Monday, April 28, 2014

Chapter 3: the Italian trumps

Decker's Chapter Three begins with an account of Marziano's "game of the gods", fairly straightforwardly derivative from the research of Franco Pratesi and Ross Caldwell, which Decker cites. This is a game designed in the 1420s by Milan court humanist Marziano da Tortona for Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, using 16 Greco-Roman gods and demigods allegorically representing the four categories of pleasures, virginities, riches, and virtues. Any of them outrank any of the four suits. They are also ranked among themselves, pleasures lowest and virtues highest, but also tied to the four suits as far as having to follow suit in the course of what in English is called a "trick", i.e. a round in which one person leads and the others have to follow suit if possible; the high card then takes the other cards, for scoring later. This is the first known game with a special trump suit.

 Then comes his defense of a 14 card original sequence, expanded to 22 later (pp. 76-77). It is the familiar one. advanced tirelessly by "autorbis" (alias Lothar Teikmeier), and elsewhere, although without crediting either author and unlike him Lothar not referring to the two earliest post-1450 decks from which cards still survive, the so-called Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo (PMB), from Milan, or the so-called "Charles VI" probably from Florence.

In Decker's case, in the current book, the 14 original cards are just the first 14 of the Tarot de Marseille, ending with Temperance, a position which I would guess is original with him.

In favor of the original being 14, he cites, first, an order for 14 "figures" in Ferrara of Jan. 1, 1441; second, the  1442 order there for "triumphs" and the order there for five decks of 70 cards in 1457 (4x14 + 14 trumps). Decker does not cite sources; but for the documents,, see again The 1441reference to "14 figures" is in Ferrara, done by a Ferrarese artist, albeit as a gift to a Milanese. The 1457 reference is also from Ferrara.

Despite this location, Decker opts for Milan as where this 14 card original tarot was invented, apparently on the basis of his preference for the "C" (Lombard) order of the triumphs, reflected in the Tarot of Marseille (Tarot de Marseille), of which he holds--without argument, except that it fits the interpretations in the later parts of his book--that a "prototype" was the first tarot, at first with just the first 14 cards, then the other 8 added  by 1465.

Decker adds that the 14 card original was first proposed by him in 1974 (Journal of the International Playing Card Society 3:1, Aug. 1974, pp. 24ff). However a look at his article shows that the number 14 there is mostly coincidence. He was speaking there of the Cary-Yale--a deck he hardly mentions in his book--on the grounds that if there were 16 cards per suit, as there surely are, it would take 14 more to add up to 78. which is the number of cards in the standard tarot deck later. (The reason for 16 is that the surviving cards have female Pages and/or Knights in every suit.) In that essay he also considered--but did not endorse--the idea that the PMB has 14; the problem for Decker is that since the Cary-Yale had a Strength and a World card, it would seem likely they would have been in the PMB, too.

In the current book, Decker does not maintain that the PMB had 14 cards; he hardly mentions that deck. He does not mention the Cary-Yale of c. 1441-1445 either. Instead,  he insists that the original was a prototype of the first 14 trumps of the  Tarot de Marseille, probably coming out of Milan but maybe Ferrara, perhaps the "14 figures" of Jan. 1, 1440, perhaps invented by Bianca Maria Sforza (p. 79).

But why should we go from the "14 figures" of Jan. 1, 1440, to an assumption that these were based on a Milan deck? It may well be that there was a 14 trump deck in Ferrara but not in Milan. Why would a deck have 14 trumps as opposed to any other number? The only principle I can think of is that it matches the number of cards per suit; the trumps are a fifth suit. But Milan then might have had 16 suits per suit, as we see in the Cary-Yale deck of around that time. On the other hand, another old deck, called the "Brera-Brmbilla" from the same time as the Cary-Yale and in the same style, did have 14 cards per suit. So it is possible that on the principle of the same number of cards in the fifth suit as in the others, there were usually 14 cards per suit in Milan, and the Cary-Yale was an exception.

However, the number of cards in the fifth suit might have been determined on some other principle , giving it even more cards; Dummett suggested as one possibility the principle of the fifth suit having 50 per cent more cards than the other suits; that would give the Cary-Yale 24 trumps (i.e. 14 + 7 trumps with 14 cards per suit, or 16 + 8 trumps with 16 card suits), that is, the regular trumps plus the 3 theological virtues, which we know were part of that deck.

Likewise, the 70 card decks can be explained as 22 special cards (trumps plus Fool) plus 4 suits of 12 cards each, as Franco Pratesi has suggested. Some regular decks did have 12 cards per suit then. Also, there are data suggesting other numbers. In 1423 (see, there is an order for 13 figures. In a deck with 13 cards per suit, 13 trumps would be a natural number. These 13 might also be something else, ordinary suit cards, for example. We have no idea.

There are also problems about the priority of a 14 card deck of the specifically Tarot de Marseille variety. First, there is no evidence of anything even like the Tarot de Marseille in imagery before around 1500, in the Cary Sheet (and perhaps some of the "Sforza Castle" cards, given that one of them is a 2 of Coins dated 1497).

Second, everything we do know about the 15th century tarot counts against Decker's theory. The extant court cards mostly do not look like the TdM. Most of the  surviving trumps also look quite different. Most significantly, the last two trumps of the TdM, Judgment and World, resemble cards that are extant in almost all the existing decks: the Cary-Yale, the PMB, the Charles VI, as well as most of the woodcuts of the early 16th century. If these cards were in all those decks, from various cities and with various designs, surely they would have been part of all the decks, at least at those times, and probably part of the original tarot. But they are not among the first 14 of the Tarot de Marseille.

Decker is of course aware that the surviving early cards do not look much like the TdeM. Those were luxury decks, he says, and did not have to look like the common woodblock cards, He dos not address the issue of the Judgment and World cards. He would have to say of them, as far as I can tell, that these were in the luxury decks (in both Milan and Florence, as it happens) but not the woodcut ones--until of course they were, in the early 16th century. I have to say that such a reply seems to me woefully inadequate, given the existence of the Judgment and World cards in all the decks.

One argument he gives for the priority of the Tarot de Marseille is correspondences between the Tarot de Marseille and Milanese fashion and heraldry:
In the Tarot de Marseille, the trump figures wear costumes that are mostly in early Renaissance style (belted jerkins, tights, robes, high-waisted gowns).
Also, the Ace of Swords' blade is  (p. 78f):
encircled with a crown that is draped with two fronds, palm and laurel...The Viscontis adopted the motif of crown and fronds as a heraldic device.
It seems to me that the most these might show is that the Tarot de Marseille is descended from the decks sponsored by the Visconti-Sforza rulers; there may have been many changes along the way, as well as costumes deliberately intended to look old and venerable. It may well be that the Tarot de Marseille is older than as we think, i.e. late 15th or early 16th century. If so, it needs more argument. But even then, it would not be the beginning


Later in the chapter Decker gives an interpretation of another frontispiece, this one from Venice 1526, Fanti's Triompho di Fortuna, a fortune-telling manual based on 21 outcomes, as in the throw of twice diece; it seems to show numerous tarot subjects and suggests to him that tarot cards were probably used for the same thing, fortune-telling (p. 90).

Besides Decker's and Place's discussions, I have found two scholarly articles on this frontispiece, a detailed one by Robert Eisler in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes for 1947, pp. 155-159, and a note by Detlev Baron von Hadeln in the Burlington Magazine 1926, p. 301, about the drawing that preceded the woodcut.I will preface my discussion with a summary of these articles.

About the drawing, it is important to realize that Fanti is "Fanti Ferrarese" (even in the words on the frontispiece) and was a citizen of Ferrara. The drawing is in the Ferrarese style, in particular that of Dosso Dossi, von Hadeln says, and Eisler doesn't disagree. The woodcut, to be sure, is in the Venetian Titianesque style. But the whole project is initially Ferrarese. Dossi is of the more enigmatic of Renaissance artists.

Here is the frontispiece . Eisler identifies the river as the Tiber and the city as Rome. He sees the frontispiece as a warning to Pope Clement VII that he sits precariously between good and bad  fortune (p. 157):
,,it is remarkable how daringly Sigismondo Fanti represents the insecurity of the Vicar of Christ's position at the summit or Medium Coelum of the slowly revolving sphere...
...The female figure on the left is, of course the Bona Fortuna of the system (Agatha Tyche), turning the handle of the world-axis upward, the other is the Malus Genius (malos daimon) turning the handle down and thus threatening to precipitate the Pope from his exalted position at the apex of his power into the abyss of misery he was to experience when he was besieged in the Castello S. Angelo while Rome was sacked and plundered by the soldatesca of the rival Catholic great powers.
The pope at that time was severely threatened by both the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, and in fact Rome was sacked by the soldiers of the Emperor in 1527, shortly after the book's publication. Eisler says that such an action was not hard to foresee, "in view of the follies committed by the Pope and the cold fury of the Roman Emperor Charles V and of his Most Christian Majesty the King of France" (p. 157).

Accordingly, the muscular man with the dice is the boy (or slave, as they were called "boy") in a quote of Heraclitus in one of Lucian's stories, as Eisler relates:
...there the weeping Heraclitus is asked, "What is the Aeon?" and he replies "a boy playing drafts putting (things) together and taking (them) apart," assembling, dividing."
And the astrologer next to him is Fanti himself (p. 157).

As for the city, Eisler admits that Dossi's drawing had no Pantheon; also, if there was such a clock tower in Rome, it was not famous like the Torre dell' Orologio in the Piazza di san Marco in Venice, where the book was printed (p. 156). The boats and expanse of water better fit the Venetian lagoon then the Tiber, which had bridges.

Decker, of course, puts the frontispiece in the context of the tarot. He does not mention the Ferrarese source (instead, he cites a source saying that the originator was from Siena). He points to various aspects of the engraving that suggest tarot figures. There is the Pope, of course, and on one side the Devil and the other an Angel (of the "Angel" card, as the TdM Judgment card was called), with the World between them, held up by Atlas, as in fact was shown on some World cards. The globe has a dual significance, however, due to the cranks, which turned the Wheel of Fortune in medieval illustrations. On either side of the Pope is a young lady, which Decker says is similar to the situation on the TdM Love card, a choice between virtue (on the left) and pleasure (on the right). Beneath the Devil is a Tower, and on the tower a clock-like circle (with the Roman numbers from I to XXIV) with the picture of the Sun in the middle. Then there are the two lower figures, a muscular man holding one of a pair of dice and an astrologer with calipers and an astrolabe.

I would add that astrologers were associated with the stars, hence there is a reference to that card, or else the Moon card, which in some versions, including ones in Ferrara, had just such astrologers.

In addition, this frontispiece seems to me of significance as similar in content to the 1521-23 Basel one, except for a few changes dictated by the nature of what is inside the book. That is, the city (Rome or Venice) represents life in this world and the people entering the gate at the bottom are souls entering life (similar, that is, to the naked souls entering the gate of life in the other frontispiece). They do so at particular times as indicated by the clock in the tower, from which the astrologer can construct a horoscope. They are faced with a choice between virtue and vice; one woman pointing down is "pleasure" and the one pointing up is "virtue". The Pope looks steadfastly at virtue, so he is a reliable guide. Yes, the two figures at the axle are an angel and a devil; they are in a contest to control the wheel. In the world, sometimes vice wins, sometimes virtue.  the words "virtue" and "pleasure" apply to the wheel-turners as well as the two women. This is an application of the principles of "contempt of the world" ethics, which I have discussed at viewtopic.php?f=23&t=404&p=14117#p14117). It is a matter of what is good and bad for the soul, not the body.

The two figures in the foreground, the astrologer and the dice-thrower, in contrast, are separated from the city. For the dice-thrower, Place (Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, p. 118) suggests Hermes, as the "god of runners and athletes, who ruled over divination by dice and lots". Eisler (p. 158) mentions Hermes in a different context, that of Plutarch's Isis and Osiris, as the Egyptian god, also called Thoth, who gambled with the moon goddess, Selene. That seems to me at least as relevant as Eisler's boy of Heraclitus.

Decker characterizes the two figures as randomness and predestination. Place considers them to be the two ways of using the book to tell fortunes: one way is to throw two dice, and the other is to go by the hour in which the casting of the fortune is initiated (indicated on the clock). Inside the book is a series of tables, all with 21 rows; by which one works one's way toward a verse that is the fortune.

It seems to me that the time the fortune is being told is comparable to the time of birth in a standard horoscope. It is a matter of using the regular, predictable motions of the stars to infer what their influence will be on human affairs. The procedure is like using the phases of the moon to predict the tides: from the macrocosm of things beyond us we infer the microcosm of the world in which we live.

If so, the contrast is not between randomness and predestination. It is not even between randomness and order. It is between two ways of learning about the likely future (not predestined: that would be against Church doctrine).

The Greeks in the Iliad cast lots to determine the gods' choice of who to send on a dangerous mission; they reasoned that the gods controlled who would get the shortest straw and were making their will known. In The God of Socrates (Apuleius Rhetorical Works p. 309), Apuleius relates that Socrates would consult his daemon, or "guardian genius", before he undertook anything. If it said no, he took it as a warning. The Genius could see further than he could. It seems to me that a Hermetic Christian would have seen dice in the same way (regardless of the fulminations of the Franciscan and Dominican preachers) as warriors in the Iliad saw the casting of lots, or more philosophically, Socrates and the signs from his daimon, as possible means to understanding God's will, leading him upward. In a similar way, it is apparently random at what hour and day a person is born, but it is also a way of knowing God's will. And just as the astrologer can learn from the time of birth what is in store for the person, so can one learn from the lot-book what is in store for the person casting dice.

So I agree with Place that the two figures are essentially equivalent, merely representing two ways of getting to the same place, one by using the hour and the other by using the dice. Both are expressions of the "good genius" that we also saw in the Tablet of Cebes, but in the sense of Providence or a guardian daemon. The only difference is that in the 1521-23 book, the plan is "one size fits all". In this illustration of 1526, it is more differentiated, tied to a particular person throwing dice or consulting the book at a particular time, with 21 possibilities. It is a true casting of lots, whereas the Holbein and the Tabule Cebetis isn't.

Now for the payout: what does all this say about the tarot? There is a Devil, a winged representative of Virtue, a Choice of Hercules with poses similar to the Tarot de Marseille, a Pope, a Wheel, and an Atlas with the sky on his shoulders, as appears on a few decks. The astrologer is like on the Ferrara Moon card; a Sun appears on the clock, which is on a Tower; and there are Stars on the globe. The Pope sits on the globe like a figure on the Florentine-style World card. That's quite a bit, in fact most of the cards after Death in the Ferrara tarot. And there is also the virtue vs. vice interpretation of the Loe card, and the Pope.

Then there is the question of the Magician, which Decker earlier related to the "good genius" at the gate in the fronstispiece illustrating the Tablet of Cebes. I like some of what Place says, on p. 121f. He starts out:
The Tarot's Magician is not an astrologer or an athletic male, yet there is a connection between him and the two figures in Fanti's foreground--particularly to the athlete with the die. One easily recognized pair of objects found on the Magician's table in the Tarot of Marseilles is a pair of dice...
He then goes on to show us a woodcut Magician with dice in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts that probably dates from c. 1500 (the original is on p. 274 of Kaplan vol. 2). In my view it is probably from Venice (due south of Budapest) around the time of the 1526 Frontispiece. But I don't think it is essential that the dice are there. There are no dice in the d'Este or the PMB cards. What works as well are the types of objects on the table, four in the PMB and in the Cary Sheet, which correspond to cards. It is the Magician as dealer--of dice or cards, the cards we are dealt at birth and many times thereafter, which it is up to us to know how to use. Dice and cards are equivalent. Place goes on (and here I put my own additions in brackets):
As dice [and cards, I add] were used for gambling their presence could confirm that the Magician is a gambler and a rogue, but dice [and cards] were also used in the Renaissance for divination, and perhaps the magician, like Fanti's athlete, is offering us a means to obtain advice about our destiny. The Magician is the first trump, and he is introducing us to the parade of trumps just as Fanti's athlete is in the foreground. Whether his dice [or cards] are intended for divination or for gambling, there are two of them [of dice], and there are twenty-one possible combinations of the two when they are thrown. It would be easy to imagine the Magician making use of the throws of his dice [or the drawing of cards] to make connections with the twenty-one figures in the trumps. Like the figures in Fanti's foreground, it may be that the Magician is a guide offering help in finding one's way in the allegory.
So on this view the Magician offers us our individual allotments/lots and also, given the nature of the game, tells us to pay attention to the other trumps more than to the ordinary suit cards. Whether in game-playing or in divination, he is giving us a life situation together with a plan for finding our way in the game or in life. That's my integration of Decker and Place, and of the two frontispieces, 1521-23 and 1526.


Otherwise in the chapter, Decker cites various late 15th and early 16th century documents. He cites the Steele Sermon, the first listing of the 22 subjects. For the 16th century, he has quotes from Francesco Berni and Flavio Alberto Lollio, 16th century, about how the tarot sequence is a mishmash; that supports his idea that the meanings are hidden, as the cards in their Christian sequence do not make a obvious sense as a whole. He also talks about the so called "tarocchi appropriati", the tarot subjects "appropriated" for another use besides playing a game. He mentions Folengo's tarot sonnets in his "Caos del Triperuno" (online translation by Anne Mullaney, starting on p. 138) as examples of use of cards to give advice to individuals, and he quotes Giralomo Barghagli on the practice of associating particular cards with particular individuals during pageants (p. 92). He does not mention Andrea Vitali's account of Barghagli in this connection; see

To summarize the more controversial aspects of this chapter: Decker has given us some reason, far from conclusive, for thinking that the original deck might have had 14 cards. It may well be that some decks had 14 trumps, if that is what the "14 figures" for Bianca Maria Sforza represent, a reasonable enough assumption, and it may well be that these were the original trumps. But there are other possibilities. 14 may have been just the number of trumps in Ferrara, with different subjects than in Milan (hence Bianca's interest in taking them back there). There are also other possibilities that as far as we know are just as likely.

Also, there are numerous reasons for thinking that the original deck did not look like the Tarot de Marseille, nor for its original cards being only the first 14 of that deck. His identification of the Fanti frontispiece as significant in relation to the tarot also makes sense, both for his reasons and Place's. For me, they tend to support the idea that the other frontispiece, and its broad-brimmed hat in some versions of it, are related as well.

It is good that he raised the point that the original tarot deck, and some later ones, may not have had the standard 21 trumps plus the Fool. Some decks may have had 14 trumps. Also, the TdM designs may be earlier than the extant TdM decks, i.e. late 15th or early 16th century. But it is highly unlikely that if there were only 14, they were precisely the first 14 of the TdM, because of the presence of cards corresponding to the TdM Judgment and World in all the early decks and lists.

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