A Tarot Portrait by K. Frank Jensen

Self portrait - Elisabetta Cassari

`Morbid`, `Bloody`, `Perverted`, `Depraved` are words I often hear about Elisabetta Cassari's tarot decks from a large tarot audience, who prefer butterflies, flowers and unicorns depicted on their tarot decks. Let me say it directly: I'm an admirer of Elisabetta Cassari's work. She is my top favorite tarot artist among a number of other favorites. I like her tarot decks. I find them artistic and interesting in all ways, reflecting the artist's feelings about the modern society that surrounds her. It is not an idealized and romanticized picture of the world we live in, like we find it in many modern tarot decks; Cassari`s tarots show us our modern political world, as it is in reality.

35 years old Elisabetta Cassari (1990) is herself not astonished by this characterization. It is true, that her art is morbid, she says. And she does not find it being a negative trait, rather the contrary. As for the apparent sadistic and masochistic traits in her art, Elisabetta Cassari acknowledges, that creativity is a form of psychotherapy; these traits are not more alien to her nature, than they are, more or less, to most human beings. Elisabetta is, however, of the opinion that she express her feelings at best through her art proper. Explanations and intellectual interpretations she prefers to leave to the onlooker.

Elisabetta Cassari's Toy Theater As a source of inspiration for her art, she tells me, that she is attracted to the visual expressions, which can be found in medieval and ancient books dealing with magic, demonology and the like. She is interested in esotericism and parapsychology, but her attraction is mainly to the visual and aesthetic expressions of the themes. She has created several tarot decks, but is not herself a tarot reader; she finds that it must be extremely difficult to do that well. Elisabetta is mainly attracted to tarot as an artistic and aesthetic art form, an attraction that has led her to create a graphic imagery of a world, in which we can recognize traits of our own lives and surroundings. The only books dealing with tarot she has ever read are Oswald Wirth's "The Tarot of the Magicians" and Italo Calvinos "Castle of Crossed Destiny". It doesn't seem that any of the modern American writers on tarot are translated into Italian, and she has therefore not read works by Mary Greer, Rachel Pollack or any other contemporary tarot writer. As for tarot decks, Elisabetta prefers the ancient traditional packs. She owns a number of the decks published by Edition Solleone, but there is no particular deck she feels has been an inspiration for her.

Elisabetta Cassari has a formal art education from the Brera Academy of Milan, but she is also an art teacher in a secondary school. She finds that her art goes along very well with her teaching, and that even her particular style sometimes fits into the school work. She does not want to define herself as primarily an artist, but she considers the school work to be her profession, a profession that allows her enough spare time and the necessary economical basis to practice and cultivate her art.

Apart from working with drawings and paintings, Elisabetta Cassari has also experimented with pyrographic art*), of which she recently had an exhibition in Sicily. She also likes sculpturing, and especially working with masks and puppets, because they also give the possibility to work with colors at the same time. Like Pamela Colman Smith she made her own toy theatre to use with the puppets, as well as making illustrations for fairy tales. Elisabetta has so far not aimed at having her works published, nor has she been particularly interested in being represented in galleries or collections. She however, feels that this attitude of hers has changed lately, so maybe we will see more of her works in the future.

Pyrographic art for a poem I have asked Elisabetta if she ever rendered herself as a person in one or more of her tarot decks. The question became obvious to me, when I, at one of my tarot workshops illustrated by slides, showed Il Mondo (The World) from "Gli Arcani di Elisabetta"; this card depicts an execution attended by numerous people. One of them is looking away from the execution scene, and instead looks directly at us. I got the idea, that this was actually a self-portrait of Elisabetta. I asked her, but it was not; actually she was not sure if the figure was a woman at all. So instead she kindly sent me the self-portrait shown at the top of this article: Elisabetta in her world of tarot, surrounded by her tarot figures.

For the benefit of our astrological minded readers I also asked Elisabetta about her attitude towards astrology. She does not believe very much in it, she says, but in spite of that she will characterize herself as an Aquarius character with a Gemini ascendant and Moon in Scorpio. So the astrologers amongst our readers now can decide by themselves if that is compatible with Elisabetta's artwork!

Elisabetta Cassari created three tarot decks: `Solleone Tarot` (1983), `Gli Arcani di Elisabetta` (1986) and `Future Solleone Tarot` (1987). All three decks were published by the Italian publisher and collector, Vito Arienti who, with his series `Editions Solleone', has made numerous modern tarot and playing cards and reprints of historical packs accessible to the tarotist and collector. It was Vito Arienti, who introduced not only Elisabetta Cassari but also Amerigo Folchi to tarot and encouraged them in their careers as tarot artists.

The Solleone Tarot - Hierophant

The Solleone Tarot

Not many cards in the major arcana of "Solleone Tarot" resemble the traditional tarot figures. The four power figures, The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor and the Hierophant are far from the figures, which traditionally are considered representative for the secular and the ecclesiastical powers of this world. Elisabetta's four representatives are blood-dripping symbols of evil. The Emperor, who gained his power through suppression, The Pope on his throne, a symbol of corruption, giving the sign of victory with his fingers; a victory won by bloodshed and help from the devilish forces that surround him. The female figures are not the usual symbols of fertility or control of wisdom. Also they are evil, powerful, have gained their power with help of the familiars, the beasts representing evil, that surround them. Elisabetta states that the female figure, looking like a witch and sometimes shown with a broomstick, which frequently appears in her decks, is neither to be considered as the witch from the fairy tales nor as a witch in pact with the devil. It is the one representation of the feminine, that frightened the church and resulted in the witch trials. On my question about modern witchcraft and covens in Italy, Elisabetta tells us, that particularly the area around Torino is known for being the domicile for such; she has however no further knowledge of their activities.

Justice The Wheel Elisabetta's major arcana is in general blood-dripping. It represents the governing classes. Justice is suppressed, blindfolded, a string puppet controlled by influential people of the society. Strength is not strength obtained by inner balance, it is strength expressed through raw violence. Temperance is turned to greed and desire. The scientists are selling their souls to Mephistopheles. The Magician has lost contact with the higher forces. The Wheel of Fortune has no balance; you are sold out. Minor arcana shows us the victims of this rulership and its influence. The coin or pentacle suit shows how money came to rule the world. It is a story of greed and treachery, of bribery and swindling. The sword suit is again pictures of the blood-dripping suppression. The wands are the heavy burdens carried by the ordinary people, and yet there are attempts of resistance, but doomed to failure. The cups are filled up with blood. Only in the ten of cups a poor woman is trying to wash them clean.

The Devil 2 of Wands 10 of Cups 6 of Pentacles

Future Solleone Tarot

In her next tarot, 'Future Solleone Tarot', Elisabetta Cassari has changed the scene. We are now in a future universe, which starts with Chaos, the name of the first card in the major arcana. The first five cards give us a shortened version of Genesis: 1:Chaos, 2:Light, 3:Aurora, 4:Reptiles and Fishes, 5:The Human Beings. And then we are in it again: 6: The Tyrant. and 7: The People. The rest of the major arcana depicts some familiar tarot titles, like Justice(8) The Hermit(9), Wheel of Fortune(10), Strength(11), The Death(13), The Star(17) but also some new cards: The Holy Man(12), Il Riposo/Rest, (14), The Male Genio(15), The Sky(16), Matrimony(18), The Atom(19), The Final Judgement(20), Melancoly(21) and Peace(22).

Future Solleone Tarot - Genesis Future Solleone Tarot - Elements

We are settled in a future universe, crowded with astronauts in spacesuits and aliens and computers, but history repeats itself. The tyrants rise above the people. Justice is practiced by computers, Strength is raw force. Only through Death man can free himself from the suppressing uniformity. The `Genio Del Male' takes on a cloak, but his spacesuit can not be hidden. Astronauts are conquering the Heaven of the Angels, and the spaceship gets close to the stars. Marriage is entered, not to the church but to the computer. The meeting with the atom leads to the final end, and the following melancholic state. Is the last card in the series of major arcana "Il Pazzo", the Hope that Elisabetta sees for the future? The figures of the cards are all in space suits, bristling with bloodstains, or is it just their artificial veins we can see? Their gender is not recognizable. They are anonymous people acting like string puppets. Even the computers appear to be bleeding.

Future Solleone Tarot 5 & 20

The four minor suits of the `Future Solleone Tarot' are devoted to the four elements, and are depicting daily life activities and situations for this strange race of astronauts and their alien co-workers. We find traditional fortune-telling card titles like Family, Love, Artistic Success, Disorder, Loneliness, Travel, Death, Hope, Work and Letter among the names of the forty cards. While the air suit still shows us the astronauts, the other suits depict strange creatures, like the scaled beings of the Water-suit.

Gli Arcani di Elisabetta The third deck is "Gli Arcani di Elisabetta", a deck that in several ways differs from the preceding ones. It is a limited edition of only 99 packs, published in 1986 by Edizioni del Solleone. The 22 cards plus the title card are all hand colored by the artist**). The packing also bears witness to the deck being exclusive. The cards are stored in a cardboard cassette, which in turn is placed in a box composed of cork and vinyl printed with gold. I consider "Gli Arcani di Elisabetta" to be my favorite among Elisabetta's tarots. The style of the drawings is very Cassari-like, but since due regard was taken to the subsequent hand coloring (I know from experience what a tremendous job it is to hand color one hundred major arcana sets) the final result is a deck cleaned of unnecessary details, a deck leaving you with only the essential symbols. I see this deck as the synthesis of Elisabetta Cassari's work of expressing the world as she sees it through a framework of ancient allegorical pictures.

Gli Arcani di Elisabetta - Hierophant Gli Arcani di Elisabetta - Temperance

In "Gli Arcani di Elisabetta" we recover the corrupt abuse of power, the blood, the violence, the suppression, the restraint, the despair, the impotence, and still the tiny glints of rebellion. Elisabetta's world is definitely not a happy world. It is the world we live in.

Gli Arcani di Elisabetta - The Star

Apart from these three tarot decks, Elisabetta Cassari has worked on others, which however, were not printed, but drawn and painted by hand. One of them, 'The Alphabetical Tarot' is, together with a cartomancy deck `Sibilla', for the time being on loan from Mr. Arienti to the exhibition `Tarot Art' at `Deutsches Spielkarten Museum'. I would have liked to have shown you cards from these decks, but due to the exhibition, they are not available. Instead I'll present `Il Diavolo' from another unpublished deck, actually the very first tarot deck Elisabetta made, a deck inspired by Oswald Wirth's tarot.

`Il Diavolo' Recently another full set of majors were painted in acrylics on a large cardboard, centered around another (likely) self-portrait of the artist. Elisabetta generously allowed this illustration to be reproduced as a full color page with this article (see the end of this article).

Elisabetta Cassari has not finished working with the tarot***). She feels that there are still manifold possibilities to be explored. She has many ideas in mind, but she has not yet settled on the theme for the next deck. The planning stage has a long duration, but once finished planning, the actual artistic execution is a fast process, she says. We have something to look forward to!

While the Visconti Sforza Tarot gave us a picture of the Renaissance society, Elisabetta Cassari`s tarot gives us a picture of our society. How did we get that far out? The tarot world would have been much poorer without Elisabetta Cassari's personal versions. Elisabetta's decks are her visions; we do lack visions in the majority of modern tarot decks. Elisabetta`s decks are artworks on their own premises, free of the influence of Pamela Colman Smith, which ride so many commercial tarot illustrators nowadays.

Full set of Majors surrounding a self portrait

First published in Manteia #3, April 1990.
Here with minor revisions and extra illustrations added.

*) Pyrographic art - illustrations burned into wood

**) Elisabetta Cassari's hand coloring of the planned 99 decks stopped somewhere along the line; to color 99 x 23 cards by hand is a lengthy and extremely tedious affair. The demand for the, naturally rather costly deck, was probably too low at the time. The remaining decks were later sold without colors.

***) I attempted to contact Elisabetta Cassari several times during the last few years, but in vain. I have not been able to locate her. Not even Vito Arienti shortly before his death, knew her present address, nor did other people I contacted. Unconfirmed rumors say, that Cassari left Italy and moved to France or Spain (likely the latter since she speaks Spanish). If anyone knows about her current whereabouts, I'll be pleased to learn about them!

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