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The Boiardo 15th c Poem
Tarot history in brief

quotations from various people

Functions of Readings
What is Tarot?


Med. on XVIIII

Emily E. Auger

Tarot and Other Meditation Decks

L. Atkinson

Orphalese Software review

S. Arwen

Memory & Instinct

Kathy Berkowitz

Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 1)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 2)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 3)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 4)

Nina L. Braden

Tarot in Literature

David Brice

Birth of Tarot

Colin Browne

Square & Compasses Tarot

Lee A. Bursten

Journeys in Tarot Creation
Vachetta review


Review: The Lo Scarabeo Story

Ross G. Caldwell

Tarot History

Bonnie Cehovet

Tarology - Poetics of Tarot
Review: Secret of Tarot
The Mystereum Tarot

N. Chishty-Mujahid

Concerning Ghisi’s Laberinto

Craig Conley

A House of Tarot Cards

A.B. Crowther

Rachel Pollack interview

Jean-Michel David

On Paneurythmy and Tarot
Tarot's expression of the numinous
Yarker, Tarot & Arcane Schools
Waite-Smith Sun card
The Fool as Wandering Jew
Tarot as Christian Art
Education through Tarot
Tarot: the vatical & the sacral
Fortuna, Ass & Monkey
Steiner and Tarot
1701 Dodal restored!
Enc. Tarot vol I-IV: review
Christ, World & Sin
Caveat Emptor:
       Visual Tarot

Tarot & AlefBeit
Review: Jean Payen Tarot
Tarot and Freemasonry
I-Ching and Pip Cards
Whither directing your course?
Tarot & the Tree of Life
Ovid, Egypt and Tarot
When the Devil isn't the Devil
Four elements and the suits
Court Cards & MBTI
Certification & Codes
Jean Dodal Marseille
Conference FAQs
Golden Dawn
Kabalah & Tarot
Golden Tarot review
Annual spread
Iraqi Museum
Two Brief TdM reviews
Meditations on the Tarot

Enrique Enriquez

The Joy of Wordplay
J-C. Flornoy interview
Embodied Tarot
Indirect Suggestions
Whispering to the Eye

Mark Filipas

History of Egyptian Decks
Lexicon Theory

Jean-Claude Flornoy

in memorium
from Oral Tradition

Roxanne Flornoy

Children and Tarot
from Oral Tradition

Mary Greer

Killing the Thoth Deck
On the Tarot of the Four Worlds
Egypt, Tarot and Mystery School Initiations

William Haigwood

The Sixties: Counterculture Tarot

Alissa Hall

Parlour Tricks

Kris Hadar

The Tarot

Claas Hoffmann

Crowley-Harris 'Thoth' deck

Michael J. Hurst

Tarot Symbolism review

K. Frank Jensen

Century with the Waite-Smith

Shane Kendal

A Poetry of Tarot

Ken J. Killeen

The Metaphysical Bible

Barbara Klaser

Language of Tarot

E. Koretaka

Cardinal Virtues

Dovid Krafchow

Kabbalistic Tarot

Lisa Larson

Perceptions of Spirituality

Suzan E. Lemont

Therapeutic Tarot Work

Eric K. Lerner

Diloggun and Tarot

N. Levine

Tarot of Prague review

C. Liknaitzky

Journey in Ceramics

Joep van Loon

Tarot Wheel

Karen Mahony


S.J. Mangan

Fool, Alef & Orion

Robert Mealing

Petrarch’s Triumphs
Jean Noblet Tarot
Hunting the "true" Marseille Tarot
Cary Sheet

Fern Mercier

Playing the Fool

C. de Mellet

Inquiries into Tarot

Sophie Nusslé

Fantastic Menagerie

Robert V. O'Neill

Tarot Symbolism
Tower Iconology

Michael Owen

Xultun Tarot

Dan Pelletier

Magic Manga Tarot
the Blank Spot

Robert M. Place

The Fool's Journey

Debra Rosenthal

Looking at the Jacques Vieville

Mjr Tom Schick

Tarot Lovers Calendar

Inna Semetsky

Counseling Reading for Spouses
Learning the language of images
Re-Symbolization of Self
Tarot (dis)contents

Diana Sobolewska

'Bateleur's tale'

Russell Sturgess

Jesus's New Testament

N. Swift

Sufism & Tarot

Arthur E. Waite

Symbols of Tarot

Thinking out loud about tarot history

by Ross G. Caldwell

Le Bateleur, from Jean-Claude Flornoy’s reproduction of the 22 Jean Dodal trumps (Lyon c: 1701/1715).

Concerning Bembo

Bembo is certainly the artist of 68 Visconti-Sforza cards, as well as the trumps of the Cary-Yale. He is probably not the artist of the Brambilla. If Bembo painted the Cary-Yale trumps in 1441, it would be his earliest comission, at a very young age. I prefer Algeri’s hypothesis that the trumps of this deck were added in 1468, for the marriage of Bona of Savoy and Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Galeazzo is known to have comissioned a painting of Bona playing trionfi this year, which is an argument additional to the internal evidence of the deck which Algeri offers.

Further, we might argue that the three Theological Virtues in this deck signify clearly that it was made for a woman. When we compare the contemporary painting of Piero della Francesca’s Triumph of Battista Sforza, we note that on her chariot are the theological virtues, while the matching Triumph of her husband Federico has the Cardinal Virtues. This seems reason to suspect that the Theological Virtues were thought better triumphal subjects for a woman than for a man of the world.

Moreover, we know that Galeazzo Maria cherished his grandfather Filippo Maria’s memory and his Visconti ancestry in general, so that it would not be surprising for him to have transformed a deck made for his grandfather into a trionfi deck. In this this I agree with Algeri (although her thesis has not met general acceptance yet).

Since we know that Bembo was a sensitive religious painter, and that Francesco Sforza, Bianca Maria, and Galeazzo Maria were attentive to the Church during their reigns (i.e. Francesco’s repentance, Bianca Maria’s endowments of various charitable institutions, and Galeazzo Maria heard Mass every morning, as well as all having made many comissions of works for Churches), we might expect this sensitivity to show up in his tarot cards. I believe that, in addition to the convention of showing the Theological Virtues for a woman’s triumph, Bembo demonstrates this sensitivity in his portrayal of the Visconti-Sforza Papessa. Although she clearly represents the Church, and a woman in the triregno would not necessarily be thought of as an improper allegory of Chruch, Bembo clothes her simply and meekly, rather than sumptuously attired like the Pope himself. He also shows conservatism in his depiction of nudity in all of his decks.

Concerning the game of trionfi.

The tarot pack was certainly invented in Italy in or slightly before 1441. I favor Bologna, but Milan is also possible, since the trionfi pack makes its presumed appearance in Bologna exactly during the 5 years that Filippo Maria ruled it and circulated his money there (1438-1443). Thus, the deck may have found its way from Milan to Bologna just as easily as the opposite direction during those years. The extremely close personal and political connections between Ferrara, Bologna and Milan in just those years, before Bologna allied itself with Florence and Venice after 1443, also explains how it might have happened that such a game became immediately popular among the wealthy and the nobility of those cities in just those years.

The question must arise of which order the trumps had, and which game was played with them. Whether their origin was Milanese or Bolognese, I argue that the game played with them was more or less the same as the game still played in Bologna, and to varying degrees still in Piemont and Savoy, which in the matter of the trumps means that the Angel was higher than the World, and that the four cards called “Papi” in the old Bolognese game were not ranked among themselves. Other features of the Savoyard games are explainable by French tarot influence.

Until the 19th century, Italian cardmakers never produced enough decks for a large export trade. This is in direct contrast to France and Germany, whose cards were exported all over Europe, and also to wherever in the rest of the world Europeans went. As early as 1441, Venice had to make laws against imported German cards, and beginning in the second half of the 15th century, French producers in Lyons, Rouen, Avignon, Toulouse and other places quickly began to outpace all of the rest of Europe (Thierry Depaulis is clear on this point – he calls Lyons in 1500 “Europe’s playing-card workshop, superceding by far all other cities.”)

The extreme number of variations in Italian forms of tarocchi is due to the fact each region developed its own game, because no one center could produce enough cards to dominate all of Italy, and in general to the lack of political unity in the country until the 19th century. This hampered trade connections between even neighboring regions, even where a small production might be able to supply a neighboring city with cards. Thus each region essentially developed its own game, wherever it took hold (Andy mentions that the same was true in China until very recently, where there are dozens of different kinds of playing cards. I suspect the reason there is less political disunity than regionalism, the size of the country and the sheer number of people, which only gigantic factories could supply).

This was obviously not the case at the very beginning, when the game was first invented. Whether produced by artisans each deck individually, or by printing, the amounts numbers were small and the game was carried by merchants to various places or comissioned from artists by wealthy patrons, once they had obtained a copy somehow, either by buying one from a merchant, or receiving it as a gift (or perhaps stealing it, as in Bologna in 1459 aÐ which shows it was still a rather valuable item).

With this in mind, it is clear that the trade was one way. Italian centers produced enough playing cards and tarots for local consumption of local games, but not enough to supply France or Germany with cards. Therefore, while the game of tarot was certainly invented in north Italy, the game that became the most popular in Europe was a French production. It must have been a few Italian decks at the most that inspired the French version of the game, which they then began to produce in large quantities, according to a pattern they invented – which is known as the Tarot de Marseille.

I contend that the decks which came to France looked like Dummett’s A type (Bologna), which was changed by French card producers into the design of the typical French pattern, known generally as Tarot de Marseille (Dummett’s “C” ordering of the trumps). When Lyon and Avignon began producing tarot cards in large quantities, around 1500, it was this pattern that came into Milan when the French ruled the city from 1499 to 1512, and sporadically for times after that. It is also possible that earlier such cards came with Charles VIII’s army of 50,000 men as early as 1494, but as he avoided Milan and focussed most attention on Rome and Naples. As Rome and Neapolitan cards don’t betray French influence, this hypothesis seems unlikely, as it also is given the short stay of Charles VIII in Italy.

Could the converse be true, that Charles VIII’s army was exposed to the tarot for the first time in the places they stayed at, such as Florence, Rome and Naples? If so, it can only be said that no Italian center could produce enough cards for an army of 50,000, so it must have been only a few decks; and, it must have been a quick exchange, since they stayed only a year. Finally, it would probably not have been a Milanese pack, since they did not go to Milan, and while Florence is a good candidate for exposure to the tarot deck, Rome and Naples seem less likely suppliers.

So the later French rule seems a more likely time for the exchange, both for the place aÐ Milan aÐ and the time spent there. Since I argue that it was the French who brought their decks to Milan, and influenced the Milanese style aÐ I picture them flooding the market in Milan, since the Milanese producers could not have flooded France -, the deck must have been produced in a place like Lyon earlier than that, which means that the tarot deck (which I contend looked at first like the Bolognese or Eastern style) was brought earlier and had time to be modified.

Since cards went with all sorts of travellers, from nobles and courtiers to soldiers and merchants, this could have happened any time after tarot’s invention, by several different avenues. The earliest explicit indication of a deck in France is Jacopo Antonio Marcello’s gift of a deck of triumphs aÐ which were most certainly the common kind aÐ to Isabelle of Lorraine in 1449. Other possibilities are 1444, when Leonello d’Este’s son Francesco went to live at the court of Burgundy, and in 1466, when Galeazzo Maria Sforza was learning warfare in the court of the King of France, Louis XI. Sforza’s favor for cards is well known, as is the Este’s in general. Of course, these are merely notable examples, and many other routes are more probable, such as any migrating cardmaker, since many Italians moved to Lyon in the 15th century, no doubt because of the potential for increased production and export chances offered by that city, not possible in pre-unification Italy (before 1860, that is).

Thus, I picture it that the localized production of the Milanese deck aÐ if it ever reached a state of “popular” consumption at all aÐ was swamped by the new French game, which was called “taraux” or “tarocs” (long ‘o’ is pronounced). Because I contend that this particular form of the game was invented in France, I would argue that the Italian name is probably an Italianization of the French name, rather than vice-versa. This swamping did not happen in the other tarot centers of Italy because the French did not rule there, and those centers continued their older versions with natural internal modifications over the years, with a few external pressures exercising some influence.

Concerning the emergence of the 3 basic orderings.

(This is an abstract exercise, with a few historical considerations – a good online source for the three orderings and their variations is at Andy’s Playing Cards site.

B [‘Ferrara/Venice’] seems more simply explained as modification of C [‘Marseilles’] rather than A [‘Bologna’].

B might also be thought of as an early kind of reinterpretation of the trumps aÐ it is evidence of a certain kind of moralisation of at least two parts of the trump series.

First, assuming someone perceived a slight to the Papacy by having him adjacent to, and beaten by Amore, it makes sense to place a moral virtue between them; in this case not Fortitude, which I guess might make the Pope look ridiculous, as some kind of hero withstanding the barbs of Cupid’s arrows, but rather Temperance, the placid virtue of utter calm, neither hot nor cold, and certainly never becoming intoxicated by Love. Thus the choice of virtue, and its placement, can be seen as way to remove the disgrace of a Pope beaten by Love.

Second, it seemed good to the B designer to remind people that after the Resurrection comes Judgement, so the Justice card was promoted between the Judgement and the saved and glorified World. Otherwise, it might be perceived that everybody, the whole world, is saved, after the Resurrection aÐ that is of course “apocatastasis”, a heresy – a few bad people have to go to Hell first, so a card needed to be put there to remind them of that.

(I am not saying that the C order meant to imply such a doctrine, just that B could be interpreted as someone’s having read C that way, and endeavored to correct it).

Only C offers these “problems” to be solved. In A, the Papi have no ranking among themselves, so the Pope is not adjacent to Love in any apparent or provocative way. Secondly, in A, the Angel (Judgement) is already the highest card, without suggesting anything afterward, and the Virtues are grouped together near the Chariot (that is, they pertain to the triumphator), as they appear in contemporary depictions and descriptions of triumphal processions.

Thus it seems more likely to me that B is a modification of C rather than A, and that B is a moralisation of the trump series.

B is the best attested series in literature, from the late 15th (Steele Sermon) century to the late 16th century (Garzoni 1585). It is also attested in the Budapest sheets and the Donson cards, and in the Rouen cards. By all accounts, it died out by the end of the 16th century, although it certainly made a splash for around a century. The origin of the Steele Sermon is unknown, and the tarocchi appropriati poem from Ferrara published by Bertoni is dated around 1540, so that the attribution of B to Ferrara is in my opinion extremely tenuous. That the pattern was predominant in Ferrara and Venice in the 16th century, there can be no doubt; but that this means that B was the pattern in Ferrara in the 1440s, is certainly open to question.

It is open to question because the deck of triumph cards which actually does come from Ferrara in the middle to late 15th century, and the two that are held to, bear A type numbering. The numbering is probably not original, and there is no telling when they were put on, but I think it would be bizarre to suggest that all the cards went to Bologna to get numbered, and then came back to Ferrara (d’Este) or went their own ways (Charles VI and Catania). It is more reasonable to think that the earliest Ferrara game of trionfi was the same as the Bolognese, and that a different form of the game became dominant in Ferrara in the early 16th century.

I would guess that this game was the B form of tarocchi, and that it was printed in Venice and exported to Ferrara and other places in the north-east of Italy. That all of the Budapest sheets are where they are, immediately to the north of Venice and her vicinity, might be evidence that they were printed there, as the earliest catalogues suggest.

Whether the above scenario can accommodate any form of the 5×14 theory, I don’t know.

It is also inconsistent with the early Milanese game – or rather trump order – having been the same as the Tarot de Marseille.

[These reflections also appeared on Aeclectic’s TarotForum in the Historical section at, under the same title]

2 comments to

Thinking out loud about tarot history

  • Alan O'Brien

    Good essay, but I am very surprised that you would use the non-word “superceding”!

  • jmd

    Hello Alan,

    Ross therein quotes Thierry Depaulis, who uses the word in its less common form ‘supercede’ (rather than ‘supersede’). Though many consider the spelling ‘incorrect’, it has been used with this spelling for some centuries.

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