The Game of Saturn

The Game of Saturn


Peter Mark Adams

Fine edition

Limited to 71 copies; bound in quarter black python and shantung with custom marbled endpapers, all edges red under gold, presented in a solander box
– Sold out

Standard hardback edition

Limited to 800 copies; bound in black shantung cloth with imperial purple endpapers
– Sold out

Bibliothèque Rouge edition

High quality paperback; isbn 3786393596
– £40

4to (280 × 222 mm)
320 pp
Extensively illustrated in full colour throughout

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The Game of Saturn is the first full length, scholarly study of the enigmatic Renaissance masterwork known as the Sola-Busca tarot. It reveals the existence of a pagan liturgical and ritual tradition active amongst members of the Renaissance elite and encoded within the deck. Beneath its beautifully decorated surface, its imagery ranges from the obscure to the grotesque; we encounter scenes of homoeroticism, wounding, immolation and decapitation redolent of hidden meanings, violent transformations and obscure rites.

For the first time in over five hundred years, the clues embedded within the cards reveal a dark Gnostic grimoire replete with pagan theurgical and astral magical rites. Careful analysis demonstrates that the presiding deity of this ‘cult object’ is none other than the Gnostic demiurge in its most archaic and violent form: the Afro-Levantine serpent-dragon, Ba’al Hammon, also known as Kronos and Saturn, though more notoriously as the biblical Moloch, the devourer of children.

Conveyed from Constantinople to Italy in the dying years of the Byzantine Empire, the pagan Platonist George Gemistos Plethon sought to ensure the survival of the living essence of Neoplatonic theurgy by transplanting it to the elite families of the Italian Renaissance. Within that violent and sorcerous milieu, Plethon’s vision of a theurgically enlightened elite mutated into its dark shadow – a Saturnian brotherhood, operating within a cosmology of predation, which sought to channel the draconian current to preserve elite wealth, power and control. This development marks the birth of an ‘illumined elite’ over three centuries before Adam Weishaupt’s ‘Illuminati.’ The deck captures the essence of this magical tradition and constitutes a Western terma whose talismanic properties may serve to establish an initiatory link with the current.

This work fully explores the historical context for the deck’s creation against the background of tense Ferrarese-Venetian diplomatic intrigue and espionage. The recovery of the deck’s encoded narratives constitutes a significant contribution to Renaissance scholarship, art history, tarot studies and the history of Western esotericism.



I · Decoding the Deck’s Hidden Symbolism
The deck’s structure and major themes
Hidden meanings and ancient lore
The esoteric worldview of the Renaissance elite
Planetary powers
The Alexandrian theme
The Babylonian theme
The Carthaginian thesis

II · The Rites of Ammon and the Cult of Saturn
The rites of Ammon
The Ferrarese cult of Saturn

III · Theurgy, Ritual Magic and Sorcery
The theory and practice of theurgy and magic
Sexual magic and alchemy

IV · Art, Diplomacy and Espionage
The deck’s origins
Diplomacy and espionage

V · Conclusions

i · Evidence that the Sola-Busca’s design was derived from a literary rather than an artistic blueprint
ii · Hidden codes and secret ciphers
iii · Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato



The Sola-Busca is the oldest complete tarocchi in existence. It is also one of the first to be produced using copperplate engraving, a fact that accounts for its high quality and fine detail. Dating from the late 15th century, it appears to have been commissioned by or for a Venetian patrician. It therefore offers a unique opportunity to explore certain heterodox and libertine currents within the culture of both the Ferrarese and Venetian elite at the height of Venice’s wealth and power. The deck has been carefully preserved and handed down from generation to generation for over five centuries. It received its designation from the surnames of its last private owners, the Marquise Antoinette Busca and her husband Count Andrea Sola-Cabiati. Purchased by the Italian Ministry of Culture and Heritage in 2009, it is now held at the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery in Milan.

Apart from its historical importance, the deck is significant on account of its intrinsic quality. A Renaissance masterwork, it is perhaps the finest tarocchi deck in conception and execution of this, or any other, age. The deck is also interesting for less obvious reasons. First and foremost, it is not what it represents itself to be. On the surface the trumps appear to depict figures from the Republican era of Roman history and the court cards, key figures from the life and times of Alexander the Great; but as we will see, both of these explanations merely serve to disguise the deck’s deeper layers of meaning. Uniquely for a tarocchi of this or any other age its imagery makes no reference whatsoever to Christianity – even the minimal reference of the traditional tarot theme of the Last Judgment is absent.

Playing cards were first introduced into Europe from the Islamic world at an unknown date. The earliest documented evidence of their presence occurs in the late 14th century. The cards are described as being composed of four suits: cups, polo sticks, swords and discs. Each suit consisted of ten numbered and three court cards. Tarocchi evolved from decks like this through the addition of a fifth suit of twenty-two trump cards. The word ‘trump’ is derived from ‘triumph,’ or trionfo in Italian, and indicates one of the major sources of the imagery used in their design. Triumphs, dating from ancient Rome, were civic processions in honour of a successful general. In the Middle Ages they were enacted to welcome visiting royalty and for major civic and religious festivities. These ideas were subsequently amplified by the addition of traditional themes such as depictions of the cardinal and theological virtues, astral and mythological figures and religious iconography.

By the 15th century the triumphal processions described in Dante’s Commedia, Boccaccio’s Amorosa Visione and Petrarch’s Trionfo increasingly appeared as themes in paintings. These representations added to the common stock of imagery to be drawn upon in the design of some of the earliest tarocchi. The existence of these stock images helps to explain the uniformity of imagery that we see in tarocchi across Europe.

In this respect, however, the Sola-Busca is quite idiosyncratic. For although the deck has the structure of a standard tarocchi – twenty-two trump cards, four suits each made up of ten numbered cards and four court cards for a total of seventy-eight cards – there, all resemblance to any other tarocchi begins and ends. Since the deck is divided into the three sections that characterise standard tarocchi (trumps, court cards and suit cards) we can briefly summarise the main features of each.

Regarding the trumps, with the possible exception of two cards, none of them shares any recognisable features, imagery or symbolism with any of the other ‘standard’ patterns of tarocchi. Instead, for the most part, they depict male military figures dressed in armour and, in many cases, bearing arms. Each trump has been provided with a name. Some of these names are recognisable family names from Roman history, others are completely unknown. But given the fact that certain Roman families dominated its political and military life for centuries, the names could relate to as many as a dozen different people spread over the course of five centuries. One of our tasks, therefore, is to try and see if we can narrow down which individual is being referred to by looking for any additional clues that the cards might have to offer. If we can isolate a specific individual we can then look at their biography for further leads to explain their presence in the deck. Some of the named trumps cannot be located in any of the popular historical accounts of Roman history, such as Livy’s History of Rome or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, and this fact constitutes another puzzle. Who or what do these figures represent? The various actions the figures are engaged in are also puzzling. The scenes depicted on the trumps range from the obscure to the grotesque, from unintelligible ritual gestures to scenes depicting wounding and decapitation. One trump (VIII Nerone) depicts a baby either being held over or thrown into the flames of a small fire. What exactly is going on here?

The court cards include names almost exclusively associated with the life and times of Alexander the Great. However, none of them reference the historical exploits for which he was renowned. Instead we are introduced to the tall tales and fantastic exploits of the Alexander Romance literature. Given the diversity and fantastic nature of these tales, what narrative, if any, connects the characters depicted in the deck?

Regarding the suit cards, the Sola-Busca is the first, and for the next five hundred years the only, tarocchi deck to feature fully illustrated suit cards. Each card is decorated with an imaginative theme involving the suit emblem. Some are suggestive of distinctly ‘alchemical’ operations, others involve mythical creatures, grotesqueries or people caught in strangely contorted poses. Still others display an unmistakably homoerotic content. On a historical note, photographs of the deck were displayed at the British Museum in 1907. They were viewed there by Pamela Colman Smith, the illustrator of the popular Waite-Smith tarot deck, who made them the basis for the design of some of that deck’s suit cards. These images have subsequently been carried forward to every deck derived from the Waite-Smith, which constitutes the vast majority of the tarot decks in use around the world today. In this way the influence of the Sola-Busca’s designs has, largely unknowingly, been perpetuated throughout the world.

This brief summary of some of the deck’s main features does not throw any light on the deck’s purpose, but it does allow us to form some conclusions about what the deck was not designed or used for. The deck’s homoerotic imagery, its ambiguities of identity and various gruesome scenes surely precluded its use either as an educational aid or a sumptuous wedding present. Given the fact that in the 15th century homosexual acts were criminal offences, some warranting capital punishment, this surely indicates that the deck was only ever meant for private viewing within an intimate circle. Finally, the deck’s near perfect condition after some five hundred years indicates that it was rarely, if ever, used for casual gaming.

The only conclusion that we can draw from these facts is that if, indeed, the deck is a tarocchi deck, it is utterly unique and needs to be approached on its own terms, rather than by comparison with other historical decks. Rather than working from established traditions of tarocchi iconography; it is as though the deck’s designer took a blank sheet of paper and started afresh to design a rich, complex, artefact utilising the broadest range of literary and historical sources; he then converted his design into unique images replete with linguistic puzzles and ambiguities and, ultimately, created a deck of gaming cards.

The primacy of literary and historical sources in the deck’s design

Describing the deck as primarily inspired by literary and historical, rather than artistic, sources provides us with a distinct perspective and approach to the interpretation of its imagery. Although the deck illustrates people and events from a number of key texts, the choice of names assigned to the cards, or combination of names and symbols, has in all cases been derived from sources which, by and large, lack imagery.

The literary nature of the deck is evidenced by the fact that it is possible to exchange many of the names assigned to both the trump and court cards with no loss of meaning whatsoever. In other words, the weight of reference within the deck is borne by the names assigned to the cards rather than by their imagery, which, in many cases, appears to serve a purely decorative purpose. This general rule does not apply, however, to a relatively small number of cards whose symbolic content and assigned names form a synthesis directing us beyond their associated historical and literary narratives towards a deeper, underlying worldview; and yet another distinctive group of cards that appear to depict ritual actions.

One of the stranger features of the deck is its repeated reference to Carthage. Carthage (the modern Tunis) was a city state founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BCE. Situated on the coast of North Africa, it commanded the narrow straits that separate Africa from Sicily and the eastern and western basins of the Mediterranean. With Rome’s continued southerly expansion into new territories conflicts of interest soon evolved into all-out warfare. In the 2nd to 3rd centuries BCE Rome and Carthage engaged in a series of three major wars, wars that inaugurated the Roman colonisation of North Africa.

Historical, Neoplatonic and Magical Texts

Many of the names assigned to the deck’s trump cards appear to have been derived from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, a text that was also used extensively by Shakespeare as source material for his Roman plays. Whereas Shakespeare selected characters whose narratives leant themselves to heroic dramatisation, in comparison the deck’s choice of names – including marginal, unknown and disreputable figures – is highly idiosyncratic; indeed, certain cards appear to ‘escape’ from any system of classification altogether. These facts alone should raise suspicion as to whether historicity was the determining factor behind their selection; but if it was not, how do we account for their presence?

This popular material has been supplemented by ideas traceable to Plato’s Timaeus, Cratylus and Republic as well as much more arcane astrological and Neoplatonic sources from late antiquity. These include Marcus Manilius’ Astronomica, Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs and one of the key Neoplatonic theurgical and magical texts, the Chaldean Oracles. A collection of second to 3rd century CE hexameter verses of obscure provenance, the Oracles were, nevertheless, held in the highest esteem – fully the equal of Plato’s Timaeus – within Neoplatonic tradition. Unlike many of the other sources referenced by the deck’s designer, the Oracles introduce a stream of practical theurgical and magical activity into the design of the deck’s imagery. Finally, we can add the key text of Renaissance astral magic, Picatrix, to an already rich mix. We will deal with these more obscure references as they arise in the course of our investigation. The existence of such learned references within the deck’s imagery should alert us to be on the lookout for some deeper, richer layer of meaning than is apparent from the surface imagery.

The design of the court cards is derived, in large part, from a long standing, popular, story-telling tradition known as the Alexander Romance literature. It consisted of collections of tall tales and fantastic exploits that grew up around the life of the historical Alexander the Great even before his death in the 4th century BCE. These tales coalesced to form a unique oral tradition of interlocking stories narrated by professional storytellers throughout the Levant and Middle East. It was only much later that they evolved into a literary genre whose popularity spread across Europe and continued well into the 17th century – a span of some two millennia. The deck’s designer has supplemented this material with additional narratives about Alexander the Great drawn from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (in Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans) and Morals as well as Cicero’s On Divination and Herodotus’ Histories.

The deck is, in effect, the translation of a set of philosophical, historical, literary and magical sources into a visual format; and it is for this reason that the deck lacks the distinctive imagery of conventional tarocchi iconography. These facts strongly suggest that the deck’s designer hailed from a background in Renaissance literary scholarship rather than the workmanlike disciplines of the Renaissance artist. In addition, the range and depth of the deck’s references suggest a polymath with ready access to a large number of high quality texts, texts that would only have been found in one of the fine libraries of the Renaissance elite – such as that of the ancient ducal d’Este family in Ferrara where the deck originated.

The outcome of the unknown designer’s research and the technical skills of his executor was a masterwork of Renaissance craftsmanship. But given the time, money and ingenuity expended on its creation, the deck clearly served some important purpose; but if so, what was it? Was it merely a rich man’s folly, the product of eccentric scholarship and the wealth necessary to realise it in this elaborate form? It is not possible to dismiss the deck quite so easily. There are six main reasons for suspecting that it served a deeper purpose:

Firstly, the cards took considerable time and expense to design, create and decorate. We know that their production took place in Ferrara and that the client was a Venetian patrician. Between 1482 and 1484 Ferrara and Venice had been involved in a debilitating war. In the post-war environment anti-Venetian feelings were running high. Tense diplomatic negotiations were ongoing in the years leading up to the supposed year of the deck’s completion in 1491. We need to interrogate this historical background before we casually assign a reason for the deck’s existence.

Secondly, as we noted, the explanation that the trumps depict ‘illustrious Romans’ does not stand up to scrutiny. Even a cursory glance at Roman history reveals that there are major omissions amongst the historical figures; and some of the figures who are identifiable in Roman history are not illustrious at all – in fact quite the reverse. Others cannot be located in any history of Rome, whilst some are not even Roman, let alone illustrious. With this curious and unbalanced selection of figures in the most prominent suit, what message was the deck trying to communicate?

Thirdly, certain trumps include imagery that is clearly symbolic rather than representational. We will need to pay careful attention to the deck’s symbolic language if we are to have any chance of understanding it.

Fourthly, the explanation that the court cards depict the life and times of Alexander the Great also fails since the cards make almost no reference to anything Alexander the Great actually did or was known for. Instead, two cards reference his purely mythical exploits – flying in a chariot drawn by gryphons and killing the basilisk. We need to establish what underlying narrative connects the nine cards that are obscurely connected to Alexander.

Fifthly, some of the cards depict hermetic emblems and mythical beings or hint at obscure alchemical processes. Although this layer of symbolism forms an attractive subtext, it is fragmentary, disjointed and lacks narrative continuity. This is not the case with most contemporary illuminated alchemical texts – for example the early 15th century Book of the Holy Trinity. Their rich, though obscure, nature does at least retain the sense of a definitive narrative movement characteristic of a process possessing a well-defined beginning, middle and end. There is, therefore, a possibility that some portion of the deck’s symbolic richness was included to hint at the existence of some deeper layer of meaning whilst at the same time deflecting attention away from its precise nature.

Sixthly, the existence of unpainted cards in a handful of collections scattered across Europe provides evidence that more than one copy of the deck was printed from the engraving plates. Apart from the one complete and painted deck held in Milan, four unpainted cards are held at each of the following locations: the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, the British Museum in London and the Petit Palais in Paris. A further twenty-three unpainted cards are held by the Albertina Museum in Vienna. Given the absence of any other complete decks, it would appear that only a small number of copies of this deck ever existed and of these still fewer, perhaps only one, were ever completed by being painted. The existence and curious pattern of distribution of these cards suggests that the one painted deck that we call the ‘Sola-Busca’ is only one piece of a much larger puzzle concerning the intent and target audience of the deck’s designer.

Overall, very little is known about the deck itself – the circumstances of its creation, its purpose or who designed it. My own research reveals that its conceptual design involved the creation of a complex system of multi-layered symbolism derived from classical philosophical, literary, historical and astrological sources. Whilst the copperplate engravings used to print the deck were undertaken by a noted Ferrarese artist, its design bears all of the hallmarks of a sophisticated, learned and wide-ranging intellect; one fully capable of satisfying the discriminating taste of an elite and highly educated clientele.

Although we do not know who painted the one full surviving deck, the deck appears to have been completed by 1491. That said, we have no idea when it was designed or how long the process took. Given the complex web of interrelations that exists within its imagery, it would have required significant effort over some considerable period of time to arrange all of the references and translate them into a consistent pattern of imagery before the artistic process of drafting and engraving could even commence.

The Sola-Busca tarocchi therefore stands alone – an obstinately opaque artwork on the borders of mainstream awareness. Even after prolonged study the deck retains its strangeness, its sense of being, stubbornly and irredeemably, odd. Why, then, should we spend time on it? The quality of its design and execution are first rate. It is enigmatic, a challenge to those who cannot refrain from arcane pursuits through the literary, historical and esoteric thickets of the past. There has obviously been considerable knowledge, time and money spent on its creation. Its survival over the course of five hundred years means that it has been cared for and protected as it passed, unscathed, through the turbulence of the centuries to arrive, today, in a near pristine state. That alone is remarkable. But there is about the deck another quality, one that, after initially disregarding it, repeatedly draws your attention until the style and imagery begin to take root and colonise some part of your awareness. The deck occupies its own, self-defined zone of meaning; one constituted from the shards of historical and literary narratives spanning millennia but carefully positioned to simultaneously suggest, and obscure, some deeper, more exacting zone of psycho-spiritual turbulence. From these uncertain beginnings themes will begin to emerge, to coalesce, and then to solidify. Slowly the treasure box will open a little and begin to divulge its secrets. This book is a treasure hunt through the multiple folds and blinds of this Renaissance masterwork. Too late, you may at some point begin to realise that this treasure casket is, in fact, Pandora’s box.