Tuesday, November 27, 2007

pre-Gébelin Tarot Online

Ross Caldwell noted that, “Real tarot history... starts from the facts, and works outward towards other facts. What's in between -- trying to connect the facts in a dark puzzle -- is argumentation. That's how history this old is done.” There are a great many Tarot sites online, (Google returned 56,500 results for the phrase, "Tarot history"), but, in terms of factual history, most of them are worse than worthless. There are relatively few exceptions. This list has about four dozen recommended Tarot-related pages and sites. (Note that these links were all working as of today, but many had changed since the last compilation, and some good pages are now gone entirely. If you find a page you value, download it -- the Web is ephemeral.) For other online sources, here's a rule of thumb: If an esoteric claim is made about pre-1700s Tarot and no source or verifiable evidence is cited to substantiate it, then the probability is nearly 100% that the claim is either false or, at best, a misleading distortion of the facts.

Andrea Pollett

This appears to be the best playing-card history site on the Web, and has very broad and reliable information on Tarot history. It is also richly illustrated with many playing cards, revealing maps, etc.

Tom Tadfor Little

John McLeod

Justin du Coeur (Mark Waks)

Simon Wintle

University of Manchester (John Berry)

Hans-Joachim Alscher

This site has a great collection of primary documents, including the earliest extant rules of the game, historical texts by Cardano, Lollio, Garzoni, Bertoni, Susio, the Steel article, and so on. It is, however, a resource for the literate—each document is in its original language.

Huck (“Tarocchi7”)

Miscellaneous Tarot Pages

Michael J. Hurst

And, of course, a few pages of my own.


Finally, one other site must be mentioned: the trionfi.com site, including its affiliated pages with work from various authors, is a complex network of Tarot history pages, scanned images, links to sites like the WWPCM, and other material. The historical information is in some cases both valuable and otherwise unavailable. However, some caveats are in order. First, it is often difficult to find what you might be looking for on the site. The organization and use of frames is complex, to say the least; there is a great deal of material only vaguely or tangentially related to playing-card history; and there are many speculative digressions. Therefore, (unless you are just browsing), the key page will be the sitemap, or even Google's "Search Site" feature. Second, visitors are confronted at every turn with the site owner’s extremely speculative pet theory. The 5x14 Theory concerns Tarot’s hypothetical original design and its hypothetical evolution over a period of decades from that design, through other hypothetical stages, until finally reaching something historically documented. Although the 5x14 Theory has been heavily promoted both in online Tarot forums and via personal lobbying to playing-card historians for nearly two decades, it has yet to gain support from any prominent scholars. It tends to distort virtually everything about fifteenth-century Tarot history, all of which must be reinterpreted to conform to the theory’s requirements, and it explains nothing which is not better explained without its many needless assumptions. Combined, these two problems make it seem that the site was designed as a labyrinth which leads the visitor to the 5x14 beast time and again.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Iconography and the Order of the Cards

Michael Dummett wrote the history of Tarot, in terms of the early development of playing cards and Tarot, in terms of the subsequent diaspora of various decks and games, and in terms of the invention and development of occult Tarot. His contributions to the iconography of Tarot are not so generally recognized. Many specific identifications were discovered and presented, but more important were two broad analyses that necessarily constrain subsequent studies. First is the development of a "null hypothesis", what some misleadingly call the theory of no symbolism.

We shall gain no enlightenment if we study iconography of the Tarot pack. …it is highly improbable that, by this means, we shall learn anything relevant to the game played with Tarot cards, or, therefore to the primary purpose for which the pack was originally devised.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 164.)

The Null Hypothesis

That sounds like a bleak pronouncement from an iconographer. What he was referring to is the history of Tarot -- the subject matter of the trump cycle is not going to tell us much about the history of the game. Moreover, he demonstrated that this was true by creating a vastly more comprehensive and documented history of early playing cards and the history of Tarot than had been previously conceived, without recourse to any strong theory regarding the meaning of the trump cycle. The Game of Tarot proved, by example, that virtually all of Tarot history is independent of any such iconographic interpretation. But there was more. He suggested a sufficient alternative to any such strong reading.

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."
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 387-8.)

Thus, in his view, the trumps were a kind of triumphal sampler. This is the iconographic null hypothesis, an essentially incoherent triumphal sampler. The only way to reject that null hypothesis is to provide a more compelling alternative, and that is what he refers to as a potential unicorn hunt or the riddle of Tarot.

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.)
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 165.)
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.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 388.)

This recognition that the only significant meaning the trumps might have is as a sequential group is fundamental. In A Wicked Pack of Cards, Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett 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.) We either understand a coherent meaning or we don't, and if we don't, the null hypothesis stands as the most parsimonious and yet sufficient explanation. The sequence of the subjects is the composition of any overall design. Most would-be Tarot iconographers pay scant attention to order, and many reject it outright. However, Dummett's statement still appears bleak: we need to know something which we can't actually determine before we begin our analysis. If this were the case, we would have a serious difficulty: Dummett identifies a dozen different early orderings of the cards, based on a variety of sources.

But it is not really necessary to know in advance which was original, nor even if the original still survives. We can study all of the variations and attempt to decipher each separately, looking for the one that shows 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, while the others are most easily explained as derivatives which, while making intelligible changes, nonetheless failed to maintain much of the overall meaning and 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. By studying all of the orderings, we might identify commonalties that point to the larger design, an underlying conception that was maintained despite the specific changes, a generic meaning to the trump cycle.

Three Types of Subject Matter

Many of the most puzzling aspects of variant decks such as Minchiate, Bolognese, and Sicilian decks have been explained satisfactorily. The biggest remaining challenge is to discern the underlying design, the archetypal design from which those variants derived, the generic meaning of the standard Tarot trumps. Dummett has again done much of the hardest work, and presented us with a second great iconographic gift.

We need to identify design commonalties within the different orderings, and today, over a dozen different orderings of the trumps have been identified. They do share a common design, and Dummett discovered this and outlined it in some detail. Although his analysis of the sequence into three groups of cards was published over a quarter century ago, no one has followed up on it with a corresponding iconographic study. No doubt in part because of Dummett’s antipathy toward occultist fictions, no one in the Tarot “community” has even attempted to use Dummett’s historical work as a basis for interpreting early Tarot. (Among other things, his findings violate the occultists' preconception about a septenary structure to the trump cycle.)

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.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 398.)

This is a crucial finding. 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, Dummett included Death in the third group.)

The lowest trumps represent Everyman. This 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 most early lists of the trumps, it is generally not numbered, and it has a unique role in the game. However, as part of the allegorical design of the series, its place as the lowest of the low is obvious, and essential to the design. The Fool considered as an one of the 22 figures belongs in this group, and these six cards form a social hierarchy, a “ranks of man” design, showing 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 and the Pope is the highest. This clearly suggests a rather simple, intelligible design is present.
(Above-right: This ranks-of-man design came from a Milanese MS of Petrarch's De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, c.1400. The figures include Jester (w/monkey, red-beaked black bird, cage of other birds), Minstrel (playing a lute), Merchant (w/open chest of money), Doctor of Law (w/books), Pope (w/tiara and croizer), Petrarch (in Gothic cathedra, w/pen and open book showing the incipit of Remediis: Cum res fortunasque), King (crowned, w/orb, scepter, ermine trimmed robe), Soldier (w/crossbow), Gentleman (w/falcon and hounds), Woman (blond, w/red dress), Shepherd (w/ragged clothes, sheep, cudgel).
Thanks to Ross for the scan.)

The middle trumps represent allegories of life: success, reversal, and downfall. "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.
(Above-right: This cycle-of-life design came from a 15th-century MS of Pierre Michault's La Danse aux Aveugles. The figures of Love, Fortune, and Death, portrayed as blind powers to which all mankind is subject, condense Boccaccio's De Casibus cycle to the most concise possible story with the three most common allegorical representatives of success, reversal, and downfall.)

The highest trumps represent eschatological triumphs. "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 derive from 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.)
(Above-right: This 1513 engraving by Albrecht Durer is an allegory of the good Christian, shown as a Knight, turning his back to the Devil and Death. This iconic moral triumph also parallels the eschatological triumphs of Christ over the Devil and Death in Revelation 20, themselves made fait accompli by his own death and resurrection, respectively, in the Gospels.)

Iconographic analysis results in the same three groups as Dummett’s analysis of historical sequences, and adds meaning to the structure, making sense of the design. Dummett himself couldn’t resist characterizing the groups by their subject matter, even though his analysis was primarily based on sequence rather than iconography. However, even looking at the sequential analysis alone, if we cut the deck properly, analyze the sequence correctly, we can see these striking commonalties across the dozen historical orders. The cards ranked below the Pope were never moved above that card, and the cards above the Devil were never moved below. None of the changes that were made in Tarot’s assorted revisionings disturbed the larger design, division of the sequence into three blocks or segments, corresponding to three types of subject matter. (Dummett’s analysis excluded the three Moral Virtues, because they seemed to confuse things. The three virtues were the cards most widely varied in their positions. They don’t need to be excluded, merely explained within each sequence.)

These two results, 1) the statement of an iconographic null hypothesis in terms of a meaningful overall sequence and 2) the analysis of all known sequences into three sections, reflecting three types of subject matter, were huge steps toward solving the riddle of Tarot. The former clarified the problem and presented the default solution. The latter paved the road to finding a much more explanatory theory of the trump cycle and its meaning. As with every other area of Tarot studies, a solid factual and analytical basis for Tarot iconography was provided by Michael Dummett.

Friday, November 23, 2007

So, Jesus was a Space Alien?

Iconography is the study of the subject matter of antique, didactic art. A few posts ago we looked at an analysis of a personification of Saturn by a long-time Tarot enthusiast. He was unable to recognize or unwilling to admit the typical attributes of Saturn. Today we'll examine another analysis, again by someone who has been doing this sort of thing for many years and considers herself a scholar. She does recognize Saturn, this time the ringed planet itself, but in a very odd place. The post was to the same Tarot forum as the previous example, only a few days later.

Am I imagining it, or is the 'word of God' being drawn here as Saturn... descending in the beam of light? If so.. why Saturn?

Exactly what neo-Pagan fantasy was being indulged here is difficult to guess. However, the linked image was an Annunciation, one of the most popular subjects in late-medieval and Renaissance art. This particular version was by the Italian painter Vittore Carpaccio, painted in 1504, a scene from a cycle of the life of Mary. In the upper-left is God the Father, who is sending the Holy Spirit to Mary in the lower-right, while Gabriel occupies the lower-left. These conventional elements are instantly recognizable to anyone who has any familiarity with period art, even in a very poor reproduction, but they mean little or nothing to Tarot enthusiasts. Another poster was more open minded in his reading of the detail, asking "Why Saturn?"

Saturn isn't the only ringed planet -- it could be Uranus. Maybe it just represents "planets" and not a specific planet because a "ball" might not be seen as a planet symbol.

Indeed. So another poster helpfully invented a rationale for the Saturn interpretation.

Coincidentally I was reading an astrology book last night, that describes Saturn as the entry point for the incarnating soul. (As the most distant of the tradition planets, it takes a role like a gate of entry for the journey of incarnation, if I am understanding correctly). So in that context Saturn would be very appropriate, whether it was intended or not.

This is another breathtakingly vapid and sadly typical example of the common methodology of both traditional occultists (although even they were not ignorant enough to commit this particular blunder) and modern New Age nitwits. First, something that is not understood in the least is dissected, and some detail is taken out of context. Then an anachronistic interpretation is attached, based on preconceptions and free association. Such interpretations are often initially presented as "possibilities" or phrased as a question, before further speculation is layered on and eventually the nonsense is taken as a given, forming a basis for subsequent inventions.

The next step might have been to observe that the image interpreted as the ringed planet Saturn could just as easily be interpreted as a UFO. Why not? If we're just making up stories based on blurry details taken out of context, and if we're going to craft our tales to appeal to New Age preconceptions, it's a small step from neo-Pagan astrology to the edges of the Fortean Fringe. Of course, if the Virgin were impregnated by an energy beam from a flying saucer, as seemingly illustrated in the crappy JPEG image, that would mean that the baby Jesus was a alien-human hybrid. This would explain so many things that the idea cannot be dismissed without serious consideration... except that our would-be art historians didn't get quite that far. There were some rational people watching the forum that day. One of them bothered to look at a better image, posting a link and this note.

There's a dove visible in this larger image. Took maybe five minutes to find it.

Not to be too critical, but it should have taken about 30 seconds. A great wealth of art is available at the Web Gallery of Art, in relatively decent quality JPEGs, making it the preferred first stop for such material.

Tragically, no alien-human Jesus need be posited. Nor was Saturn the father of Jesus, which might have had unpleasant implications, given Cronus' taste for infanticide. The detail that was obscured in the small, poor quality JPEG, which was perversely interpreted as the planet Saturn, was in fact exactly what any rational person would expect: the Holy Spirit in its most conventional depiction, a dove. In a better quality reproduction this was immediately apparent even to those who fail to understand the subject matter of the picture. (Not that they admitted their cringe-worthy howler, but they did move on to other fantasies on other threads.) But there was more -- another rationalist posted. There was more context to consider than just the rest of the picture and centuries of Annunciation paintings and the entire history of Catholic teachings. There was also the anachronism of seeing Saturn's rings at all.

I don't see Saturn's rings in this picture. No one saw Saturn's rings in 1504. No one saw them until Galileo looked with his telescope in 1610. The rings are invisible to the naked eye.

Those damned historical facts... always getting in the way. The alien-hybrid Jesus theory might have worked out really well, if it had only been given a chance to grow, to be molded and incorporated into the larger body of Ufology, maybe linking up at some point with the Holy Blood, Holy Grail lore... a chance to flourish without those hyper-critical fact-checking... aw, never mind.

The Annunciation (Vittore Carpaccio)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tarot Defrocked

Occultists, New-Age authors, and neo-Pagans have sometimes claimed that the existence of obviously Christian emblems in the Tarot trumps is not part of the original design, but rather the result of a later redaction in which the Cabalistic, Pagan, heretical, or other supposed original content was suppressed and supplanted. In fact, just the opposite evolution took place. Almost from the beginning, the Christian allegory of the Tarot trumps was deemed inappropriate for a card game. Gaming in general was a vice, and most early references to cards were prohibitions. Tarot was more than that, being a game which included the Pope, a dangerously ambiguous Popess, and clear references to the End Times, making it inherently blasphemous to some authorities. Over time, more and more decks removed the offending cards.

What passed without offence in the ribald era of the Renaissance was no longer so readily acceptable. From the Leber Collection pack, from Aretino’s dialogue and from many poems we known that the Pope and Popess continued to figure in the 78-card Tarocco pack; their omission from the [1520s] Minchiate pack, however, was the first instance of a piece of tact or caution that was often repeated elsewhere, and it is probable that by the late seventeenth century they had ceased to adorn playing cards anywhere save in France, the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, and, of course, Bologna. Perhaps it was more a matter of proximity to Rome, for in Rome itself and throughout the Papal States (except in Bologna) it was Minchiate that, among the games of the Tarot family, became preeminently popular.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 338.)

Apparently the most commonly offensive cards were the Popess, Pope, Devil, Fire/Tower, Angel of Resurrection, and the New World of Revelation. Such clearly sacred figures had no place in a card game. Modern folklore also claims that the Roman Catholic Church condemned Tarot as heretical and/or diabolical, and deduces that this proves Tarot was much more than a harmless game. The Church as an institution, however, never took notice of Tarot and no one suggested any association with heresy. (The Devil card was reputedly used by some Venetian witches, but even then no condemnation of Tarot resulted.) Various individual preachers did condemn it, along with other games of chance, and some preachers did claim that such games were invented by the Devil. However, rather than indicating that Tarot was something more than a mere game, such condemnation was precisely because Tarot was a game.

The history of those laments goes back over a thousand years before Tarot was invented, to the third century. The online Catholic Encyclopedia describes “a homily (the famous De Aleatoribus) long ascribed to St. Cyprian, but by modern scholars variously attributed to Popes Victor I, Callistus I, and Melchiades, and which undoubtedly is a very early and interesting monument of Christian antiquity, is a vigorous denunciation of gambling.” The title refers to dice, but by extension it includes all games of chance. (Even chess, a generally respectable game not based on chance, was included by some writers.) Pseudo-Cyprian’s complaint included two significant statements about games of chance, calling dice a snare of the Devil (Zabulus, i.e., Diabolus), and comparing it with idolatry. These ideas would be repeated with regard to regular playing cards in 1576 by John Northbrooke of Bristol and in 1599 by Pierre de la Primaudaye. The 1423 sermon by St. Bernardine refers to regular playing cards (not Tarot!) as the Devil's breviary, and the 1500 Steele Sermon also suggests that dice, cards, and Tarot are tools of the Devil. The idea was apparently a commonplace. (Online Catholic Encyclopedia.) The author of the Steele Sermon complained quite explicitly about specific cards: "The Popess (O misfortune that contradicts Christian faith! O pontiff, how can this be?)" and "The Pope (who ought to be worshipped by all, and they make this joke of their leader)".

Concerning the third game of this kind, known as triumphs. There is nothing in the world pertaining to games as odious to God as this game of triumphs. It appears in fact that it contains every disgrace to the Christian faith, as is laid open by running through it. It is said and believed that triumphs, so called, were named so by their inventor the devil because no other game triumphs over the soul’s destruction as in this one. In which not only is God, the angels, planets, and the cardinal virtues disparagingly placed and named, but the true lights of the world, that is the Pope and Emperor, are also forced, which is absurd, and the greatest disgrace to Christendom that this game has entered into it. The 21 triumphs are in fact the 21 steps of a ladder that take one to the depths below.

The fact that no Devil cards survive from any of the hand-painted decks is unlikely to reflect random loss. Among the more well-known substitutions are the following: A mundane World with Europe (rather than Jerusalem) at its center replaced the New World of Revelation, and Fame replaced the Angel of Resurrection in Florentine decks. The so-called "Grand Duke" and Eastern Emperor replaced the Popess and Pope in Minchiate. Bacchus and the Spanish Captain replaced the same two cards in the Belgium pattern. Atlas and Jupiter replaced the World and Angel in Sicilian decks. Juno and Jupiter replaced the Popess and Pope in the Tarot de Besancon. A century later, a Ship and coastal Guard Tower replaced the Devil and Ruined Tower in Sicilian decks. One of the most striking examples comes from Bologna.

In 1725 an absurd event led to a change in the Bolognese tarot pack. Luigi Montieri, a canon, produced a geographical and heraldic tarot pack, which outraged papal authorities by the description, on one card, of Bologna as having a governo misto [mixed government]. Montieri and others concerned with the publication of the pack were arrested. However the papal authorities soon realized that to proceed with the case would cause great indignation in Bologna. Accordingly, they dropped their original objection and professed instead objection to the figures of the pope, popess, emperor, and empress, ordering them to be replaced by four Moors. This was done not only in Montieri’s pack but in all subsequent Bolognese packs.
(Michael Dummett, “Tracing the Tarot”, FMR, Jan/Feb 1985;)

The authorities had also objected to the Angel (Last Resurrection) card, and demanded it be replaced with a Dama or Lady. However, when the four Papi were replaced with four Moors the Angel was not replaced: “Presumably, with the affront to Papal dignity thus allayed, there was felt to be no need to press the objection to the depiction of a sacred subject on the Angelo.” (Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 319-320, 378, 84-85.) Another striking example, comes from Czechoslovakia.

It is evidence that, to Catholics in many areas, [the Popess and Pope] gave offence; to use the Emperor as a playing card was permissible, but to use the Pope in the same way was dubious, and to give him a consort appeared an outrage. An illustration of the strength of feeling this could arouse is provided by a Tarot pack made in Prague now in the Bibliothèque Municipale in Rouen. This employs the Lombard pattern, which of course includes the Pope and Popess among the trumps…. The pack now at Rouen has the usual inscriptions in French on the trumps and court cards, and, on the 2 of Cups, the inscription IN BRAG. It is in a carton, which if fits exactly, and which the catalogue states to be of German manufacture. The carton has a fine marbled exterior, and bears a label with an engraved design enclosing a hand-written note in German in what I should judge to be an eighteenth-century hand. The note reads, ‘A rare Tarock pack for which the maker was beheaded on account of a satirical figure painted on it’, and what may be a later adition to this inscription refers to trump no. II. The catalogue assigns the pack to the seventeenth century, but it can hardly be earlier than 1760. If the story is true, the unfortunate cardmaker was unjustly executed, since he was intending no satire, but merely copying the Italian prototype of the pattern he was following. I do not know whether, at that date, so harsh a punishment is likely to have been inflicted for so minor an offence, even if it had been intentional; but whether true or false, the story exemplifies the sort of reaction to the figure of the Popess that could be thought intelligible.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 218.)

In addition to such substitutions and revisionings of particular cards, there were more dramatic revisionings. The Sola Busca deck recreated the trumps as a series of figures from the Roman Republic, along with the notorious Nimrod, Nero, and Nebuchadnezzar, suggesting some sort of humanistic take on Rome and Babylon. Christian still, given that these three rulers were the greatest enemies of the Church, but far more in keeping with Renaissance sensibilities. The Boiardo poems were even more strikingly philosophical and classical in their Stoic and mythic subject matter. The quaint medieval Christian allegory of the standard trumps were repeatedly replaced with subjects more congenial to humanistic Renaissance tastes. Then there is the deck from the Leber collection in the museum at Rouen.

The pack is obviously non-standard, and is a classicised one: the court figures are labeled with inscriptions in Latin identifying them with characters of classical history (e.g. the King of Coins with Midas, King of the Lydians), while the trump cards, although clearly identifiable with the usual subjects, also have Latin inscriptions interpreting them in terms of classical mythology (e.g. the Devil is represented by Pluto and is labeled 'Perditorum Raptor'). The numeral cards are very elaborate, the Batons, in particular, being depicted as whole trees. A complete pack, very closely related to the one at Rouen, but not identical with it, was known to Count Leopoldo Cicognara, and was described by him in his book on playing cards of 1831. He illustrated it by all four Aces and trump card showing Apollo and Cupid, obviously representing the Sun and Love cards. The pack has now disappeared.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 392)

Overall, it seems fair to say that modern Tarot folklore is not merely false, as is typical, but in this case it asserts the exact opposite of the truth.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Set of 22 Standard Trumps

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

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

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

Social HierarchyAllegories of LifeBiblical End Times

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Piedmontese Tarot

Last Sunday's post discussed the three regional traditions of trump ordering. An interesting exception exists in the modern Piedmontese Tarot. No early decks from this region have survived, and the numbering of later decks is inconsistent with the ranking observed in play. These later decks have trumps which are double-headed in the most simplistic manner, using the top half of the trump pictures. Despite these mutilated images, they are obviously derived from the Tarot de Marseille design. Andrea Pollett describes the crude result:

This is the only tarot with such feature, apparently insignificant, though causing a complete loss of the details in the lower half of the illustrations; for instance, we can no longer tell whether the Fool is still bitten by a dog, nor how many personages turn around the Wheel of Fortune, nor whether Death is reaping lives with its blade, and so on. The Tower features no human figures (which should have been by its base), in the Moon the lake with a lobster in its center remains unseen, and in the World only the two upper symbols of the Tetramorph, the angel and the bull, are still visible, though repeated on both ends of the card.

REGIONAL TAROTS - 2: Milan - Piedmont

Not surprisingly, the numbering of the trumps also follows the Tarot de Marseille design. Oddly, however, the game play does not follow that numbered ranking. Michael Dummett explains the paradox.

Where does this second French standard pattern for Tarot packs come from? On the wrappers and the Ace of Coins in the Netherlandish pack an unexplained phrase is written, "Cartes de Suisse". So far as I know, there is no trace of this pattern having been used or produced in Switzerland. Does the numeral XXII on the Fool indicate the transformation of that card into the highest trump in the game played in Belgium, of which unfortunately we know nothing? if so, could that practice have been derived from a Swiss game? In any case, the pattern can only have been of Italian origin. It has certain affinities with the Bolognese pattern, but it cannot have come directly from there; plausible places of entry are Nice and Savoy, both formerly part of the Duchy of Savoy. It thus seems very likely that it der4ives from the former Piedmontese standard pattern for the Tarot pack. Unfortunately, we cannot corroborate this by comparing it with the Piedmonteese cards. We have no Piedmontese Tarot packs from before 1730, by which time the Piedmontese card-makers were producing packs in imitation of the imported Tarot de Marseille; undergoing certain modifications, including becoming double-headed, this evolved into the present-day Tarocco piemontese, the only 78-card Tarot pack now made in Italy.

Evidence from card play shows us that Tarot in Piedmont has been heavily influenced by Bolognese practice. Piedmont is the only area in which two of the original Tarot traditions -- that of Milan and that of Bologna -- have contributed to the method of play. Bologna is a long way from Piedmont: we must conclude that Tarot was first introduced to Piedmont by someone from Bologna, but has since been influenced by neighbouring Lombardy. Two features suggest a Bolognese origin for Piedmontese Tarot. A curious feature of all Piedmontese games is that the Angel, numbered 20 in the Tarocco piemontese, ranks higher than the World, numbered 21; the Angel has a high point-value, while the World does not. People do not say, "What fun it would be to make the 20 higher than the 21". They do say, "I don't care what the number is: everyone knows that the Angel is the highest card". Presumably in the original Piedmontese standard pattern, the trumps were unnumbered, as they were in Bologna until much later, and players ranked the Angel as the highest trump.

There is a yet more telling feature. John McLeod first discovered some players in the region of Asti who used a 54-card Tarocco piemontese, shortened in the same way as Austrian Tarot packs. They not only treated the Angel as the highest trump, but also treated the Pope, Emperor, Empress, and Popess as equal in rank, one of them played later to a trick beating one played earlier to it. This is otherwise a distinctively Bolognese practice. Since then, the same practice has been found to have been observed in games played in Annecy in the late XVIII century, and in others, of Piedmontese type, played as late as 1930 in Nice, ceded to France in 1860 like Savoy.
Michael Dummett, "A Brief Sketch of the history of Tarot Cards", The Sylvia Mann Lecture, 2004, reproduced in The Playing-card, April-June 2005.)

Perhaps the most interesting speculation about the early Piedmontese design is that it may have been the precursor of the Belgium pattern. Dummett suggests that this is very likely, based on indirect evidence and a process of elimination. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the game played with the Belgium decks and, as noted above, no surviving examples of the early Piedmontese decks exist.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Saturn's Ouroboros and Pop-culture Iconography

The previous post attempted to explicate a tiny bit of Tarot iconography, the Ship and Tower in Sicilian decks. The Ship and Tower presented an anomaly, and an explanation was offered, along with some historical support. Today we'll take a critical look at a more typical example of what passes for iconography in the online Tarot community.

A couple days ago, in an 11/12/07 posting to a online Tarot forum, the following attempt at iconographical analysis was presented. (Only the germane passages, actually mentioning the supposed dragon motif, are quoted -- over 1,000 words of misdirection, not directly related to the analysis, have been deleted.) It is important to keep in mind that the writer was not a child, nor a "newbie", but someone with years of study regarding topics related to Tarot, playing-card history, the E-Series model book, art history, ancient history, medieval history, Renaissance history, and so on. This is the kind of pseudo-historical analysis that predominates online Tarot discussions among the most knowledgeable participants: taking a detail out of context, ignoring everything already known about it, and imagining what it might have meant if it were in a very different context.

Some events - just to remember (and to observe a special motif: the dragon)

1389: The Osman leader is killed by an assassin. The symbolic of St. George "killing the dragon" is applied to the assassin, the dragon" meaning the Osman.[...]

1408: A knight order is founded by Sigismondo, called the Order of the Dragon (remembering the assassin of 1389). As in other knight orders the members get a sign: a dragon, variated occasionally in its form according the rank of the members.[...]

Somehow in this time: "Dracula" becomes a member of the Dragon order, then first political engagement 1448[...]

Well, why I do tell you that: In the time of development of the Trionfi the "crusade" was always a theme to the Italian princes. Also we have the feature, that the persons, which were connected to "Trionfi cards" often were also connected to "Knight orders" and naturally to these "crusades". All this context wouldn't make it surprizing, if some of the Tarot decks would have hidden "crusade signs".

Mantegna Tarocchi, Saturno ... holds a dragon in his hand, biting its tail - like the sign of the dragon order.[...] Well, it might be, that this mythological story was turned towards the actual political situation of the time, the fight against the Osmans, which possibly were seen in the role of Saturn.[...]

We've also a dragon for Rhetorica ... perhaps, I don't know, cause many humanists had as a major occupation to preach and to argue in the pro-crusade-way.

Other dragons appear in the Chronico-picture (also with tail-biting), the Prudentia and in the Mercury presentation.

The suggestion is that Saturn's dragon is some sort of puzzle, requiring a special explanation -- a secret/occult explanation. The hidden meaning devised is that the dragon is an emblem of the Order of the Dragon; the Order of the Dragon is identified with the Ottoman Empire; and Saturn, depicted with such an attribute, therefore represents the Ottoman Empire. Other dragons in the falsely so-called "Tarocchi" are taken to confirm this reading, and some vague notion of a pro-crusades agenda is being surreptitiously conveyed by this "Tarot deck". The pervasive occult assumption that "Tarot decks" must contain "hidden" messages is, as usual, taken for granted.

Saturn and Father Time

First, of course, is the blunder of mistaking the falsely so-called Mantegna Tarocchi for a Tarot deck, or any deck of cards, or even a game. This is unmitigated and inexcusable folly for anyone who has read about the subject; it is, nonetheless, very popular nonsense. Second, if one wished to discuss dragons and Tarot, it is certainly a viable topic. There is the Visconti serpent devouring a Saracen. (It is, of course, revealing rather than concealing its message.) There are the dragons of Portugese-suited decks. Sylvia Mann and Virginia Wayland wrote a book, The Dragons of Portugal (1973) about such decks in both Europe and Asia, and Dummett discusses the relationship between Portugese decks and some Tarot decks of the Southern Tradition, including both Minchiate and Sicilian Tarot, in various places.

Within Europe, the Portuguese-suited pack was not confined to Portugal, or even to the Iberian peninsula. Regular Portuguese-suited packs from Sicily, dated 1597 and 1639, complete with dragon Aces, bear witness to this, as does a celebrated one made in 1692 by the Spanish cardmaker Infirerra for Malta. Another was made in Rome in 1613, also with dragon Aces, and a Tarot pack, employing a fully-fledged 'Portuguese' suit-system, was made by the same maker at about the same time, while in Sicily a Portuguese-suited Tarot pack is still in use at the present day.
(Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, 19.)

Most important, however, is the assumption that Saturn holding an ouroboros is a mystery which requires an imaginative solution. Panofsky devoted a chapter to Father Time, explaining this connection, among many other things. It originated with the conflation of Chronos (Greek: Time) with Kronos (Roman: Saturn), and the identification was noted as far back as Plutarch.

The learned writers of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. began to provide Kronos-Saturn with new attributes like the snake or dragon biting its tail, which were meant to emphasize his temporal significance. (See Martianus Capella, Nupt. Philog. et Mecur., I. 70: 'Verum sator eorum [viz. Saturn, the father of the gods] gressibus tardus ac remorator incedit, glaucoque amictu tectus caput. Praetendebat dextra flammivorum quendam draconem caudae quae ultima devorantem, quem credebant anni numerum nomine perdocere.' If it were true that the dragon biting its tail signifies the Year it would be possible that it originally belonged not to Saturn, but to Janus, as is related by Macrobius, Saturnal. I, 9,12. However a monster which seemed to devour itself' is also connected with the Iranian Aion and in this case its original meaning would have been that of Endlessness or Eternity, as was mostly assumed in later times. Mythographus III, I, 6, borrowed the motif (as an attribute of Saturn) from Remigius' Commentary on Martianus Capella and transmitted it to the succeeding tradition.)
(Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, 1939.)

In later illustrations based on textual sources this tradition was continued. "In the earliest known specimen, the Regensburg drawing of around 1100... [Saturn] carries a sickle, as well as a scythe and, in addition, the dragon biting its tail." Although this attribute was occasional rather than invariant, it was never abandoned. The ouroboros was used, for example, in some illustrations of Petrarch's Triumph of Time, as well being borrowed for personal devices, (e.g., the ouroboros and rose device of Barthélemy Aneaue, left), various emblems, and was identified by iconographers like Cesare Ripa: "The personification of Time [right] is an aged man.... In one hand he holds a mirror (only the present part of time is perceptible, and even that is as unreal as an image in a mirror) and in the other a snake biting its own tail (an ancient symbol of time or eternity, or the year, which follows upon itself)." However, the early and persistent conflation of Saturn and Father Time meant that their meanings, associations, and attributes -- like the ouroboros -- were interchangeable.

More Mysterious Dragons in Tarot

Our manque iconographer listed other "dragons" in "tarot decks", that is, other reptiles used as allegorical attributes for particular figures of the E-Series model book. He suggests that these too should be taken out of context and arbitrarily interpreted as making a statement about the crusades. Rather than following this fanciful nonsense, we will simply point out some obvious alternatives. First, the dragon alleged to inhabit RHETORIC seems to be invisible, so we offer this corresponding interpretation: ______________________.

The engraving displayed with the comment, however, was LOGIC. This figure does hold a (veiled) dragon, as shown in the Dürer copy, above-right. A snake (sometimes a pair of them fighting/arguing) was one of the traditional attributes of Logic, symbolizing cunning argumentation. An earlier 15th-century image (left) shows Logic as depicted by Stefano da Verona, with snakes confronting each other in the lap of Logic, with Aristotle seated to the side. In the E-Series composition, a similar debate appears to be taking place between the figure of Logic herself and the serpent/dragon. (The veil presumably indicates deception on the dragon's part, harking back to the logical/crafty serpent who argued with Eve in the Garden.) There can be no doubt that the E-Series artist found dragons a more engaging form of serpent, and used them routinely; but substituting one serpent for another is iconographically commonplace, hardly justifying a special explanation.

The dragon in CHRONICO is, not surprisingly, another ouroboros, appropriate to the figure. Iliaco, Chronico, and Cosmico are unique figures. They were used to fill out the fourth decade of the E-Series, being placed beneath the seven Cardinal Virtues. As explained by John Shephard (The Tarot Trumps: Cosmos in Miniature, 1985) they correspond to the three "poetic" forms of celestial rising, Heliacal, Chronic, and Cosmic. (Shephard notes that this was discussed by Iohannes de Sacrobosco, an English monk and a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas. He published a book on astronomy, De Sphaera, which was a widely known and influential text on the subject for several centuries.) As such, these "risings" form a kind of allegorical transition between the more mundane Liberal Arts and the higher realms of the Virtues and the celestial Spheres.

The serpent at the foot of PRUDENCE appears to be a basilisk. In any case, the proverbial wisdom of the serpent is most famously mentioned in Genesis and Mt.10:16. Each of the seven Cardinal Virtues in the E-Series has an animal attribute. All but one are like the serpent of Prudence, i.e., conventional: the lion for Fortitude, the snake-killing crane with a raised stone for Justice, the pelican for Charity, the phoenix for Hope, and the dog for Faith. The only one which appears surprising is the dog looking into a mirror on Temperance. For that, one interpretation might come from a passage in James. It discusses the Temperance of the faithful.

19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does. 26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
(James 1:19-27)

Finally, the serpents on MERCURY's staff form a caduceus, his most characteristic attribute. Like the other examples, there is no need for an imagined "pro-crusades" agenda to justify Mercury being portrayed with his usual attribute. (Other aspects of this depiction are not typical, and do require explanation. Jean Seznec did that work in detail.)

The "Research" Behind the Iconography

It should be noted that most of the factual basis, including illustrations, for the ouroborous-as-Ottomans interpretation discussed above came from the English-language Wikipedia article on the Order. It is a largely undocumented article (the only reference cited is another short Web page) with what appear to be New Age neo-Pagan speculations as well as historical information, and it has Wikipedia disclaimers for lack of citations, disputed neutrality, and unverified claims.

Based on a 1707 copy of the Statue of the Order, Constantin Rezachevici ("From the Order of the Dragon to Dracula." Journal of Dracula Studies, Number 1, 1999), described their emblem: "The symbol of the order was, after the statute of 1408, a circular dragon with its tail coiled up around its neck. On its back, from the base of its neck to its tail, was the red cross of St. George, on the background of a silver field." Looking a bit deeper, it appears that the modern recreations of the Order's dragon device derive from at least two artifacts. One is a surviving badge of raised embroidery in silk and gold. (Above-right, reproduced in Kay Staniland's Embroiderers, 1991.) The other is a portrait of German composer Oswald von Wolkenstein, from a 1432 MS of his poems, in which he is wearing the symbol of the Order on his sash (above-left). The distinctive features of these dragons, the superimposed cross and being strangled with their own tails, are absent from the figures in the E-Series, while the distinctive feature of an ouroboros, eating its own tail, is missing from these two period exemplars. And, of course, the significance of the Order and its emblems to artists in Northern Italy as a generalized symbol of crusades remains a mere figment.

The dragon of the order with the same name was not an evil element during the fifteenth century, but a positive symbol of knighthood. The dragon choking itself with its own tail, which in Occidental St. George heraldry and iconography, from where it originates, represented the defeated Satan, becomes, in the absence of the saint and of the cross, a Christian chivalry order of positive significance. The circular dragon, strangled by its own tail, is represented on the coat-of-arms of many noble families in the Hungarian kingdom who were the descendants of some of the knights who were part of the Order of the Dragon during the reign of Sigismund, until the seventeenth century. This supports the fact that the Order of the Dragon enjoyed great prestige throughout the first half of the fifteenth century. [...]
All this European clerical and folklore heraldry, strengthened in a millenary existence (from the fifth century to the fifteenth century) can be identified in the basic illustration of the Order of the Dragon, the snake-like dragon that is strangling himself with his own tail, which, according to tradition, is twisted three times around the dragon’s neck, signifying that he had been subdued by means of Christian spiritual powers....[...]
...the second one, until the death of Sigismund of Luxembourg, was completed with another cross perpendicular to the coiled up dragon, having on the equal sides of the cross the writing “O quam misericors est Deus” (vertical) and “Justus et paciens” (horizontal). This sign was worn on a sash, like in the portrait of Dichters Oswald von Wallenstein in 1432. The necklace of the order was made of two gold chains joined by the sign, a Hungarian cross with a double bar above the coiled up dragon. But on the seal, another dragon was represented, with a big body, with dented wings, not coiled, only two feet with a free tail, with a very small Greek cross on its chest.
(Constantin Rezachevici.)

The Order of the Dragon (Drachenorden)

Among the lessons to be gleaned from such sad attempts at iconographic analysis, several stand out. 1. Don't take things out of context. Saturn, for example, has conventional meanings, associations, and attributes. We don't have to guess and just make things up. 2. Don't deny the obvious or fail to consider it. The ouroboros was an extremely well-known symbol and conventional to Saturn, while the Order's device was obscure and inappropriate. 3. Don't ignore the need for supporting evidence. The claim that dragons were some sort of general symbol for the crusades needs support, and the examples cited fail to support it. Worse yet, many counter examples of dragons used in art and literature refute it. Of course, any conquest or triumph over a dragon, including St. Michael and St. George, can serve as an analogy for some other triumph, especially a knightly conquest. The problem is that nothing in Tarot, nor the E-Series, shows such a triumph. 4. Don't rely entirely on a single Wikipedia article as source material, especially one with multiple disclaimers for lack of citations, disputed neutrality, and unverified claims. 5. Don't invent bogus problems. When a simple explanation is sufficient, manufactured mysteries are gratuitous.

A sixth admonition, more general, might be, "don't ignore the historians". In many cases, these subjects have been studied by extravagantly knowledgeable people, people who published their findings for future reference. That doesn't mean that they're always right, or that they always agree, or that any particular statement is the final word on a subject. In the previous post I mocked Dummett regarding the "harmless appearance" of the Sicilian Tower card. In my opinion, that was a surprising oversight for a knowledgeable Brit to make, given the history of Martello towers. But it was an very rare oversight, and given the many thousands of obscure facts and revealing insights he has uncovered and presented, along with constructing larger theses and an overall history of both Tarot and playing cards in Europe, while bringing a tenacious rationalism to the entire project, such an aberration must be savored. Because most often, such serious writers have already done most of the big-picture work, and done it better than online "Tarot enthusiasts" (you and me) can fully appreciate. As an example, virtually every writer on the E-Series model book notes, usually in the first paragraph of their article, that it is not assignable to Mantegna, it is not a Tarot deck, it was never printed on cards, and some have the clarity of thought to add that it probably wasn't a game of any kind. Thus, there is no legitimate excuse for anyone who has done their homework to refer to the E-Series model book as "Trionfi cards" or "Tarot decks".

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Ship & Tower in Tarocco Siciliano

The so-called Tower card had more substantial variations than any of the other Tarot trump cards. Towers may be used to symbolize many things, and the card was revised repeatedly. The Tower card was called many different names and the iconography varied significantly in some later decks. Thus, like several other of the trump cards, it is inherently ambiguous and impossible to interpret fully outside of its cyclic context in a particular deck. However, many of the particular changes made in later Tarot decks appear relatively unrelated to the overall allegorical hierarchy, and while they may have residual import for the overall cycle, it is their new, secondary meaning -- conflated as it may be with the underlying design -- that is most significant. The Tower card (and its sidekick, the Ship card) in the Sicilian Tarot decks is one of these more ad hoc inventions.

As noted in previous posts, two trends were seen again and again in Tarot decks. Some of the more strident medieval Christian subject matter was removed in one way or another, and some variation (most notably in the sequence of the trumps) was introduced simply to create a distinctive local version of the game. These two features, secularization and local pride, are nowhere more apparent than in the Sicilian deck. Not surprisingly, the Sicilian deck contains no Pope or Popess, and the earliest forms of the deck has apparently already transformed the Angel of Resurrection and Revelation's New World into Jupiter and Atlas.

Atlas holding up the celestial globe is a recognizable classicisation of the World; but a seated Jupiter seems to have no resemblance to the angel. But when we compare the representation of Jupiter in the older [Sicilian] standard pattern, in which he rides on his eagle which flies over a city, its wings outspread, with the Trombe of the Minchiate pack, we see that the former is a classicisation of the latter. It must have been soon after the introduction of both Tarot and Minchiate into Sicily, that some member of the nobility ordered a classical transformation of the two highest Tarot trumps; just as the Duchess Rosalia Caccamo in about 1750 ordered the Devil to be replaced by the Ship, il Vascello, borrowed from the Minchiate trump XXI.
Michael Dummett, "A Brief Sketch of the history of Tarot Cards", The Sylvia Mann Lecture, 2004, reproduced in The Playing-card, April-June 2005.)

The original changes, reflected in the Minchiate, had eliminated the quaint symbolism from Revelation, while creating a distinctive Florentine Triumph of Fame, as illustrated in the Ace of Cups post. Upon its introduction to Sicily, the locals wanted the game but not the advertisement for Florence, and further revised the highest trumps. It is the later change, nearly a century after Tarot was introduced to Sicily, which concerns us here. In that deck the Devil has been replaced by a departing Ship, while the Fire/Lightning card, which usually showed a tower struck from heaven, instead shows a watch tower or lighthouse. The idea of a lighthouse in some sense triumphing over a ship, that is, controlling or directing it away from harm, is reasonable enough, and a watchtower triumphing over a ship makes even more sense. A record suggests that Tarot entered Sicily in 1663, along with the Minchiate variant of Tarot. It wasn't until around 1750, however, that the Devil and Tower cards were replaced. Dummett discusses this aspect of the Sicilian Tarot deck.

What is at first sight the most puzzling [of the Sicilian variations], 14 the Ship, is in fact the most easily explained, because Villabianca gives the explanation. The Ship occupies the place at which we should expect to find the Devil. Villabianca tells us that in his youth trump 14 had shown the Devil, but that, in about 1750, Rosalia Caccamo, duchess of Casteldaci, had the Devil replaced by the Ship. The image of the Ship is obviously borrowed from trump XXI of the Minchiate pack. [...]
The present harmless appearance of the Tower is also to be explained as an alteration made by the duchess Rosalia Caccamo. In a bit of the opuscolo which is now damaged and very hard to read, Villabianca says that in his youth trump 15 showed “il novissimo dell’... ”; the last word is illegible, and I am unsure what it could be. Villiabianca further says that the duchess had its subject changed into the Tower. Traditionally, trump 15 was sometimes known as “the House of the Devil” or “the House of the Damned”, and occasionally outright as “Hell”; Minchiate trump 15 shows a devil emerging to drag a woman down to hell. I suppose that it was something of this sort that the duchess replaced by the Tower as we now have it. Villabianca states that she paid the expense for the change of subject in trumps 14 and 15; I suppose that she paid cardmakers to make new wood blocks incorporating the new designs.
Michael Dummett, "The Sicilian Trumps", The Playing-card, Jan-Mar 2005.)

The Playing-card (Jan-Mar 2005)

Although Dummett says the Ship is easily explained, he refers only to the historical fact of the Devil’s replacement rather than its iconography. In referring to the replacement, Dummett noted "the subject substituted for it was evidently chosen arbitrarily from the Minchiate pack". (The Game of Tarot, 377.) The ship in the Minchiate deck symbolized one of the four Aristotelian elements, Water, which makes little sense as a replacement for the Devil. Likewise, he offers no explanation for the “harmless appearance” of the Tower. Both, however, can be explained. The Duchess was not the first to object to Tarot’s Devil and Tower cards. From the first century of Tarot there are many surviving examples of hand-painted cards, commissioned by nobles like the Duchess. However, only one hand-painted Tower survives, and no hand-painted Devil cards. This would be an extremely unlikely outcome unless these cards were either not produced or were at some point selectively discarded as even more undesirable than the other Christian subjects of the trumps.

One of the most beautiful hand-painted cards is the ship embroidered with a motto from Horace: Odi profanum volgus et arceo, (Odes, Bk. iii, 1, 1). Ross Caldwell wrote (on trionfi.com) "This card was the subject of an article by Pierre-Yves Le Pogam in "The Playing Card", vol. 33 no. 1 (July-Sept 2004), pp. 27-38, entitled "Entre tarot et jeux de cour: une carte à jouer italienne" (Between Tarot Cards and Courtly Games: An Italian Playing Card)." Apparently two theories are presented to explain this card. One is that the card was Water, XXI, from a Minchiate deck. However, it seems likely that all Minchiate decks, with their large number of trump cards, were numbered, which this card is not. Also, the Minchiate hypothesis ignores both the meaning of the Water card and the motto on this card, making nonsense of both. Apparently this idea was rejected by the writer in favor of another. The second thesis appears to be the main subject of the article, judging from the title. It involves an elaborate speculation about a supposed "game" of supposed "cards" called the "Mantegna Tarots", and making some conflation of that (imagined) card game and appropriati. Given that the falsely so-called Mantegna Tarocchi were neither cards nor a game, this can be ignored entirely. The card itself cannot.

As an alternative, perhaps the Devil card was considered an example of the vulgarity of the profane hoi polloi, as rude as vulgar language and an offensive element in the game of Tarot. Perhaps in some locales, when the Devil was not omitted (or discarded) from the hand-painted decks, it was replaced with an emblem specifically designed to reject such vile things. The motto on the Ship card and thus the meaning of the emblem are clear: "I hate secular vulgarity and go away from it". Consider the baptismal formula: "Do you renounce Satan? And all his works?" This emblem is an answer to that: "Yeah, I turn my back to such things and leave them behind." Perhaps this emblem was precisely such a rejoinder, designed as a replacement for the Devil card which is present in the popular decks printed for mass markets but not in the hand-painted ones. It would be an anti-Devil card. The common yet versatile nature of a ship image should be kept in mind -- like the Tower, it can illustrate many different subjects. For example, it was repeatedly used by the emblematicists with a variety of meanings.

Regardless of that speculation, as replacements for the Devil/Fire cards in Sicily, the Ship/Tower cards can be easily explained: Sicily is an island; threats come from the sea; watchtowers triumph over that threat. The tower depicted in the Sicilian Tower card is a short, fat building with sloping sides. Such guard towers formed a chain around Corsica and served as a symbol of "homeland defense" in the Mediterranean. Far from being harmless, they were considered so militarily formidable by Lord Nelson's British Navy, (those buggers who ruled the seas and remain legendary today), that the Brits adopted the practice of ringing their own coast with such fortifications after a particularly nasty encounter at Mortella Point, Corsica.

Martello Towers -- those squat, circular buildings on lonely stretches of coastline -- have been part of the [British] seaside scene for over 150 years. This book -- the first of its kind -- describes how and why they were built, their history, and what they are used for today. Copied from a defensive tower in Sicily, the first Martello towers were constructed by the British at vulnerable points of the Channel coast when Napoleon threatened invasion in 1801. Later towers were built during hostilities first between the British and French in North America, and then between Canada and the United States. Strategically sited to protect potential invasion sites and vital installations, they survive in many places, in particular on England's south coast, in Ireland, the Channel Islands, the Orkneys, Canada, the United States and South Africa.
(Shiela Sutcliffe, Martello Towers, 1973.)

So we have two suggestions with regard to the origin of a Ship as replacement for the Devil, one that might precede Sicilian Tarot and have been borrowed in a different context, the other simply a replacement of the Devil with a more localized threat. Likewise, the Sicilian Tower might be either a lighthouse or, more likely, a coastal watchtower. The Ship/Watchtower interpretation is consistent with the images on the cards and with the facts of local history. In addition, these new meanings are consistent with the two recurrent practices in the evolution of Tarot symbolism: eliminating Christian content and proclaiming a local identity via the deck.