Il Meneghello’s Little White Sheet
Has anyone read the folded sheet of paper that comes with every Il Meneghello deck? Recently I became curious enough to dust off my Italian dictionary and read it carefully. Osvaldo Menegazzi, the owner and artistic force behind Il Meneghello, is a native of Milan who’s been immersed in tarot most of his long life. I was hoping for special insights from a Milanese perspective. Instead I got a dose of Oswald Wirth.
Here’s a summary of the sheet. Where material seems to be lifted directly from Wirth’s book, I cite the chapter. (Information on Wirth and his book at the bottom.)
History: This section of the sheet reads like the 1960s. We’re told that the oldest deck in existence resides in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and was commissioned by King Charles VI of France in 1392. Historians have known for decades that this deck was actually created in Italy in the late 15th century. He goes on to tell us that in the 15th century there were luxury hand-painted decks for the upper classes and woodblock decks colored with stencils for the masses. Tarot was invented by combining two decks: a card game called Naibe and a 22-card deck with symbolic figures designed for fortunetelling. While these 22 images are obviously Christian, they may be European adaptations of abstract designs used for divination in the orient, like Geomancy or the I Ching. (Wirth, Chapter 14).
Menegazzi speaks approvingly of Antoine Court de Gebelin who discovered that tarot is the sacred Book of Thoth; and of Etteilla who designed an Egyptian-style deck and became a rich and famous cartomancer. Menegazzi can’t resist joining his fellow occultists in sneering at Etteilla, calling him a self-promoting wig maker. Etteilla was a successful professional card reader and astrologer, so he must have known a few things about self-promotion. But he was never a wig maker. (See my article here for a rant about why and how Etteilla was dissed so badly by his fellow occultists.)
Divination: Menegazzi says up front that he’s using Wirth’s method because it only uses 22 cards and is fairly simple. He refers readers to the Alfred Douglas book The Tarot. Here’s a compilation of his advice for readers:
- Don’t let other people touch your cards unless you allow the querent to shuffle the deck before a reading.
- The more you study the cards and memorize their meanings, the more they will be imprinted on your subconscious and take on your personal vibrations.
- Store your cards in a wooden box placed near the east wall of your house.
- Before consulting the cards, light incense and put yourself in a meditative state.
- If you have an either/or question like, “should I go out with Frankie or with Johnnie?” do two readings asking how it will work out with each option.
The method for selecting cards, and the spread, are taken directly from Wirth, Chapter 15.
Picking Cards: the reader shuffles the 22 cards and asks the querent to give him a random number between 1 and 22. The reader counts down that number of cards from the top of the deck, makes a note of the card, and leaves the card in the deck. The reader shuffles again and asks for another number. You repeat this as many times as there are spread positions. (When reading for yourself you can roll dice to get a number). Pull the selected cards out of the deck and lay them out in a spread. With this method it’s possible to get the same card in more than one spread position.
The Spread: Menegazzi uses Wirth’s 5-card cross spread minus one card. He seems to combine Wirth’s spread positions 4 and 5. (Here’s an article explaining the Cross Spread in detail.) Three cards are pulled from the deck, while the fourth card is derived from adding up the sum of the other three. Menegazzi does not mention laying the cards out in any particular configuration, but they seem to fall naturally into a square with 1 and 2 on the left and right, 3 above and between the first two, and 4 beneath 3. Here are the spread positions:
(1) What is favorable in this situation, or the attitude or action that would be favorable to take.
(2) What is unfavorable in this situation, or the attitude or action that would not be good to take.
(3) The Mediator that bridges the first two cards, points to a middle way, and facilitates getting what you asked for.
(4) The Solution or Outcome: this card is derived by adding up the sum of the previous three cards. If the sum is more than 22, add up the digits in the sum until the number is reduced to 22 or less.
Divinatory meanings for the 22 trump cards comprise a large part of the sheet. They’re a condensation of Wirth’s DMs, and are in line with what you see in most books on how to read the TdM.
Oswald Wirth (1860-1943) was a Rosicrucian and prominent member of French occult circles. In 1887 he designed a deck with Egyptian and kabalistic details inspired by Eliphas Levi’s writings. This was the first deck to have Hebrew letters on the cards. It’s published by US Games Inc.
In 1927, Wirth wrote Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen-Ȃge (Tarot of the Medieval Image-Makers). The chapter citations in this article refer to this book.
The most recent and accessible edition of this book was published in 2012 by Red Wheel/Weiser as Tarot of the Magicians. The introduction by Mary Greer gives a gives a biography of Wirth that puts him in the context of his times and of other French occultists. Wirth’s cards as he designed them (not the later, rather ugly, versions) are reprinted on heavy paper in the back of the book so you can cut them out and have an original Wirth deck.
Deck used to illustrate the spread: Tarocco Milanese 1850. Milan: Il Meneghello, 1986.
I love the technical skills of Osvaldo Menegazzi, but I’m less convinced by his Tarot knowledge. As an example, if he has to recreate missing cards they are most of the times not correct in a historical perspective.
I understand your disappointment. Osvaldo appears to be more the artist and not so much the historian. I agree that it’s well worth reading Wirth’s book. When writing the introduction to the new edition I reread the book closely and was so impressed by his knowledge. It is sure to deepen one’s appreciation for the Tarot Trumps.
I agree with both Iolon and Mary Greer that Menegazzi is primarily an artist. In fact, I wonder if he wrote the material on the sheet himself. He certainly isn’t concerned with updating it. I was going to complain that he doesn’t accompany his decks with historical background specific to that deck. But I just noticed that included with the deck I used to illustrate this article is a little booklet with nice background material on the Dotti family of printers. So I can’t say he’s totally disinterested in history.
I get the impression from reading European books on how to read the TdM that Wirth’s influence is pervasive, just like Waite in the English-speaking world. I think everyone who reads with the TdM should read Wirth.