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The Early Tarot Research of Franco Pratesi

The Italian researcher Franco Pratesi spent decades combing through archives in Florence and Bologna, uncovering the earliest references to playing cards and trionfi decks. His research is available in a compendium of more than thirty-five articles posted on Trionfi.com. Having all of his research compiled in one place, in English, is an incredible resource for anyone interested in tarot’s fifteenth century origins.

(Note: the terms tarot and tarocchi were not used in the 15th century. The game was called Trionfi or Triunfi, and the deck “carte da trionfi”.)

Pratesi is best known for discovering a single sheet of paper dating from before 1750 that gives divinatory keywords for 35 cards from a Bolognese deck. This discovery shows that divination with tarot developed in Italy early and probably independently of the French tradition. In the article “Tarot in Bologna: Documents from the University Library”, Pratesi supplies background on Bologna’s ancient tarot tradition and its 62-card Tarocchini Bolognese. He cites other documents he found in the archives like a political sonnet that uses the names of the trump cards in order; and some examples of tarocchi appropriati where trump cards are assigned to people.

Pratesi’s research in the archives of Florence and surrounding towns shows there was more playing card activity in Florence and Rome than was formerly believed, and it happened earlier than anyone suspected.

Historians originally thought the first trionfi deck arrived in Rome in 1474. Two tarot historians associated with trionfi.com, Ross Caldwell and Lothar Teikemeier, worked with Pratesi to interpret a passage in a book by Arnold Esch on Roman tariffs. It refers to eight packs of “Triunfi” cards imported into Rome from either Florence or Milan in 1453 by the merchant Giovanni da Pistoia. This is evidence that Trionfi packs were mass-produced and marketed to common people at this early date.

Pratesi discovered the account books of a grocery store in Prato, near Florence, that carried food, small household items like candles, plus toys and board games. The grocer sold several decks of cards during 1429 and 1430 which he listed in his accounts as “Naibi piccholini”. At this early date, playing cards were still associated with the Arab world and were called naibi or naipi in mangled Arabic.

An article on the website, “The Earliest Tarot Pack”, discusses a deck commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti in the 1420s and painted by Michelino da Besozzo. The Duke’s secretary Marziano da Tortona wrote a book describing the deck (making it the first deck and book set). Pratesi discovered the book in Paris, and it was translated by Ross Caldwell. The book describes four suits with four cards each depicting classical deities and mythic figures. Each suit is accompanied by a bird and a king. Pratesi speculates that this could be an early experiment in combining trumps and playing cards, laying the groundwork for the development of tarot. An entire section of the website titled “Franco Pratesi: Research Michelino Deck” is a repository for ongoing research into this deck. It also contains an extensive analysis of the cards’ symbolism.

Trionfi.com offers much more. There’s a large section on Boiardo’s unique deck and Mantegna’s so-called tarocchi. The Museum evidently has thousands of cards available for viewing with the capability of selecting two to view side-by-side, but I couldn’t figure out how to navigate it.

If you’re interested in fifteenth-century Italian tarot, this website will give you hours of fascinating reading.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. alisoncross #

    I am fascinated by this! Could the ‘Naibi Piccholini’ be Italian cards derived from the Mamluk playing cards? Would that mean therefore that the 1429-1430 records were likely to refer to a deck that was more like a standard pack of playing cards?

    May 8, 2012
    • Hi Alison – European playing cards were all descended from Mamluk cards. For several decades, while they were still new and exotic, they were referred to as Naibi, or sometimes “Moorish” cards. Now that I think about it more closely, those “Naibi piccholini” were probably regular palying cards, not tarot. In later records from the 1450s and after, when someone referred to a deck of tarot cards, they specified “Trionfi” cards. When they talked about a regular deck with four suits, they were “carte da giocare”, playing cards. 1429 seems a bit early for Trionfi decks to be available in stores. But we have so little evidence to go on. Pratesi may turn up something one day that turns all our assumptions on their heads.

      May 9, 2012
  2. Thank you, Sherryl! I find this stuff just fascinating. I do so appreciate your excellent articles and fine attention to this subject matter.

    June 20, 2012
  3. Ferol, thanks for your support and encouragement. Sherryl

    June 21, 2012

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