The Origins of Tarot Cards

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Tarot cards have a very mysterious and uncertain past. Tarot authors differ from tarot historians when discussing the origins of tarot cards. Tarot historians claim that the origins of tarot cards are inseparable from the origins of playing cards, and that their original use was for gaming. Tarot authors are generally writing for an occult audience that falls under the umbrella of the Western Mystery School Tradition. Frequently they refer to the origins of the cards as being lost in “remote antiquity.” They describe the original use of tarot as a means to preserve Wisdom School Knowledge in a pictorial form that could be passed down from generation to generation.

Tarot research is generally limited to extant partial decks of antique cards and the paper trails left by authors referencing tarot or playing cards. In exploring the origins of the tarot one must juggle the folkloric tales against the historic evidence. It is generally accepted that playing cards had an Islamic origin and first entered Europe with either the Crusaders returning through Italy from the Levant, or through the Moorish Caliphates in Spain. Early Italian and Spanish playing cards use the Islamic suits of swords, cups, coins and clubs or polo sticks. In 1939, an Israeli scholar of Islamic art, Leo Aryeh Mayer, discovered a complete pack of cards which could be traced to the 12th or 13th century in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Istanbul.

Playing cards are first evidenced in Switzerland in 1377, in Spain by 1378, and in France in 1392. It was during the Italian Renaissance in the early XV Century that Trionfi or the 22 Tarot Trumps first appeared in Northern Italy. Trionfi were allegorical images that were added to a regular deck of playing cards and used as part of a card game. The word tarot entered English from the French. It is derivative of the Italian Tarocchi, plural for tarocco for which the origin is unknown. The original name for these cards was trionfi (triumph) from which we get the English derivation “Trumps,” a term still used by card players today.

During the Italian Renaissance authors such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola attempted a “Hermetic Reformation.” Astrology, allegorical alchemy, cabalism, and magic may have been encoded into the cards to reflect the Hermetic principle of correspondences, “As Above – So Below.” The allegorical images of the trionfi were a way of preserving Hermetic correspondences in a symbolical or archetypal language.

During the Renaissance, skilled artisans working with precious pigments executed miniature masterpieces for the privileged few. Unlike the mass-produced woodblock cards produced in Germanic workshops, these hand-painted trionfi were primarily in the domain of the nobles who could afford to patronize artists. A 1450 document from Duke Francesco Sforza of Milan requests that his treasurer send him a tarot pack. The earliest existing examples of Trionfi are the Visconti-Sforza cards created for Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan and his successor Francesco Sforza. Due to their frequent use and the fragility of the materials from which they were constructed no complete deck has survived; rather, some collections boast a few face cards, while some consist of a single card.

The name “Visconti-Sforza tarot” is used collectively to refer to incomplete sets of approximately 15 decks produced between 1451 and 1466 now located in various museums, libraries, and private collections around the world such as Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo, Cary-Yale, and Brera-Brambilla. The earliest documents referring to tarot cards are from the Court of Ferrara in 1442. In the Bibliothèque Nationale de France there are 17 hand-painted cards from the Italian court of Ferrara.

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