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The Tarot and other Early Cards
· page VIII ·
THE TAROT OF MARSEILLE
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the deck by
the Italy 2
most cards shown in this page belong to the mid 18th century decks printed by
Nicolas Conver in Marseille, and by Ignaz Krebs in Freiburg, labelled NC and IK,
and their faithful reprints are by Lo Scarabeo (Italy) and by Piatnik (Austria), respectively
The pattern named after the city of Marseille (southern France) is the most well-known in the world, up to the point of being often considered "the mother of all tarots", the classic version of this kind of deck.
Indeed, it was not the earliest one to be created, and it would be more correct to think of it as the most popular and long-lasting pattern among the several varieties that flourished from the second half of the 15th century to present, some of which did not last very long, or were confined to more restricted geographic areas.
The same name "Tarot of Marseille" was only adopted in the 1930s, when the French manufacturer Grimaud gave this historical definition to the company's own edition of the pattern; in fact, this was originally referred to as the "Italian Tarot", also to distinguish it from the French-suited version used for the national game of Tarot (see regional tarots, page 2).
NC - the Fool
IK - knave and cavalier of Coins
Having remained basically unchanged for some 500 years, the Tarot of Marseille is a clear example of how playing card patterns often cling to tradition and preserve their original illustrations for a very long time.
The evidence of how much the pattern was well established is the constant finding in all 22 trumps of certain details. But also the 56 suit cards follow a precise scheme, maintaining odd details, such as the cudgel carried by the knave of Coins (despite the suit), or the name of the knave of Coins spelt vertically, whereas any other card of the deck has a name spelt horizontally.
Such details are found in any old edition faithful to this pattern, regardless of where it came from: for instance, the samples shown on the left were printed in Freiburg (Germany), about 600 km or 375 miles from Marseille.
Nevertheless, in some areas such as northern France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy, the classic design did undergo slight changes, giving birth to a number of varieties, all of which belong to the largest family of tarot patterns: group C according to Dummett's classification, or western group (see TRUMP CARD ARRANGEMENTS).
Nowadays, besides the faithful replicas of decks held by museums and libraries, the tarot of Marseille survives in modern reeditions, based on original 18th century illustrations, but slightly altered in order to feature a "modernized" design. Due to the sharp details and bright colours yielded by modern printing techniques, though, to many collectors reeditions appear less fascinating than the aforesaid replicas, which preserve the slight imperfections of original old woodblock engravings, including their yellowish pasteboard, irregular print, smudged stencil colours, and so on.
modern reeditions of classic Marseille tarots:
Justice (from Camoin), the Chariot (from Bourdel)
ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENTThe reference to the French city is somewhat misleading; in fact, this pattern likely originated around the 16th century in Lombardy, as a result of an unknown artist's personal interpretation of the cards.
During the Renaissance, the tarot deck was already popular in northern Italy, but its illustrations were still subject to certain graphic changes. The creativity and artistic background of the author certainly accounted for how the subjects were painted or carved, but also the geographic location of the deck's making was important: especially in the case of non-luxury editions, the illustrations were often copied from, or based upon the tarots previously made. Therefore, once a trend had been established (i.e. a particular detail, a certain ordering, etc.), it was often maintained by the following editions made in the same area.
the Cary sheet
Also the number of cards in the deck was initially subject to changes (see the pages about the Visconti tarots, the Minchiate and the regional patterns).
The earliest known specimen whose pattern is consistent with Marseille's tarot is the Cary sheet, an uncut woodblock print by an unknown artist of the early 1500s, probably from Milan. It features a number of subjects, six of which in full (the Popess, the Emperor, the Empress, the Moon, the Star and the Trivial Performer), while the others are cut, yet they may be told by what is still visible (the Wheel of Fortune, the Chariot, the Lovers, Force or Strength, the Pope, the Sun, the Fool, the Tower, the Devil, Temperance, 7 and 8 of Batons). Only the top left and top right fragments are uncertain, see part 3.
The sheet was printed by the time the French conquered Lombardy; this pattern likely acted as a prototype whose popularity, once taken back to France, grew more and more, while in Lombardy it gradually subsided.
Card-making workshops began to appear in the south of France, starting with Lyon, and then spreading to other cities, such as Avignon and Marseille, but also to the north, as far as Paris and Rouen.
Over approximately three centuries, several manufacturers in different French cities, among which Conver, Tourcaty and Camoin (all from Marseille), Payen (Aix-en-Provence and Marseille), Dodal (Lyon), Noblet (Paris), and others, produced tarots. Marseille was the city where this art developed probably more than elsewhere, particularly during the 18th century.
This tradition explains why the name Tarot de Marseille was chosen when the early pattern was revived in the 1930s, although it was Lyon that originally acted as a hinge between the southern and the northern evolution of the tarot.
In fact, the pattern of Marseille stretched to the north of the country, as well, although here other influences caused some local tarots to differ for a number of features, such as the so-called Tarot de Paris.
By the late 18th-early 19th century the production of tarots flourished also in Besançon, near the Swiss border. Here the pattern had two subjects of religious taste replaced (see REGIONAL TAROTS), as meanwhile had already happened in Belgium, but the design of the remaining 20 trumps and their ordering remained the same as the classic ones of southern France.
the Moon, from the Cary sheet (left)
and from the tarot of Marseille (IK)
Meanwhile, the "Italian tarot" began to return back to Italy, this time following the cultural and commercial routes that bound the two countries. At first it reached Piedmont, in the first half of the 18th century, and almost one century later also Lombardy, thus developing into two distinct regional patterns. While the Lombard one survived until the first decades of the 20th century before subsiding again, the Piedmontese version, somewhat more naive, is still in production and used for playing.
The complicated geographic routes of the patterns belonging to group C are summarized in the small map on the left, while the following scheme shows its graphic evolution.
graphic evolution of trump no.1, the Trivial Performer, in patterns of group C
2 of Coins from NC and 2 of Cups from IK,
featuring the relevant manufacturer's name
Up to the late 19th century it was not uncommon for major playing card manufacturers to produce tarots in the pattern of Marseille, besides the varieties traditionally used by local players.
These cards, though, would have probably remained popular only in their native areas, had the tarot of Marseille never been used for cartomancy.
Disregarding a few early attempts of fortune-telling by individuals, which had really never caught the public's interest (also due to religious restrictions), this activity was born when a Parisian wine-merchant named Alliette wrote Etteilla ou manière de se recréer avec un jeu de cartes ("Etteilla or the way of entertaining oneself with a deck of cards"); Etteilla was Alliette's name in disguise.
Soon after, philosopher Court de Gébelin, a scholar of esoteric practices, developed a theory by which the 78 cards of the tarot had been created in Egypt as the pages of a book, in very ancient times, in a golden age which he called "the primitive world"; this was also the title of his extensive work in eight volumes; the last one was dedicated to the tarot.
This stirred Alliette's interest: he transferred onto the 78-card deck the fortune-telling techniques he claimed, wrote a further work Manière de se recréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées Tarots ("the way of entertaining oneself with the deck of cards called Tarots"), and finally had a deck with particular illustrations specially made for himself, to fit his theories: the first cartomancy tarot known (1788).
Ryder-Waite Tarot: the Fool
During the 1800s, the Romantic movement acted as a perfect milieu for spreading cartomancy and similar practices - and with them the tarot itself - to countries where this type of cards had never been used. This gives reason for the fact that in most parts of the world, Marseille's pattern is still today considered "THE tarot".
By the turn of the 20th century, extravagant theories and interpretations had kept developing up to the point that new tarot patterns were designed; some died out very soon, but others became rather famous, such as the Ryder-Waite (left). Although their illustrations were modified so to comply with the new meanings and interpretations, the 78 subjects and the ordering of the trumps (the latter renamed "major arcana") remained faithful to the original tarot of Marseille.
MARSEILLE'S INNOVATIONSBy the time the Cary sheet was printed, the tarot patterns were not yet fully standardized.
Before judging whether a new detail is a steady change, or simply the occasional result of an artist's whimsical interpretation, a comparison should be made with all the main tarot varieties known, i.e. the ones produced earlier in time, as well as the ones that followed, in order to track down the historical and geographic evolution of the detail as much as possible.
A first consideration is that the tarot of Marseille states in full the names of the subjects, clearing all the picture cards (including the courts) from any doubt about what each illustration shows. Had this feature appeared at an earlier stage, changes such as the Old Man turned into the Hermit, or Lightning turned into the Tower (see below), would have likely never occurred.
However, the cards in the Cary sheet still lack their names, as well as those belonging to other early tarots of the same age (around 1500); since the spelling of the earliest titles is constantly in French, we may reasonably believe that the 22 definitions were added after the cards were taken to France, where players not yet accustomed to the many allegories of the new deck needed a reminder to understand the subjects. Such explicative purpose may also give reason for some differences among the old editions known, underlined in the table below. The original Italian names, translated in French, were probably maintained as long as they still made good sense to the local players (see the case of the Hanged Man, described in part 2).
unusual name LA PANCES
for the Popess by J.Dodal
(early 18th century)
The following table lists the 22 trumps of the tarot of Marseille with their modern French names. It also indicates some variants found in old tarots of this type (see list of editions below), from which we see how common names such as the Star changed spelling very often, while unusual subjects such as the Wheel of Fortune or the House of God strangely remained stable. In most cases these changes are due to misspelling or to a rough typesetting, but in a few cases they reflect real differences. In particular, for the Fool the use of le Fou (variously spelt as le Fol, le Foux, etc.) seems preferred in old editions, while later ones adopted le Mat.
I · LE BATELEUR
the trivial performer
VIII · LA JUSTICE
JUSTICE (JD) (JN)
XV · LE DIABLE
II · LA PAPESSE
LA PANCES (JD)
VIIII · L'HERMITE
LERMITE (JD) (JN)
XVI · LA MAISON DIEU
the house of God
III · L'EMPERATRICE
L'IMPERATRICE (IK) (NC)
X · LA ROUE DE FORTUNE
the wheel of fortune
XVII · L'ETOILE
IIII · L'EMPEREUR
XI · LA FORCE
FORCE (JD) (JN)
XVIII · LA LUNE
V · LE PAPE
XII · LE PENDU
the hanged man
XVIIII · LE SOLEIL
VI · L'AMOUREUX
LAMOUREUX (IK) (JN) (NC)
XIII · LA MORT
name omitted (IK) (JD) (NC)
XX · LE JUGEMENT
VII · LE CHARIOT
XIIII · LA TEMPERANCE
TEMPERANCE (IK) (JD) (NC)
XXI · LE MONDE
LE FOL (JD)
LE FOU (JN)
IK · Ignaz Krebs - Freiburg, second half 18th c.
JD · Jean Dodal - Lyon, 1701-1715
JN · Jean Noblet - Paris, mid 17th century
NC · Nicolas Conver - Marseille, 1760 · NOTE ·
in old typesetting, the letter I was often used for J, and V was used for U: these have not been considered as true variants
Instead, design and ranking remained quite steady. Any such change might have brought different implications, according to the cards involved.
IK - queen of Batons
In fact, for the 56 suit cards a new look would have not caused any specific consequence, as the number of pips or the court personage, i.e. the card's rank, would have remained the same as before. But for any of the 22 trumps a change in design or ordering could have easily affected the moral meaning that the card was originally meant to convey.
We should not forget that the trumps were very likely created as allegories, whose details "spoke" to the players by means of the symbols they featured, graphic metaphors that only a certain level of knowledge enabled to understand, and by means of their ordering, which defined the moral ranking of the principles they represented. Therefore, any apparently insignificant shift from the original scheme could have easily affected the conceiled meaning.
NC - king of CupsThis is why radical changes to traditional subjects (i.e. Juno replacing the Popess in the Swiss tarot, or Bacchus replacing the Pope in the Flemish one, etc.) only occurred when the original symbolism of the 22 trumps had already been oblivioned, or was completely overlooked by tarot players.
THE TAROT OF MARSEILLE:
TRUMPS AND SUIT CARDS
OBSERVATIONS ABOUT SOME
FRAGMENTARY SUBJECTS OF THE CARY SHEET
further reference to tarot decks can be found in Trionfi and in The Hermitage
the deck by
the Italy 2
or back to
THE FOOL &