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Tarot History Mangled in a Getty Publication

Astrology, Magic and Alchemy in Art by Battistini

I was going to give this book a glowing review (Astrology, Magic, and Alchemy in Art by Matilde Battistini). It’s chock full of gorgeous art on glossy paper (mostly medieval and Renaissance, but ranging from the Greeks to Surrealists) covering dozens of topics from Athanor to Zodiac. But when I got to the tarot section, my spirits sank to my toenails. I was going to revile the Getty Research Center for sloppy scholarship, but on closer inspection I see that the J. Paul Getty Museum merely printed an English translation of an Italian book originally published in Milan in 2004. It’s even more disheartening to realize that this material, coming from tarot’s birthplace, completely ignores the deck’s Italian origins in favor of half-baked French occultism passed off as historical fact.

The author managed to stuff these errors into a few short paragraphs:

  • The word tarot is an anagram of the Chaldean word rota.
  • Tarot was introduced into Europe between the 13th and 14th centuries.
  • Tarot has its origins “in the hieroglyphic science contained in The Book of Thoth….”.
  • The High Priestess as Isis contains the key to the sacred alphabets.

The text accompanying the Fool and Bagatto from the Visconti-Sforza deck states that the numbers allow for “an exact correspondence with the Hebrew alphabet and the kabbalistic sepherot.” (I own every edition of this deck in existence, and I still can’t find the numbers on the cards). By juxtaposing 19th-century occultism with 15th-century cards, the author gives the impression that occult correspondences were in the cards from the beginning. Perhaps that’s the author’s sincere belief; but belief and history are two different animals.

The Haywain by Hieronymus Bosch, 1500On the next page we see Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Haywain from @1500 that depicts a cart totally obscured by its huge load of hay and surrounded by the usual crowd of Boschian cavorters. A few pages back, in the Esoteric Games section, we’re shown a segment of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights with dice, a backgammon board and some French-suited playing cards. The text tells us, “Bosch’s attitude toward the major arcana, however, was one of reverence because of the belief that they contained esoteric wisdom.” If this were true it would revolutionize tarot history!

Back to The Haywain. The text tells us this is actually a painting of Trump VII, the Chariot, a “symbol of progress (in straight position) and of immoral behavior (reversed).” Not only was Bosch an esotericist who revered tarot, but he used reversals! I’m always learning something new.

On second thought, I think the Getty should be embarrassed. I can’t trust any of the text in this book, but the illustrations are glorious. The bibliography and list of sources has plenty of suggestions for my own research, so I’m not at all sorry I spent $25 on the book.

 

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