Painting the Sphinx
The Harmonious Work of Warwick Goble (1862-1943)
From Triumphs to Tarots
The Essence of Erotica
EMG News for July
From Triumphs to TarotsMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Last month we went through the origin and early history of playing cards, up to the first known (and in-part surviving) deck of Tarot cards, the Cary-Yale deck. We also saw how iconography of the deck gives us a rather precise term for a date of production: between 1442 and 1447, the last years of the Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, a well known lover of card games.
Those acquainted with the modern Tarots will notice some anomalies in the Visconti deck. For one, all three Theological Virtues are represented (faith is still present in some other ancient decks, hope and charity aren’t); there are six court cards instead of four: King, Queen, Knight, Lady on horseback, Page and Handmaiden; and in place of the club suite we find lances.
There are no other known decks sharing these specific elements, so it is possible that the Visconti Tarots were a first attempt to create a new game, later abandoned.
The Brambilla deck, in the Pinacoteca di Brera museum (Milan, Italy) was made in the same years as the Visconti Cary-Yale deck. Only forty-eight cards survive, among those two triumphs: the Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune, but it is enough to see that the build of the two decks was different.
One thing is sure, though: at some point a set of ‘special cards’, the triumphs (later to become trumps in English) was added to the already existing ‘common set’ of playing cards to produce something different that became known as Trionfi (the Triumphs).
Where does the term Triumph, used in the XV century for the allegorical Tarot cards and, in general, for the Tarot decks, come from?
The short answer is “We don’t know for sure."
Some say it is because in play the Triumph cards always win over Court cards and Numerals. Others think that the allegories were taken from those represented in the triumphal processions noble families often organized when coming into power or holding other important celebrations -- processions that, in the Renaissance were invested with allegorical meanings.
Yet others see a possible link to the Triumphi, a poem written by Francesco Petrarca(1) between 1352 and 1374, In fact, the six Triumphi poems are often accompanied by images very similar to some triumph cards. We also know that in the 15th Century there was an illustrated game called Game of Petrarca’s Triumphs. Sadly, only the name has survived.
What we do know is that the allegorical cards (triumphs, or Major Arcana, as you will), draw from a pool of iconography very common in the 14th and 15th centuries. The virtues, the devil, death and the judgement were often painted or sculpted in churches. The wheel of fortune was also a popular moral image. The fool, the magician (in Italian, il bagatto, and in French, le bateleur, meaning a performer of sleight-of-hand juggler), the pope, the emperor, the lovers and the hermit were allegories of the different human conditions. The moon and the sun could be seen almost everywhere, often with the representation of the cycle of the months, so nothing here points to a more remote or non-European origin.
The oldest remaining decks are all Italian, besides the already mentioned ones we have, for instance the Visconti-Sforza deck (seventy-four surviving cards also known as the Colleoni-Baglioni or the Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo deck), dated 1450-51. Moreover, we know of at least one bottega (2) in Cremona, that of painter Bonifacio Bembo, that was renowned for its Triumph decks. Many decks from the late 15th century remain in museums and private collections. Many are evidently inspired from (if not outright copies of) the Visconti-Sforza deck, but often are in part adapted to the needs of the specific noble family who commissioned the deck, so we see imprese and coat-of-arms of the most notable aristocratic families of the time in Northern Italy.
In the second half of the 15th century, Triumph decks were produced in great number (a register of taxes in Bologna mentions for a single manufacturer from 250 to 375 decks per month). In those cards, the linework was printed and then the cards were painted (by hand for the mid-quality decks; with a sponge and the help of masks for lower quality decks). Rare examples of this kind of cards survive. Being produced for the mass-market, they were made of inferior-quality paper. Moreover, these decks were ‘working’ ones made for players, inns and taverns, and were discarded or burned when use made them un-playable.
Many books on the esoteric history of tarots mention decks being burned by the hundreds by preachers as tools of the devil, supposedly because of their value as instruments of mystical, hidden knowledge. While the destruction is true and easily documented, the actual reason, also easily documented by looking at transcripts of homilies or city chronicles of the time, is a bit different and way more down to earth. Triumph cards, other playing cards, dice and backgammon tables were seen as diabolical tools, instrumental to addictive gambling, laziness, drunkenness and violence.
We can have an idea of the diffusion of games of chance and gambling by the fact that, following a homily in 1452 in Nurnberg, 3,640 backgammon tables, 40,000 dice and ‘a great quantity’ of playing card were destroyed (3).
In a document of the Ferrara court dated 1516 we read of a courtesan having been charged with buying dua para de Tarocchi da mandare a Belfiore (‘two decks of Tarots to be sent to Belfiore’ one of the country residences of the Dukes). That is the first documented occurrence of the word Tarocchi that would later totally replace the earlier Trionfi (Triumphs). What does Tarocchi mean?
Court de Gebelin had the word derived from Ta-ros (the real path of life), or from Ta-Rosh (Hermes’ doctrine). Eliphas Levi in the following century suggested an etymological link with Torah, quoting the fact that the Triumph cards (that he was the first to call Major Arcana) are twenty-two, just like the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. More recent opinions link tarocchi to the Arab word tariqua, meaning ‘path’.
In old Italian, though, and in some northern Italian dialects, taroccare means to quarrel loudly and, in some occurrences to swindle (4), and when we find the name in early authors it is always linked to a low opinion of the game and of the players, seen as gullible and card-sharks-bait.
That is all for this month. In my next (and last) tarot-themed column, we’ll explore the gipsy-connection and the fortune of Tarots in the esoteric milieu.
(1) Francesco Petrarca, Italian poet (1304 – 1374)
(2) In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a bottega was an artisan’s workshop (painters and artists in general, no matter how famous or sought after, were classed as artisans). The term was meant to include a master and his apprentices.
(3) Data taken from Storia dei Tarocchi, Giordano Berti, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore 2007.
(4) In current Italian, saying that something is tarocco or taroccato means it’s a fake or forged.
Four cards from the Visconti-Sforza (aka Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo) deck from Wikipedia (image is in the common domain); the Devil is a modern reproduction of a missing card.
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