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Sicilian Tarot Exhibit Catalog: Il Mondo in Mano

This beautifully illustrated catalog is a rare opportunity to see cards that have been hidden for centuries, until this exhibit on display from September 2019 to January 2020 at the Castello Ursino, Catania. The text of each chapter is either fully translated or summarized in English.

Sicily’s unique playing card and tarot tradition was unknown to the outside world until Michael Dummett did research there in 1973. Tarocchi was a very popular game in Sicily from the 16th to 19th centuries, but had nearly vanished by the mid-20th century. Dummett discovered only a few villages where the game was still played. Many people he talked to, including playing card merchants, had never heard of Tarocco Siciliano. But the deck and game may be experiencing a renaissance thanks in part to Dummett’s interest and support. Shown here is the most popular contemporary Sicilian deck published by Modiano of Trieste.

Sicilian Tarot is a living fossil, preserving features from now-vanished 16th and 17th century Italian decks. Some of the trump cards are derived from the Minchiate deck; and it’s the only deck in Europe that still uses Portuguese pips. The suits of coins and cups are very similar to the Italian suit symbols we know from the Tarot de Marseille; but the swords are straight and the batons are fat cudgels. The deck has four court cards: King, Queen, Knight and Lady. Here’s a “La Fortuna” deck from 1855 showing some typical Sicilian trump cards.

Religious images in the standard tarot deck have been replaced by images from the Minchiate deck. The Devil was replaced by the Ship. The Angel (Judgment) is now Jupiter and the World is depicted as Atlas holding up a globe. There is no Pope or Papessa. The Miseria card has no number nor points value and is placed below the Bagatto which is called Piciotti (The Boys). A Roman tarocchi deck with these images was exported to Sicily in the 16th century, became the standard gaming deck, and evolved in isolation through the centuries.

The So-Called Alessandro Sforza deck

Because of my interest in very early tarot, I was especially excited about the 15th-century hand painted and gilded tarocchi deck in the Castello’s collection. (The World card from this deck is on the catalog cover illustrated at the top). It’s comprised of four trumps, the King of Swords and ten pip cards. The symbols on the King’s shield led people to associate the cards with Alessandro Sforza, the Lord of Pesaro. But it’s more likely to point to Niccoló III d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara. The Empress and Two of Batons belonging to the same deck were recently discovered in a private collection in Palermo. The so-called Charles VI hand-painted deck in the BNF in Paris is so similar to this deck that it must come from the same workshop. The correlation between these sets of cards has been written up in detail by Emilia Maggio in The Playing Card, Volume 44, number 4, pages 256 to 268.

Ludwig Pollack

I was very gratified to see an unknown hero of tarot history getting recognition for his work on the hand-painted Ursino (Alessandro Sforza) deck. Ludwig Pollack (1868 to 1943) was a prominent archaeologist and art connoisseur who advised museums and important collectors like J.P. Morgan and Sigmund Freud. In 1925, he and another man were hired to catalog the collection in the Museo Biscari before it was transferred to the Castello Ursino. He described the fifteen hand painted cards in detail, including the backs, which were totally obscured during a 1987 restoration. The cards are constructed of laminated layers of recycled paper. Pollack noticed a 1428 date on one of the papers. The Empress in the Palermo collection has a similar paper dated 1428, making it certain that the two sets of cards belong together, and placing this deck in the 1430s, very close to the time of tarot’s invention.

Pollack’s portion of the Biscari catalog was never published and had been totally forgotten until his write-up of the cards was found by chance in the Castello Ursino archives in 2014. His meticulous descriptions allow us to know things about the cards that it’s impossible to see in their current state. His belated recognition is especially poignant since his house and possessions were confiscated and he, his wife and his children disappeared into a German concentration camp. No record of their ultimate fate has ever been found.

This beautiful catalog, with color illustrations on nearly every page, is a treasure house of lost knowledge that has been restored and reclaimed for us and for the future.

Where to get the catalog:

I got mine from Il Meneghello in Milan. Email info@IlMeneghello.it for a price plus shipping then order it with Paypal.

I’ve heard you can order it directly from the Museo Civico di Castello Ursino in Catania.

References:

Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. p. 371-386

It’s fun to read Dummett’s chapter on Sicilian tarot alongside the catalog. You can see all the decks he describes in his book, and even see things he regrets not seeing himself, like the Murari deck on page 74.

See 20th-century Sicilian playing cards here:  https://www.wopc.co.uk/italy/sicilian

Limited edition Sicilian deck in water color by Lelio Bonaccorso, Sicily, 2016

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. And when ami off to Catania? April. Bother.

    January 23, 2020
    • Sally, I think the Castello Ursino is a museum and probably has some cards on permanent exhibit. Happy travels.

      January 24, 2020
      • Thanks for the tip – I will report back!

        January 24, 2020
  2. Thank you for this overview of the book. The information on Ludwick Pollack and the A.Sforza cards seems worth the price of the book and so poignant.

    January 24, 2020
  3. Mary, the discussion of the A. Sforza cards is very brief. You won’t learn anything new. The place to go is Maggio’s article in The Playing Card. I loved the experience of seeing cards and tarot from a unique perspective. It tilted my world a bit.

    January 24, 2020

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