Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Ranks of Man in Tarot

The Tarot trumps constitute a hierarchy, both in terms of the game and iconographically. In the game of Tarot their rank is their only real meaning. Illustrative of that, modern Tarot decks -- usually double-ended and with French-suited pips -- have large numbers on the trumps and perfectly arbitrary subject matter illustrated. Iconographically, the composition of the cycle of trumps is triumphal, with each card in some sense triumphing over the lower ones, and with each succeeding type of subject matter triumphing over the lower sections.

Those three types of subject matter were pointed out a quarter century ago by Michael Dummett. The lowest-ranking figures, up to the Emperor and Pope, constitute a ranks of man motif representing Everyman, the protagonist of the allegory. The middle trumps, above the Pope and below the Devil, constitute a De Casibus narrative arc, the allegorical heart of the trump cycle. Two examples of successes (in Love and War), two reversals (Time and Fortune), and two forms of downfall (Traitor and Death) are arranged to illustrate the Fall of Princes. The three Moral Virtues, virtues which pertain to the three appetites, are either grouped with the success or shown triumphing over each of the three stages of the De Casibus arc. The highest-ranking trumps show eschatological subjects emphasizing the ultimate triumphs over the Devil and Death itself. That is the generic story of the Tarot trumps. When examined in detail, the individual designs become more challenging to interpret.

If context counts, that is, if there is meaning to the sequence, then the subjects must be interpreted within that appropriate context. For example, given the three types of subject matter, the lowest trumps must be interpreted, at least primarily, in the context of a ranks of man. However, the specifics of ordering may also be meaningful. This is most obviously apparent when noting that the two highest-ranking subjects of this section are the Emperor and Pope. Differences in ordering may suggest differences in meaning, so the subjects must be analyzed within each ordering. More than a dozen pre-Gébelin orderings are known. Each locale created their own version of the Tarot deck, often changing the iconography a bit, but always changing the order of the trumps so that their Tarot would be a bit different than that played in other areas. Some of these changes were apparently quite meaningful in terms of the order and iconography, and are susceptible to detailed interpretation. Others appear to have been more or less random, although most of them maintained the above design in general terms. (Those of the Southern Tradition did the greatest violence to the design, particularly in the lowest-ranking trumps.) Here are representative examples of the ordering of the lowest-ranking trumps.

Mankind: From Highest Prince to Lowest Scoundrel
Western Decks Eastern Decks Southern Decks
TdM Susio Steel MS Metropolitan Charles VI Rosenwald
Fool Fool Fool Fool Fool Fool
Bateleur-1 Bagatella Bagatella-1 Bagatella-1 (Bagatella-1) Bagatella-1
Popess-2 Empress Empress-2 Empress-2 (Empress-2) Popess-2
Empress-3 Popess Emperor-3 Popess-3 (Emperor-3) Empress-3
Emperor-4 Emperor Popess-4 Emperor-4 Pope-4 Emperor-4
Pope-5 Pope Pope-5 Pope-5   Pope-5
1. Bagatella or Bagatto was the most commonly used name for what is today called the Magician. Bagatelle can be found in any dictionary, and the name suggests someone who entertains with frivolous things.
2. It seems likely that there was no Popess in the Charles VI. All decks in the Southern tradition revised the lowest trumps, in various arbitrary ways, to mitigate or remove this inherently ambiguous and potentially offensive figure. However, the Charles VI deck might have had an unnumbered additional card, like Poverty in the Sicilian deck, to maintain the total of 22 trumps.


1. The Steele Manuscript, Bertoni, and Garzoni ordering is one of the two simplest. The Pope and Popess are the highest-ranking figures, suggesting the earthly ruler of the Church and the Church herself. The Emperor and Empress are next, as secular parallels. Female figures with identifying attributes are the conventional form of personified allegory, and these two subjects, Popess and Empress, appear perfectly in keeping with that convention. Two lowly performers are ranked below. The Bagatella, lowest of the trumps per se, is an entertaining performer but also a low life, a charlatan and professional deceiver. As such he is associated with the Father of Lies, just as the Fool immediately brings to mind the atheist of Psalms 14 and 53. Allegorically, fools and the deceivers who mislead them are outstanding representatives of those not included among the faithful, the good people of Church and State who are already represented. Note that both of these representatives of the dregs or the damned are also playful entertainers, and both are given special value in the game. This may have originally been connected with their ambiguous, playful yet disreputable character in the allegory.

2. The Susio and Metropolitan deck ordering is equally straightforward. The Pope and Emperor, supreme rulers of Church and State are the highest ranking figures. The Popess and Empress are next, in the corresponding order, representing the good people of the Church and State over which the Pope and Emperor reign. Overall, this ordering is virtually identical in reading to that previously discussed. In both designs one can readily see a version of the Three Estates concept. Two cards show religious figures, two have nobles, and two cards depict figures from the social nadir. The exalted figures represented include the very highest of the high, while the commoners selected for this rank of man are among the least respected roles in society. This emphasis on the extremes is a traditional method of illustrating a range, sometimes known as merism. (See discussion below.)

3. The Tarot de Marseille and Rosenwald ordering is the most complex, being ambiguous and yet still intelligible. The problem is that the Empress outranks the inherently ambiguous Popess. This immediately suggests some odd, alternative or additional meaning must be implied. At first glance the meaning appears to be the same as the two orderings above. In the table below, this meaning is indicated in the legends above the figures. But the anomalous placement of the Popess, being triumphed over by the Empress, requires another interpretation. Rather than interpret the Popess as the Church, we may interpret her as False Religion, represented by a female pope. (The Tarot de Marseille design derives from Milan, which no doubt recalled a real female "pope", the Guglielmite Manfreda, who had been burned at the stake by the Holy Inquisition in 1300.) The resulting series suggests two 3-card groupings, as indicated by the legends below the figures. The three lowest figures show the lowest of subjects, the damned, triumphed over by the saved, noble souls and their divinely inspired leader. The Empress (State) triumphing over the Popess (False Religion) is analogous to the State's role as the executive arm of the Inquisition. The meanings slip back and forth from one interpretation to the other, like the images in a 3-D hologram, and while they are always intelligible they are never quite coherent.

Everyman in Tarot de Marseille
Fool Bagatto Popess Empress Emperor Pope
T H E    D A M N E D
(fools & deceivers)
T H E    S A V E D
(noble souls)


4. The Southern tradition is the most varied and by far the most corrupt. Being based on attempts to solve the Popess problem, they are best treated as a kind of miscellaneous category rather than meaningful variations. Most of them eliminate the potentially offensive Popess in one way or another, and some effectively eliminate the whole point of the section. The early Rosenwald deck, mentioned above, maintained a meaningful design, but the Southern orderings went downhill sideways after that. The ordering of the fragmentary Charles VI deck can only be guessed at, but it apparently eliminated the inherently ambiguous and potentially offensive Popess altogether. In the Minchiate Tarot deck the subjects have been drastically changed, making hash of the ranks. Suffice to say that there are no religious figures shown. The Sicilian Tarot deck also eliminated the religious figures. The Bolognese variation is the most mindless corruption of the original, obliterating the intended design. To avoid any misconceptions about the ambiguous Popess figure, ranking was eliminated altogether, and later the subjects were changed to four "Moors", completely eradicating the sense of the series.

Other decks in other regions also dealt harshly with the religious figures. Most notably, the Belgian Tarot pattern replaced them with by Bacchus and the Spanish Captain (a character from the Commedia dell'Arte). The 17th-century German-Swiss Tarot de Besancon replaced them with Juno and Jupiter. These changes also destroyed the allusion to three estates along with any semblance of meaningful social hierarchy. In one location after another, the original medieval Christian narrative of Tarot was denatured.

Allegorical Synopsis and Pictorial Schema

The original choices do seem odd, (although not in comparison with the travesty of later changes), which may also have contributed to misunderstanding and dislike for the design. So how does one convey everything, such as the concept of Mankind, in only a few examples? What does it take to be sparing of words or images while still making a forceful, comprehensive, and even poetic statement? Synecdoche is a device whereby a specific instance is used to symbolize a general class, a part is used to symbolize a whole, etc. For example, referring to a person as a "hired hand" illustrates synecdoche: mentioning (and thereby emphasizing) only a particular aspect, (usually a salient aspect, as the hand is symbolic of a manual laborer), but clearly implying the whole person.

One form of synecdoche, frequently used in the Bible, is the figure of speech known as merism, or merismus. When someone uses the expression, "both near and far", they are usually referring not merely to "near" and "far", but everywhere, between as well as at the extremes. So we may refer to the whole of something by mentioning (or depicting) only some of its parts, be that a single typical element, a selection of characteristic elements or examples, or extreme examples illustrating the entirety and its range. In Psalm 91:5-6, we see an example of merism. Because the Lord "will be your shield and rampart",

You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.

The psalm's list of threats is not exhaustive, but merely illustrative, striking, and characteristic. It gives specific examples of what one might fear, but the clear implication is that with the Lord as your shield you will not fear anything, anywhere, at any time. As another example from the Bible, referring to Christ as "the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last" does not indicate his absence in the middle, but merely emphasizes "the Beginning and the End" while implying all.

Frequently, the parts used to illustrate the whole are boundaries or extremes, thereby emphasizing the expanse of the subject rather than characteristic examples. The field of Statistics provides a useful comparison. A distribution may be characterized by many different measures, including measures of typical values (central tendency, such as mean, median, and mode) or dispersion (spread, such as interquartile range or standard deviation) and range (the difference between the lowest and highest values). Tarot used various approaches to representing a comprehensive ranks of man, circumstances of life, and eschatological triumphs. The latter, for example, was enumeration, including every case. This was possible because there are basically just the two eschatological triumphs: the triumph over the Devil and the triumph over Death. The epilogue, Chapter 21's triumph of the New World over all that has passed away, is also included.

An example of how Tarot subjects were selected and used in such a manner, the allegory of Love may represent the personal triumphs and joys of life, while the Wheel of Fortune represents the vicissitudes of life, and Death represents the ultimate transience and mortality of life. Taken together as illustrations of the good, the bad, and the ugly facts of life, they can collectively represent all the circumstances of life. Pierre Michault’s Danse aux Aveugles, from the 1460s, used those three figures, poetically linked by their allegorical blindness (i.e., universality), to just that end.

Getting back to the ranks of man, an emperor and pope were clearly the highest ranking members of society, secular and spiritual. The lowest, however, were not obvious and varied greatly from one depiction to another. Middling figures might also be shown. So in any given depiction the hoi polloi might be represented by respectable figures (e.g., farmer, merchant, miller, butcher, soldier, doctor, baker, etc.) as well as low-lifes (e.g., peasants, fools, paupers, musicians, drunks, gamblers, robbers, cripples, the blind, lepers, etc.) In Tarot, we can consider the Fool and Pope as individually exemplifying the lowest and highest roles in society. By bracketing the entire range of social status, they may collectively represent all of society. Assuming that such meanings were intended in the design of Tarot, then it could in fact be an encyclopedic, universal representation, despite its abbreviated, schematic nature.

Not Just Any Low-lifes

The choice of a Fool and a Mountebank was thus highly discretionary as compared with the Emperor and Pope. Virtually any two members of society, other than clergy or nobility, would have sufficed to reflect the three estates and thereby indicate universality. That makes the selection of a fool and a mountebank more informative about the ideas of the designer than the other figures. These two subjects within Tarot's ranks of man point toward several specific allusions that were intended, thus offering insights to the overall design of the trump cycle. Among the striking features of this pair of choices:

  • They are neither religious nor noble, thus creating a Three Estates motif.
    Showing only nobles, for example, might indicate a narrower speculum principis design.
  • They are very low in terms of social status.
    This further emphasizes the inclusive audience being addressed.
  • They are engaging entertainers, and are given unique roles in the game.
    This points to the fact that the series was created for a game.
  • Folly and Deception are directly related, as are the two performers.
    Likewise, other trump subjects are paired, and this is indicative of a larger structure to the allegorical cycle.
  • Associations with Folly and Deception are deeply disreputable.
    This suggests the alternative interpretation of the Popess in TdM.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Imagined Cards

The Moral Allegory

Who then is free? The wise man, who is lord over himself, whom neither poverty nor death nor bonds affright, who bravely defies his passions, and scorns ambition, who in himself is a whole, smoothed and rounded, so that nothing from outside can rest on the polished surface, and against whom Fortune in her onset is ever maimed.
(Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Satires, 2.7)

Ripping Up the Cards -- a New World

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must transcend these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54)

There is nothing wrong with making up a version of Tarot with new images, or new meanings for the old ones, or revisioning any other work of art or literature to suit our own values, attitudes, beliefs, and practices. Such strong misprision, forced misreading whether intentional or naive, has gone on from the earliest times. It is the way in which old narratives are made newly relevant, speaking to a new audience, often in a very different culture. The point is simply to be aware that such revisions tell us nothing about the historical meaning of the Tarot trump cycle. To impose preferred meanings on the battered artifact and use that fiction to claim historical sanction for one's personal beliefs is indulging a childish game of make-believe.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Estates and Ranks of Man

Over the last 6-8 years it has become common in online Tarot discussions to acknowledge, albeit sometimes under duress, two things that used to be vehemently denied throughout the Tarot community. First, there is Christian content in the Tarot trump cycle, and second, the hierarchy constitutes a moral allegory. Even some recent books by occult apologists give lip-service to these ideas, as long at they are vaguely stated and don't get in the way of fortune-telling, heretical doctrines, Neoplatonic mysticism, and maybe an esoteric manifesto or Cabalistic correspondences. One crucial element of the moral allegory is that the lowest trumps constitute a "ranks of man" motif, representing all mankind as the subject of the allegory. However, in the vacuous musings of popular Tarot authors, this concept is applied as loosely as every other ill-conceived and poorly-defined notion, and the result is a haphazard analysis which explains nothing. For example, the allegory of Love, the Triumphal Chariot, the Hermit (originally an allegory of Time), the Hanged Man, and sometimes other trumps as well, are passingly referred to as elements of the ranks of man.


In fact, the Tarot trump cycle is a moral allegory, but these are not empty words. They have meaning and implications. As discussed in the post, Iconography and the Order of the Cards, first and foremost the trumps constitute a hierarchy, both in terms of the game and the allegorical reading of the cycle. There are three different types of subject matter represented by the lowest-ranking, middle, and highest-ranking trumps. Understanding this means interpreting the meaning of those cards within that sequential context. The lowest trumps represent Mankind or Everyman, the protagonist of the allegorical narrative, and it is patently obvious that this section concludes with the Emperor and Pope. No one but the Pope ranks higher than the Emperor, so they necessarily conclude that section. (Among other things, this fact conclusively rebuts the beloved occultist preconception of the trumps in terms of septenaries. Sad perhaps, but evidence trumps preconceptions.)

A pictorial moral allegory might be something as simple as an image of Father Time or the Grim Reaper, although the viewer must supply most of the details in such a case. Given two-millennia of Stoic-Christian traditions, that is easily done. The protagonist is all mankind; the allegorical circumstance to which they are subject is personified; the themes are the vanity and transience of this life and, for Christians, the implied import and permanence of the next. In more elaborate pictorial allegories a protagonist is shown rather than implied. Everyman's encounter with Death (right) is an example. Having a single figure represent Mankind is probably the most common approach to moral allegory in literature. It may take various forms, including a personified Everyman or Mankind, sometimes portrayed as a noble or even a king (for example, in the morality play Pride of Life), a knight, a pilgrim, etc. Even the author of the work may stand as representative of Mankind. And, naturally enough from a contemporary point of view, a fictional character may be used. This last approach takes us a step away from the more archaic, blatantly forced forms of allegory toward more acceptably modern forms of art and literature, i.e., less obviously allegorical.

A Ranks of Mankind

Another approach to representing Mankind is the use of multiple representatives. This is most commonly seen in the conventional Wheel of Fortune depictions, where several (often four) figures are shown at different points of the wheel. (A very neat ranks of man illustration from Petrarch's De Remediis was included in the Order of the Cards post.) In some cases, each of these figures represents a class of Mankind. In other cases, specific notable figures, historical or mythological, are used. This is the method of exemplars, and may either employ a few select illustrative figures or, in the case of Boccaccio's De Casibus, an encyclopedic collection of them. In many such cases, especially in literature, only notable figures are depicted. The implication is that if even the wealthiest, most virtuous, and most powerful figures are subject to Time, Fortune, Betrayal, and Death, then so is all Mankind.

This is a detail (right) from the 14th-century fresco of The Church Militant and Triumphant by Andrea da Firenze. The god-given order of medieval society shows the pope and emperor enthroned in the center. Leading away from the Emperor are a king, a prince, nobles, knights, merchant, scholar, women and lower-ranked laymen. Leading away from the pope are a cardinal, bishop, along with other members of religious orders. Nobles, clergy, and laymen are all represented, protected by the black and white dogs symbolizing the Dominicans (Domini Canes, watchdogs of God). The Church Militant is thus represented by all living Christians, including all estates and ranks. These figures do not necessarily represent actual individuals, but are representative of a class of people. On the other hand, the All Saints motif, as depicted in Durer's Allerheiligenbild or Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece combines the Church Militant with the Church Triumphant, (i.e., both living and dead), resulting in the possibility of specific identifications and the presence of multiple popes, etc. The point here, however, is simply that they show religious rulers, secular rulers, and lesser figures in an encompassing ranks of mankind.

So, Mankind can be personified by a single allegorical figure, such as a pilgrim, a knight, a noble, or a figure explicitly named Everyman, or exemplified by some such representative selection of figures. When a selection of representatives is used, it usually entails a religious leader, a secular leader, and some lesser figure. Very often the two higher-ranking figures are emperor and pope. Thus, whenever an emperor and pope are seen as part of a group, the likelihood is great that either either Everyman (saved and damned) or the Church Militant (good Christians still living) is the allegorical subject being represented. The 15th-century image of Mary shielding the faithful from the Black Death (with God the Father brandishing Death's darts) is another typical example. Front and center can be seen the emperor and pope, with kings and cardinals close behind, and lesser figures receding into the background.

This brings us to the most common use of such a ranks of man motif: allegories of Death. Eschatological illustrations often borrowed from such allegorical figures, including depictions of the Angels of the Euphrates and also the Four Horsemen, and often showed a ranks of man. Some depictions of an isolated Hellmouth would include emperor and pope along with lesser figures. The Dance of Death is precisely an elaborate ranks of man motif, with each individual, beginning with the Pope and Emperor, facing Death. Triumph of Death works routinely illustrated a ranks of man, with a prominent emperor and pope among the fallen figures. This was true in both the great paintings, such as those from Bologna, Pisa, Palermo, and Clusone, and in the more common Petrarchian depictions. Petrarch himself used the method of exempla in his Trionfi, listing a great many notables in the triumphs of Love and Chastity, all of whom fall to the Triumph of Death.

The point here, as in the Iconography and the Order of the Cards post, is to emphasize the context of the trump cycle itself. The hierarchy either constrains the meaning appropriate to each figure in it, or else Dummett was correct and there is no significant meaning to the Tarot trumps. Given the pervasive use of such ranks of man motifs, the common identifying feature of emperor and pope, and the placement of Emperor and Pope at just the right place in the trump hierarchy, the lowest-ranking cards must be interpreted in that context. As far as I am aware, no one proposing to interpret the Tarot trumps has even taken this first step, breaking the trumps appropriately into three sections and following the lead developed by Dummett over a quarter century ago. However, this is where serious Tarot iconography must begin, with cognate subject matter in art and literature and an analysis of the hierarchy consistent with such subject matter and with the historical orderings of the trump cycle.

Online Resources

Here are some online resources with period images of a ranks of man. Naturally, the Dance of Death is the godfather of all allegorical ranks of man works. The first site has a wealth of information more or less directly related to the Tarot trump cycle, a related work of art.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Fragmentary Belgian Tarot

A week ago, Huck Meyer pointed out on the Aeclectic forum a "curious deck" described in an 1849 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine. That issue included a review of Chatto's The History of Playing-Cards and another article, Tarocchi Cards. Both articles were anonymous, and identifying the author of the article appears to be impossible. (James M. Kuist published The Nichols File of The Gentleman's Magazine: Attributions of Authorship and Other Documentation in Editorial Papers at the Folger Library (1982), but it offers no help. Cf. page 129.) The articles can be accessed via Google Books.

The author had examined 19 woodcut cards, 13 being suit cards and 6 being trumps. The Two and Three of Staves included the letters "I.A.", while the Six and Ten of Coins "represent some of the real coins of the period, among others an English rose-noble". The trumps had no titles, and the writer stated numbers for the trumps which were inexplicable. As an example, he described the World and claimed it was numbered XIIII. Worse, he described only five of the six trumps.

  • I. Time or Saturn, carrying a naked man by the hair of his head over mountains. This may be supposed to be Le Pendu of the modern Tarocchi, in which the man is hung by one foot, a design of which Mr. Chatto gives no explanation, excepting some absurd conjectures of Mons. Court de Gebelin, which are not worth transcribing.
  • XIII. A winged and hoofed devil, marching in the attitude of an heraldic lion rampant. Il Diavolo is one of the usual modern Tarocchi.
  • XIIII. A naked figure walking over a mound, or figure of the world, which is banded and ensigned with a cross, (as in the regalia of emperors and kings.) She holds at her back a red sail; and at the side are clouds and various puffing heads representing the Winds. This is evidently meant for Fortune; which in the ancient French set attributed to Gringonneur is represented as “standing on a circle which represents the world, and holding a globe in one hand, and in the other a sceptre.” (Chatto, p. 197.) But in the modern Tarots the design adopted for this card is the old emblematic representation of the Wheel of Fortune, with four human figures, -- the aspirant, the rising, the prosperous (on its summit), and the falling.
  • XVIII. Justice, standing, a helmet on her head, a balance in her left hand. This emblematic figure occurs in the oldest Tarocchi, and is retained in the modern Tarots.
  • XX. A stooping old man, with a long beard, walking with a staff as high as himself. This no doubt is L'Hermit of the ancient Tarots, still represented by the Hermit, also called the Capuchin.

The descriptions of the trump cards range from obvious to obscure. Each, however, can be connected with a trump from the Belgian tradition. The Devil rampant and the Fortune Triumphant over the World are readily identified as characteristic of the Belgian pattern. Two of the descriptions are quite odd (Justice with a helmet and an Old Man dragging someone over a mountain), so we will assume that the cards he saw were worn, and that some details were unclear on those two cards. His numbering, on the other hand, will be ignored as wholly uninformative. The description of the Coin pip cards is strikingly reminiscent of the Parisian deck, itself a member of the Belgian family of decks.

Justice shown standing and the Old Man with a full-length staff appear inconsistently, present in some Belgian decks but not others. There is an image of Pandemonium(?), in place of the usual Tower or Lightning card, that is unique to the Parisian deck. A worn version of that design might appear to have an old man dragging someone by the hair. Similarly, a Janus-faced Justice is shown in one of these decks, and the second face might have appeared as a helmet on a worn card. The Parisian deck also has realistic-looking "coins" in the suit cards, making a match with all the described features of the "curious deck".

Among the cardmakers/decks either exemplifying or related to the Belgian pattern are the following: Francois-Jean Vandenborre (K:I 145, 284), Jean Galler (K:I 152), Jacques Vieville (K:II 308), Parisian Tarot deck (K:I 135, K:II 311), Adam C. de Hautot (K:II 323), Antoine Jar (K:II 329), Martin Dupont (K:II 330), and Nicolas Bodet. Kaplan, in v.II of his Encyclopedia of Tarot, discusses the suit of Coins in the Parisian deck, in which each "coin" displays a heraldry from different regions of Europe. The coins in the present deck, showing "real coins of the period" from different areas, may have been a variation on that idea.

The dating of the deck is suggested by at least two factors. First, the absence of titles on the trumps suggests a terminus ante quem of early 17th century. Later decks all had titles, but decks like that Sforza Castle trumps and the Vieville Tarot had only numbers. A second factor is the inclusion of a Rose-Noble coin on one of the pips.

In 1344, Edward III introduced a new series of gold coins in imitation of the gold coins produced by Venice, Florence and other leading European cities. These were called florins or double leopards, half florins or leopards, quarter florins or helms. This first issue was not a success, mainly because they were overtariffed, and was soon replaced by another new series. The Noble was introduced shortly after, with a value of 6 shillings and 8 pence. Although this sounds odd, it was one third of a pound, and equal to half a mark. Pounds and marks were both units of account rather than actual coin denominations. Effectively this assumed a gold silver ratio of 11.04 to 1, which must have been about right at the time because this new denomination was to endure for over a century until 1465. The Angel replaced the Noble in 1465 under Edward IV at the same value of six shillings and eight pence, and were to continue in use until 1642. At the same time as the angel was introduced under Edward IV, the Ryal or Rose Noble valued at ten shillings was also introduced. These two changes had the effect of unifying the two systems of account prevailing at the time, although the ryal dropped out of use slightly earlier, in 1600.
(Gold Sovereigns)

That suggests an early dating, as does the absence of titles on the trumps. Otherwise, given the cards' apparent relationship with the Belgian family in general and the Parisian Tarot in particular suggesting a familiar lineage, this fragmentary deck seems almost like an old friend.

The Dating of Boiardo's Tarocchi

The precise dating of Boiardo's Tarot poems, Viti's commentary, and the woodcut deck that was eventually produced, are open questions. Some discussion of the first question, dating the poems themselves, took place on the Boiardo mailing list in 2003. Ross was kind enough to invite me to read the archived posts: the evidence and arguments presented seem to agree with each other, suggesting that Boiardo's Tarocchi were probably written in the early 1460s, around 1463.

Ross Caldwell reported that Rudolfo Renier proposed an early date, perhaps 1461, because of the "juvenile" nature of the poems; Vittorio Rossi suggested 1469-78, based on Boiardo's close relations with the d'Este court at that time, but, as discussed below, those close relations appear to have begun in 1462; Simona Foa suggested that Boiardo wrote it while at a time when the passion for Tarocchi was high. Caldwell noted that "this is not helpful to us, unfortunately, because the passion for tarocchi and other card games remained relatively constant with the Este."

Raimondo Luberti reported that both Rodolfo Renier and Giovan Battista Venturi considered Boiardo's Tarocchi a juvenile work, and that he was, at the time he composed it, a struggling and insecure poet, still not able to manage his rhymes well. Luberti wrote, "His verses were experimental and under obvious influence of French Romances (Tristan, etc.) and especially of Petrarchism also for the argument (idealized Love, etc.) Later, in Orlando, he was under the influence of more relatively modern poets such as Pulci and the others XV century authors prose and poetic authors."

In addition to the immature character of the writing, there is also the triviality of the form being exploited, a card game, and the commonplace nature of the development of the subject, selecting famous exemplars for the Passions of the Soul. These both suggest that the Tarocchi was a youthful exercise. Then there is Duke Borso, Sigismondo, and Ercole's fondness for cards, and specifically Tarot, referred to by Caldwell. Even if this was a constant, it suggests an argument for narrowing the time frame, as indicated by Rossi. Matteo Maria Boiardo was born in 1441. Mari Hoshizaki, referencing Gardner's Dukes and Poets in Ferrara, described for the mailing list Boiardo's "coming of age" and early relations with the rulers of Ferrara. Here are the key passages from Gardner.

In February, 1460 -- on the death of Giulio Ascanio -- he first comes forward as the feudal Lord, Comes Scandiani et Casalgrandis, in a letter to Count Silvio di San Bonifazio, Captain of Reggio, announcing the death of his uncle....

Boiardo appears to have passed the next eight or nine years of his life mainly at Scandiano, in the midst of the scenery he so loved, playing the part of a feudal lord, hunting and entertaining, and much engaged in the somewhat prosaic affairs of the waters of the Secchia -- a standing source of contention between the Boiardi and the Commune of Reggio, which that latter city derived its water supply from a canal from that stream....

Although high in favour with the Duke, whose benign bearing towards him he records in one of his sonnets, a far warmer devotion united Boiardo with Ercole d'Este. After the recall of the latter from Naples in 1462 and his appointment as ducal governor of the Duchy of Modena, Boiardo was a constant visitor to the latter city, as also to the smaller Court that Sigismondo held in Reggio.
(Edmund G. Gardner. Dukes and Poets in Ferrara: A Study in the Poetry, Religion and Politics of the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries, 1904; 255-6.)

According to that account, Boiardo was quite close to Ercole, and from 1462 was a "constant visitor". Given Caldwell's observation that the d'Este "passion for Tarocchi" was a constant, Boiardo would certainly have been exposed to that during his many visits from the early 1460s. This would have been the period in which that passion was most striking to him, and in which he would have been most likely to cater to it in some extravagant manner. Thus, the argument from the trivial subject matter and commonplace development (alluded to in the previous post) agrees with the argument from the immature execution which agrees with the argument from Boiardo's first close and protracted contacts with the d'Este passion for Tarocchi.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Boiardo's Poems and Viti's Commentary

As suggested in the previous post, Internet Tarot enthusiasts are usually predictable, uninformative, and more often than not, misleading. However, they are often entertaining in the same fashion as small children who are just learning about the world. Quick to assume that they are the first to consider whatever evidence they have just stumbled across, they routinely conclude that what they've found and the fantasies they spin about it are of the utmost importance for Tarot history. Laughably and predictably, they insinuate their preconceptions about fortune-telling and occult secrets into mundane works, again and again, and -- not surprisingly -- they have made such claims about Boiardo's Tarocchi. Matteo Maria Boiardo’s obscure 15th-century poems based on the numerical structure of a Tarot deck were translated last year, and last week the Association for Tarot Studies, in their December newsletter, republished that translation. In 2006, when the translation was first published online, the following lament was posted to a popular online forum, decrying the imagined fact that playing-card historians had ignored Boiardo’s Tarocchi, and proclaiming that a proper reading of Boiardo reveals hitherto secret and universal truths about they symbolism of playing cards in general and Tarot in particular.

The Tarocchi poem of Count Matteo Maria Boiardo awakes to some life in English language, after it had known in Italian long ago and somehow been rather overlooked by nearly everybody ... yes, a very curious Tarot and hardly of worth for anything. And as historical source to understand the origin of Tarot ... not important, much too curious a thing, leave it aside, nobody is interested. So - it seems - have thought 1000's of Tarot researchers all the time, researching for the orign of Tarot here and there, above, below, right and left, in front and behind: Where is the mystery? Boiardo was overlooked - how else is it explainable, that a complete text - a short one, but with 262 lines poem not counting title etc. about "real playing card history", and that means it's one the longest between all this collected snippets of playing card history, here a few words, there a bill and here a prohibition, and perhaps occasionally 3 sentences together - stayed untranslated all the time. And it was discussed in 1000,s of words various questions, for instance, what does this suits mean, existed card divination already in 15th century, was there something like Kabbala connected to all this Tarot stuff. Boiardo was overlooked ... Well, it's my prophetic day ... we've there somebody, who describes - in poetical form - what he understands with his suits ... and so should these suits be probably the best and most well known suits of 15th century ... as we've no better suit descriptions of others as far I know. So we get there a "real picture" of that, what really had been in a 15th century mind. Perhaps somebody understands that this not the answer ... no, this is the answer, at least it's the best available..

Hardly anything in that passage is correct, and much of it is absurdly false. The arrogance, ignorance and complete lack of critical thinking displayed is quite like the discoveries and imaginings of a small child who has incorporated some new notion into a larger world of make-believe. Was Boiardo’s Tarocchi overlooked by playing-card historians? Not at all. It was read, analyzed, taken into account and reported on repeatedly. It has, in fact, been singled out for special attention as one of the two striking exceptions to the standardized trump subjects in early Tarot decks, and very interesting in its own right. Below are quotes from and references to Gertude Moakley, Sylvia Mann, Michael Dummett, Stuart Kaplan, and Detlef Hoffman. Are there thousands of Tarot researchers? In fact, there have been very few researchers, i.e., scholarly students of playing-card history, although there have been many hundreds of cultists and fantasists, like the author of the above-quoted passage. The fact that fantasists have previously ignored Boiardo is a boon. (Would that the blessing had continued!) Does the Boiardo Tarocchi reveal what the suits mean? How could they? They have unique suits that are largely unrelated to the standard suit systems. The reason they are described in detail is precisely because they are a novel literary creation, and their unique symbolism is the point of the exercise. That is in contrast to real playing cards, where playing card games is the point. Does Boiardo’s Tarocchi tell about divination with playing cards or Cabalistic content in Tarot? Not at all. Were the suit signs in Boiardo’s Tarocchi the best known suit system of the 15th century? Again, an absurd notion. The poetry itself was very obscure, and the suit-signs were far from being well known. There is no indication they were ever used again! In contrast, the common suit signs of regular playing cards were widely known, and, within a given locale the local suit system was universally known.

Boiardo and Viti

Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441-1494), Count of Scandiano, served the Este court in Ferrara and was appointed governor of Reggio. He was an accomplished Italian poet, author of the humanist epic Orlando Innamorato, and he also translated Lucian and Apuleius into Italian. He is nonetheless most famous for his contribution to the Matter of France and its famous knight errant Roland (Orlando in Italian). (Right: Charlemagne discovers Roland slain; French MS, c.1415.) Although his book was written in a difficult and old-fashioned style, which limited its popularity, it strongly influenced the more appealing sequel Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto.

Sometime in the late 1400s Boiardo wrote a poem related to Tarot. (The exact dating is of little significance but, given the commonplace nature of the work, it was probably fairly early, prior to 1470.) The poem included two sonnets and five capitoli. Each capitolo or section consisted of tercets, 3-line verses. Four of the sections contained 14 tercets each and the final section had twenty-two. This structure was borrowed from the design of a standard Tarot deck, with four suits of 14 cards each and 22 trump cards. In addition to borrowing the structure of the deck for his poem, the poem explicitly references the Tarot deck, mentioning carte and trionfi in the first sonnet. The fifteenth-century poems were first published posthumously, in 1523, and their influence on Tarot history appears to have been precisely zero. They were subsequently referred to by the anachronistic sixteenth-century name I Tarocchi.

Pier Antonio Viti da Urbino (c.1470-1500) was the brother of the well-known Renaissance artist Timoteo Viti. (Right: Timoteo Viti, St. Thomas a Becket and St. Martin of Tours, 1504.) According to a nineteenth-century source, Viti was a doctor and twice (1492 and 1498) served as Gonfaloniere, a prestigious civic post.

An Illustrazione (commentary) by Viti, written in the late fifteenth century, described Boiardo’s poems as being intended for an actual deck of playing cards, and described a game to be played with this deck. Whether or not Boiardo intended anything of the sort, Viti addresses his essay to a lady of the court of Urbino and “expresses the hope that his patroness will order such a pack to be made”. (The Game of Tarot, 420.) The deck as Viti described it would apparently have been a rather lavish production after the fashion of known hand-painted decks. It would contain 80 cards: one card for each of the two sonnets and one card for each of the 78 tercets. The tercet cards would be modeled on a regular Tarot deck, with four suits, each of which would have four court cards and ten pip cards, along with 22 trump cards. At some point a woodcut deck was actually commissioned, but it does not follow Viti’s descriptions in detail. Dummett notes that a surviving deck “missing the Matto, the trumps, and twelve other cards is mentioned by Merlin in his book of 1869” and that “another example, missing the Matto and the court cards, but including the trumps, was mentioned by Carlo Lozzi in 1900.”

Boiardo and Viti in Tarot History

Surviving examples of the Boiardo-Viti deck show a simple but well-executed production, in keeping with other good-quality woodblock decks of the period rather than a hand-painted luxury deck. Woodcut or painted, such novelty decks are often intriguing in themselves but usually of little value in adding to our knowledge of general playing-card history. Michael Dummett emphasized this and credited the insight to Sylvia Mann.

She was the first to draw a clear distinction, absent from the catalogues of any of the great collections of playing cards, between standard and non-standard cards: that is, between those of a kind normally used for playing, on the one hand, and on the other, all other cards. The distinction may at first sight look to be an obvious one: but obvious or not, it had not been drawn until Miss Mann drew it, and, once drawn it introduced a great clarity into the subject. [...] Isolated experiments in playing-card design occur again and again, and are often of great beauty and therefore of interest to those for whom the study of playing cards is an adjunct of art history; but they have no significance of the history of playing cards as such. [...]

[... applying that distinction] has been made a great deal easier by the realisation that, at all places and times, standard playing cards conform to one or another standard pattern, another concept introduced, in its generality, by Miss Mann.
(The Game of Tarot, xxi-xxii.)

Likewise, the poems are more interesting as a minor bit of literary history tangentially related to playing cards than they are informative about playing-card history per se, and the most valuable aspects of Viti's text in regard to the latter subject are his comments related to standard Tarot and its rules of play. Unfortunately, he offers limited insight into the regular game of Tarot.

Viti takes it for granted that his readers will know all about the games normally played with the ordinary Tarot pack, and restricts himself to an account of a special game to be played with Boiardo’s cards.… This somewhat jejune entertainment is hardly a serious card game; it is more consonant with the kind of society game described in various works such as Ringhieri’s Cento Giuochi Liberali. There is no reason for assuming that any of its special features derive from already existing games played with the ordinary Tarot pack, although we cannot exclude such a possibility; the main value of the account, for our purpose, is in respect of those few fundamental features which it does share with Tarot games as we know them. It is a trick-taking game; the trionfi serve as permanent trumps. It obligatory to follow suit if one can, and to play a trump if one cannot. Not only do all the court cards beat the numeral cards of a suit, but the order of the numeral cards runs in one direction in two suits and in the other direction in the remaining two. Without Viti’s commentary, we should have assumed that these were all features of Tarot games from the first; but it is pleasant to have confirmation of that assumption, and, although Viti is not purporting to describe ordinary Tarot games, the fact that his, or Boiardo’s, game has these features is some confirmation.
(The Game of Tarot, 421-2.)

Nonetheless, although revealing little about the game of Tarot or the decks with which it was played, the details of the Boiardo/Viti deck and the game described by Viti are certainly fascinating in themselves. Boiardo’s poems also provide a unique example of the well-known literary borrowing termed Tarocchi appropriati.

Boiardo’s Appropriati

Tarocchi appropriati was a popular literary adoption of some aspects of the Tarot deck. Such borrowing was most common in the sixteenth century, and in its most typical form, the borrowing consisted of the 22 trump subjects which were playfully compared with 22 people. In Boiardo’s Tarot poems we see a different kind of borrowing, using the structure of the Tarot deck rather than the subjects of the trump cards, and also a different use for the borrowing -- to provide form for verses about the popular subject of the Four Passions. As noted above, the poems also make explicit reference to carte and trionfi, emphasizing the borrowing. The opening sonnet explains that the Four Passions of the soul are the forty pip cards in the game, and give the suits their meaning. Novel suit-signs were used to represent these allegorical meanings: Whips for Fear, Eyes for Jealousy, Vases for Hope, and Arrows for Love. The verses corresponding to trumps and court cards used biblical or classical figures as exemplars.

As an example of Boiardo’s approach consider the King of Whips (Fear). Boiardo chose King Dionysius the Elder (c.430-367), also known as Dionysius of Syracuse, (most well known for the legends of Damocles and of Damon and Pythias, and as an exemplar of tyranny). In accounts by ancient writers including Cicero and Plutarch, Dionysius is also remembered as pathologically fearful. The King was reportedly so afraid of barbers and their implements that he insisted on being shaved with sharpened walnut shells or, depending on the account, hot coals. In some of the tales he is shaved only by his own daughters. Boiardo wrote:

FEAR: Dionysius, instead of a barber,
Had his own daughters shave him with coals, in order
To avoid iron; and in the end he did not avoid it.
Because it is difficult to avoid what has been decided by heaven.

From the time of Petrarch and Boccaccio, a great deal of humanist writing involved clothing essentially medieval moral subjects in classical garb. In the same way, Tarot was reinvented to be more appealing to Renaissance sensibilities. The Boiardo-Viti Tarot was one of several known novelty decks in which the medieval-Christian Triumph of Death allegory of standard Tarot was replaced by subject matter more congenial to sophisticated Renaissance tastes. Playing cards commissioned by nobles were routinely illustrated with such classical subjects. Gods, pagan heroes, figures from the Roman Republic, and the like, were all reflected in various decks, both Tarot and regular four-suited decks. (If Tarot had originated as a deck commissioned by the nobility, then the standard deck would almost certainly have reflected such sophisticated humanist content.) Because Boiardo’s poems were initially organized according to the structure of a Tarot deck, they were a ready-made subject to be turned into a Tarot deck. Combined with Viti’s commentary, the poems provide a handbook for the deck in the same fashion as the Marcello/Marziano commentary on the four-suited deck created for Filipo Maria Visconti.

(In January 2006, the poems were translated into English by “P. Marco”, aka “Dr. Arcanus”, and Ross Caldwell, and put online at Tarotpedia. The translation is both valuable and interesting. However, the main Tarotpedia article on Boiardo is full of crackpot speculation concerning Kabbalistic influences and an idiosyncratic theory of early Tarot history, and should be ignored. Some of the discussion pages, conversely, contained valuable information which should be in the main article.)

The Four Passions and Their Exemplars

Everyone understood the Passions and their significance. A list of just the most prominent ancient, medieval, and Renaissance authors whose writings treated the Stoic subject of the Four Passions would read like a Who's Who. Names like Virgil, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Petrarch, and so on, only begin to suggest the pervasiveness of the subject. As an example, Saint Thomas’ Summa Theologia has a large section devoted to the subject. Here is a passage from Question 25, First Part of the Second Part: Whether these are the four principal passions: joy, sadness, hope and fear? (Also see questions 22, 23, and 24.)

These four are commonly called the principal passions. Two of them, viz. joy and sadness, are said to be principal because in them all the other passions have their completion and end; wherefore they arise from all the other passions... Fear and hope are principal passions, not because they complete the others simply, but because they complete them as regards the movement of the appetite towards something: for in respect of good, movement begins in love, goes forward to desire, and ends in hope; while in respect of evil, it begins in hatred, goes on to aversion, and ends in fear.

In short, we fear what will end in sadness, and we hope for what will end in joy. St. Thomas cites Boethius (among others) as an authority, in the same manner he cites Fathers of the Church, Aristotle, etc. Here is a passage from Boethius.

The stream, that wanders down the mountain's side, must often find a stumbling-block, a stone within its path torn from the hill's own rock. So too shalt thou: if thou wouldst see the truth in undimmed light, choose the straight road, the beaten path; away with passing joys! away with fear! put vain hopes to flight! and grant no place to grief! Where these distractions reign, the mind is clouded o’er, the soul is bound in chains.

Petrarch's, De Remediis, his most respected work during the 15th century, was a series of dialogs between Reason and the Passions. The philosophical subject matter, Reason versus the Passions or the related theme of Virtue and Vice, was ubiquitous. The use of games, including dice, chess, and card games, as the basis for literary creations and moral allegories, was a well established tradition dating back centuries before Boiardo and Viti. The use of biblical and classical persons as exemplars of human qualities and behaviors, or abstract concepts including virtues, vices, triumph, reversal, downfall, and so on, was one of the hallmarks of Renaissance humanism. So despite their novelty, Boiardo’s poems based on the structure of a Tarot deck, and the deck and game Viti created from those poems, were perfectly characteristic of their age.

Viti’s Trump Cards

The trumps of the Boiardo-Viti Tarot had allegorical subjects such as Patience which were illustrated by historical figures, exemplars. There is no apparent correspondence with standard Tarot trumps. The subjects exemplified are virtues and vices. “The first trump is The Fool, followed by cards titled with various personal emotions and experiences—Idleness, Labor, Desire, Reason, Secrecy, Grace, Disdain, Patience, Error, Perseverance, Doubt, Faith, Deception, Wisdom, Chance, Modesty, Peril, Experience, Time, Oblivion, Strength.” (Kaplan, I:28.) If considered in pairs, the design contrasting virtues and vices can be seen. Idleness and Labor form an obvious pair, and other readily apparent pairs include Disdain and Patience, Doubt and Faith, Deception and Wisdom, etc. Peril might be the cost and Experience the benefit, for example, while Folly, which is identified with the World it loves, is effectively paired against the Fortitude by which the world’s charms are resisted. Some pairs seem to be direct opposites, some might represent deficiency and remedy, while others—such as Time and Oblivion—suggest cause and effect, but the general nature of the design can be seen by reading down the two columns of the table.

1. Idleness2. Labor
3. Desire4. Reason
5. Secrecy6. Grace
7. Disdain8. Patience
9. Error10. Perseverance
11. Doubt12. Faith
13. Deception14. Wisdom
15. Chance16. Modesty
17. Peril18. Experience
19. Time20. Oblivion
21. Strength

When the subjects are examined in terms not merely of the abstract allegorical qualities but according to the examples given in the verses, the paired design becomes more clear. Perhaps the first thing to note is that the vices are exemplified by male figures and the virtues are female.

The World
1. Sardanapalus 2. Hippolyta
3. Actaeon 4. Laura
5. Antiochus 6. Grace
7. Herod 8. Psyche
9. Jacob 10. Penelope
11. Aegeus 12. Sophonisba
13. Nessus 14. Hypermnestra
15. Pompey 16. Aemilia
17. Caesar 18. Rhea
19. Nestor 20. Dido
21. Lucretia

Desire and Reason are a traditional opposition, one of the Four Passions of the Soul triumphed by Reason. The verse on Desire uses Acteon as its exemplar, who according to Ovid looked upon Diana and paid a great price for his desire. Reason is exemplified by Laura, whose Chastity famously triumphed over Cupid. Another example is Error. It is exemplified in terms of Jacob, who wanted Rachel but was deceived by Laban. His error was in fact overcome with Perseverance: “Now look this way: behold the patriarch, Mocked and yet constant, who through seven years Served to win Rachel, then for seven more: A mighty love that hardship could not quell!” Perseverance is then illustrated with Penelope and Odysseus, separated for 20 years while Penelope fends off suitors.

Unfortunately, none of the trump cards from the Viti-inspired deck survive to the present. However, given the extant court cards, which illustrate similar subjects in a plain and direct manner, it is easy to imagine what the trumps must have looked like. It is worth noting that this woodcut deck does not follow Viti’s specifications. For example, Viti described his preferred illustration of Polyphemus, the Page of Arrows: he would be shown as a peasant dressed in a single sheep skin, with a bagpipe at his feet and some sheep in the background. This would reflect the figure as portrayed in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and various works of art. However, the illustration in the woodcut deck is not merely simpler (no sheep or bagpipes) but different (dressed as a Roman soldier rather than a sheepskin-clad peasant).

Viti’s Pip Cards

Whips, Eyes, Vases, and Arrows formed a unique set of suit-signs. On the other hand, novel suit-signs turned up again and again in playing-card history. Many examples can be given from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These examples include both Tarot decks like that of Caitlin Geofroy (which used the suit-signs of Virgil Solis’s regular deck, lions, monkeys, parrots, and peacocks) and regular decks like the animal and bird suited decks that began before Tarot was invented.

Likewise, many different allegorical or symbolic interpretations of suit-signs were offered throughout the history of playing cards. From Brother John’s early comment about two suits being good and two being bad, Meister Ingold’s moralization, the fifteenth-century naming of the French court cards, a essay by Galcottus Martius, Pietro Aretino’s characterization of the suits in 1543, Innocentio Ringhieri’s association of the suits with the four Cardinal Virtues a few years later, a 1582 book by Gosselin associated the suits with the four elements, all the way through to Claude François Menestrier’s 1704 interpretation of the four suits as social allegories. The allegorical subject matter of Boiardo’s novel suit-signs was a universally known and significant one, which he explicitly labeled as such—the four passions of the soul—in his poem.

In his opening sonnet, Boiardo declares that the 40 pip cards describe the passions of the soul. Then he explains the symbolism of the suits-signs, and finally makes an odd comment about the numbering of the verses. “The number in the verses runs: one, two, three, ending at the highest.” This refers to the way he begins each verse. (Viti’s Commentary expands on the device, apparently considering it quite clever.) The first word of each of the 40 tercets is the allegory of the suit, for example, timor or fear for the suit of Whips, while the second word always starts with the initial letter of the corresponding number. Counting in Italian begins uno, due, tre, etc., and thus the second word of the lowest-numbered cards/verses begins with u, d, t, etc. For example, in the first three tercets of the Speranza capitolo, the second words are unita, dubio, and terminata, respectively.

SPERANZA unita tien co `l corpo un'alma
Talor, che senza lei non staria in vita,
Poi spesso giunge a victoriosa palma.

SPERANZA dubio alcun non ha smarrita,
Ma sta ferma e constante in fino al fine,
Quando Ragione il suo sperare aita.

SPERANZA terminata in un confine,
Se vol passar piu in là che non convene,
Prima che coglia el fior, trova le spine.

Viti’s Court Cards

The court cards, like the trumps, all reference exemplars from classical and biblical sources. Assigning notable figures to the court cards of regular decks has been traditional in playing-card history. Famously, the French-suited decks have named court cards. A late fifteenth-century deck from Lyons, for example, is described by Detlef Hoffman.

The kings, for example, are called “le Duc de Langre” or “le Duc de Ramis” and the queens have very much more poetical names, such as “la Belle Cleme” or “la Sebule” and also those of goddesses of antiquity such as “Venus”, “Juno”, and “la Pucelle”—which might be regarded as meaning the same as Pallas Athene. The knave answers to “Paris” and the ship with wiich this Trojan shepherd abducted Helen can be seen in the background.
(The Playing Card, 30.)

Gertrude Moakley summarized the assignments in Boiardo’s poems.

It was customary in his time to think of the court cards in each suit as having a personal name. For his fancied set they were to be: in the suit of Love, Polyphemus for the Page, because he loved Galatea; Paris for Knight, because of his love for Helen of Troy; Venus for Queen, pictured in a car drawn by swans, as she is shown on a wall of the Schifanoia Palace at Ferrara. Jupiter would be King [because of his many amorous adventures]. In the suit of Hope, Horatius Cocles, noted for his bravery, would be page; Jason, Knight; Judith of Bethulia, Queen; and Aeneas, King, because of the hope which sustained him in his journey from Troy to Italy. Hundred-eyed Argus would be Page in the suit of Jealousy; the Knight, Turnus, rival of Aeneas for the hand of Lavinia; the Queen, Juno, to be shown riding in a card drawn by peacocks, whose many-eyed tails are a symbol of watchful jealousy. Juno’s jealousy of the amorous Jupiter was proverbial. The King of this suit would be Vulcan, Jealous of Mars’s success with his wife Venus. In the suit of Fear the court cards are to be Phineus, Ptolemy, Andromeda, and Dionysius, all unhappy victims of this emotion.
(The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, 48-49.)

For a more detailed example, the Page of Arrows is shown as Polyphemus, the Cyclops whose love for the sea nymph Galatea was the subject of poems by Theocritus, circa 275 BC. We can compare the old poetry of Polyphemus with Boiardo’s punning synopsis.

Theocritus wrote:
His desire eclipsed convention; there was no
Sending apples, or roses, or exchanging locks
Of hair, none of the usual things. He was
Truly insane, could think of nothing else.
“But if I am too shaggy, look: I have
Oak logs, and, unquenched by covering ash,
The spark of never-wearying fire within my cave.
I could endure being singed to the quick by you-
My only eye, the sweetest thing to me,
I'd let you burn it.”

Boiardo wrote:
LOVE made this big giant, Cyclops,
So full of love for Galatea,
That possibly no lover burned as much as he did.

Viti's Game

Viti even specified a special game for his deck. Not content to describe the deck to be created from Boiardo’s verses, he also detailed the way it was to be used. Just as the deck desired by Viti is a novelty item, far removed from standard Tarot decks, the game envisioned by Viti is a rather fatuous diversion, a parlor game not likely to have been indulged more than a few times at best. It largely takes for granted the regular cardplay of Tarot, telling us virtually nothing about the game on which this elaboration is based. Instead, it describes additional elements: Viti’s pastime overlays a reading of the poems before the card game itself, and some unusual procedures after the normal play is finished. (Viti cannot have been much of a card player.) His instructions are well summarized by Dummett.

This game falls into four parts. The two cards bearing the sonnets are first set aside, and then each draws a card to determine the dealer, who is the one drawing the highest card. When the cards have all been dealt out, the first part of the game consists simply in each player’s reading out the verses on his cards, from which, Viti naively remarks, much amusement may be had. It is not explained what happens when the number of players is such that the cards cannot be distributed equally and exhaustively. The second part of the game consists in playing out the cards in tricks: it is necessary to follow suit when possible, and, when not possible, to play a trump. Nothing is said about the way the Matto is played. Among the numeral cards, the higher-numbered beat the lower-numbered in the suits of Arrows and Vases, but, in those of Eyes and Whips, the lower-numbered beat the higher-numbered; among the trumps the higher-numbered win. At the end of the play, each player is paid by every other player who has won fewer tricks than he has as many scuti as the difference in the number of tricks they have won. At this stage, those who have won no tricks fall out of the game, the third part of which now takes place. Using the cards they have won in tricks, each player reckons up points as follows: he counts one positive point for each card he has in the suits of Arrows and Vases, and one negative point for each card in the suits of Eyes and Whips; presumably trumps do not count either way. When the points have been thus reckoned, each player may demand from any other who has a lower score that he hand over to him any card of the demander’s choice. Presumably it is meant that one card is to be surrendered for each point of difference in the scores, and presumably also, if a players asks for a card which the other does not have, he cannot try again. In choosing which card to ask for, a player will have an eye on the fourth part of the game: this consists in each player’s putting together the longest sequence of consecutive cards which he now has in his hand. The winner—the player with the longest such sequence—can demand from the loser (presumably the player with the shortest sequence) everything that he has about his person; clearly, one needs to deposit one’s valuables elsewhere before sitting down to play this game.
(The Game of Tarot, 421-2.)

Thus, Boiardo’s poems and Viti’s deck and game are remarkable novelties based on Tarot. They are a wonderful example of the type of pastimes which might appeal to Renaissance intellectuals, and provide insight into the type of subject matter which might be incorporated into games for the upper classes. Unfortunately, they tell us extremely little about the standard game itself; they say even less about standard decks with which the popular game was routinely played; and they tell us nothing at all about the earlier origins of Tarot itself. The appropriati and the novelty deck are just that, a literary exercise and a unique, one-off deck for a peculiar parlor-game elaboration of Tarot. And they were certainly not overlooked by playing-card historians.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Gresham's Law of Tarot History

December in Southern California: the brush-fire season gently overlaps the flash-flood season. The front-yard Birch and the back-yard Liquidamber are mostly bare, frustrating a hundred goldfinches seeking a sheltered perch between feeding frenzies. And a time of Agonizing Reappraisal as a new year approaches. Today's question: is there a place for Tarot history discussions in the online Tarot "community"? The previous post pointed to fact-based Tarot history online, but here we'll discuss the more common sorts of online Tarot -- idiotic (foolish in one way or another) or idiosyncratic (peculiar to an individual or small group).

I've been a minor and fringe figure in the online Tarot "community" for the larger part of a decade now. Yesterday I found myself in a borderline surreal discussion with a forum moderator. Her topic was what kinds of censorship were taken for granted, (e.g., talk about the forum itself or the rules under which it was run was obviously forbidden), and what kinds of censorship were less obviously necessary, (e.g., some "meta" discussions were forbidden but others were not, and there were no rules or even guidelines to clarify which are which). A couple weeks ago, in a different forum, a moderator made a bargain with another poster that would allow me to select five of her idiotic posts for deletion in return for the deletion of five of mine which she objected to. This ludicrous proposal was supposed to be "fair" and, apparently, appropriate in some way that I do not begin to understand. Needless to say, I had no interest in deleting any posts, hers or mine. To help pacify the List I deleted all my posts from this year and stopped posting, which I found less offensive. Admittedly, I'm a sardonic SOB, but what sort of hateful posts are being objected to? Critical ones, naturally. Any harebrained theory that has supporters is, simply because some people believe it, considered worthy of respect. Here are a few examples of steaming bullshit which are considered respectable by prominent online Tarot writers.

Poe's Tarot Temple of Serapis. Michael Poe resurrected the Tarot temple fabrication begun by Etteilla: "The Tarot is an ancient Egyptian book... conceived in the year 2170 BC, during a conference of 17 magicians presided over by Hermes Trismegistus... then engraved on gold sheets which were placed around the central fire of the Temple of Memphis." (Etteilla, quoted in Tarots: Art and Magic, 1995.) Poe read a version of this tale as recounted by Bernard Bromage (The Occult Arts of Ancient Egypt, 1953): "Certainly there is good evidence for asserting that the figures which adorn the twenty-two 'Major Arcana' of the Tarot were first discerned as frescoes painted in the Cave of Serapis near ancient Naples and were interpreted as forming part of an Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth...." Poe bolstered this fantasy with additional fiction about an archaeological report on a temple excavation in Naples, describing "20 illustrations that were on the wall prior to their destruction during WWII". The alleged descriptions in the report just happen to coincide precisely with the descriptions of Tarot trumps by the 19th-century occultist Paul Christian -- sacré bleu, a miracle! Despite the obviously fraudulent character of Poe's tale, occultist and Gnostic bishop "Dr. Lewis Keizer, Ph.D." finds it wholly plausible, and concludes, "if Poe's information is correct, we would have an excellent possible source for the earliest Italian Tarocchi images, devoid of Egyptian dress." His doofus essay is part of the curricula at Tarot University.

Rom's Code. This anonymous writer had a hunch that the names on the trump cards of a particular Tarot de Marseille deck were selected and spelled, or misspelled, so as to encode the numbers of the cards. This is not an absurd idea -- it would be mildly clever and easily understandable as a playful "easter egg" hidden by a cardmaker with way too much time on his hands. The problem was that even a perfunctory examination revealed that the coded message, as trivial as it was, didn't exist. After the initial hunch is examined critically and demonstrated to be false, which should take about five minutes, it becomes dumb, disingenuous, or delusional to claim that it is true. And yet that thesis has been maintained to this day, combined with assorted historical speculation about Tarot having been invented in the 12th century by Abbot Suger of St. Denis, etc., most of it dramatically opposed to all existing evidence.

Filipas' Abecedarium. Mark Filipas had a hunch that the subjects on the occultist's traditional Tarot deck, Tarot de Marseille, were indeed selected to correspond with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet -- perhaps not originally, but certainly at some point in time. This was done in the manner of an abecedarium, "C is for cat, cap, crap..." and so on. Like Rom's Code, this is not an implausible notion, a priori. Unfortunately, it is immediately apparent that the hunch was mistaken. The names on the trumps don't support this reading, which is enough to reject it. The principle subjects on the cards likewise fail to support the hunch, even when synonyms are cherry-picked from Hebrew lexicons. Finally, even with cherry-picked substitutions of alleged synonyms for minor details on the cards, it still doesn't work in any but the most arbitrary manner for a subset of the elements. After this has been examined and the facts pointed out, it is dumb, disingenuous, or delusional to claim that the original hypothesis has not been refuted.

Payne-Towler's Missing Link. Occultist and Gnostic bishop Christine Payne-Towler determined to her satisfaction that Lodovico Lazzarelli was the historical "missing link" between the occult and Tarot, specifically, the so-called "Mantegna tarocchi". De Gentilium Deorum Imaginibus was incorrectly assumed to be an occult work, and the Mantegna cosmographic images were incorrectly assumed to be a form of Tarot -- Q.E.D. No evidence supporting either of these assumptions was adduced, (both are patently false), but instead preconceptions and speculation were given free reign. Moreover, she mistakenly believed (based on a relatively reliable source) that Lazzarelli had written 22 of these illustrated poems, and that magic number necessarily implied -- to her -- Cabalistic design and meaning. Given these blunders and flights of fancy, Lazzarelli's poem became the "smoking gun" which demonstrated beyond doubt that Tarot was an occult artifact from its creation in the 1400s. Despite being corrected in detail by Robert V. O'Neill in 2000, she maintains this newly minted esoteric lore to this day, again as part of the curricula at Tarot University.

Meador and Postel's Key. John Meador, a New Age apologist for traditional occultist lore, resurrected a flagrant fabrication about Guillaume Postel's Absconditorum a Constitutione Mundi Clavis. In the 19th century Éliphas Lévi made up an elaborate fiction concerning a 17th-century illustration to Postel's 16th-century book, and Meador wants to justify this in the 21st century. Unfortunately, Arthur E. Waite debunked Lévi's claims in 1896: the illustration was a later accretion to Postel's book, and neither it nor the book itself had any connection with Tarot. This absence of supporting evidence is adduced by Meador as supporting evidence! It indicates that Tarot was not only being alluded to but that it was of special significance: "Yes, and we wonder, why in the world would merely 'a card game' remain unmentioned?" Again, this appears either dumb, disingenuous, or delusional.

And so on. The point is that such blatant bullshit is encouraged. Hunches and notions -- never substantiated, subsequently examined and found false years ago -- continue to be promoted as viable Tarot history and are treated with respect by most of the online Tarot community. Idiocy is not to be mocked! If such drivel were asserted in these people's daily lives, they would be institutionalized. (An obvious exception to that involves orthodox religious idiocy expressed in the increasingly medieval Christian U.S. and Muslim theocracies around the world.) One more example: Two days ago a translation of Boiardo's Tarot poems was announced online. In deference to heavily promoted crackpot theories, (cf. The Beast, referenced in the previous post), the announcement on the ATA Newsletter pointedly suggested that the poems might have been the origin of Tarot. Tarot, however, is documented as being decades older than Boiardo's poems and quite widespread by that time. This eccentric theory was also alluded to on the Tarotpedia website, where the Boiardo translation is also published. In addition, the Tarotpedia page discusses the Comte de Mellet, Eliphas Levi, and the Sefer Yetzirah, leading to, "This also raises an interesting further question as to whether Boiardo may have been in any way influenced by Hebrew contemporaries to choose the number of Hebrew letters (22) for his trumps".

Naturally enough, most Tarot websites and online Tarot forums tend to cater to the interests of the majority of Tarot enthusiasts, people who yearn for ancient secrets, initiated mysteries, and other esoteric lore. That's their audience, and in most cases that audience is devoid of both historical knowledge and critical thinking skills. Tarot is a cult object. It was openly called "holy", "sacred", and "the absolute key to occult science" by an earlier generation, and is deemed to be "inspired" and representing "universal truths" (psychological and/or spiritual) by many of today's cultists. Two central reasons seem responsible for the general acceptance of such rampant idiocy: preconception and an abhorrence of critical thinking -- after all, essentially religious positions cannot be empirically or rationally refuted.

The Tarot pack is the subject of the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched: not by a long way the most important, but the most completely successful. An entire false history, and false interpretation, of the Tarot pack was concocted by the occultists; and it is all but universally believed.
(Ronald Decker, et al., A Wicked Pack of Cards, 1996.)
It is considered a serious breach of community ethics for members to criticize one another's beliefs or practices, at least publicly. Refusal to acknowledge many paths to truth and enlightenment is perceived as dogmatic and intolerant.
(Danny Jorgensen, The Esoteric Scene, Cultic Milieu, and Occult Tarot, 1992.)

The many varieties of Tarot pseudohistory are given credence, treated respectfully long after they have been discredited, and forever accepted as viable alternatives to the documented history of Tarot. In a popularity contest between that factual history and speculative pseudohistory, the latter will always win. The sober and documented reconstruction is just one narrative against many, and it is the least enticing of all. Real history is based on facts, that which we know, while pseudohistory is based on imagination, that which we want. These inventions are naturally more appealing because they were created specifically to be appealing rather than to conform to the findings of historical research. Rather than representing rational analysis, they indulge wishful thinking, and such bad (but appealing and easy) Tarot "history", and the demand that it be treated respectfully, will tend to drive out good (but boring and tedious) Tarot history.

If wishes were horses, it would explain all this horseshit.