Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Set of 22 Standard Trumps

In an earlier post it was noted that the 22 allegorical cards of Tarot were created as trumps, and that the creation of trumps was a new idea in the 15th century. That new invention took various forms, including five-suited decks, the deck described by Marcello in which each suit had two types of court cards, the higher ones serving as trumps, the partial trumps of Karnöffel, the "fifth suit" of Tarot, and at some point the modern solution whereby one of the four regular suits was chosen as a trump suit. There were probably other such attempts as well, but these are documented solutions to the desire for trumps. But how is Tarot to be defined?

The Tarot pack has many different forms; rather than framing a definition that covers all of them, it is better to describe the archetypal version, which is also the best known. It is archetypal in that every other form that has existed from 1500 to the present day is derived directly or indirectly from it. It may or may not have been the original form.... the Tarot pack had certainly been standarised, as regards the number and identity of the cards, by 1450; the archetypal form was that which resulted from that standarization. In its archetypal form, the Tarot pack consists of seventy-eight cards. There are four suits.... Each suit has ten numeral cards... and four court cards.... This makes fifty-six cards. The remaining twenty-two are all picture cards without any suit sign.... They depict a series of standard subjects... In several later forms of the pack, some of these subjects were changed.... But, when the pack was first standardised, the subjects of the trump cards were standardized, too: they were at first everywhere the same.
(Decker, Depaulis, Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards.)

Here is a listing of the trumps, broken down into their three types of subject matter. The Tarot de Marseille ordering is shown. It may have original, but was certainly the most common throughout most of Tarot's history, and was thus also the ordering originally adopted by the occultists.

Social HierarchyAllegories of LifeBiblical End Times

That archetypal design appears to be the basis for all the variant decks, including decks with additions (such as Cary-Yale), deletions (including shortened decks), replacements (eliminating some of the problematic, overtly Christian cards), expansions (Minchiate), complete revisionings (Sola Busca, the poems of Boiardo), as well as less extreme revisionings such as the classicized Rouen deck. That archetypal design was probably the original design, given that it immediately achieved a dominant position, with other designs being either unique or clear later. The archetypal design was certainly standard during the 1440s when Tarot was becoming widespread and popular, and it continued as the most popular type of deck until the mid-18th century. Decks within Italy all eventually had some alterations and replacement subjects, while the Milanese tradition, which had the good fortune to migrate outside Italy, survived intact.

Perhaps the most interesting early deck is, not surprisingly, also the earliest, the most extravagant, and non-standard. From Milan and dated to the early or middle 1440s, the lavish Cary-Yale deck has the biggest cards, the richest gold and silver leaf, and additional cards in both the suits and the trumps. Given that constellation of aberrant features in every category, it is almost certainly not the original Tarot deck, as has sometimes been proposed, but a fabulous novelty. As such, its most revealing features are those held in common with later decks rather than those in which it is unique. For example, the speculation that early decks had only the 14 trumps of the Visconti-Sforza deck which were painted by Bonifacio Bembo is effectively refuted by the World card in this earlier deck.

When all the written accounts and early decks are taken into account, there appears to have been a very rapid spread of Tarot throughout Northern Italy and into France, where it was being manufactured in the first years of the 16th century. Each locale appears to have created a slightly different version of Tarot, both in terms of iconography and rules, specifically, the ordering of the trumps. And yet, in all these locations, represented by surviving decks or documents, every example appears to have derived from that archetypal deck with its standardized set of trumps. If the original design was not such an archetypal deck, it must have disappeared quickly, replaced completely by what has ever since been the standard.