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The Sola-Busca Tarot Deck

©2001-2004 Michael J. Hurst

An Overview

In The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Stuart Kaplan writes: "In Early Italian Engravings (1938), A.M. Hind wrote of a complete pack of tarocchi cards dating from the late fifteenth century. The cards were owned by the Sola-Busca family of Milan, but are presently accessible only through photographs given to Hind by the Sola family for the British Museum, and through Hind's book, which illustrates the deck. Hind was given the privilege of examining the actual cards in 1934. Unfortunately, the Sola-Busca family and their cards can no longer be found.

"Several cards made from the same metal engraving plates are owned by various museums, including the Albertina Collection of Vienna, which owns twenty-three of the 'Sola-Busca' cards...." Unlike the specimen belonging to the Sola-Busca family, the Albertina cards are not illuminated. They include all of the trumps except the first and last, MATO and NABUCHODENASOR. "Comparison with the extant cards in the Albertina Collection, which have no illumination, shows that the painter added some details to the original engravings. The initials on the aces, 'S.M.,' are probably those of the illuminator." (Kaplan II:297.) Hind suggested that M.S. may have been Mattia Serrati da Cosandola, a late-fifteenth-century Ferrarese illuminator.

The deck is dated, based on inscriptions unique to the illuminated specimen, from the founding of Venice, but there are two possible dates for that event – the alternate dating of the deck is 1523. The inscription SENATUS VENETUS on card IIII implies a Venetian origin, and ANNO AB URBE CONDITA MLXX on card XIIII implies a date 1070 years after the founding (A.U.C.).

Sola-Busca was apparently made by a Ferrarese artist, with classical and biblical characters, and illustrated suit cards. (Cf. the 1550 Rouen classical deck.) It has the standard number of trumps and suit-cards, and the suit-signs are almost standard, but are worked into individual scenes, i.e., illustrated pips. The trumps and most court cards have names identifying the figures illustrated, more or less. In addition to historical figures, the court cards also appear to include gods. The Pages are not named, only the Kings, Queens, and Knights, as if the names were borrowed from a 52-card deck. This may be related to the 1480 French-suited court cards. (K I:124, 126-7; K II:270, 297, 298-302; GT 76; H 20.)

Sola-Busca Court Cards

Suit
King
Queen
Knight
Swords
Alecxandro M
Olinpia
Amone
Staves
L Evio Plauto R
Palas
Apolino
Cups
Lucio Cecilio R
Polisena
Natanabo
Coins
R Filipo
Elena
Sarafino

Interpretation of the cards is dicey at best. Using the suit of Swords as an example, Alecxandro M[agnus] is presumably Alexander the Great, and Olinpia is Olimpia/Olympias, his mother. (Interestingly, she has been reviled as an "evil, scheming, murderous witch", a woman with both power and a haughty nature, roughly consistent with some fortune-telling connotations of the Queen of Swords.) Amone might be Aimon de Varenne, author of Florimont, a twelfth-century poem about a fictional grandfather of Alexander. There is no immediately apparent reason for these identifications with the King, Queen, and Knight of Swords, but there might be some significance to the assignments, at least for the person who originally made them. The combination of the writer Aimon with two of his subjects seems odd; however, such a mixture may also be reflected in the trumps. (See the comments below under VI SESTO.)

R[ex] Filipo might represent King Philippus V of Macedonia (238 -179 BC). Lucio Cecilio R might represent Lucius Caecilius Metellus Delmaticus, consul in 122 and 119; or Lucius Caecilius Metellus Diadematus, praetor in 120; consul in 117; censor in 115; or Lucius Caecilius Metellus the consul in 68, quaestor in 52, tribune in 49. It's impossible to guess without some additional information, which might be provided by relationships within the groups.

Spelling also presents problems. The person referred to as Amone, for example, might be elsewhere named Aymon, Aimon, Hamon, Aimo, etc. Over the 20 centuries between Alexander's time and the creation of the Sola Busca Tarot, there might be more than a few people with such names who have some link with Alexander. Within the Late Republic period alone, many of the names found in the Sola Busca trumps appear repeatedly at the highest levels of government, which was dominated by a few prominent families. Such "freedom" in identification makes deciphering the Sola Busca names an insuperable task, unless a link can be discerned connecting different elements; a link such as that between Alexander and Olimpia.

A book has been written on the deck, The Sola Busca Tarot, by Sofia Di Vincenzo with a preface by Giordano Berti. The book unfortunately displays only a vague understanding of the design, and expresses little interest in identifying the figures on the cards.

Tea Prentice has created a Web site which is more helpful. It offers suggestions about the figures represented and some observations about their relationships. More than a few of the comments below about who may be represented on the cards below derive from her suggestions. Her focus on figures associated with the Roman Republic, and especially with the decline of the Late Republic, might lead to an adequate explanation of the trumps. Her introductory page concludes by saying, “I agree with Berti [the author of the preface to book on the deck] when he refers to the Sola Busca as ‘an educational game that represents noteworthy episodes in ancient history, with particular references made to events in republican Rome,’” so the interpretation presented here is essentially an elaboration of their views. But of course, they bear no guilt for the naive speculations presented here.

Conflation of Subjects with Tarot trumps

A number of the subjects in the Sola Busca trumps appear to reflect the standard Tarot subjects. However, there is little correspondence with the standard sequence of trumps. So while it appears that although there was some conflation of the new, classical subjects with standard Tarot subjects, nothing like a traditional order of the standard subjects was attempted. There are a number of other examples of possible conflation with standard Tarot trumps.

The Theme of the Deck

Most of the figures illustrated in the trumps appear to represent Romans, either individuals or their families, prominent during the period of the Late Republic. This suggests a context for understanding the series. Sola Busca has been called a "warriors" deck, but it needs to be kept in mind that in ancient Rome the military leaders were also civic leaders. Although the figures are shown in armor, their significance was greater than their battles. In addition to figures from the Late Republic, the Fool appears to show a Celt, one trump shows the emperor Nero, and the highest two trumps show Babylonian kings, Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar.

The Late Republic was a distinctive period in the history of Rome. The agrarian and citizenship reform years of the Gracchi, the Marius-Sulla years, and the Catalina-Cicero years, as well as the rise of Caesar and the subsequent Triumvirate, are all part of this breakdown of the Republic, and transition to Imperial Rome. In a very summary outline, the early history of Rome can be divided as follows.

  1. The period of kings, from the legendary founding in 753 BC to the beginning of the Republic in 509 BC.
  2. The early Republic, from 508 BC till the start of the Punic (i.e., Carthaginian) wars in 264 BC.
  3. The period of wars with Carthage, highlighted by Scipio Africanus Major's defeat of Hannibal in 202 BC, and culminated by Scipio Africanus Minor's ultimate destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.
  4. The Late Republic, from 146 BC till the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
  5. Imperial Rome, which – from a Christian perspective – reached a kind of climax with Nero Caesar in 64 AD, the Antichrist (666) who not only declared himself a living god, but began the Christian persecutions, (during which St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred), shortly before the destruction of the Jewish Temple.
During the period from the defeat of Hannibal until the final destruction of Carthage, Rome conquered Greece and virtually all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. This period saw the development of a distinctive Roman culture, based on Greek models, which included the republican model of government. The later Republic period saw Rome’s military domination of the Mediterranean world – the literal triumph of Rome. It was an era of personal ambition and blatantly Machiavellian politics among the ruling families. The personality of the era was firmly established under the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 - 78 BC; consul in 88 and 80; dictator in 82, 81, and 80) in 82 BC, when Sulla's army returned to Rome and took the city by force, then settled scores ruthlessly, slaughtering thousands (including dozens of senators). Many people were dispossessed of property and rights, and Sulla’s veterans and political friends were enriched with the spoils. The notion of political “Right” and “Left” were popularized at this time, the Optimates and Populares, with Sulla and Gaius Marius more or less representing them. (See comments under IV MARIO.) The subsequent era of Octavian/Augustus (d.14 AD) was the “restored Republic”, (in reality, a monarchy), the beginning of the Roman Empire per se.

Will Durant opened his chapter on the Late Republic period by noting, "never before, and never again till our own time, were such stakes fought for; never was the world drama more intense." The first-century BC historian, Gaius Sallustius, described the cause and the effect: "For before Carthage was destroyed the people and senate of Rome governed themselves peacefully and equably; there was a struggle neither for glory nor domination among the citizens; fear of the enemy kept the city in good conduct. But when this fear was lifted from their minds, naturally they did as they wished, and pleasure and pride appeared.... For the nobles began to turn away from dignity and the people from their freedom to their own inclinations. So everything was broken in two and the state, which was in the middle, was torn in pieces." That is apparently the period on which the Sola-Busca trumps are focused, the time and place of the majority of the historical figures in the sequence.

However, there is more to the design than that. The Emperor Nero is also included, (in a revealing place in the sequence, numbered eight), and the Babylonian kings Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar are the two highest trumps. This offers a kind of Christian moral to the story, placing the Republic in a larger context via the traditional Christian identification of Rome with Babylon.

The Subjects of the Trumps

For each of the trumps, an interpretation of the name will be offered, several of them consistent with those from Tea's site. Some background information on the subject will be provided, noting any apparent connection with the suggested overall theme of the deck. Additional possibilities, as well as comments on the image and any possible conflation of the subject with a standard Tarot subject, will also be included as it suggests itself.

O MATO

The Fool (matto) is an obvious interpretation of the name on the zero card. The cloak, fastened at the shoulder, and the bagpipes, suggest a Celt; and Celts might have been considered embodiments of Folly or Madness. Tea quotes the historian Livy as saying of the Celts: "they are wont to be moved by chance remarks to wordy disputes and to fight in single combat, regarding their lives as naught. In conversations they use very few words and speak in riddles, for the most part hinting at things and leaving a great deal to be understood. To believe that we can penetrate the Celtic mind, and share the Celt's psychological condition and feelings, is a pure waste of time." The bird on MATO's shoulder, whispering into his ear, might also reflect Folly – as if taking counsel from a bird. This is the only figure of the series not shown as a Roman soldier.
Gaius Matius is another possible, if far-fetched, identification for MATO, punning on the more obvious intent. After Julius Caesar’s murder (the effective end of the Republic) his close friend Matius famously lamented, “If Caesar with all his genius could not find a way out, who is going to find one now?” According to Pliny, Matius invented topiary.
I PANFILIO
One possible identification for PANFILIO is Boccaccio's Panfilo. The Decameron Web site includes this description:
Panfilo repeatedly emphasizes the need to look deeper into the stories of the brigata by presenting characters and situations which hide their true nature. Indeed, Panfilo acts as an almost direct voice of Boccaccio, in that he reminds us that the Decameron is not simply a collection of entertaining stories. It is Boccaccio's intention that we look deeper into the stories of the Decameron, so that it becomes a vehicle from which "useful advice" can be gleaned.

Panfilo begins the Decameron with a story about Cepparello, a scoundrel and usurer who, through a skillful confession on his death bed, becomes glorified as a saint. We can see from this story that, unless we want to look as silly as the townsfolk who considered Cepparello a saint, it is important to look deeper into things before judging their meaning. This translates easily into looking deeper into the stories of the Decameron. When Panfilo ends his first story by saying how wonderful God is because God can transmit His message through even the worst sinner, it appears that Panfilo is going to end all of his tales with a gay and positive moral. Instead, the theme that Panfilo comes back to time and time again is the "Don't judge a book by its cover" theme - a particularly apt proverb considering the medium in which he exists.

Tea has suggested Pamphilius, a "celebrated painter of Macedonia in the age of Philip...."
II POSTUMIO
This is a common name and several possibilities come up, including at least Spurius Postumius Albinus, consul in 113, 110, and his brother Aulus Postumius Albinus, praetor in 102.

When he took office in 110, Spurius assumed leadership of the Numidian campaign; but he was ineffectual in the war against Jugurtha. When Spurius returned to Rome to pursue the consular elections for 109, he left his brother Aulus in command. Aulus' ineptitude and Jugurtha's cunning resulted in a disgraceful defeat for the Romans. They were forced to "pass under the yoke", a traditional Italian humiliation in which the defeated army marched beneath a yoke made of spears. The Romans hadn't suffered this indignity for two and a half centuries. (Spurius returned to Numidia, but was charged with accepting bribes from Jugurtha and exiled, along with Cato the Elder and others. Quintus Caecilius Metellus became the consul charged with the Numidian affair after the 109 election, taking Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla with him as lieutenants.)

III LENPIO
Tea has suggested Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, pontifex maximus, an opponent of Sulla. He was praetor in 129; consul in 126 and 78; marched on Rome in 77, escaped to Sardinia where he died. (Mamilius Aemilius Lepidus Livianus was consul in 77.)

His son(?) Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was aedile in 53; interrege in 52; praetor in 49; consul in 46 and 42; Master of Horse (with Dictator Caesar) in 45 and 44; and triumvir with Gaius Octavianus and Marcus Antonius after the murder of Julius Caesar. In that capacity, he was in charge of Africa.

IV MARIO
Gaius Marius, (156 - 86 BC), perhaps the central figure of the Late Republic, (along with his nemesis, Sulla). Tea notes that Marius "served (109 BC) under Quintus Metellus Numidicus against Jugurtha, king of Numidia. He then undermined Metellus' reputation, was elected consul for 107 BC, and obtained command in the Jugurthine War." Marius defeated Jugurtha, although Metellus began the campaign which Marius pursued and concluded, and although Sulla obtained the defection of King Bocchus, who then betrayed Jugurtha to the Romans. Tea adds that "Marius was noted for his equestrian skills", while the figure on the card appears to be "riding" a small tree.

The conflict between Marius and Sulla epitomized several larger conflicts in the Late Republic, which are sometimes summarized as the Populares versus the Optimates, Liberal republicans versus Conservative oligarchs. The first act of the drama starred the Gracchus family, and their proposed agrarian reforms and expansion of Roman citizenship; the third act  featured Cicero and Cato versus the Catiline conspiracy. The grand finale was the end of the Roman Republic, and the Triumvirate's transition to Imperial Rome.
Some of Marius' roles:

In the Albertina version of S-B, the figure is facing a heavenly sphere of stars. In the illuminated deck, his shield bears the legend, SENATUS VENETUS.
V CATULO
Quintus Lutatius Catulus, one of Sulla’s lieutenants, was praetor in 109; consul in 102 BC with Marius; proconsul in 101, he and Marius defeated the Cimbri and celebrated a joint triumph in that year. Catulus was killed in 87 by the Marians, led by Lucius Cornelius Cinna.
VI SESTO
One possibility is Gaius Sextius Calvinus, praetor in 127 and 92, consul in 124. As consul, he was responsible for the area known as Transalpine (Cisalpine) Gaul. Marius had two notable victories at Aquae Sextiae, which had been taken by Sextius in 124 and which he named after himself. (Sextius also met with Jugurtha.)

Another possibility is the historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus, aka, Sallust, who wrote a history of the Jugurthine war. There are several Sola-Busca figures whose names might suggest famous Roman writers from whom the history of the era is known.

Another possibility is Sextilius, praetor in 68, or P. Sextus, quaestor in 63, tribune involved in Cicero's recall in 57.

Tea suggests Sextus Tarquinius, the "son of the last Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. “It was Sextus who raped Lucretia and the result led to the overthrow of the Tarquin dynasty and the establishment of the Republic (509 BC)."

VII DEOTAURO
The first-century BC Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, one of the primary sources of information on the Late Republic, is a possibility. (Cf. Sesto.)

Tea suggests Deiotaro, a "Galatian ally of Rome during the time of Pompeii."

VIII NERONE
Nero Claudius Caesar Germanicus, (Neron in Greek), the fifth Roman emperor. Tea notes, “The figure on the card appears to be either dangling or throwing a baby into a fire, perhaps a reference to the fire in 64.” Nero famously blamed the fire on Christians, and tortured them to death as entertainment, being the first ruler to initiate persecution of Christians. (Tacitus wrote: "Their death was made a matter of sport; they were covered in wild beasts' skins and torn to pieces by dogs; or were fastened to crosses and set on fire in order to serve as torches in the night.") Both St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred under Nero. Thus, the image could be interpreted as threatening the infant Church with the fire.

Nero appears to be the only direct reference to Imperial Rome in the trumps. As Rome was identified with Babylon, Nero was associated with the Antichrist, the Beast of Revelation. "666" can be interpreted as the sum of the numerical value of the Hebrew letters for Nero Caesar: NRWN QSR = 50, 200, 6, 50, 100, 60, 200 = 666.

There are many apocalyptic references to Nero and Rome in the New Testament. One of particular significance for Sola Busca concerns the numbering: "And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come", which suggests that Revelation was written shortly after Nero's death. Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, and his death in 68 coincided with the Jewish war (66-70). There were rumors of his imminent return, and these are reflected in the next verse: "And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition." (Rev 17:11.) In other words, one of the seven who is already gone will return as the last, the eighth. Nero is numbered VIII. A second important point about the apocalyptic references to Rome is that they were generally made indirectly, referring to Rome as Babylon. (This becomes significant with cards XX and XXI, which show Babylonian kings from the Bible.)

VIII FALCO
This might refer to the Flaccus family. Lucius Valerius Flaccus was praetor in 134, 103, 93; consul in 131, in 100 with Marius, and he succeeded as consul after Marius' death in 86; he was censor in 97; he was also Master of Horse during Sulla's dictatorship from 82 through 80.

Gaius Fulvius Flaccus was consul in 134.

Marcus Fulvius Flaccus was a prominent supporter of the Gracchus reforms; one of the triumviri agris iudicandis assignandis in 130, along with Gaius Sempronius Gracchus; consul in 128, 125; celebrated a triumph in 123 for his victories over the Gauls; tribune in 122; killed by anti-Gracchans (along with Gaius Gracchus and others) in 121.

Tea suggests Gaius Valerius Flaccus, (consul in 134), who was the author of Argonautica, the epic poem of Jason (and the Argonauts) in search of the Golden Fleece.

X VENTURIO
Lucius Veturius Philo was Quaestor in 102, along with Marcus Livius Drusus. (Gaius Marius and Q. Lutatius Catulus were consuls in that year, Metellus Numidicus was censor, Aulus Postumius Albinus was praetor, and Marius won his victories at Aquae Sextiae in Gaul.)
XI TULIO
Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator, statesman, and writer of the Late Republic, from whose letters we derive most of our knowledge of the period. (Cf. Sesto.) M. Cicero was a quaestor in 75, aedile in 69, praetor in 66, and consul in 63. (Quintus Tullius Cicero was also prominent during the same period.) Cicero was the central figure in the Cataline conspiracy, claiming to have saved Rome by thwarting it, and leaving behind five famous orations against the conspirators. Lucius Sergius Catalina (108 - 62 BC) was his nemesis.
XII CARBONE
Another very prominent family. When Germans (Cimbri and Teutones, referred to as "Gauls" by the Romans) were threatening Italy from the North in 113, consul Cornelius (Gnaeus) Papirius Carbo was sent to keep them out. He was praetor in 116 and 89, tribune in 92, consul in 113, again in 85-84 with Lucius Cornelius Cinna (the other foremost Marian), and in 82 with Gaius Marius (the son of the late Marius). Tea notes that Carbo was a “Roman general, leader of the forces of Gaius Marius in the civil war between Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla.... [years later he was] defeated by Sulla’s general Metellus Pius...”

Gaius Papirius Carbo was praetor in 123, consul in 120, tribune in 89.

Marcus Papirius Carbo was praetor in 114.

XIII CATONE
Another prominent family. Marcus Porcius Cato (aka Cato the Younger) sought to have men who profited by Sulla’s “reforms” charged with murder. This card, XIII, is usually the Death card of the Tarot sequence, and is the only one of the Sola Busca sequence showing a corpse, a severed head with a spear through it, (although II does have a skull). The figure holds a banner, which in the illuminated deck bears the partially concealed inscription ORFATIS, suggesting Trahor fatis, pulled by fate. He was praetor in 121, 92, 54; consul in 118; tribune in 99 (proposed bill to recall Metellus from exile; opposed by Marius), 62; aedile in 94; quaestor in 64.

Gaius Porcius Cato was praetor in 117; consul in 114, went into exile in 109 for collaboration with Jugurtha; tribune in 56. Lucius Porcius Cato was praetor in 92, consul in 89. Tea suggests Marcus Porcius Cato Censorius (aka Cato the Elder, Cato the Censor; 234 - 149 BC), who “became a censor with Flaccus in 184 BC.” He was consul in 195 and 184.

Lucius Sergius Catalina is a possibility. (Cf. XI Tullio.)

The illuminated version also shows an eight-pointed radiant star in the sky.

XIIII BOCHO
Bocchus I, of whom Tea notes: “King of Mauretania from c.118 to 91 BC and father-in-law to Jugurtha, King of Numidia, directly to the east of Mauretania... after suffering heavy losses, Bocchus was persuaded by the Roman officer Lucius Cornelius Sulla to betray [Jugurtha]” Sulla was acting as lieutenant for Marius, and both wanted credit for the resulting victory in the Jugurthine war.
XV METELO
Metellus is another prominent family. Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus was censor in 131.

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus was consul in 109 and directed the Jugurthine (Numidian) war, and celebrated a triumph in 106, even though the war went on with Marius in charge. He was praetor in 112; censor in 102; exiled in 100 and returned in 98 as part of long-running disputes, including animosity with Marius.

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius was praetor in 89; proconsul in 87 (exiled/hiding in Africa); consul in 80 with Sulla (sent to Spain); was Pontifex Maximus when he died in 63.

The shield on the illuminated card appears to bear an inscription.

XVI OLIVO
Marcus Livius Drusus (the Elder).

Marcus Livius Drusus (the Younger) was an opponent of the Gracchus reforms; tribune in 122; praetor in 115; consul in 112; censor in 109; quaestor in 102; aedile in 94; tribune in 91. He proposed Roman citizenship for Italians in 91 (consuls were Sextus Julius Caesar and Lucius Marcius Philippus).

Mamilius Aemilius Lepidus Livianus was consul in 77.

The historian Livy is another possibility. (Cf. VI SESTO.)

XVII IPEO
Scipio might be a possibility -- there are (as usual) several to choose from. L. Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus was consul in 83; his army was incorporated by Sulla as the latter took Rome by force, (although Scipio was released).

The legendary P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, who triumphed over Hannibal, was consul in 134.

P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, as proconsul, captured and destroyed Numantia in Spain in 133, celebrating a triumph the next year. He was tribune in 130, died the next year (perhaps killed by C. Papirius Carbo and C. Gracchus).

P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio was Pontifex Maximus in 133; sent as legate to the new province of Asia in 132; praetor in 114, 93; consul in 111.

Another possibility is the historian, Appian. (Cf. VI SESTO.)

Tea suggests Hippias of Elis, a fifth century BC Sophist and historian. His list of victors in the Olympic Games went back to 776 BC, and became the basis for Greek dates, just at the Romans marked time from the founding of Rome, or modern usage (BC and AD) from the birth of Christ... or as Sola Busca was dated from the founding of Venice.

XVIII LENTULO
Lentulus is another common name. Publius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther was aedile in 63; praetor in 60; consul in 57. He was one of the Catilinarian conspirators, which connects him to one of the great disputes of the Late Republic.

Publius Cornelius Lentulus was consul in 128; princeps senatus in 125. P. Cornelius Lentulus Sura was quaestor in 81; praetor in 74. P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus was quaestor in 48.

L. Cornelius Lentulus Lupus was consul in 130; quaestor in 100. L. Cornelius Lentulus Crus was praetor in 58 and 44; consul in 49.

XVIIII SABINO
Sertorius the Sabine...

Tea suggests either “Cornelius Sabinus who helped kill Caligula”, or “Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis (fl. late 6th and early 5th centuries BC), who founded the Claudii.” Another possibility is Flavius Sabinus, consul and Prefect of the City in the later years of Nero.

XX NENBROTO
Kaplan, Hoffmann, and others have identified "Nenbroto" as Nimrod. The ruined tower in the image, (and the figure on the subsequent card), suggests Nimrod, commonly associated with the Tower of Babel. If we consider the effort to build the Roman Republic a grand but arrogant, ultimately futile, and doomed project, seeking perfection on earth after the manner of the Tower of Babel, this card and the next might suggest the overall theme of the Sola Busca deck.

More than that is entailed, however. Nimrod, as founder and king of Babylon, is related to apocalyptic myth. "King of Babylon" is a title of the Antichrist. In discussing Nero, one interpretation of the seven "heads" of the Beast was given, based on the first Roman emperors. Another list of antichrists (rulers of Babylon) begins with Nimrod and ends with Nero:

  1. Nimrod: founder of ancient Babylonian empire; built the Tower of Babel.
  2. Shalmaneser V: king of Assyria and Babylonia 727-722; Shalmaneser was followed by the usurper Sargon II, (722-705), the Assyrian emperor who in 720 removed the ten tribes of Israel to various locations.
  3. Nebuchadnezzar: the greatest ruler of the neo-Babylonian empire; d.555; conquered Judah and took many Jews into the 70-year "Babylonian captivity"; destroyed the First Temple of Jerusalem.
  4. Cyrus the Great: founded the Persian empire in 550; conquered Babylon in 539; d.530; return of Jewish captives; support for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, completed in 515.
  5. Alexander the Great: ruler of Greece; conquered Persian empire 334-323;
  6. Nero: emperor of Rome; d.68; initiated Christian persecutions; Peter and Paul martyred; destruction of the Second Temple in 70 during the tribulations he began.
Antichrists of ancient Babylon, neo-Babylon, and Rome are represented in the trumps; the antichrists associated with the destruction of the Temple, and the Babylonian captivity; Nero is significantly numbered VIII, Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar as the highest trumps of the series. There would seem to be little doubt that this identification of Rome with Babylon is central to the meaning of the series, although the exact significance is not clear.
XXI NABUCHODENASOR
Nebuchadnezzar was the King of Babylon at the time the Jews were taken into the 70-year “Babylonian captivity”. XXI is the highest card in the sequence (as always, assuming that the numbering is meaningful) and yet it shows this nemesis of the Old Testament prophets. He was a great military man and a great builder. He’s shown on the card in all his sovereign glory – taking a nap. Perhaps a true republic is out of the question – the best you can hope for is a tyrant who’s fallen asleep.There is another reason, of course, for depicting the King asleep – from the Book of Daniel.

The Moral of the Story

Every picture (or series of pictures) tells a story, and in fifteenth-century Italy, every story had a moral. What might be the moral of a story about the Late Republic, an era of great political hopes and degraded, sleazy political reality? What is suggested by the series ending with XX showing the destruction of an ambitious, vain, and doomed project, and XXI showing a legendary tyrant who was humbled by God? Does the fact that the King is shown asleep imply the need for another Daniel, or does it suggest that the sequence of Roman eras is the fulfillment of the original Daniel's interpretation of the dream of the statue with feet of clay?

Selected References

Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization III: Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster, 1944. There are endless books including discussions of the Late Republic period, and many of them are even entertaining.

Kaplan, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Tarot. U.S. Games Systems Inc., 1978.

Dummett, Michael. The Game of Tarot. Duckworth, 1980.

Sofia Di Vincenzo, Sola Busca Tarot U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1998

Hildinger, Erik. Swords Against the Senate: The Rise of the Roman Army and the Fall of the Republic. Da Capo, 2002. This is a readable and detailed popular history of the precise subject of the Sola Busca trumps.

Prentice, Tea. Sola Busca Tarot Information. http://sword.lightspeed.bc.ca/hilander/sola/sola_info.htm. This is the source which inspired the present page. It includes images of all the cards from a reproduction deck.

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