Saturday, December 31, 2011

Michael Dummett and Tarot Iconography

The passing of Michael Dummett, especially at the turn of a new year, is a reminder to those interested in Tarot history of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. I want to emphasize one of his less well known areas of contribution, post some passages and comments, and recommend his findings as a starting point for further study.
But first....

We are entering the 3rd year of the 4th decade since the publication of Dummett's monumental study, The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City. Dummett collected, collated, and analyzed a great body of evidence and drew the most plausible and defensible conclusions. This, rather than playful speculation incorporating esoteric folklore, reflects legitimate historical methods and produces conclusions that endure the tests of time. Many additional facts have been discovered since that publication, (including more than his share by Dummett himself), but The Game of Tarot remains the best source of information on the history of Tarot, and the early history of playing cards in Europe.

Because of Dummett's thorough and sober scholarship, all earlier works are superseded while subsequent works are essentially footnotes to this comprehensive study. The book is out of print and used copies typically sell online for about $300. According to Thierry Depaulis, Dummett’s 1993 book, Il mondo e l’angelo: I tarocchi e la loro storia, (The World and the Angel: Tarot Cards and Their History) presents “a more linear history of the Tarot, focusing on the evolution of the game in Italy, which is so fundamental.” That book, however, is even more difficult to find in libraries and is written in Italian, which limits its direct influence. (I've never seen a copy.) A subsequent book on Sicilian Tarot was published in 1995, I Tarocchi Siciliani.

Matto e Bagatto

Most people who know of Dummett from his writings on Tarot are inclined to ignore, dismiss, or marginalize his work. They may ritualistically genuflect to the name, but the man and his work are held in contempt. The fools and charlatans who inhabit the world of pop-culture Tarot have little fondness for the actual history of Tarot.

The vast majority of Dummett's research on Tarot history was focused on The Game of Tarot and the History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack. As such, it is of no interest to typical Tarotists. They may cherry-pick and distort some of the secondary uses of Tarot for their own fanciful fictions, but history per se holds no appeal.

Dissembling concessions aside, they have never quite come to grips with the fact that Tarot was a card game for centuries before it was turned to esoteric ends. Their fascinations are fortune-telling and romantic pseudo-history. Alchemy and Albigensians, numerology and Neoplatonic mysticism have nothing to do with the origin of Tarot or most of its history. That history must therefore be shoved aside to make room for these sexier subjects.

Other later works are more accessible. Chapter Six of The Game of Tarot, examining the early history of occult Tarot, was revised and greatly expanded into two subsequent books: A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot (Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett, 1996), covering the origin and first century of the subject, and A History of the Occult Tarot: 1870 - 1970 (Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett, 2002), covering the second century of occult Tarot. The massive A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack: The Game of Triumphs (Michael Dummett and John McLeod, 2004) updates and expands the main thrust of The Game of Tarot in two imposing volumes. Those titles do not exhaust Dummett's Tarot bibliography. Nonetheless, the early history of playing cards and Tarot has not yet had a better English-language treatment than The Game of Tarot.

The Riddle of Tarot

The comments above are merely to point out that Michael Dummett was by far the greatest scholar of Tarot history. There will not be a second like him, for the same reason that there will not be a second Neil Armstrong: only one person can be the first to do something. Dummett was the first to produce a comprehensive study of Tarot history. Among other achievements in that work, Dummett proved that the study of Tarot history need not make any strong assumptions about the meaning of the trump hierarchy. As disappointing as that fact is to Tarot enthusiasts, with their conviction that the trumps are some sort of esoteric manifesto written in pictorial code, Dummett proved that no such assumption is required to study the factual history of Tarot. His research and writings, greatly surpassing anything before or since, made no such assumptions—Q.E.D.

Given that demonstration, it seems paradoxical that Dummett also did some of the most important analysis of Tarot iconography. He began, however, by suggesting that Tarot iconography was probably a dead end. (His view has been mis-stated as being a "theory of no meaning", which quotes below should demonstrate it was not.)

We can derive some entertainment from asking why that particular selection was made, and whether there is any symbolic meaning to the order in which they were placed; and we may or may not come up with a plausible or illuminating answer. (If we do not, that may not indicate that we have failed to solve the riddle; there may be no riddle to solve.) But our answer, though it may throw light on what the original designer of the pack, or the Duke or other noble who ordered it made, had in mind, is unlikely to throw any on the way in which the average fifteenth-century player of the game would have viewed the cards. For him, they were simply a set of picture cards arranged in a particular sequence and having a particular role in the game.
(The Game of Tarot, p.165.)

This gets us into it. He has defined the "riddle" of Tarot: why those subjects were selected and placed in a particular hierarchical order. Did the trump cycle originally have a coherent intended meaning? While it is certainly the case, a priori, that there may be no riddle to solve, it still seems likely that there might be, and that the iconography and sequence might therefore repay study. We know that many medieval and Renaissance series of images do show cyclic design, an overall composition, even though they may be puzzling today. In A Wicked Pack of Cards, the authors put it this way: “The test of whether a coded text has been correctly deciphered is that it allows a coherent message to be read.” (Page 250.) This is a crucial point. Virtually all of the blather in the online fora is incoherent, making no sense of the trump cycle. Rosamond Tuve, in a chapter titled “Imposed Allegory” (Allegorical Imagery, 1966), offers the following two guidelines to avoid imposing unintended allegorical content on a work.

This then is the first safeguarding principle: if large portions of a work have to be covered with blotting paper while we read our meaning in what is left, we are abusing rather than using the images.
(Page 234.)

We arrive at a second principle: the principal drift governs the meanings attributable to the incidents born upon the stream; the latter cannot take their own moral direction as they choose. If we ignore the stream’s main direction of flow, and embark on incidents which travel counter to or unrelated to it, arriving at special separable meanings for such incidents, we shall presently drown farcically, amid the laughter of the characters, who sit on the bank well protected by the natures the author gave them, only waiting for the chance to push us in.
(Page 235.)

Note that both of Tuve's safeguards involve interpreting elements of a work in terms of the entirety. Context counts. The entire work must be considered, and the parts must fit the whole. As Dummett put it, the selection and arrangement of the subjects must be meaningful, hence the essential significance of the order of the cards. A corollary of Tuve's second rule is that obscure or ambiguous elements must be conformed to mesh with the obvious ones. In other words, we should begin with the known and work toward understanding the unknown, those subjects more subtle, obscure, or ambiguous, in terms of that "principal drift". A favorite ploy of the bullshit artists who write most Tarot books and dominate online Tarot discussions is to begin with one of the most ambiguous subjects, particularly the Fool, the Popess, the Chariot, or the Hermit. They select a preferred interpretation for that subject and then bludgeon well-known, historically conventional meanings for the rest of the deck. As James Revak put it, torturing the cards until they confess the desired meaning. Whether this is dim-witted blundering or cynical fraud, it is certainly bullshit.

A pictorial work such as the trump cycle is inevitably going to be schematic at best. The surrounding composition should provide enough context to determine the significance of each piece, just as the shape and colors of each jigsaw puzzle piece connect it to the surrounding pieces. Also, because the pictorial work is schematic, each element should be essential in some manner. If a source work is being compared to the trump cycle, each supposed element of the comparison should be highly significant to both works—essential elements should have been abstracted from the source, so as to convey the essential meaning.

Conversely, if one must scour the alleged source for incidental elements to mindlessly match with the trump cycle, then it is clear that the meaning is different and the supposed “source” is probably not even an influence or parallel. Dante's Divine Comedy, for example, is a large and sprawling work from which various writers, including Joseph Campbell, have collected supposed parallels with the Tarot trumph cards. This sort of cherry-picking is precisely the selective elimination of context, the opposite of rational iconography. This is the sort of thing that Dummett's emphasis on the arrangement of the cards tends to correct.

Dummett's Null Hypothesis

In formulating the riddle in more detail, Dummett offered an historically persuasive alternative. Here is Dummett's argument about Tarot iconography, from the beginning of the essential Chapter 20 of The Game of Tarot, "The Order of the Tarot Trumps". (Emphasis added.)

Not all those who have sought to decode the symbolism of the Tarot pack have been occultists; some have been serious scholars, well versed in the iconography of later mediaeval and early Renaissance art. One W.M. Seabury wrote a book to prove that the symbolism of the pack was based upon Dante; Miss Gertrude Moakley, in her fine book about the Visconti-Sforza pack, advanced an interpretation of the pack, supported by much evidence from Italian art and literature; Mr. Ronald Decker has engaged in complicated speculations, linking the pack to the astrology of the time. I am not going to advance another such theory. I do not even want to take a stand about the theories that have been advanced. The question is whether a theory is needed at all.

I do not mean to deny that some of the subjects, or some of the details of their conventional representation, may have had a symbolic significance obvious to fifteenth-century Italians, or, at least, to educated ones, that escapes us and may be revealed by patient research; that is very likely to be the case. But the question is whether the sequence as a sequence has any special symbolic meaning. I am inclined to think that it did not: to think, that is, that those who originally designed the Tarot pack were doing the equivalent, for their day, of those who later selected a sequence of animal pictures to adorn the trump cards of the new French-suited pack. They wanted to design a new kind of pack with an additional set of twenty-one picture cards that would play a special, indeed a quite new, role in the game; so they selected for those cards a number of subjects, most of them entirely familiar, that would naturally come to the mind of someone at a fifteenth-century Italian court.

It is rather a random selection: we might have expected all seven principal virtues, rather than just the three we find—and, of course, we do find all seven in the Minchiate pack, and they were probably present also in the Visconti di Modrone pack. With the Sun and Moon we might have expected the other five planets, instead of just a star; with the Pope and the Emperor, we might have expected other ranks and degrees. But of course, in a pack of cards what is essential is that each card may be instantly identified; so one does not want a large number of rather similar figures, especially before it occurred to anyone to put numerals on the trump cards for ease of identification. Certainly most of the subjects on the Tarot trumps are completely standard ones in mediaeval and Renaissance art; there seems no need of any special hypothesis to explain them. Whatever may be the truth about those who first designed the Tarot pack, the inventors of the Minchiate pack surely approached their task in the spirit I have suggested: they wanted twenty additional subjects, and they choose ones which it was natural for men of the sixteenth century to think of—the four elements, the remaining virtues, the signs of the Zodiac—and inserted them en bloc in a convenient place. I do not think that anyone has suggested that there is any hidden significance in the sequence of Minchiate Trumps.
That is my opinion; but I do not want to insist on it. It may be that those who first devised the Tarot pack had a special purpose in mind in selecting those particular subjects and in arranging them in the order that they did: perhaps they then spelled out, to those capable of reading them, some satirical or symbolic message. If so, it is apparent that, at least by the sixteenth century, the capacity to read this message had been lost. There are many references to tarocchi in sixteenth-century Italian literature, in which their symbolic potentialities were exploited, but always in an obvious way: no hint survives that any more arcane meaning was associated with them.[...]
(The Game of Tarot, pp.387-388.)

First, note that this passage refutes those who claim his view to be a "theory of no meaning". He explicitly acknowledges the meaning of the subjects on the cards, and elsewhere he discusses most of them in detail. His actual position, that there is no detailed and coherent design to any known deck, is both parsimonious and historically documented in other games. Dummett gives the example of Minchiate, a variant Tarot deck, which is as close a parallel as possible—it is Tarot! Other examples can be provided from other games of the same period. This makes Dummett's alternative the presumptive explanation, however unsatisfying it may seem. It is the default explanation of the trumps, and will remain so unless and until someone can propose a detailed, coherent alternative hypothesis. (Lawyers would call it a rebuttable presumption based on prima facie evidence.) Gertrude Moakley remains the best alternative yet published, and her explanation, although more agreeable than Dummett's null hypothesis in many ways, is less persuasive.

The Ur Tarot Dilemma

The passage above continues with this rather dismal conclusion:

The search for a hidden meaning may be a unicorn hunt; but if there is a meaning to be found, only a correct basis of fact will lead us to it. The hidden meaning, if any, lies in the sequential arrangement of the trump cards; and therefore, if it is to be uncovered, we must know what, originally, that arrangement was.

Here Dummett introduces another important element, arguing that we need to know which deck was the Ur Tarot before we can begin our interpretation. This is an historian's view, a perspective in which iconography is secondary to documented history. For example, Ross has built a good, (albeit speculative), case for Bologna being the original home of Tarot. From that historical conclusion he then looks at Bolognese trumps, their iconography and ordering, as the best surviving evidence of the Ur design. Drawing a conclusion about the Ur Tarot, based on documentary evidence outside the cards themselves, precedes the iconographic analysis. Dummett assumed this approach and simply pointed out that we do not know, with any degree of confidence, which surviving deck best exemplifies the earliest decks.

Disputing Dummett's argument here provides a context in which to present some of his other contributions to Tarot iconography in the next section. Dummett says that we need to know, a priori, which deck was original. Only then can we attempt to analyze the meaning of Tarot. Practically, however, the converse seems to be the case. We do not need to know what the original order was to pursue such studies, and there are at least two approaches to reversing the process. One alternative is to look at all of the early decks and orderings and ask what the various early orders have in common. From that we can attempt a generic iconographic interpretation consistent with all or most of them, employing additional explanations of the specific differences. Such a study might suggest to us a meaning that was commonly recognized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, perhaps even by the people who were simply playing the game, but certainly by the individuals who created the various orderings. This is the generic or synoptic meaning of Tarot. Dummett himself pointed to the existence of such a meaning, (cf. below), and attempting to discern it in surviving decks does not require any assumption about the Ur Tarot.

A second possibility is to study all of the variations and attempt to decipher each separately. A best-possible reading of each deck is produced, and then these are compared. The assumption is that the original deck was well designed, and subsequent variations were probably less coherent. Thus, we are looking for the deck and ordering which displays the best evidence of integrated design. Rather than knowledge of the original order being a prerequisite for such a unicorn hunt, it may be the unicorn itself. Such a study might find that one particular sequence, and its corresponding iconography, appears exceptionally well designed. The others would be most easily explained as derivatives which, while making intelligible changes, nonetheless failed to maintain all of the overall meaning and, most critically, coherence. (Such an approach is analogous to that of textual criticism, by which biblical scholars attempt to reconstruct the evolution of texts.) If such an approach proved successful, then we might actually learn something with important implications for the origin of Tarot, we might indeed gain some enlightenment by studying the iconography.

Three Families of Tarot

Despite his claim to eschew iconography, Dummett's findings are essential as a basis for any subsequent study. He documented a dozen different orderings, establishing the Ur Tarot problem. Each locale in Italy had it's own style of Tarot deck, with both its own order of the cards and its own iconographic variations. This is what I have called the "civic pride" aspect of Tarot. Each city-state wanted it's own Tarot, but they still wanted it recognizable as Tarot. Non nova sed nove is the fundamental principle of the changes from one locale to another. Dummett also emphasized the importance of those orderings to any iconographic study, and he is in good company with writers like Tuve, above. Different arrangements of subject matter within the trump hierarchy imply different meanings, so the ordering matters.

Another crucial insight was that these variations in ordering tended to fall into three families, which he gave the uninspired names of A, B, and C. These families were more-or-less geographically distinct, (labeled Southern, Eastern, and Western, respectively, by Tom Tadfor Little), which suggests an historical diaspora: large initial variations were followed by lesser ones. Here is his 1980 description of those three families of decks.

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, p.399.)

These family similarities may allow other conclusions to be drawn, and they may even allow an entire family of patterns to be dismissed as iconographically derivative. For example, the use of the virtue Justice to symbolize the Archangel Michael, between the Angel and World, is obviously a kluge, a sloppy variant. It is a perfect example of rearranging the standard subjects to tell a new story, and it indicates that the Eastern family of Tarot patterns does not represent the Ur Tarot very well.

Three Types of Subject Matter

Another fundamental iconographic insight was that the trump cycle, in each of the numerous orderings, had the same generic/synoptic design. Pop-culture Tarot enthusiasts routinely assume that everything means the same thing, whatever imposition they are personally fond of. (This is simply a variation of the Romantic view of Frazer, Jung, Campbell, et al. that all stories are the same story.) Dummett's conclusion that the different Tarot patterns had a similar generic meaning was based on his analysis and comparison of the different orderings of the trump subjects.

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.

Restoring Tarot's Virtues

Note that the virtues are only set aside momentarily. They are the most fugitive of the trumps, having been moved repeatedly as Tarot traveled from city to city, having been revisioned for different purposes/meanings in the trump cycle. By ignoring them for a moment, as a heuristic technique, Dummett reveals an overall design to the trump cycle which the roaming virtues tend to disguise.

Tuve's first rule, however, demands that the virtues be restored to their rightful place in any particular deck before attempting to read the meaning of that cycle. (If our pattern recognition skills are sufficiently well honed, they need not be set aside at all.)

Tuve's second rule requires that these varied, vagrant, and ambiguous subjects be interpreted in light of the specific representation and placement in each deck. Thus, in some decks Temperance triumphing over Death appears to have been revisioned as Fame, and even labeled to make that meaning clear. This revision echoes Petrarch's Trionfi. In other decks Justice was revisioned as Judgment, placed between the Resurrection and the New World.

This is a brilliant observation, one that has been almost entirely ignored by Tarot enthusiasts for more than three decades.

Building on that insight, Dummett went on to explain the significance of those three sections, the genre of each section, if you will. In 1985, Dummett wrote “Tracing the Tarot”, an article in the periodical FMR, which correctly identified the three groups. (In his earlier analysis presented in The Game of Tarot, he included Death in the third group.) This provided the necessary foundation for any serious subsequent analysis, and the fact that hundreds of pop-culture Tarot interpreters have ignored this finding is revealing.

The first group consists of the Bagatto (the “trifle”, aka Mountebank, Juggler, or Magician) and the four “papal and imperial cards”. The Fool is not included in some early lists of the trumps, it is generally not numbered, and it has a unique role in the game. Therefore Dummett left it out of his analysis. However, as part of the allegorical design of the series, its place as the lowest of the low is obvious, paralleled in many other works of art and literature, and essential to the design. Considered as an allegorical figure, the Fool belongs in this group and these six cards form a social hierarchy, a “ranks of man” design. Not surprisingly, it shows two representatives from each of the “three estates” of medieval society. In every ordering of the Tarot sequence, the Mountebank is the lowest of the trumps (not counting the Fool) and the Pope is the highest. This lowest group clearly suggests that a very intelligible and coherent design is present, and this ranks of man genre is the "principal drift" which "governs the meanings attributable to the incidents born upon the stream". That is, it is the context in which the individual card subjects must be interpreted.

“The next group of cards could be described as representing conditions of human life: love; the cardinal virtues of Temperance, Fortitude..., and Justice; the triumphal car; the wheel of fortune; the card now known as the hermit; the hanged man; and death.” These images are allegory properly so-called, rather than the representatives of social rank in the first section. They reflect a “conditions of man” design which, like social ranking, formed a well-known organizing principle in didactic art. The Moral Virtues, Love, Death, and the Wheel of Fortune are among the most common allegories of the era, and the ordering -- successes, reversals, downfall and death -- suggests a coherent meaning. Again, this is the genre of the middle trumps, the context in which the individual cards must be interpreted.

“The final sequence represents spiritual and celestial powers; the devil, the tower, the star, the moon, the sun, the world, and the angel. The angel is the angel of the Last Judgment.” These images are related to Christian eschatology, and although they are not the most conventional representations, they derive from chapters 20 and 21 of Revelation, and tell the central story of Christ’s triumphs over the Devil (the lowest card of the section) and Death (via an image of resurrection.) Again, this is the genre of the highest trumps, the context in which the individual cards must be interpreted.

In other words, Dummett's iconographic analysis results in the same three groups as his analysis of historical sequences. The iconographic analysis of the groupings adds meaning to the structure, identifying the three types of subject matter and making sense of the design: it allows a coherent message to be read. Dummett himself couldn’t resist characterizing the groups by their subject matter in this fashion, even though his analysis was primarily based on sequence rather than iconography.

These three categories of subject matter are common to many works of art, literature, and drama. Representatives of Mankind, routinely including an emperor and pope along with assorted other characters, were the protagonists of such works. Allegorical personifications were varied, but usually ended with Death. These were the conditions of life to which the protagonists were subject. Eschatological subjects most commonly included some indication of the Final Judgment, but Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell were themselves a common motif.

Building on Dummett's Work

In memory of the iconographic prophet who has gotten so little respect in his own land, the Tarot community, let's take things a step further. Dummett noted that the virtues were revised, moved around, more than any other trumps. As illustrated above in the discussion of the Eastern ordering being an awkward and derivative design, the virtues are therefore the most obvious place to look for signs of revisioning. The virtues in Tarot are Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, the three "Moral Virtues", those virtues associated with the appetites. (As an aside, there is no "missing virtue" except in the minds of people who don't know that the three Moral Virtues are a complete set. Writers like Thomas Aquinas make this perfectly clear.) So let's think about the three virtues -- what would a coherent design entail in terms of ording the virtues?

The reasoning is that the most coherent/intelligible surviving deck will be the one that has the fewest changes from the Ur Tarot. There are really only two possibilities for systematic placement of the virtues: adjacent or equally spaced. Anything else is clearly a rearrangement, more or less arbitrary. This means that we can rule out the Eastern family, as discussed above. Notice that we are not selecting the Ur Tarot per se, but rather ruling out decks that do not seem well-designed.

The Southern orderings have the virtues adjacent, although some of them have other structural problems. We can rule out some of the Western designs, including well-known orderings such as that described by Susio and the ordering illustrated by the Vieville deck. The Western ordering known as TdM, historically the most common Tarot deck in the world, has the three virtues equally spaced. Each virtue is also, arguably, meaningfully placed above two related cards. Either TdM or one of the Southern designs would seem to be the best candidate for meaningful analysis and interpretation.

If any surviving design is a well-preserved fossil of the Ur Tarot, it probably a deck with either the Bolognese or Milanese (TdM) ordering. This speculation is based on an important assumption, that the earliest deck was very systematically designed. However, it is not an arbitrary assumption. Consider the alternative: If the earliest deck did not have a recognizably coherent design, then Tarot iconography is not very interesting. The Ur Tarot would be as much a sloppy hodge-podge as any other and, most importantly, Dummett's null hypothesis—that there is no systematic design—would be correct. Dummett must be refuted or accepted; he cannot be ignored.

We are either dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, or we are just dwarfs.
Michael Dummett remains the singular giant in Tarot history and iconography.



This post restates part of the background information presented in The Riddle of Tarot (2004), and the 2007 post, Iconography and the Order of the Cards.

Regarding the three Moral Virtues, this brief summary is from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Virtue: "As the proper function of the moral virtues is to rectify the appetitive powers, i.e. to dispose them to act in accordance with right reason, there are principally three moral virtues: justice, which perfects the rational appetite or will; fortitude and temperance, which moderate the lower or sensuous appetite [the irascible and concupiscible appetites, respectively]. Prudence, as we have observed, is called a moral virtue, not indeed essentially, but by reason of its subject matter, inasmuch as it is directive of the acts of the moral virtues."

NYT: Remembering Michael Dummett

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Professor Sir Michael Dummett

Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett was born on June 27 1925, and has died at age 86. "He was among the most significant British philosophers of the last century and a leading campaigner for racial tolerance and equality." And in his spare time, "he argued that in the Middle Ages the Tarot was used as a set of playing cards and that it only acquired its association with the occult in the 18th century."

For that latter bit we may add to his titles, Troublemaker.

A sober appraisal of Lévi's works on magic could characterise them only as the product of an advanced state of intellectual deliquescence. Nevertheless, he initiated a boom in occultist writing, and almost all his successors acknowledged their debt to him, and may be said to have belonged to his school.
(Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 120.


[...] the most interesting fact about the Tarot pack, namely that it 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.
(A Wicked Pack of Cards, p.27.)

It is from Lévi's work, above all from the Dogme et rituel, that the whole of the modern occultist movement stems. At first glance, Lévi's success is bewildering: his style is bombastic, the intellectual content is thin, the factual information is inaccurate, and the claims advanced range from the unintelligible through the obscure to the frankly puerile. [...]
It may well be wondered how such preposterous nonsense ever attracted attention at all.
(The Game of Tarot, p.114.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Felicities of the Solstice!

“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?

“Seasons Greetings”? “Cool Yule”?

Maybe “Marked Down—5 Shopping Days Left!” would capture the meaning of Xmas. But if you're a traditionalist, here is the best way to say you've got that old-time spirit of the season.

As an added bonus, “Merry Saturnalia” might make a wingnut’s head explode.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ghisi's Labrythine Legacy

Still More Fragments of History Recovered

When last we visited Ghisi's Labyrinth, Mariano Tomatis had introduced two more variations on the book: Pastime, pre-dating the 1607 edition, and Devotion of the Lord, subsequent to the 1616 edition. A video by Bill Kalush illustrated how the latter trick worked in practice. Two months ago, Mariano posted The Map of Andrea Ghisi's Laberinto which, in addition to detailing the design and operation of the trick, also introduced yet another variation: La Zecca Aritmetica, by Francesco Gattici.

In 1613 viscount Francesco Gattici published La Zecca Aritmetica con mirabile secreto at the Venetian typographer Giacomo Sarzina. This book shares the same structure of Laberinto, with some interesting differences. Printing Gattici's book was cheaper because there are no figures in it: its 1260 squares show only three distinct series of words. Using the book, the player may choose between three different divinations: the currency of a coin, the name of its owner or the city he lives in. Every square contains the name of currency, the last name of a person and the name of a city.

This additional title can be added to the Ghisi family tree.

1603 Pastime: The openings show four 13-image matrices, arranged vertically. There are a total of 74 images used, although only 52 which are operative. Some of the images are merely misdirection, tending to conceal the actual design of the trick.

1607 Labyrinth: The openings show four 15-image matrices, arranged horizontally. There are a total of 60 images used. This book was dedicated to Prince Gonzaga of Mantua.

1610 Labyrinth: This was an English translation of the 1607 book.

1613 La Zecca Aritmetica: Ghisi's famous picture book functions just as well without any pictures, driving a stake through the heart of some New Age fantasies.

1616 Labyrinth: The openings also show four 15-image matrices for a total of 60 images used. Most of these (45) were based on the E-Series model book, some were repeated from the earlier edition, and some were new. This book was dedicated to Doge Bembo of Venice.

1617 Devotion of the Lord: The openings also show four 15-image matrices for a total of 60 images used. The images include well-known saints, different aspects of the Virgin, (such as the Virgin of Loreto), named archangels, a few biblical figures, and one square with a crown and lilies, with the words, Dignare me laudare te, Virgo sacrata. Da mihi virtutem.

Today Mariano has posted the slide show of a presentation he made to the CICAP Conference last week. The slides present a different approach to understanding the design of Ghisi's parlor trick and its place in the larger history of mathematical recreations.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Kenneth Clark on Gombrich

Erwin Panofsky offered a cheeky summary of the difference between two approaches to art scholarship: "The connoisseur might be defined as a laconic art historian, and the art historian as a loquacious connoisseur." Below are a few comments by Sir Kenneth Clark on the predominance of connoisseurship in 19th-century art historical studies and the rise of iconographical studies in 20th-century art history. The passage is from "Stories of Art", an article in the November 24, 1977 New York Review of Books.

From about 1864, the year of the publication of Crowe and Cavaleaselle’s New History of Italian Painting, the study of Italian art turned from the imaginative interpretations of Ruskin to the task of amassing information. Ruskin foresaw the change and recommended Crowe and Cavaleaselle as “a book which they have called A History of Painting in Italy, but which is in fact only a dictionary of details relating to that history.” In the 1870s, writers on art, from Morelli downward, set out to discover who painted what pictures, the occupation to which they gave the rather pretentious title of “the science of connoisseurship.”
This new direction of art history was overdue. No one can study an artist’s work without having a fairly correct idea of what he painted, and the accretions that had grown around well-known artists’ names were fantastic. Charles Lamb, writing from Blenheim, says that of the nine pictures by Leonardo da Vinci only two pleased him: needless to say there were no pictures by Leonardo da Vinci at all at Blenheim. The movement totally dominated art historical teaching and produced a vast number of monographs and a few syntheses, of which Berenson’s Drawings of the Florentine Painters was the most intelligent and Van Marle’s History of Italian Painting the most dismal. Although Berenson allowed himself some value judgments his fame and fortune rested on his famous “lists,” which aimed at authenticating the works of Italian painters, and I can testify that the young critic of the 1920s thought this was the only respectable course open to him.
This activity had one serious defect: it did not begin to look at works of art in their historical context. Berenson and Bode never considered what contemporary patrons, guilds, princes, or ecclesiastical bodies wanted from their artists. And one reason for this was that Renaissance patrons of all sorts wanted something almost incredibly different from what we want today. Instead of an aesthetic specimen in a glass case they wanted a symbol, or complex of symbols, which should express their thoughts and aspirations. By the mid-nineteenth century no one (except Ruskin) thought symbolically, and it required a man of wholly original mind to do so. Such a man appeared in the person of Aby Warburg. He was a genius. His approach to art history produced a revolution that has lasted till the present day. Since he was also the senior member of a large banking house he was able to found in Hamburg a library and an institution in which his approach to art history could be developed.

Sir Ernst Gombrich has been for many years the head of the Warburg Institute, now fortunately located in London, and most people interested in the subject would agree that he is the most intelligent, the most learned, and the wittiest of English art historians. He is also one of the most prolific. Eight of his volumes stand on my shelves. I have read them all, but owing to my pitiful inability to follow philosophical arguments, I cannot claim that I have always understood them. Fortunately I do not need to write about this aspect of his work since this has been done already by the philosopher Richard Wollheim. [...]
I hope I have made clear my enormous admiration for Sir Ernst Gombrich's writings, and that I may be allowed to end this review with one criticism, not so much of Gombrich himself as of all Warburgian critics. It seems to me that the chief aim of the art historian is to give the reader some idea of why great artists are great. I know that in the eighteenth century, when various critics allocated marks to painters as if they were examiners, Giulio Romano often came out top of the class. But we all know that, compared to Titian, the industrious Giulio Romano was a second-rate artist. The first duty of criticism is to try to describe why Titian was superior to Giulio Romano. This may be almost impossible, but Berenson, and even Wölfflin (who takes a beating in Norm and Form), tried to do so.
Perhaps I am only saying that criticism should be more concerned with values than with symbols, and Gombrich is well aware of that; but sometimes the Warburgian approach seems to obsess him, and is worked out in such great detail that we begin to grow a little impatient.