I’ve always been intrigued by the few remnants of fifteenth-century block-printed decks that still exist. They hold tantalizing clues to the early days of tarot, so I’m thrilled that there are three versions of the block-printed Budapest deck on the market. Shown here from left to right are the Fool and Judgment cards by Robert Place, Sullivan Hismans and Marco Benedetti.Read more
Here’s a Youtube video of Justin Michael and myself in conversation a few months ago. In the first 30 minutes, I talk about my 50+ years involvement with tarot and how our understanding of tarot history has evolved. This is interspersed with personal experiences that led to my somewhat irrational antipathy toward esoteric and kabbalistic tarot.
In the second half, I show off my deck collection, especially decks by artisans who have revived obscure historic decks, like Yves Reynaud, Marco Benedetti, Sullivan Hismans, Pablo Robledo, Giordano Berti, and Il Meneghello (Osvaldo Menegazzi). In some cases, these decks only existed as printed sheets or photos in magazines.
Be sure to check out the rest of Justin’s channel. He has interviews with tarot luminaries like Robert Place and Rachel Pollock as well as reviews of TdM and other historic decks.
The most unique single reproduction card in my collection is the Devil card printed by Agnolo Hebreo (Angelo the Jew) shortly after 1500 and now residing in the British Museum. It was undoubtedly part of a complete tarot deck; but no other cards by this individual exist anywhere, and there is no trace of him in the records. This Devil card is the only clue we have that the printer Agnolo Hebreo may have existed. It’s possible the name is a pseudonym borrowed from popular culture by an anonymous deck designer.Read more
Twenty-five years ago, Marco Benedetti painted a heavenly homage to the Visconti-Sforza deck in tempera on gold leaf. A few years ago, he offered his deck to the public on Gamecrafter, and as a custom printed gold-leaf deck. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of his original deck, he is offering both the original deck and an updated 25th anniversary edition on Gamecrafter and as a custom printed gold deck. Both Gamecraafter decks come with additional cards, so you really get two decks in one. There are several options for customizing the gold deck., which I discuss toward the bottom. First, let’s compare the two Gamecrafter versions.Read more
In fifteenth-century Italy, wealthy aristocrats indulged themselves with luxurious, hand painted, gold-embossed Trionfi decks. The decks came in two distinct families: those commissioned by the Visconti and Sforza Dukes of Milan in the International Gothic style; and Renaissance-style decks created most likely in either Ferrara or Florence. The so-called Charles VI deck, with 16 trump cards, is the most complete deck of the Florentine pattern. Other decks of this type have only a handful of trump cards. Benedetti compiled a complete 78-card deck by cobbling together all the existing cards in the Florentine style. A few absent cards had to be recreated, while several cards exist as duplicates. Benedetti includes the duplicate trump cards with his recreated deck, for a total of 90 cards.Read more
One of the oldest complete French decks that still exists, the very quirky Tarot de Paris was printed in Paris about 1650. Only one example has survived—a complete deck in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Until now, there has been only one other version on the market, a facsimile published in 1985 by Grimaud for André Dimanche and reissued by Editions-sivilixi. Now we have a fresh opportunity to acquire this hard-to-find deck. A good deal of thought went into designing this unique deck, but the stenciling was a bit sloppy, making some of the lines hard to read. The Museo dei Tarocchi’s deck (Tarocchi Francesi) is ideal for studying card details as the images are sharper, the colors brighter and the cards enlarged, without sacrificing historic authenticity.Read more
The Adam C. de Hautot Tarot is another beautiful and historically important deck from the Tarot Sheet Revival workshop of Sullivan Hismans. This deck is an early representative of the Rouen-Brussels pattern, an alternate Tarot de Marseille (TdM) that flourished from about 1650 to 1780 in a corner of Europe defined by Paris, Rouen and Brussels. The Popess and Pope are replaced by a strutting Spanish Captain from the Commedia dell’ Arte, and with Bacchus straddling a wine barrel. Most of the trump cards from the Devil on up deviate from the TdM pattern, many of them resembling hand painted decks from 15th century Italy.Read more
A sister of the Umiliati Order in Milan, Maifreda da Pirovano, was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1300. Many historians believe this card from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot is her portrait. When the Duke and Duchess of Milan commissioned this golden Trionfi deck from their favorite artist, Bonifacio Bembo, shortly after 1450, they commemorated family history in some of the cards. Maifreda may have been related to the duchess; and her heresy involved claiming to be the equal of the Pope, so the connection seems obvious. But if you were the duchess of Milan, with a reputation based on good works and piety, would you advertise a heretic in the family? Let’s look at some other, more respectable, possibilities for this card.Read more
Here’s a deck that not only looks like the fifteenth century, but feels like the fifteenth century: I Tarocchi Rosenwald restored by Marco Benedetti, with hand-folded paper borders (Bordi Rivoltinati). Benedetti glues backing paper to each card, clips the corners then folds the borders to the front using traditional checkered paper. Every Italian playing card was made with this labor-intensive technique from the fifteenth century to the 1930s.Read more
How did we get from there to here? How did the Fool go from being a medieval village idiot to a vagabond, to a free spirit on the road to enlightenment? Does the medieval Popess have any relation to a modern, witchy High Priestess? Did these changes make a radical break from the past?
It’s my thesis that every major change to tarot imagery and card interpretation evolved from what preceded it. There’s a continuous 600-year thread from Italy to France to Britain to the United States and beyond.
I’ve created a new section of this website, From Trionfi to Major Arcana, where I’ll follow this thread of development for each trump card, looking at how the interpretation of the cards shifted along with the image.