Some Old Italian Tarot Decks

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

It is practically impossible to bridge the chasm between the abandonment of the actual and open worship of Mercury in his own temples to the transference of his heraldic emblems to the unbound leaves of a book that could be concealed on the persons of his priests, for doubtless the rites of Mercury were practised privately for many years by people who had every motive for concealment; and since there was no law against these secret practices, there is no record of their having been broken, no ordinance concerning games of cards or fortune-telling, and no official record pointing directly to cards under the name now generally given them. What may be recorded concerning the priests of the cult of Mercury remains to be discovered.

Nor can we date the period when these same leaves came to be regarded as affording amusement, or from being wholly in the hands of initiated persons and regarded as a vehicle for consulting the wishes of the deities, they fell into the possession of soothsayers or unscrupulous fortune-tellers, who did not hold the interpreting key and made improper uses of the ancient Book of Thoth.

Nor, again, is there any record of when cards became the tools of gamblers, who used them for games of chance, although their consultation might always have partaken of the elements of “chance,” but in a very different way.

However, it is well known that the introduction of Christianity into Rome gradually caused the deities of Olympus to be disregarded, so that those who still worshipped the gods of their ancestors did so in secret, and when St. Paul set foot at Pozzuoli, close to the temples of Osiris and Mercury, the first step was taken towards the downfall of the ancient rites.

It is quite natural, therefore, that writers on the origin and history of Playing Cards have found no record of their invention, no monument to their inventor, and no cradle at their birthplace, since they looked solely for the cards that were familiar to them and for games played with those cards, while they failed to recognise that the cards were part of a cult and were the heraldic emblems of Mercury (as displayed on the pip cards) and those of ancient Egyptian gods (as depicted on the Atouts), and, therefore, these writers declare that no link exists between the Italian Tarots of the present day and the great Book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus, while they acknowledge that Playing Cards owe their invention to the Egyptians, who, having inherited the “men portrayed upon the walls” from the Babylonians and the traditions of Nebo, “the one who writes the tablets of fate,” elaborated the ceremonies, simplified their code, and introduced them to Europe, first through the priests of the Serapeon, and then, by means of the Tarots, to other parts of the world.

Some claim that the gypsies were originally the initiates of the temple of Thoth, and that it was they who carried Playing Cards as a means of divination through Europe. One of their customs is to demand that the palm of the right hand be crossed with a piece of money before beginning to read a fortune; and by some this custom is supposed to date from the time when the fortune-teller demanded from his clients an oath of secrecy, which was ratified by making the sign of the cross. Unless there was some such meaning originally attached to the custom, there would seem to be no reason for this performance being enacted in connection with fortune-telling with cards, and as far as is known with no other transaction in the commercial or nomadic world.

There are many signs suggesting that the gypsies were able to translate the symbols on the cards at an early date, soon after they appeared in Europe, and it is certain that for several centuries these nomads have used Playing Cards for telling future, past, or present events, and have done it with so much self-confidence that it would seem that they possessed a key to the occult mysteries. It is, therefore, unwise to discard this theory entirely, for the gypsy tribes scattered over Europe certainly aided in widely distributing the cards. Nor does the connection of gypsies with the ancient mysteries quarrel with the statement that cards were part of the worship of Mercury, since no man can say that these people were not the original priests of the temple who were cast out of their shrines and forced to wander about the world. In England these nomads are frequently called the Egyptians, while their own name for themselves is Romany.

Spain has contended with Italy for the honour of originating Playing Cards, but without proving her case, for Spain preserved only a mutilated pack of pip cards, showing the symbols of Mercury, indeed, but unaccompanied by the emblematic Atouts that were the first volume of the book; these have never been known in that country. But, then, Spain was not the home of the gods of Olympus, nor was that country in close contact with Egypt, as was Italy. There is no historic record of yearly communications between the two opposite shores of the great sea, as is the case with Italy, for Seneca has left an interesting description of the great fleet from Alexandria that yearly visited Pozzuoli, on the bay of Naples.

These vessels carried not only wares, but merchants and missionaries, from the great seats of learning at the temples of Egypt. The priests of those days were not necessarily religious men, but they were scholars and scientists, who thought that their best use in the world was the diffusion of their learning and knowledge.

Since it is clearly established that the worship of Serapis, Thoth, and Mercury was followed at Pozzuoli from a very early date, preceding Christianity, it may be conceded that the people there were imbued with the appreciation of its mysteries and adored them. When Christianity refuted the doctrines of the heathen gods, those who followed the ancient rites were forced to conceal them. Hence it is that if Playing Cards are derived from this mysterious worship, through which they consulted the wishes of their gods, no trace of them can be found in the legal records before the middle of the fourteenth century, when the cards were established as a game but not as a cult.

Count Emiliano di Parravicino, in his essay on Tarocco cards in the Burlington Magazine for December, 1903, declares that professional players or teachers, known as barrattieri or rabildi, were organized in guilds that were recognised by law as early as the beginning of the thirteenth century, which seems as if the deposed initiates, or the priests of Mercury, were still vital and a recognised necessity, although under a new title.

Happily for the card student, there still remain several packs of Italian cards that link the present ones with the ancient emblems of Mercury. The ducal family of Visconti inherited sixty-one cards that originally belonged to Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, having been executed for him by Marziano da Tortona early in the fifteenth century. These were mentioned by Breitkopf in his work published at Leipsic in 1784. This pack differs from its compatriots and successors in having five, instead of four, court cards. The Atouts are beautifully painted with all the attributes connected with Mercury. That of “the Lovers,” No. VI, represents Duke Filippo Maria wearing a broad-brimmed hat on which is inscribed “A bon Droit”; the female figure is dressed as a bride and is probably a likeness of the Duke’s first wife, Beatrice di Tenda, the widow of Francisco Cane. These figures are surrounded with small shields blazoning the arms of Visconti and Pavia.

Among these Atouts No. XIII, Death, is represented on a black, instead of on a white, horse. The figures on the other cards resemble those still commonly used, but, unfortunately, there are fifteen cards missing from the pack. This historic collection of Tarots has been frequently described and reproduced, since Marziano da Tortona, who executed the pictures, was a scholar, as well as a skillful artist. He introduced some original features in his treatment of the pictures while strictly conforming to the heraldic devices that marked their origin, for no man living at that time would be ignorant enough to change the devices, since they still told their story to the people of the day, who understood heraldry even if they could not decipher written words.

This celebrated pack of cards was probably a wedding gift to the illustrious couple, since the artist was also their secretary. That it was prized, but little handled, and kept as a work of art is proved by the good condition of the pictures, which are almost as fresh as when they left the hands of the designer. They are treasured possessions of the descendants of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti and are seldom allowed to be seen or exhibited.

Another interesting collection of early Tarocci (little Tarots) is described by Count di Parravicino, who states that the pack was painted early in the fifteenth century by a Ferrarese artist named Antonio Cicognara. These cards have been owned in one family several centuries with an authentic history of them, for in the annals of Cremona, written by Domenico Bordegallo, is found the following reference to the pack:

“1484. In this year our townsman, Antonio di Cicognara, a most skillful painter of pictures and an admirable miniaturist, designed and illuminated a magnificent pack of cards called Tarots, which have been seen by me, and he made a present of them to the most honorable, reverend, and illustrious Lord Ascanio M. Sforza, Cardinal of the Holy Church, Bishop of Pavia and Novara, at one time dean of our cathedral and now commendatory of the canons of St. Gregory, and son of the most illustrious and excellent Francesco Sforza and the Lady Bianca Visconti, born here in Cremona.”

“The same artist,” states Count di Parravicino, “illustrated other packs for the sisters of this Cardinal. They were nuns in the Augustine Convent founded in this town by the aforesaid Madonna Bianca.”

This naïve record of the amusements of the religious communities of the fifteenth century presents a novel picture to the minds of those who suppose that cards were not permitted within the sacred precincts, although such was not the case, as is confirmed by a proverb of the day that says “Mind what the friar says, not what he does.”

The Tarocco cards were thus called from the game “Little Tarots” or “Tarocci,” played at the time, said to have been invented by Francis Fibbia. Thus the older name of Tarots became corrupted to Tarocco, although the number and value of the original pack remained unaltered.

The cards painted for Cardinal Sforza are still in existence. Some are shown in the Carrara Museum at Bergamo; others are in the possession of Count Alessandro Colleoni; while thirty-five cards of this pack are owned by Mr. Pierpont Morgan and are exhibited by him in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

It is impossible to do justice to the beauty of this set of cards that are painted in the most delicate manner. The background is of gold picked out or embossed with a diapered pattern dotted in raised designs on a smooth surface; the figures are cleverly moddeled and beautifully executed; the faces are painted with the delicate touch of an accomplished miniaturist. That of the Knave of Money is seen in profile, and is so expressive that it is probably a likeness, since the treatment is even more careful and the features better drawn than those of most of the Atouts.

The Knight of Cups in the pack (originally owned by Count Alessandro Colleoni, now owned by Mr. Morgan) is mounted on a white horse and is dressed in an embroidered coat, with white leggings and pointed shoes. The hair is parted and falls in waves on either side of the face, which is that of a very young boy and rather effeminate. There is a crown on the saddle-cloth of the horse that probably denotes the rank of the rider.

The King of Swords also seems to be a likeness. He wears black armour, and his shield displays armorial bearings. The Queen of Money has a beautifully embroidered robe with a regal mantle falling from her shoulders. Her hands are particularly well drawn and her attitude is remarkably graceful.

Temperance, Death, and Strength are among this pack, the former pouring the water and oil together, which is one of the earliest known devices for consulting the wishes of the gods. Death is the usual skeleton, who in this case bears a sceptre, and Strength also repeats the emblem of the sceptre or the caduceus.


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved