Was Etteilla Influenced by Piedmont Tarot?
Etteilla, tarot super-star of mid-1700s Paris, claimed he studied tarot from 1757 to 1765 at the urging of “an aged Piedmontese”. In his memoirs, a Parisian actor who was Etteilla’s contemporary, describes visiting Italian fortune tellers in Paris. It’s not a stretch to imagine Etteilla learning card reading from one of them.
If this elderly Piemontese teacher was in his 60s in 1757, then he was born a little before 1700. He may have learned to read tarot in his youth in the 1720s from a teacher who could have learned the cards around 1680. This would make Etteilla the bridge to a very old Italian card reading tradition.
What deck would Etteilla’s teacher have used in 1757?
The first Piedmont deck we know of was printed in 1760 by Giuseppe Lando of Torino. But there were probably Piedmont-style decks before then. Did this elderly tarot reader arrive in Paris from Piedmont with his regional deck, or with a standard Tarot de Marseille?
Etteilla was the first person to design his own deck illustrating his esoteric philosophy. I looked through the Grand Etteilla published by Grimaud (the deck closest to Etteilla’s original design), to see if I could detect any Piedmontese influence. Only a handful of details might qualify. The strongest contenders are card 16 “Opinion” (illustrated above) showing several people in an attitude of fear like the Judgment card in the Soprafino and Piedmont styles. On card 20 “Fortune” there’s a human figure on the left side of the wheel and a crowned king on top, similar to Piedmont cards.
Etteilla’s deck dropped into obscurity rather quickly. But his card meanings have had a huge influence on modern tarot. James Revak posted a statistical study on his website about fifteen years ago, showing that forty-nine percent of the card meanings in A. E. Waite’s book The Pictorial Key to Tarot were derived from Etteilla. If you think the Four of Cups means “boredom”, the Queen of Swords is a widow or other unhappy woman, and you associate the High Priestess with keeping silent, then you are using Etteilla’s divinatory meanings.
Etteilla’s card meanings are quirky and probably come from a folk cartomancy tradition. Was it the Italian tradition of his Piemontese teacher? Were some of Etteilla’s innovations, like the use of reversals and spreads, actually transmitted from his Italian teachers?
Until we know more about traditional Italian cartomancy, we’ll never be able to say for sure if it influenced Etteilla. But, Etteilla gave so much to tarot; I like to think that passing on parts of an ancient Italian folk tradition is another reason to admire him.
Don’t know who Etteilla is? Read about him and his milieu here.
Decker, Ronald, Thierry DePaulis and Michael Dummett. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. Saint Martin’s Press, 1996, p. 78
Dummett, Michael. The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City, Duckworth, 1980, p. 106-107.
Steve Mangan on the Tarot History Facebook group, posted 3/9/15
http://www.VillaRevak.org, website by James Revak (no longer available)
Decks used in illustrations:
Grand Etteilla: Egyptian Gypsies Tarot, Grimaud, France
Tarocchi Vergnano 1830, facsimile produced by Giordano Berti
Reblogged this on Bonnie Cehovet and commented:
Food for thought!
Etteilla wrote that between 1757 and 1765 had studied the “Egyptian Book” (i.e. the Tarot) along with an old Piedmontese named Lamballe. But Lamballe is not properly a piedmontese name. If this news is not one of the many lies of Etteila, we might guess that Lamballe was originally from County of Nice and Savoy, two regions which at that time belonged to the Savoy family, lords of Piedmont.
Hi Giordano, Thanks for the comment. I didn’t know Etteilla had given his teacher’s name. Like so many of those old-time occultists, he mingled fact and fantasy. Since the Duchy of Savoy straddled France and Italy, I’m wonder what kind of tarot-related cross-pollination occurred between the two countries, with Piedmont as a bridge.
As I understand it Etteilla says the man from Piedmonte was named Alexis, and that he met him in Lamballe:
a) Erant à Rouen, en 1757, je fis la connoissance d’un nommé Lecomte, Parisien, surnommé le Voyageur; & sur ce qui’il me vis occupé à la Cartonomancie Francoise, il me dis qu’il connoissoit un Homme qui en faisoit autant que moi, avec de grandes Cartes; et sur ce que je lui témoignai le plus grand desir de le voir & de parler à cet Homme, il me dit que je pourrois peut-être le trouver à l’Orient, où il étoit allé pour s’embarquer. Je partis dés le même jour pour cette Ville; mais l’y ayant cherché, j’appris qu’il étoit allé à Lamballe, où je le trouvai; & jugeant de ma curiosité par plus de cent vingt lieues de chemin, il me satisfit autant qu’il fut en son pouvoir, me donnant des Notes par écrit sur le Jeu de Tarots, qui’il nomma Livre Egyptien, lesquelles Notes sont encore en mes mains. Enfin Alexis me proposa de m’emmener outre-mer; & sur ce que je ne voulus pas y consentir, nous nous quittâmes, après huit jours de société, &c.
Hi Steve, Thanks for this quote. It appears to be a first-person account by Etteilla himself. Or is someone quoting him? You’re right, Lamballe is the town where Etteilla met this man. I got a bit confused.
I discounted the details of the story, meeting a man named Alexis in Normandy, because of what I read in A Wicked Pack of Cards on page 78 and footnote 16 on page 272. I got the impression that Etteilla only said he studied with “an aged Piemontese”. His biographer, Millet-Saint-Pierre, filled in the rest of the details in 1859, so they may have been hearsay or fantasy. But if your quote is from Etteilla himself, I see no reason not to believe it, unless we just want to automatically discount everything he says as fantasy. There’s no mention of Piedmont or Alexis in this quote, so perhaps that was the biographer’s invention after all. Or did Etteila have two teachers, the guy he met in Lamballe and the aged Piemontese? Did his biographer confuse/conflate the two? Or am I making too much of this because I thought it would be fun to find a Piedmont connection?
The quote is from Etteilla himself, from his 2nd Cahier. According to Etteilla he was with Alexis of Piedmont in Lamballe for 8 days, in 1757, before Alexis departed overseas, leaving Etteilla with handwritten notes on the Tarot, which he (Alexis) called an ‘Egyptian Book’. A translation with fuller details can be found at Michael Howard’s blog on Etteilla:
Thanks so much for the link. It clears everything up. Interesting that Depaulis missed that E’s teacher was the grandson of the famous writer.
In the text he describes him as an aged sage from Piedmonte — the above details (that his name was Alexis, and he was with him for 8 days in Lamballe) was in a note to the main text.
I’m convinced that Etteilla learned his trade from a little old Italian lady. Women would have been witches, but men could turn it into a legitimate profession.
I think you’re right about the piedmontese decks influencing his own.