Sunday, November 11, 2007

Three Regional Traditions

Tarot was a card game. That is to say, it was a trivial element of popular culture. If it had been a typical card game we would probably know almost nothing about it, because such things do not leave many traces. We might expect a few mentions of the game on lists of prohibitions, or in a literary context, but overall very little. Tarot is different for several reasons. First, it was from the beginning, (or at least from our earliest records, which are probably within a decade or two of the beginning), a game played by 15th-century Italian nobles. This produced evidence in various forms.

Most striking, of course, are the hand-painted Milanese decks with gold and silver leaf, known collectively as Visconti decks. These range in size from about 5.5 inches tall to nearly 7.5 inches for the magnificent Cary-Yale deck, with its additional trumps and suit-cards, and with every one gilded or having a silver-leaf background. Less lavish decks are naturally rare, with uncut examples found in the binding of books but, generally very few early examples have survived. Documentary evidence of Tarot is also richer than expected, including records of commissioned decks and repairs to decks. Because Tarot was popular among an elite, and because it had the allegorical trumps, the subjects of the trump cards were borrowed for a literary exercise, appropriati. The trumps themselves were a unique feature of the card game, and thus were listed in some documents. Also because of the distinctive fifth suit, Tarot was sometimes listed separately from regular cards in lists of permissions or prohibitions, such as dice, tables, cards, and Tarot. A preacher condemning games twisted the meaning of the trumps to serve his purpose, and a Venetian general currying favor with a queen included a Tarot deck along with a unique and highly pedigreed deck. Thus, for a variety of reasons, we have more early documentation of Tarot than we would expect.

As noted in the previous post, the ordering of the trumps is one of the most important clues to the early history of Tarot. There are over a dozen different known orderings of the Tarot trumps. It seems that each locality wanted to put their own distinctive stamp on Tarot, and the easiest way to do that was by making some minor alteration in the rules, including the trump hierarchy. Michael Dummett discovered that the variations clustered into three families of related orderings, which were themselves regionally grouped. This insight was of fundamental importance to reconstructing the early history of Tarot.

If, now, in the light of this analysis, we look at the actual orders, we see that they divide into three sharply distinct types, which I shall arbitrarily label type A, type B, and type C. These types are to be distinguished according to two principles: where the Virtues come; and whether the Angel or the World is the highest card. In type A, the Angel is the highest trump, the World coming immediately below it. The three Virtues, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, occur consecutively, usually interposed just above the lowest card of the middle segment, which, in orders of this type, as least whenever we can tell, is invariably Love. [...]

In orders of type B, something completely different happens. In these, the World is the highest trump, and Justice is promoted to the second highest position in the sequence, coming immediately below the World and above the Angel, the third highest card. There is clearly an association of ideas here: the Angel proclaims the last Judgment, at which justice will be dispensed. In orders of type B, Temperance always comes immediately above the Pope, and is separated from Fortitude, which comes three cards later, after Love and the Chariot. [...]

In an order of type C, the World is again the highest card in the sequence, but, this time, the Angel comes immediately below it. Of the Virtues, it is Temperance that is promoted to a relatively high position, namely to just above Death and just below the Devil; any symbolic appropriateness in this escapes me. The remaining two Virtues are again separated and scattered within the middle segment, Justice in all cases coming lower.
(The Game of Tarot, 399-400.)

Overall, the variations reflected in the dozen early orders were quite minor, and fell into three families or categories of ordering. In creating this taxonomy, Dummett called these categories A, B, and C. Dummett further observed each of the three early centers of the game, where Tarot was established by 1450, was associated with a different one of the three categories. Examples of type A, B, and C, were representative of Bologna, Ferrara, and Milan, respectively. So it would appear that these variations arose when Tarot first spread, and more trivial variations arose during what might be called Tarot's secondary diaspora, out from these three principal centers. Tom Tadfor Little introduced (as far as I know) the informative geographic labels for the three categories: Southern (from Bologna southward, including Florence, Rome, Sicily); Eastern (Ferrara and Venice), and Western (Milan, Pavia, France and elsewhere outside Italy). The table below shows a representative of each family. The three Moral Virtues are in bold to highlight their placement.


FortuneOld ManFortitude
Old ManTraitorTraitor
Death Temperance

Dummett's analysis also has profound implications for the iconography of the trump cycle of images. In a ranked series, sequence is the defining composition of the subjects. Dummett not only identified the salient differences between the various orderings, but also their crucial commonalties, the essential structure of the hierarchy.

When we look closely at the various orders, we find that there was far from being total chaos. A first impression is of a good deal of regularity which, however, is hard to specify. Now the cards which wander most unrestrainedly within the sequence, from one ordering to another, are the three Virtues. If we remove these three cards, and consider the sequence formed by the remaining eighteen trump cards, it becomes very easy to state those features of their arrangement which remain constant in all the orderings. Ignoring the Virtues, we can say that the sequence of the remaining trumps falls into three distinct segments, an initial one, a middle one, and a final one, all variation occurring only within these different segments.
(The Game of Tarot, 398.)

None of the trumps ranked below the Pope were ever promoted above him, and none of the trumps ranked above the Devil were ever demoted below him. In the Eastern tradition one of the three Moral Virtues was promoted to serve as Last Judgment, placed between the Angel of Resurrection and the New World. Except in that single case of extreme redefinition, figures in each of the three sections represent a different type of subject matter: the lowest are representatives of mankind, up to the Emperor and Pope; the middle are allegories of life, including Love, Time, Fortune, Death, and the three Moral Virtues; the highest are eschatological subjects, including the two great triumphs of Revelation, over the Devil and over Death itself. All that, however, will be the subject of later posts.