by Robert Mealing
Detail from the Fool of the Jean Dodal Tarot
My Journey into Tarot History
My fascination with Tarot history started with the "Visconti" Tarots. They are after all the oldest surviving Tarot decks, and many scholars suggest that they were probably the first. As my interest in Tarot history grew, I started exploring many of the early printed decks, especially the popular "Tarot of Marseilles" decks. I asked Jean-Michel David, (an expert on the Marseille Tarots as far as I am concerned), which decks he would recommend purchasing for study, and he suggested the decks by Jean-Claude Flornoy (Jean Noblet and Jean Dodal Tarots, trumps only as of this writing), the complete Jean Dodal reproduction printed by Dusserre if I could find it, (I was lucky enough to, but now it is extremely rare), and the Nicholas Conver printed by Heron.
At the time, there was a lot of talk on the Tarot forums about what qualified a deck as a "true" TdM (Tarot of Marseilles). There were also many suggestions that the TdM was "the true Tarot" out of all Tarot decks. Some people insisted that the only "true" TdM was a Conver, with various, (and sometimes pretty esoteric), reasons for believing so. Others suggested that the Noblet and Dodal were in fact not only just as worthy of the title of TdM, but in fact were older and more "true" than the Conver and its similarly designed cousins.
The Conver deck is far more common, and most of the "Tarot of Marseilles" decks that have been published for the past several hundred years are based on Conver, or decks that have a similar style.
I wanted to know "What is the difference between these decks? Can I tell by examining them which is more likely to be of the oldest? Is the TdM really the oldest and truest Tarot?"
I was introduced to all of them at the same time, so had few preconceived ideas. I tend to be what I would call a "Tarot Agnostic", but maybe a "Tarot Cynic" might be a more appropriate label. I have few pre-assigned beliefs about what "should" be depicted on the cards based on an outside belief system. I don’t believe the cards are Egyptian… so don’t look for links to Egyptian mythology. Same goes for the Kabbalah, Masons, Knights Templar, Cathars, Druids, or any other system that other people sometimes apply to cards. I consider myself open to all possibilities, and willing to consider just about anything, but first and foremost I look to the cards themselves to reveal their secrets.
Nor do I have strong convictions about the "meanings" of the cards, as I’ve come to believe that people have applied various meanings that suit them in whatever place and time the cards are encountered. For instance, over time The Hanged Man has been considered to suggest "a traitor", "prudence", "sacrifice", and many other meanings. Which is right? I assume that is up to the reader to decide based on whatever suits them, but I would not assume that a "true" image of The Hanged Man be determined by any interpretations. Instead, I just look at the cards themselves, and compare the similarities and differences.
Comparing the Noblet, Dodal and Conver
I started with the Jean Noblet (circa 1650), Jean Dodal (circa 1710), and Nicholas Conver (circa 1760). It became apparent immediately that there were differences in the iconography of the cards. Most of the time, these differences are minor. While these differences may alter a "meaning" for a particular reader, as far as the iconography goes the cards in more aspects than not have remained amazingly consistent. What surprised me was that while the size, shape, and overall "feel" of the Dodal and the Conver were very similar, the details on the Dodal cards were much more similar to the Noblet. In fact, almost every time I noticed a difference between the Dodal and the Conver, when checking against the Noblet it "agreed" with the Dodal. Just based on the dates of publication alone Noblet > Dodal > Conver… it started to make sense to me that the Dodal might be a "link" between the "Noblet Style" and the "Conver Style".
These differences were everywhere. Sometimes they hit you immediately, other times it was only by close examination that the differences became clear. I began to define what I saw as two "styles" emerging as the Noblet/Dodal style, and the Conver style. These two styles could be recognized by noticing some distinct differences. The following are just a few of these differences, but they began to become the method which I used to identify the "Noblet/Dodal Style" (as compared to the "Conver style"):
The Popess: Her right hand is hidden, and the veil behind her curls at the edges rather than drapes.
The Pope: Holds a crosier instead of a triple cross.
The Lovers: Cupid is blindfolded.
The Chariot: The top of the chariot is scalloped, not parted and draped.
Justice: Her throne looks like wings.
The Wheel of Fortune: The figure on the top of the wheel looks more human.
The Hanged Man: Sticks out his tongue, and has "wings" or "fingers" hanging from his shoulders.
The Hanged Man- Jean Dodal, Jean Noblet, Nicolas Conver (click to enlarge)
The Devil: Has a face on his belly, and holds what looks more like a pitchfork than a torch. His wings are longer, going down to his midsection.
The Tower: The flames seem to be coming from the top of the tower towards what seems to be the sun, an object missing in the Conver.
The Moon: The moon is full, looking directly forward, rather than to the side.
The Sun: Seems to show a woman and a man on the Noblet, is hard to tell for sure on the Dodal, and is probably two men/boys on the Conver.
The World: Shows a caped figure rather than a "dancer" with a scarf.
I discussed these with Jean-Michel, who was already aware of many of these differences, and both of us continued finding more differences. There are probably just as many when comparing the Court cards as well.
And then, there were many times as well when the Noblet and the Dodal would disagree in details. One of the most striking novelties in the Noblet deck is the depiction of the Fool… with exposed genitalia! This instantly reminded me of earlier depictions of the fool with exposed "privates", and suddenly it became frightfully clear what that animal is jumping at! Looking closely at the Fool, I could see more differences. The cane has a head at the top, missing on the Dodal and the Conver. On the Dodal and the Conver there is a bell placed oddly along the stick of the knapsack, on the Noblet, it is shown as actually being a part of the fool’s cap! This detail seems to have been lost in the Dodal and Conver. The Conver shows a row of bells not only along the belt, but around the collar as well, the Noblet and Dodal don’t.
The Fool- Jean Noblet, Jean Dodal, Nicolas Conver (click to enlarge)
So we have these 3 old decks, and there are differences among all of them. I’d like to think that the Noblet could be looked to as the defining guide, but I began to notice things I still consider "wrong" with the deck. For instance, The Charioteer has the shape, but not the detail, of the faces on his shoulders. If the Dodal and Conver were based on it, then how did they know the faces should be there? Why are the faces missing on the Noblet? Maybe the Noblet and the Dodal are based on some similar "source", but both include details, and lose details, from that source? And what of the Conver, is there any evidence that it was based on the "original" style and that the Noblet and Dodal "oddities" were just further corruptions?
Titles and Numbers?
There was something else bothering me about the Dodal. On many of the cards it looked like part of the image had been cut off, especially at the top and bottom of the card where the title and number were placed. Could it be that the earliest versions of the TdM might not have had titles or numbers, just as the old painted Italian cards were also missing them? Could it be that the Dodal was based on an earlier design, as far as the image goes, and that the title and number areas were chopping off details that used to be present on the earlier model? Another, frankly irritating, aspect of the Dodal is that the craftsmanship is so poor! There are so many places in the images where details are missing, and the overall condition, at least to my eye, is shoddy. I had built this fantasy in my mind of master craftsmen who lovingly preserved the secret traditions of the TdM.. instead.. the Dodal looked more like a hack job by an amateur, careless copyist!
When considering the Noblet, with its form so different in shape to the Dodal, (less tall, wider), I remembered that one of its features (that some TdM enthusiasts take issue with) is that the Death card is titled, Le Mort. On the Dodal, if you put a title on bottom of the Death card, it would cut off most of the scythe blade! Perhaps the reason Death in the Dodal (and also the Conver) remained untitled was because such an important part of the image would be lost if a title were added?
It started to make sense to me that the Noblet was a complete "redrawing" of an earlier deck, from the start allowing space for all titles and numbers, but based on a deck that did not have them.
The Dodal was probably also based on an earlier model, keeping the proportions of the earlier design, but at some stage the details at the top and bottom of the card had been lost to make room for titles and numbers. The source of the Dodal was in many ways similar to the source of the Noblet, if not in essence the same.
The Conver, like the Noblet, seemed like a complete redrawing. It’s drawn with a much more sophisticated hand than the Dodal or Noblet, and willing to either invent details, change them, or obtain them from an unknown/different source. How far back I could find any Conver style details?
I was becoming convinced that none of these decks were the "true" TdM, and started to wonder what might be learned by exploring other early decks? Is there any evidence that the Noblet style is older than the Conver? Is there any evidence that the Dodal is based on something earlier? Is there evidence that an earlier TdM without titles and numbers ever existed?
We needed to broaden the scope. Perhaps we’ll have to go beyond the TdM to find the TdM. Were there examples of what seems to be two models of the TdM that could be traced to cards before the Jean Noblet ?
The Jacques Vieville Tarot
One of the first decks I turned to was the Tarot of Jacques Vieville, created about the same time as the Jean Noblet, circa 1650.
The Vieville is not classified as a TdM, today it is called a "Belgian Tarot" although the cardmaker of this deck lived in Paris, France. Many of the cards are strikingly similar to the TdM, while others seem to come from a very different source for their iconography with totally different subjects presented on cards like the Tower, Star, Moon, and Sun. Some of these non-TdM style cards are very similar to the cards in the "Bologna Tarot", and the so called "Charles VI" Tarot. But when the cards are TdM related, they more often relate to the Noblet/Dodal style, with some exceptions, than to the Conver.
The Vieville does not have titles. It does have numbers, but they appear to be "added around the images" rather than an integral part of the design (there is no squared-off space at the top of the card for the numbers).
Looking at some of the cards mentioned earlier we find:
- The Popess has a veil with curved edges (Noblet/Dodal), but her right hand is visible. (Conver)
- The Pope holds a crosier.(Noblet/Dodal)
- The cupid on The Lovers is not blindfolded (Conver)
- The top of The Chariot is similar to the scallop shape … but rather than cutting off the top of the chairot… here we see that the clothe rolls up and down! If the top were cut off this card to allow space for a title, it would have given the scalloped impression found on the Dodal and Noblet. (Noblet/Dodal)
The Chariot – Jacques Vieville, Jean Dodal, Jean Noblet, Nicolas Conver (click to enlarge)
- Justice has a throne that looks like wings. (Noblet/Dodal)
- The Wheel of Fortune has the figure on the top that is clearly human. (Noblet/Dodal)
- The Hanged Man sticks out his tongue, and has "wings" or "fingers" hanging from his shoulders. (Noblet/Dodal)
- The Devil, while portrayed very differently in the TdM, does have the face on his belly. (Noblet/Dodal)
- The World has the figure with the cape. (Noblet/Dodal)
Overall, the cards are overwhelming more similar to the Noblet/Dodal than to the Conver. The missing hand on the Popess is quite possibly a mistake on the sources Noblet and Dodal used. The unblindfolded Conver.. well.. strike one up for Conver. When examining the courts, they too are much more similar to the Noblet/Conver.
There is also additional information on some of the cards that is not present on the TdM. Since no space was reserved for the Title and Numbers, we see the top of the triple crown on the Popess, here more clearly than on the TdM a triple crown. On Strength we see that she wears a hat, not a crown, here we can see the top more clearly. At her feet, and we DO see a foot, we also see the tail of the lion.
I don’t believe the Vieville is based on the TdM, but it does seem to share a common ancestor with many of the TdM cards. It’s a fascinating deck. The problem is trying to figure out which details are part of his "artistic style", and which harkens back to the sources that he used.
To get more information, we’d have to go further back in time.
The Cary Sheet
The "Cary Sheet" is an uncut sheet of cards, dated to around 1500. It’s notable because some of the cards on the sheet are obviously connected to the TdM. At the very least, this means that some form of the iconography of the TdM existed within the first 75 years or so of the probable "birth of Tarot" around the mid-1400’s.
The Cary Sheet, Cary Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. (Click to enlarge)
On the sheet are the full images of 6 cards, and fragments of 12 other cards. The images are untitled and unnumbered, another clue that TdM iconography probably did not originally have titles or numbers. The six complete cards are fairly easy to recognize as The Pope, The Emperor, The Empress, The Moon, The Star, and The Magician. The partial cards include Wheel of Fortune, Chariot, Lovers, Strength, The Sun, The Tower, The Devil, Temperance, and probably The Hanged Man, Justice, The Popess, The Fool, Seven and Eight of Batons.
The Moon is obviously connected to the TdM. With a few minor details that vary (there are no dogs for instance), the card would immediately be recognizable as the TdM Moon. It is full, and stares directly at the viewer, exactly like it does on Noblet and Dodal.
The Moon – Cary Sheet, Jean Dodal, Jean Noblet, Nicolas Conver (click to enlarge)
The Pope, while different stylistically to the TdM, holds a crosier, like the Noblet and Dodal.
In the upper left hand portion of the card is a fragment of The Hanged Man. The "fingers" or "wings" are present as on the Noblet and Dodal… but still indefinable.
The bottom fragment of The Wheel of Fortune is visible, with a structure very similar to the TdM. Here, there appears to be a fourth figure on the wheel, at the bottom, like in the Visconti decks.
The Star, Tower, Strength, Chariot, Lovers, Emperor, and Empress all have strong connections to the TdM. The Magician, Devil, Hermit, are recognizable, but stylistically different. The fragment of the sun is fairly difficult to discern, it may or may not be closely related.
Overall, there are many similarities to the TdM, and in all cases that I can see where there is a connection to the Noblet/Dodal style or the Conver style, the relationship is always to the Noblet/Dodal style. The Cary Sheet is the oldest "Tarot" reference to TdM style imagery, predating Jean Noblet by 150 years, and Conver by 260 years.
The Sforza Castle Cards
In The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume II, by Stuart Kaplan, there are pictures of several of the 58 cards and fragments discovered at the turn of the 20th century at Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy. 42 of these are probably Tarot, from many assorted decks.
One very interesting card is the Two of Coins. It is very similar to the typical design of the Two of Coins in TdM decks.. and it is printed with the date of 1499! It’s possible that this card is from a non-Tarot deck, but if it is Tarot, it is one of the earliest existing printed cards.
The card I find most interesting is a sample of The World. Kaplan compares it the Vieville from the 1650’s, and another deck from the 1700’s, but the earliest commentator on the card, Francesco Novati writing in 1908, assigns it to late 1500’s, and I would very much agree him.
The World – Sforza Castle, Jacques Vieville, Jean Dodal, Nicolas Conver (click to enlarge)
Here we have a sample of The World, with the figure wearing the cape like in the Noblet/Vieville/Dodal. But more importantly, the card does not have areas reserved for titles or numbers. There is no title at all, and the number XXI appears to have been added in the border of the card. In so many ways, this is the clue I was hoping to find. The dimensions, and iconography of the card are very similar to the Dodal. Without the title area added, we can now see the full bodies of the Bull and Lion at the bottom of the card, (as depicted on the Noblet and the Vieville, but missing from the Dodal and Conver because of the title). Here we may indeed be seeing a sample of the model that the Dodal is based on, but it is a far more elegantly drawn card. The position of the feet of the figure is the same as the Dodal, as is the shape of the "wreath" surrounding the figure, and the composure of the head. I believe Noblet and Vieville knew this style as well, and redrew it, but the Dodal used this style as a template.
Another interesting card is the sample of The Sun. The card has the area for numbering at the top, but no title area below. Here we find the proportions much more similar to the Noblet than to the Dodal, Vieville or Conver. Also like the Noblet, the card clearly depicts a man and a woman. Oddly, the rays of the sun are created using only straight lines like on the Dodal, not the mixture of straight and curved rays that in this case are like on the othewise different Noblet and Conver.
The Sun – Sforza Castle, Jean Dodal, Jean Noblet, Nicolas Conver (click to enlarge)
The "face" on the sun is also very similar to the Dodal, and like the Dodal it is missing the radiating lines surrounding the sun on the Noblet and Conver. If anything, I’d suggest that we are seeing a sample of the style of card that the Noblet is based on, but it retains (more clearly and elegantly) the design of the card the Dodal is based on.
The next card that I found intriguing is the 8 of Batons. While some of the pip cards in the Sforza collection have numbers on either side, this card (and some others) does not. Instead of numbers, on this card there is a floral object midway on the card, which is missing from the Noblet, Dodal or Conver. The big surprise for me was to realize that the Vieville also had no numbers placed here, but in fact had a very similarly designed floral object! It seems probable to me that originally there were no numbers on the pip cards of the TdM, and the floral motif was partially removed at some point to allow numbers to added.
Eight of Batons- Sforza Castle, Jacques Vieville, Jean Noblet, Nicolas Conver (click to enlarge)
TdM I and TdM II
It was becoming clearer to me that there are at least two "families" of TdM. One was represented in decks like the Noblet and Dodal, and the other represented in decks like the Conver. All of the earliest tarot references were showing that the iconography was related to the Noblet/Dodal type decks, and not the Conver style decks.
It was during a conversation about this with Tarot historian Michael J. Hurst that I first encountered the terms "TdM I" and TdM II". Huh? Michael told me that this distinction had been noted, years ago, by Thierry Depaulis… but he didn’t know much about it. A query on Aeclectic Tarot brought the answer from Tarot historian Ross G. Caldwell. In 1986, Thierry Depaulis reviewed Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, vol. II ("Notes de lecture", L’As de Trèfle, déc. 1986, p. 11). Here he noted the same types of differences that I had noticed, only 20 years earlier! He also noted the World card from Sforza Castle. His conclusion was that TdM I was almost certainly the older, represented in decks like the Noblet and the Dodal, as well as showing up in related decks like the ‘Lombard’ and ‘Besançon’ tarots. He believes the TdM II, as shown in decks like the Conver and many others, can not be traced to before 1700.
There is a possibility that the François Chosson Tarot, a TdM II style deck, may be dated to 1672, but the dating is controversial. If not the Chosson, than the first known TdM II deck would be the Pierre Madenié Tarot from 1709. The famous Nicolas Conver deck from 1760 is of this style.
Both the TdM I and TdM II imagery can be found, often mixed together, after 1700. The "Tarot of Besançon" is very similar to the Marseille Tarot, it seems to be an adaptation of the TdM that occurred sometime in the 1600’s. It is immediately recognizable by the substitution of Junon and Jupiter for the Papess and Pope. Many of the "TdB" decks show a much stronger connection to the TdM I then the TdM II. One very notable TdB deck was created by François Heri in the early 1700’s. Its proportions and style are very extremely similar to the Jean Noblet, in fact it is the only deck I have ever seen that looks like a copy of the Noblet. The same cardmaker also made a TdM II style tarot, so we have an odd example of a TdB with imagery like the TdM I being published by a cardmaker who was also familiar with the TdM II style. Depaulis states that the TdM II style seems like a "modernization" of the TdM I.
By the mid-1700’s, the TdM II style had become the standard for the TdM, although some samples of the TdM I continued to be produced. I kept looking for more sample of TdM I style cards, especially for decks that didn’t mix the two styles. I found a few, and then one day I came across a deck that helped clear up a problem that had been bothering me.
Enter the Dragon
The TdM by Giuseppe Drago, published in Italy around 1790 has only 18 cards remaining. It is very much a TdM I style deck, matching very closely to the Jean Dodal deck. One card that is different from the Dodal is the Knight of Batons. On the Drago, the front of the horse, and its front legs and feet are pretty clearly defined. This has always been an issue with other TdM cards. On the Noblet, Dodal, Jean Payen, Joseph Chafard and other TdM I cards that I had been able to find, the front of the horse is not clearly drawn. On TdM II style cards, the depiction of the horse is even more confused with a "blanket" covering most of the body. When looking at other early decks like the Vieville, the Knight of Batons from the Sforza Castle, and even the TdB, they never showed a "blanket", but they always had very clearly defined front legs. I’ve wondered, why don’t the TdM I style decks show this clearly?
Knight of Batons – Sforza Castle, Giuseppe Drago, Jean Dodal, Nicolas Conver (click to enlarge)
If the Drago Tarot had been based on the Dodal, or any other existing TdM I deck that I know of, it would probably have had the same issues with the front of the horse. However, it seems to actually be based on the same *model* that the TdM I decks were based on, not based on any of the existing decks themselves. The Drago shows us that knowledge of details lost in all of our existing TdM style existed even late into the 18th Century.
The "True" TdM
I had hoped to find the "one" deck that was the most authentic TdM. While TdM I style decks are almost certainly earlier than the TdM II style decks, I’ve now come to believe that all of the TdM decks that are still in existence have lost details that existed originally on the designs. I’m pretty certain that the original models had no Titles or Numbers. I suspect some of the cards in the Sforza Castle may the closest we have to the models, but clues can be found to "reconstruct" the TdM by looking at all of the related decks, and all of the many existing TdM decks. Who knows, it’s even possible that the Cary Sheet was an early prototype for the TdM… but it’s just as possible that the TdM existed for the Cary Sheet to copy from. I’m always searching for images from more decks. "Do the knights’ horses have feathers in their caps?", "Are there heels on the shoes?", "What’s on the shoulders of the King of Swords?", What does the hat on the King of Coins look like?", "Do the Queens look pregnant?"… the questions are endless… and so the hunt continues.