Skip to content

Tarot History Rant #2: Renaissance Tarot

I frequently come across references to “Tarot’s origins in the Renaissance.” At least it’s not Ancient Egypt! It’s true, the Renaissance was getting underway in Florence at the time tarot was invented; but northern Italy lagged behind. Besides, Renaissance Humanism in the first half of the fifteenth century was basically a literary affair, with scholars collecting and translating Latin texts for aristocratic libraries.

Saying tarot is a product of the Renaissance because humanist ideas were circulating among the elite is like saying the 1909 Waite Smith deck is Freudian because the intellectual elite was becoming familiar with Freud’s theories in the first decade of the 20th century.

The clothing, hairstyles, gold leaf background, and subject matter of the Carey-Yale, Visconti-Sforza and other decks from Tarot’s formative period are very International Gothic — a last, brilliant flowering of medieval art and culture before that world dissolved into the Renaissance.

Check out the Early Tarot page for background on Tarot’s formative years.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dear Sherill,
    let me not be in agreement (for once) with what you wrote… and sorry for my bad english.

    The word “Renaissance” (refers to the arts) was used for the first time by Giorgio Vasari in his book “Lives of the finest architects, painters, sculptors et Italians (1550). With the term Renaissance Vasari wanted to indicate a progression that began with Giotto (end of the thirteenth century) and established with Masaccio, Donatello, Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti (early fifteenth century); a cicle within which the artists were released progressively the greek-byzantine style to come back to the Roman-Latin idealized naturalism.

    Much later came the term “Renaissance”; an invention of nineteenth-century historiography and in particular the French historian Jules Michelet, who used this term for the first time in 1855 to define the “discovery of the world and of man” that took place in Italy during the fifteenth century .

    In 1860, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, expanded the concept of the Renaissance expressed by Michelet, describing an Era that began in Italy with Francesco Petrarca in the middle of the fourteenth century and continued in the next two centuries; an age when came to light the modern consciousness of man (Humanism).

    The Renaissance developed from central and northern Italy; the two main centers were Florence and Padua. From here the Humanism (which took its cue from the literature to be reflected in painting, architecture and the natural sciences), spread throughout the Italian Peninsula and then in the rest of Europe, with its literary themes involving numerous artists who expressed with different painting styles, including the so-called “International Gothic”.

    The “International Gothic” is a style to which are rightly assigned the oldest Tarot decks: those made for the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, around 1440 (Cary-Yale) and for his successor Francesco Sforza, around 1460 (Visconti -Sforza).

    The fact that these Tarots are painted in the International Gothic style is not to deny their belonging to the Renaissance humanist culture that was very much present in Milan since the fourteenth century, due to cultural relations with the city of Padua and to the transfer to Milan of the Francesco Petrarca’s library (the father of Renaissance humanism).

    In fact, the Visconti and Visconti-Sforza Tarot belong without doubt to the Renaissance humanist culture because they highlight the relationships between humans (depicted as real people of that time) and the supernatural dimension; this encounter between the human, the celestial Sphere (Star, Moon, Sun) and the supernatural (The World) is spread through the exercise of moral and religious values ​​marked just by a few cards in the deck (Strenght, Faith, Justice etc.) and by the Fortune (The Wheel), a concept that Petrarch discussed in a famous work “De remediis utriusque fortunae” (1360-1366).

    Even the so-called Mantegna Tarot (Ferrara, around 1460) fully belong to Renaissance humanism derived from Petrarch.


    June 12, 2014
    • Hello, Giordano. Just for the record, I’ll repeat some of what I said on the Facebook Tarot History forum.
      I’m not sure that highlighting the relationship between real humans and the supernatural sphere, and including the Virtues and the Wheel of Fortune, makes the Visconti-Sforza deck (or anything else) especially humanist. It sounds typically Christian to me. The Virtues and Wheel of Fortune have a very long history. I believe Boethius talked about Fortuna in the Consolation of Philosophy back in the 500s. Petrarch discussed the Wheel of Fortune, and Petrarch was a humanist, but it’s a huge jump to conclude that whoever put the Wheel of Fortune in the tarocchi deck had humanist intentions.
      This relates to one’s theory about who invented tarot. If you believe it was invented by a courtier attached to a ducal court, then looking for humanism in the deck has more validity. My working theory is that the deck has proletarian origins, perhaps in a print shop, then it spread among ordinary working people before being taken up by the aristocracy; so it reflects conventional, conservative values.
      I’d love to hear more about your viewpoint as I’m always open to changing my mind if I’m proved wrong.

      June 12, 2014
  2. Renaissance Humanism is not secular in the modern sense. It refers to Renaissance artists and poets interest in Classical art and literature. It is the impulse that led to the term Renaissance. Early Humanist artists attempted to merge their interest in Classical art and religion with there Christian religion. The fact that the Tarot trumps contain Christian themes, like the Judgement card along with Classical gods,like Cupid and Hercules, proves that it is Humanistic and a product of the Renaissance.

    August 12, 2014
  3. Hello Robert, Thanks for your input.
    When I think of Renaissance/Humanist tarot decks of the 15th century, I think of the Sola Busca or the so-called Mantegna tarot. I just don’t see that sensibility in the hand-painted decks of the Visconti and Sforza families. Perhaps I’m being rather dogmatic, so I’ll concede that there’s a whiff of humanism in these decks. If the tarot trumps were invented in the 1430s, humanism was certainly infiltrating the intellectual life of the courts in northern Italy at that time.

    August 13, 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: