The so-called Tower card had more substantial variations than any of the other Tarot trump cards. Towers may be used to symbolize many things, and the card was revised repeatedly. The Tower card was called many different names and the iconography varied significantly in some later decks. Thus, like several other of the trump cards, it is inherently ambiguous and impossible to interpret fully outside of its cyclic context in a particular deck. However, many of the particular changes made in later Tarot decks appear relatively unrelated to the overall allegorical hierarchy, and while they may have residual import for the overall cycle, it is their new, secondary meaning -- conflated as it may be with the underlying design -- that is most significant. The Tower card (and its sidekick, the Ship card) in the Sicilian Tarot decks is one of these more ad hoc inventions.
As noted in previous posts, two trends were seen again and again in Tarot decks. Some of the more strident medieval Christian subject matter was removed in one way or another, and some variation (most notably in the sequence of the trumps) was introduced simply to create a distinctive local version of the game. These two features, secularization and local pride, are nowhere more apparent than in the Sicilian deck. Not surprisingly, the Sicilian deck contains no Pope or Popess, and the earliest forms of the deck has apparently already transformed the Angel of Resurrection and Revelation's New World into Jupiter and Atlas.
Atlas holding up the celestial globe is a recognizable classicisation of the World; but a seated Jupiter seems to have no resemblance to the angel. But when we compare the representation of Jupiter in the older [Sicilian] standard pattern, in which he rides on his eagle which flies over a city, its wings outspread, with the Trombe of the Minchiate pack, we see that the former is a classicisation of the latter. It must have been soon after the introduction of both Tarot and Minchiate into Sicily, that some member of the nobility ordered a classical transformation of the two highest Tarot trumps; just as the Duchess Rosalia Caccamo in about 1750 ordered the Devil to be replaced by the Ship, il Vascello, borrowed from the Minchiate trump XXI.
Michael Dummett, "A Brief Sketch of the history of Tarot Cards", The Sylvia Mann Lecture, 2004, reproduced in The Playing-card, April-June 2005.)
The original changes, reflected in the Minchiate, had eliminated the quaint symbolism from Revelation, while creating a distinctive Florentine Triumph of Fame, as illustrated in the Ace of Cups post. Upon its introduction to Sicily, the locals wanted the game but not the advertisement for Florence, and further revised the highest trumps. It is the later change, nearly a century after Tarot was introduced to Sicily, which concerns us here. In that deck the Devil has been replaced by a departing Ship, while the Fire/Lightning card, which usually showed a tower struck from heaven, instead shows a watch tower or lighthouse. The idea of a lighthouse in some sense triumphing over a ship, that is, controlling or directing it away from harm, is reasonable enough, and a watchtower triumphing over a ship makes even more sense. A record suggests that Tarot entered Sicily in 1663, along with the Minchiate variant of Tarot. It wasn't until around 1750, however, that the Devil and Tower cards were replaced. Dummett discusses this aspect of the Sicilian Tarot deck.
What is at first sight the most puzzling [of the Sicilian variations], 14 the Ship, is in fact the most easily explained, because Villabianca gives the explanation. The Ship occupies the place at which we should expect to find the Devil. Villabianca tells us that in his youth trump 14 had shown the Devil, but that, in about 1750, Rosalia Caccamo, duchess of Casteldaci, had the Devil replaced by the Ship. The image of the Ship is obviously borrowed from trump XXI of the Minchiate pack. [...]
The present harmless appearance of the Tower is also to be explained as an alteration made by the duchess Rosalia Caccamo. In a bit of the opuscolo which is now damaged and very hard to read, Villabianca says that in his youth trump 15 showed “il novissimo dell’... ”; the last word is illegible, and I am unsure what it could be. Villiabianca further says that the duchess had its subject changed into the Tower. Traditionally, trump 15 was sometimes known as “the House of the Devil” or “the House of the Damned”, and occasionally outright as “Hell”; Minchiate trump 15 shows a devil emerging to drag a woman down to hell. I suppose that it was something of this sort that the duchess replaced by the Tower as we now have it. Villabianca states that she paid the expense for the change of subject in trumps 14 and 15; I suppose that she paid cardmakers to make new wood blocks incorporating the new designs.
Michael Dummett, "The Sicilian Trumps", The Playing-card, Jan-Mar 2005.)
The Playing-card (Jan-Mar 2005)
Although Dummett says the Ship is easily explained, he refers only to the historical fact of the Devil’s replacement rather than its iconography. In referring to the replacement, Dummett noted "the subject substituted for it was evidently chosen arbitrarily from the Minchiate pack". (The Game of Tarot, 377.) The ship in the Minchiate deck symbolized one of the four Aristotelian elements, Water, which makes little sense as a replacement for the Devil. Likewise, he offers no explanation for the “harmless appearance” of the Tower. Both, however, can be explained. The Duchess was not the first to object to Tarot’s Devil and Tower cards. From the first century of Tarot there are many surviving examples of hand-painted cards, commissioned by nobles like the Duchess. However, only one hand-painted Tower survives, and no hand-painted Devil cards. This would be an extremely unlikely outcome unless these cards were either not produced or were at some point selectively discarded as even more undesirable than the other Christian subjects of the trumps.
One of the most beautiful hand-painted cards is the ship embroidered with a motto from Horace: Odi profanum volgus et arceo, (Odes, Bk. iii, 1, 1). Ross Caldwell wrote (on trionfi.com) "This card was the subject of an article by Pierre-Yves Le Pogam in "The Playing Card", vol. 33 no. 1 (July-Sept 2004), pp. 27-38, entitled "Entre tarot et jeux de cour: une carte à jouer italienne" (Between Tarot Cards and Courtly Games: An Italian Playing Card)." Apparently two theories are presented to explain this card. One is that the card was Water, XXI, from a Minchiate deck. However, it seems likely that all Minchiate decks, with their large number of trump cards, were numbered, which this card is not. Also, the Minchiate hypothesis ignores both the meaning of the Water card and the motto on this card, making nonsense of both. Apparently this idea was rejected by the writer in favor of another. The second thesis appears to be the main subject of the article, judging from the title. It involves an elaborate speculation about a supposed "game" of supposed "cards" called the "Mantegna Tarots", and making some conflation of that (imagined) card game and appropriati. Given that the falsely so-called Mantegna Tarocchi were neither cards nor a game, this can be ignored entirely. The card itself cannot.
As an alternative, perhaps the Devil card was considered an example of the vulgarity of the profane hoi polloi, as rude as vulgar language and an offensive element in the game of Tarot. Perhaps in some locales, when the Devil was not omitted (or discarded) from the hand-painted decks, it was replaced with an emblem specifically designed to reject such vile things. The motto on the Ship card and thus the meaning of the emblem are clear: "I hate secular vulgarity and go away from it". Consider the baptismal formula: "Do you renounce Satan? And all his works?" This emblem is an answer to that: "Yeah, I turn my back to such things and leave them behind." Perhaps this emblem was precisely such a rejoinder, designed as a replacement for the Devil card which is present in the popular decks printed for mass markets but not in the hand-painted ones. It would be an anti-Devil card. The common yet versatile nature of a ship image should be kept in mind -- like the Tower, it can illustrate many different subjects. For example, it was repeatedly used by the emblematicists with a variety of meanings.
Regardless of that speculation, as replacements for the Devil/Fire cards in Sicily, the Ship/Tower cards can be easily explained: Sicily is an island; threats come from the sea; watchtowers triumph over that threat. The tower depicted in the Sicilian Tower card is a short, fat building with sloping sides. Such guard towers formed a chain around Corsica and served as a symbol of "homeland defense" in the Mediterranean. Far from being harmless, they were considered so militarily formidable by Lord Nelson's British Navy, (those buggers who ruled the seas and remain legendary today), that the Brits adopted the practice of ringing their own coast with such fortifications after a particularly nasty encounter at Mortella Point, Corsica.
Martello Towers -- those squat, circular buildings on lonely stretches of coastline -- have been part of the [British] seaside scene for over 150 years. This book -- the first of its kind -- describes how and why they were built, their history, and what they are used for today. Copied from a defensive tower in Sicily, the first Martello towers were constructed by the British at vulnerable points of the Channel coast when Napoleon threatened invasion in 1801. Later towers were built during hostilities first between the British and French in North America, and then between Canada and the United States. Strategically sited to protect potential invasion sites and vital installations, they survive in many places, in particular on England's south coast, in Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Orkneys, Canada, the United States and South Africa.
(Shiela Sutcliffe, Martello Towers, 1973.)
So we have two suggestions with regard to the origin of a Ship as replacement for the Devil, one that might precede Sicilian Tarot and have been borrowed in a different context, the other simply a replacement of the Devil with a more localized threat. Likewise, the Sicilian Tower might be either a lighthouse or, more likely, a coastal watchtower. The Ship/Watchtower interpretation is consistent with the images on the cards and with the facts of local history. In addition, these new meanings are consistent with the two recurrent practices in the evolution of Tarot symbolism: eliminating Christian content and proclaiming a local identity via the deck.