s origin based on stylistic analysis. The book is out of print but can be found used online for a reasonable price.

Giordano Berti is preparing a new book, Sola-Busca Tarot. Secret Code of Alchemy.

Sola Busca: History, Mystery and Alchemy by Cristina Dorsini and Morena Poltronieri, translated by Arnell Ando and published by Il Meneghello. Illustrated with black and white photos of the cards recently published by Il Meneghello. The book gives historical background on the trump card figures, how they have appeared in myth and art over the years, and the symbolism of objects accompanying them. With the shipping and exchange rate, the book costs about $31 US dollars and can be ordered by emailing for the price and Paypal instructions.

Encyclopedia of Tarot by Stuart Kaplan, published by US Games Systems Inc.

Volume II pages 297-302 has the photos from the British Museum that were reproduced in the Hind book (mentioned below) which P. C. Smith saw in the British library.

Volume III, pages 30-32 has photos of Sola Busca cards next to the Waite Smith cards they inspired.

Early Italian Engravings by Arthur M. Hind, published in London, 1938. He reproduced the photos in British Museum and speculates on the deck’s origins.  is an illustrated article with links to other sources.

Click here for my review of the three Sola Busca decks currently on the market.

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