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The Tarot and other Early Cards
REGIONAL TAROTS - 4
The Franco-Belgian Pattern
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the deck by
the Italy 2
the cards shown in this page come from a replica of the mid 18th century deck by I. van den Borre,
also known as "Bacchus tarot", or "van den Borre's tarot", marked VDB in the pictures' captions;
the faithful reprint is issued by Carta Mundi (Belgium)
This page is about the obsolete tarot pattern manufactured during the 18th century in north-eastern France and particularly in Belgium; it is generally considered as one of the variants of the Marseille group.
Geographically, the Belgian territory spreads over the boundary between the Walloon and the Flemish regions; the former, which is French-speaking, is obviously exposed to a strong cultural influence from the nearby France.
As it happened also with non-tarot cards (see French and Belgian gallery), we may reasonably think that the tarot spread from Paris to nearby cities, such as Rouen, and then to Belgium, particularly to Bruxelles and Gent. Instead, the name "Flemish tarot", which van den Borre's deck is also commonly known with, appears geographically incorrect, and clashes with the use of French for the courts' names.
In this area, playing card manufacturers flourished during the 18th century; the tarot here produced partly differred from the standard Marseille design. Some of its details, though, were probably borrowed from the tarot made by the Parisian maker Jacques Viéville, about one hundred years earlier; a few of them are so similar that if the pattern made in Belgium had no connection with Viéville's scheme, this would really be a strange coincidence. However, since we do not know whether Viéville's design was a real pattern, i.e. whether it was repeatedly printed by him, as well as by other local card-makers, any influence it might have exerted upon the Belgian makers about a century later, remains likely, yet almost impossible to prove.
VDB - ace of Cups
VDB - cavalier of Coins and queen of Batons
The illustrations in this page come from the best known sample of Franco-Belgian tarot; it was printed in Bruxelles around 1750-60 by Ignaz van den Borre, and it is made of all its original 78 cards.
In this pattern, two original subjects were dropped, namely the Pope and the Popess, thus requiring a replacement. Interestingly, in those years the same two subjects were being replaced also in the tarot patterns of central and southern Italy (see Bologna's Tarocchino and Sicily's tarot in the first part of REGIONAL TAROTS); therefore, the decision of making this change was not taken by chance, but probably followed a European trend, based on a religious feeling against the use of the Pope and the Popess in a deck of cards.
In the case of the Franco-Belgian tarot, one of the chosen replacements was Captain Fracasse, a personage borrowed from the Commedia dell'Arte (a form of popular comedy born in Italy in the 16th century, but well-known throughout Europe, in which stock characters were used).
The other new subject, Bacchus, was probably inspired by the illustrations found on German-suited cards; still today in some of the German regional patterns used in the south of the country, the ace or daus of Acorns is decorated with a young Bacchus riding a cask. To fill the gap left by the Pope, the Franco-Belgian tarot may have picked a popular subject from an already existing pattern.
The tarot contains the following trumps; as a reference, the English equivalent and the standard Marseille ordering (in square brackets) are also shown:
I · LE BATELEUX
the Trivial Performer
VIII · LA JUSTICE
XV · LE·DIABLE
II · LE'SPAGNOL · CAPITANO FRACASSE
the Spanish · Captain Fracasse
IX · L'ERMITE
XVI · LA·FOUDRE
[LA MAISON DIEU]
III · L'IMPERATRIS
X · ROUE DE FORTUNE
the Wheel of Fortune
[LA ROUE DE FORTUNE]
XVII · LE'TOILLE
IIII · L'EMPEREUR
XI · LA·FORCE
Force / Strength
XVIII · LA·LUNE
V · BACUS
XII · LEPEN=DU
the Hanged Man
XIX · LE SOLEIL
VI · LAMOUR
XIII · LA·MORT
XX · LE JUGEMENT
VII · LE CHARIOT
XIIII · LA TEMPERENCE
XXI · LE MONDE
XXII · LE FOU
[LE MAT]The table shows that, despite the great similarity with Viéville's set, this pattern did not maintain the same trump ordering (in which the Chariot and Justice have reversed positions, as well as the Hermit and Force), but followed the traditional ranking of Marseille.
Instead, an unusual detail is the numeral featured by the Fool, XXII, which means that this subject, traditionally left without a specific number or rank, in the Belgian tarot is the real closing trump of the series.
ace of Batons
from VDB (left) and N.Conver of Marseille
Most of the 78 subjects of this pattern have the same left-right orientation as those of Viéville's tarot: compared to the more traditional graphic scheme (i.e. Marseille), they are reversed.
Furthermore, all 78 subjects of van den Borre's tarot are surrounded by a decorative black & white frame, a rather distinctive detail, apparently without any special purpose nor meaning.
king of Cups, by VDB (left) and N.Conver;
note the frame in VDB's edition
The shape of the Trivial Performer is quite traditional, but a curious detail is that among the trivia scattered on his table, there are a pair of dice and a deck of French-suited cards.
The second trump features the first non-standard subject, Captain Fracasse, the fictional swordsman of noble descent whose feats became popular throughout Europe as of the late 16th-early 17th century.
detail of the table
from the Trivial PerformerThe other non-standard subject is found in the fifth trump, Bacchus; the god of wine is featured as a semi-naked young figure sitting on a cask, in the attitude of drinking from a flask.
Furthermore, if the card was turned upide-down, i.e. in the "usual" position, one of the two poles that support his body would not rest on the ground, as it should, while the other one ends with an unidentified rounded structure. These differences from the traditional iconography can only be explained by a general misinterpretation of the classic subject.
the two non-standard trumps,
Captain Fracasse and Bacchus
The Hermit is similar to the subject found in other editions, but the lamp he holds was turned into a book.
The Hanged Man is the usual personage hanging from a scaffold, as in most earlier tarot editions, but in this case the number and the name clearly show that the card should be held as in the picture on the right, i.e. with the young man's head pointing upwards, although in this position he seems to defy the law of gravity.
the Hanged Man,
Temperance looks as if it had been copied from Viéville's tarot; the female figure has the same attitude, holds a very similar sceptre, and on the left side of the picture the same vertical ribbon reads the words "SOL FAMA". But in van den Borre's edition the text was turned the right way round.
The Devil comes in the shape of a coloured patchwork of eyes and faces, randomly arranged. The creature spouts fire from its mouth; it is seen sideways, according to the tradition of Ferrara tarots.
Temperance and the Devil
Lightning and the Star
The last part of the set of trumps faithfully follows the scheme of Viéville's tarot.
Lightning features again a figure, maybe a shepherd (three sheep are next to him), seeking shelter from a thunderstorm below a tree.
Also the three cosmological subjects, the Star, the Moon and the Sun respectively feature an astronomer in front of a belltower staring at the sky with a compass in his hand, a woman with a long spindle and a naked male figure on horseback (all the details, such as the flag and the harness in the shape of a cross are the same as in Viéville's tarot).
A surprising subject is found in the card no. XXI, the World. In fact, in Viéville's trumps, i.e. the ones more closely related to the Franco-Belgian pattern, the last card features a female figure surrounded by an almond-shaped wreath and the Tetramorph in the four corners, i.e. Marseille's traditional composition. Instead, in van den Borre's tarot we see a female figure holding a curtain and balancing on a globe. This image, yet unusual, is amazingly similar to the World belonging to the so-called Tarot de Paris, drawn over two centuries earlier. This is the evidence that the Belgian card-makers knew well the older tarots that had been made in the north of France, particularly in Paris.
the Moon and the Sun
the World and the Fool
The set of trumps is closed by the Fool, number XXII, which is rather standard in shape.
The suit cards too follow a traditional style. The ace of Coins has a large notice, repeated on both ends, which refers to this pattern as cartes de suisses, i.e. "cards of the Swiss"; in fact during the second half of the 18th century playing-card making flourished also in the south-eastern part of France (see the so-called Besançon pattern, part 3, Switzerland), where the Pope and the Popess were replaced, as well. Due to the geographic origin of many decks, some players started calling the Italian-suited tarot "Swiss cards".
Also the 2 of Cups has a notice which roughly reads "to know which is the lowest [card?] of Coins and Cups, the highest ones count when the cards have been played", a hint for tarot players.
The rest of the suit cards is quite similar to the ones found in both Viéville's edition and in standard Marseille tarots, but their illustrations maintain the naive design that characterizes also the trumps previously described. Also the position of the indices in the long suits (Batons and Swords) is slightly different, as they overlap the spots where the pips intersect.
Unlike other central European countries, nowadays Belgium no longer has its own regional tarot. The French-suited Tarot is generally used; the Italian-suited pattern, instead, subsided through the first half of the 19th century.
(above) ace of Coins and 2 of Cups;
(below) 5 of Batons and 8 of Swords
Germany & Austria
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 &