15th Century Italy: How confident are you?

le pendu

I'm curious to know how many of you are convinced that the tarot trumps developed in 15th Century Italy.

Are there other possibilities that you favor or consider possible or probable?



Personally, I'm convinced that the earliest extant decks which include Tarot-like imagery are northern Italian - but not that they developed there.

On the contrary, I suspect that the imagery moved there as certain support for the arts emerged.

From where it moved was more likely the regions north and west of it.


Perhaps if you can find samples

such as Germany or Portugal where iconographic images were put together in their own ordering...

The Hofamterspiel is more a 48 card game, but there's some intriguing mystery to me about it:


Perhaps you can find patterns masking their trumplike origins.

I always thought perhaps it was the only delightful thing that the Portugese legacy in Nagasaki included was playing cards that became the Japanese bridge-like game of Hana Fuda from 1600 to 1900...much later, though than perhaps you are considering.

Ross G Caldwell

I'm convinced of the 15th century origin of most of the trump images, and all of the sequence. This is an impression that comes from a variety of angles - it's hard to say which is most important.

The subject matter of the images is Christian and Medieval (or late-Medieval if you like), so it must be European. The 15th century trionfi cards are all, with one disputed exception, north Italian productions. The name trionfi seems to refer to the trionfi processions that the Italians revived and perfected - trionfi were a major genre, as a procession, a style of painting or allegory, and a kind of literature - no other European country did trionfi. The theme of triumph is essential for my interpretation and historical understanding, and it is only in Italy that it makes so much sense. The Roman triumphators were their national heroes, and while Petrarch perfected the poetic form, it had deep roots only in Italy. The tendency to allegorize the triumphal procession is a purely Italian phenomenon.

In the wake of the Plague (1347-1351 and following) the genre of the Danse Macabre arose in France and Germany, but in Italy it took the form of *Triumph* of Death. I don't think any other nation had a Triumph of Death - and I think this Triumph is the basis of the second half of the trump sequence, after the Wheel of Fortune.

Speaking of the imagery, a lot of the images are ancient - the Virtues, the Wheel of Fortune, the Pope, the Emperor, even the Fool. You couldn't date the pack based on them; they are universal. But some are datable - the Magician is *only* attested - depicted as he is in the tarot, doing the cup and balls illusion - starting in the 15th century. For me that is significant. He is a consistent image - not varied like the Moon, Sun and Star, and the World, among the various decks. He shows little variation, and is entirely a 15th century figure.

Granted, he is associated with both northern Italy and southern Germany, so while we can date the pack, we can't locate it.

The same goes for the "traitor." His imagery can be located along Italy north through Germany, but as far as I know, not east or west.

The Emperor and Pope might carry some weight as subjects, if not images, for locating the pack. Pope was important in Italy and France 14th - 15th century - never very important to Germans. Emperor very important to Germans, important to Italians, not important to French 14th-15th century. So the only place where a Pope is likely to sit next to an Emperor - and where they did frequently only in the *15th* century, was in Italy, in Ferrara, in Florence, in Rome. Maybe the earliest time would have been in Basle, Switzerland, 1414. Then things picked up, in Italy.

I don't recall an Emperor visiting Avignon to see the Pope during the 14th century, and I don't know of other visits to northern European locations other than Basle by any Pope. So Italy seems like the best place to have Pope and Emperor side-by-side in a deck of cards, and only in the 15th century unless you posit that the tarot deck existed for centuries without any evidence.

Then comes cards themselves. The deck of cards is only attested in Italy since 1377, and in the rest of Europe not much earlier. So considering this and all of the above, it puts a lot of pressure around the turn of the century, and especially in one place, Italy.

If you reject the notion that the deck *had* to have 21 trumps and a Fool at the outset, and instead allow an evolution of various kinds of decks, then the dating of the tarot deck can take place over time, and some of the cards like Emperors and Popes can come in early, while other triumphs might be added later.

But even if you want an extreme position, and insist on the "classic" form from the start, the only place it all makes sense - name (trionfi), the type of allegories, the choice of subjects - the only place that makes sense is northern Italy, the only time the early 15th century.

Not being so extreme and permitting refinements, then the time-line becomes 1418 or so for an Imperatori deck, which could have been invented earlier in Germany, and perhaps had images of Emperors and Popes (like the Bolognese decks call their two emperors and two popes all "papi"); this deck may have inspired additional figures, following different kinds of scenarios.

Alternatively, a separate series of images could have been wedded to a deck which already had 4 court cards.

Anyway, it is a constellation of things that makes me very sure that only in Italy and only in the 15th century could all of these things come together to make the deck.



Actually I agree with Ross on many points, since I've been tracking studies of the 14th and 15th through Italy, moving toward the 16th and 17th in a very small way..perhaps I'm wandering a bit when I'm thinking too much of the variations that have been uncovered--I'll be glad to delete the points below if not relevant.

There's a hovering warmth I do believe that might say there's further historical development of the 22 trumps, 16 courts and 40 suited combinations came from the groundwork for a "basic" pattern started in 1450 ( use this as an approximate working date) with the Visconti-Sforza minatures. Then the further refinements by each region after 1450 led to pattern variations, including the trumps. The yardstick of comparison perhaps is the 1450 order...and perhaps it might be best said it's not exclusively all the sources originated in the 15th century, but the visual example of a 'standardized' pattern is first observable.

I personally enjoy seeing that the Milanese pattern of 1450, Bologna trump order by 1664 (I think Mitelli) led to similar ordering in the 1811-1869 patterns of di Gumppenberg and Dotti. The Dotti father-son retained a similar 'standard' French-Italian pattern.

But also there are fun variations that can confuse and delight the historically minded. Poetic play among the trumps and tarots even from the early Ferrarese poets (Boiardo who sadly wrote in obscure Venetian Tuscan, Aristo who happily for him chose a Floretine style vernacular which led to adaptations of his work later by the French). I'm hoping to further finds of historic poets and nonstandard tarot cards in the contexts of their time--I found in Kaplan a nonstandard pattern of an Italian tarot based on Aristo's Orlando Furioso...and just found a Dotti in the 19th century (alidastore.com) based on story or plays of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotts. I don't know though, that these variations actually were significant in terms of looking at the 'development' of tarot trumps order...

More known variations include the 1661 Vieville and perhaps the 19th century Swiss (?) pattern that led to Juno and Jupiter among the trumps. Perhaps the growth of regional tarots through 1664 might have also led to other signficiant variations--that I'm not aware of right now.

I hoped I explained myself and view on this. All I found up to now seem to set a basic pattern to me in the Milanese Visconti, mainly the Sforza decks of the 1450s...but I'm hopeful to learn of new things as well.

Mari H.


All questions do run to the Bembo cards

I'm convinced, that the Tarot cards started in Italy - in a somewhat not totally identical form to later developments.

The number 22 and its use inside systems with allegorical content, even printed on playing cards, is not from Italy. It already happened in China. These cards were related to Domino.
But all figures on these cards are Chinese figures, iconographically rather different.
Other schemes using the number 22 are also known from before, very prominent is the Hebrew alphabet, which also was interpreted allegorically.
Allegories on playing cards before Tarot are also known. Johannes of Rheinfelden describes such a deck 1377, the location is Freiburg in southern Germany, not Italy. The used allegories are professions and the professions relate to planets, as it was already given by contemporary chess-allegories.
Other decks with similar allegorisation can't be excluded, we don't know enough. Even a modell with 22 special elements could have been there, but we've not a single evidence, just the fact of "missing overview".

The idea of special cards - beside the normal suits - appears first (to our eyes) with the 8 Imperatori cards, mentioned in Ferrara (Italy) 1423.
Near to this time is the Michelino-deck (Milano, Italy), which is later called a "ludus triumphorum (1449). The motifs are rather far from the standard of the later Tarot cards (similar far as Sola-Busca and the figures in the Bouiardo-poem), and espcially their number is wrong: 16.
Evidence for decks with "special cards outside the suit-system" outside of Italy in the early time is not given, the first, which (perhaps) belongs in this category, would be the Guildhall- and Goldschmidt cards.

Around 1441/42 2-3 documents appear in Ferrara, which testify, that the name "Trionfi" in relation to playing cards exists, and one document speaks of "14 figure". The specific situation of the 3rd document gives reason to assume, that it refers to the criticalmoment of invention of this type of deck. Of course, this assumption is not totally provable in its truth.

At the same time probably the Cary Yale appears, and as far we understand the situation of 1441, the Cary-Yale is personally relatable to the same situation of January 1441 (assumed invention). The Cary-Yale is likely to have had originally a 5x16-structure, in the "invention-situation" probably a 5x14-deck was considered.

After this for a pause probably not much happened, but Trionfi-decks must have had a small form of distribution, as Marcello gets 1448/1449 a deck as present.

After Sforzas occupation of Milano (1450) the interest in Trionfi-decks explode in the course of some years. In this time likely Bembo got the commission to produce a Trionfi-deck, the Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo-Tarocchi.
Bembo painted only 14 trumps (which we know), 6 other cards were painted by a second artist, a likely date for the production should be 1451/1452.

Now explain this condition. The 20-trumps-composition of the deck is very near to the later Tarot, but the 6 added cards are likely much later done.
Ordinary playing card research came to the conclusion, that some cards were lost and some cards were replaced. Their assumption: The Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo-Tarocchi testifies the existence of the complete Tarot-sequence, the origin of it must be searched before the production date of this date.

Autorbis argues, that this testifies, that Bembo painted a 5x14-deck and that this is recognizable by the cards inside this group of 14 cards and inside this group of 6 cards, as they are - as he shows it - as groups closed and complete ideas. Involved in his interpretation are also numerological details, which sum up to a high degree of unlikeliness of accident, which he calculated beside arguments from other fields already as under 1:100.

Additionally to this suggestion arrived the confirmation of a document in Ferrara in 1457, which talks clearly of 70 Trionfi-cards, not of 78.

From all this it is very, very likely, that decks with a 4x14 + 22 - structure before 1457 didn't exist. Of course the possibility can't be completely excluded, but the assumption of it is very near to be poor fiction. There is no evidence of any 22 before 1457 in context to playing cards beside the Domino-cards in China - and that's rather far.
There is virtually nothing really opposing beside not being good enough informed, not looking precisely enough and personally motivated dreams.

The Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo-Tarocchi clearly is a mother-deck to the later Tarot-development. It had only 14 trumps.

Where outside of Italy should have the further development have taken place? Of course it was in Italy. Even when single motifs like Devil and Tower (which are not part of the 20 Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo-Tarocchi) finally might have developed in France (a good chance), one has to see clearly, that the whole concept was born in Italy and probably we even do know the persons connected to deciding developments by name - real persons, not fictious Templers, wise men, magicians or hidden orders.

Probably 3 young girls, teenagers in the age of 14-16, had the most deciding influence. It was the youth, who loved this colourful cards, and it was women, who played cards, men prefered chess.

Domino-cards in China

Johannes of Rheinfelden
see menu: Johannes

Imperatori in Ferrara
see menu: Imperatori-decks in Ferrara


Dating the Cary-Yale
see menu: Dating

Cary-Yale as 5x16
see menu: Cary Yale

Ferrara 1441

Analyses of the documents

Documents 1441/1442
see menu: "14 Figure", Doc 1, Doc 2

Document 1457
see menu: Doc 16

Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo-Tarocchi, 5x14-theory

le pendu

I think it might be interesting to bump this one up again.

For those who replied before, has your opinion changed?

It seems most (all?) of the historical facts point to 15th Century Italy. Many of us have alternate views which we are developing. What historical evidence is there that questions/outweighs the 15th Century Italy theory?



le pendu said:
I think it might be interesting to bump this one up again.

For those who replied before, has your opinion changed?

It seems most (all?) of the historical facts point to 15th Century Italy. Many of us have alternate views which we are developing. What historical evidence is there that questions/outweighs the 15th Century Italy theory?


I exposed what I thought of the emergence of the tarot in the thread “Phallus and Mat (the Fool)”, in my two or last three posts.


I'll be convinced that that's where the tarot trumps originated until someone shows me well documented evidence to the contrary. What I mean is that it isn't a point of belief or desire with me - I would love to think that tarot originated with the ancient Egyptians or the gypsies or some secret cult - but I see absolutely no reason to draw that conclusion.

I feel that with any history we have to base our assumptions on what we know. Pure speculation to the contrary - imaginative "what iffing" - is a very liberating, creative exercise at times, but it doesn't change the historical facts as we currently know them.

But what I think can get very confused is (a)the imagery and (b)the form in which it appears on cards. I don't think all the imagery necessarily originated in 15th century Italy - in fact it seems highly likely that some of it didn't. Any cultural artefact can - and may - draw on a wide range of influences. I think we see echoes of classical imagery, older Christian imagery, pagan imagery, and perhaps much else in the trumps. But the imagery was put together in (roughly) the form that we now find familiar on the tarot trumps in 15th century Italy - of that I'm pretty sure.

Book of Thoth? Yes, sure, if you remember that the "Book of Thoth" was - it seems - a Hellenic work masquerading as an Egyptian one and was taken up in Europe as a cultural influence in the medieval era :)

le pendu

baba-prague said:
I'll be convinced that that's where the tarot trumps originated until someone shows me well documented evidence to the contrary. What I mean is that it isn't a point of belief or desire with me - I would love to think that tarot originated with the ancient Egyptians or the gypsies or some secret cult - but I see absolutely no reason to draw that conclusion.

That is EXACTLY where I am as well Baba.