Pietro Alligo et al, 2007 – review by EC
Publishers Lo Scarabeo arouse a variety of feelings among tarot aficionados. Their decks are immensely popular, but have their detractors; some feel they are too “commercial”; some feel their decks “stray too far” from “true tarot” – whatever that is; some feel their decks are too much alike one another (seeing a house style that to them seems to breed similarity – and it is true that you can usually spot a Lo Scarabeo deck in the crowd, if only by the multi-lingual titles !); some just seem to resent their success. But no-one can deny that they are the primary publishers of unusual tarot decks, and have taken many risks to put them on the market. And there can be no doubt that without their input, the tarot world would be much the poorer. Twenty Years of Tarot tells their story; it is captivating and fascinating, and in itself unusual.
The cover was a shock. I’d expected something far more colourful; it is beautifully understated in the extreme, and the reader is almost forcibly drawn to open it to see more. Inside, it is so lushly illustrated that it’s hard to concentrate on the text at first; the pictures draw you through. It is less of a book to be read from start to finish than a collection of very well illustrated essays. Each chapter in it – they are by a variety of authors – can stand alone. This has led in some areas to repetition of information, but I don’t find that matters at all; on the contrary, it means it is possible to immerse yourself totally in one chapter and not feel the need to check back on what was said many pages before. There is a degree of unevenness in quality and level of research, but again, with a number of different authors this is inevitable.
For me, a collector since long before they put out their first deck, it is also something of a trip down memory lane. I have many of the decks in my collection, and it was lovely to read The Story Behind The Dream, and learn how each deck came to be. I had had no idea of the story of Lo Scarabeo: that it was a dream for Pietro Alligo, the founder of the company – a multitalented man with a vision, for which he abandoned a successful career, and persuaded friends and associates to come on board his new venture. He was determined to write
“a new chapter …… in the long-standing history of tarot, making cards that blended esoteric culture with artistic research. In fact at that time, few publishers offered anything really new or interesting.”
I was already collecting by then; this is very true. I well remember the first Lo Scarabeo deck I ever saw – the Universali di Sergio Toppi. I went back to my dealer and bought all the others he had received by then. I knew these were something special.
One thing that shines through when reading this book is the passion and commitment of everyone in the company. The description of the deck creation process is fascinating; while it sounds a little like “deck by committee”, the details of the thought and planning that have gone into every single deck, including those rejected, beggars belief. The detractors who say that Lo Scarabeo just churn out anything they can to make money are clearly well off the mark. No-one can expect to like everything they do, but after reading this, no-one can doubt that this charge is totally unfair.
A Historical Path, a chapter by Giordano Berti, gives a thorough and solid history of tarot without being controversial – there are a number of theories and “facts” but his account is authoritative, interesting, and reads very well. I particularly enjoy the little details you’d never find elsewhere, such as the reference to “cheaper decks equivalent to a cobbler’s monthly salary” being produced for the Este court in the 15th century. Berti is also responsible for the fascinating chapter The Esoteric Path, tracing the rise of the use of tarot for esoteric purposes that began with de Gebelin.
Pietro Alligo’s chapter about the Waite-Smith First Edition and his search for its origins is lavishly illustrated, perhaps bringing a part of the history of the deck to life even more than the recent book by Frank Jensen (The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot) to which Alligo refers. And The Artistic Path describes the way Lo Scarabeo go about creating a “tribute “ deck to an individual artist – such as Botticelli, Da Vinci or Bosch. It is no mean feat to create a deck of this type while remaining true to tarot imagery and it had never occurred to me to wonder about the process by which this is achieved.
In this chapter, almost as a passing remark, is the statement:
“…the continuous adaptation of the twenty-two Major Arcana from the 15th century to the present shows how admirably this system can withstand endless transformations and reinterpretations that take the Arcana, in some cases, to the extreme limit of identifiability. This is why Lo Scarabeo is always asking: when can this transformation no longer be acceptable? In other words, when does a deck cease to be a tarot deck?”
There is also a reference to illustrated pip cards and the difficulty of balancing the absence of limits and adapting tarot to new themes against the risk of “losing the thread”. This is the line Lo Scarabeo has always walked so well; it underpins everything they do, and it is the attitude that has led to their pre-eminent position in tarot publication. The book shows in great detail the agonisingly thorough process by which they try to ensure that ever deck they produce is a “real tarot” – whatever that may be. Balance comes up again in A Cultural Path, where there is discussion of the need for translation of the archetypes of different cultures, and evocation of an appropriate state of mind for a culture – whether historical or ethnic. This, too, supports the idea that tarot is a living, evolving tradition, one which can illuminate other cultures, even including those we don’t know (like that of the Etruscans.)
And then there is the chapter about the decks which got away. Mark McElroy shows us decks which are not yet finished, describes a few ideas that are as yet little more than ideas, showcases some discarded versions of decks that were published – (some decisions I agree with; others I regret !) as well as one or two decks which a few enthusiasts are now clamouring to see completed…
In some areas the book does read a little like a catalogue, but it is impossible to avoid this when telling the story of so many decks, and it is no real problem. The company has issued more than a hundred, alongside a number of books, and to tell its history, it would be hard to decide which decks not to mention. As well as this, there is information on the link with Llewellyn in the US, Lo Scarabeo’s playing card department, their comic strip decks – there is so much information here that perhaps people should just buy the book than rely on a review.
One small thing that isn’t mentioned in the book is the number of names the company gave itself as publisher; I have decks from: Lo Scarabeo Fantastico, Lo Scarabeo Mignon, Lo Scarabeo Azzurro, Lo Scarabeo Fantastico, Lo Scarabeo Dell’Arte, Lo Scarabeo Bizzarro and Lo Scarabeo Antico, as well as a few published by “Ideogramma (Pietro Alligo)”. I would have liked to know more about this.
The only major flaw in the book is the rather large, I’m afraid, number of typographical errors, particularly in the captions for illustrations. Most are not serious and just irritate a bit, but the fact that there are so many slightly obscures the one serious one – the misspelling of Etteilla (as “Ettellia”) throughout one chapter, which does suggest an error by its author, rather than a typo. An index might have been useful – although in a book of 127 pages it might perhaps seem unnecessary, there were occasions that I would certainly have found one helpful. An appendix listing every deck produced, with dates, would have been nice, too.
This lovely book does just what it set out to do; it tells the story of one of the world’s favourite tarot publishers. It is a worthy “anniversary party” for a company that has a great deal to celebrate, The illustrations are excellent. And as I say, the passion for tarot shines through. It is also a valuable reference book, with a wealth of information beyond the story of Lo Scarabeo, and it paints an excellent picture of how Tarot, in general, is changing and evolving. Tarot is not set in stone, and if one company can be said to be pre-eminent in making sure that it never will be, that company is Lo Scarabeo.
This is a book that deserves to be popular among tarotists at all levels. Lo Scarabeo has done us and itself proud.
[review by E.C.]