While the Tarot as we know it did not originate in ancient Egypt as many of the early occultists speculated, we should not, for that reason, think of it as being merely the creation of an individual artist. Rather, as indicated above, it reflects a tradition and a culture that can be understood in relation to a number of other cultural forms:
- Early Playing Cards (e.g. The Mamluk Dynasty)
- Literary Works (e.g. Petrarch’s Triumphs)
- Other Early Tarot Decks
- Related Art Forms
- Austrian Court Cards
- Tarocchi di Mantegna and Emblem Books
- The French Tradition
[* NOTE: Philosophical and religious influences are considered in section 5.]
Playing Cards: Something akin to Playing Cards existed for several hundred years before The Tarot:
China (9th century), Persia (?), Mamluk Dynasty of Egypt (12th century), Europe (14th century). The Persian influence can be seen in these Mamluk Playing Cards, circa 15th century—the Mamluk “Polo Sticks” (of Persian origin) would become, in Renaissance Italy and elsewhere, the suit of “Batons”:
Francesco Petrarcha July 20, 1304 – July 19, 1374 — commonly anglicized as “Petrarch”. Quoting Wikipedia: “Petrarch is best known for his Italian poetry, notably the Canzoniere (“Songbook”) and the Trionfi (“Triumphs”).”
The painting above is of “Petrarch’s Triumphs: Love, Chastity, and Death” as rendered by a follower of Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) possibly Girolamo da Cremona, circa 1460s.” (Wikimedia commons)
The images below are of cards from the hand-painted Visconti-Sforza Tarot, circa 1451:
Sola-Busca Tarot, c. 1491, is the oldest complete Tarot extant. It has 22 trumps, but they are quite different from the Visconti-Sforza trumps or those of the Tarot of Marseille. In addition, the pips (or suit cards) are illustrated and seem to have offered some of the inspiration for the illustrated pips in the Waite-Smith Tarot. The following images are from the Tarotpedia.Com webite:
Courtly Hunt and Household Cards
(Austria, mid-fifteenth century)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
“The Ambraser Hofjagdspiel (Court Hunting Pack of Ambras), also called the “Ambras falconer cards”, is a pack of cards painted around 1440–1445 and attributed to the engraver Konrad Witz from Basle, Switzerland. It originally consisted of fifty-six cards from which only 54 survive, all distributed in four suits, falcons, lures, hounds and herons, symbols related to hunting. Hofämterspiel (Court-office Game), one of the earliest card games on record preserved in its entirety with all forty-eight cards intact, is a major 15th-century medieval handmade deck commissioned by Ladislaus the Posthumous, king of Hungary and Bohemia and Duke of Austria from 1453 to 1457.”
Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465—this not an actual Tarot, but is related art form.
Quoting Wikipedia: “The Mantegna Tarocchi . . . are two different sets each of fifty 15th-century Italian old master prints in engraving, by two different unknown artists.” The image above offers a sample…
George Wither’s Emblem Book (1635) is also of interest. While there is no direct relation (that I know of) between this work and the evolution of the Tarot in Italy or France, there is an interesting family resemblance and emblem books were popular there.
Apropos of emblem books in France, many of the images from the 1545 edition of Le Théâtre des Bons Engins, by Guillaume de La Perrière, also show an interesting family resemblance to Tarot cards. Both of these works are available online.
The French Tradition
Editor’s Note: Recently, while preparing to present material on the history and symbolism of the Tarot, I came across the following resources at Tarot-History.Com. The owner of that site kindly agreed to my use of this beautiful and historically illuminating material here and in my classes. Many thanks to Roxanne Flornoy and Tarot-History.Com !!! 🙂
These reflections are centered around the following traditional “Tarot of Marseille” preserved in the French National Library :
Tarot of Jean Noblet and of Jacques Vieville c.1650, Tarot of Jean Dodal c.1701, Tarot of Nicolas Conver 1760.
There are only three (plus another of a slightly different tradition) Tarots of Marseille which have come down to us complete and unaltered. It is these which are the foundation and source of all modern tarots. They were produced at a time when traditions were still alive, and it is to them that this site is dedicated
Our principal activity consists in re-editing these few historic, popular Tarots preserved in the French National Library:
This tradition, seven centuries old, originates in the knowledge, science and art of the men who built the cathedrals.
All tarots which are not rooted in this tradition (effectively dead by 1730) can be called “fantasy”, and just reflect their authors. Personal creations remain creations which are only personal, however erudite or beautiful.