The earliest known Italian Love (Amore) tarot cards commemorated fifteenth-century aristocratic weddings. Later in the century, Italian cards printed for the masses depicted a love-struck couple. In France a few hundred years later, the story got more interesting when a second woman joined the pair. During its global journey from Italy to France, England and the United States, the Love card acquired layers of complexity as well as a name shift. Let’s follow this card step-by-step around the globe.
Fifteenth-Century Italian Decks
The first Love card we know of (the Visconti di Modrone card shown here) was created about 1441 for the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti, the daughter of the Duke of Milan, and the condottiere and future Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. The heraldry of both families appears on their clothing. The words a bon droyt, nearly invisible on Francesco’s hat, is a Visconti motto that he adopted. The little white dog symbolizes marital fidelity; and the word Amor in gold is nearly invisible on the canopy. This marriage was a political arrangement contracted when Bianca was eight years old to seal an alliance between the Visconti and one of the greatest military commanders of the era. Perhaps to compensate for the grim reality of their arranged marriages, aristocrats were mad for stories of Lancelot and Guinevere, the Roman de la Rose, and songs of the French troubadours. Aristocratic art of the era, including custom-made trionfi cards, bathed courtship and marriage in an idealistic and romantic glow.
This Visconti-Sforza card, from a deck commissioned by the Duke and Duchess of Milan in the early 1450s, commemorates the moment some ten years earlier that sealed their marriage. In our culture, the exchange of rings is the high point of a marriage ceremony, while in their day it was the hand clasp. Both have Visconti sun rays on their robes, as the marriage contract gave Francesco the right to use Visconti heraldic devices. The Visconti-Sforza marriage scene is repeated in a miniature painting of 1464 from a codex located in San Sigismondo Church in Cremona. The artist of both the deck and the miniature is most likely Bonifacio Bembo. Bianca reportedly described details of the wedding to the artist, so the image is historically accurate.
Here is a hand-painted, Italian Love card that’s not about marriage; it’s more like the block printed decks discussed below. The so-called “Charles VI” deck, possibly made in Florence in the 1460s, shows three promenading couples, one of them rather amorous, being goaded by two Cupids. As in the other painted tarot cards, Cupid is a classical youth, not the chubby cherub of the late Renaissance.
Italian and French Wood Block Decks
While aristocrats were commissioning luxurious cards from their court artists to show off their wealth, printers were turning out inexpensive wood block decks for all classes of people who just wanted to play the game of trionfi with cheap cards. Ordinary people had more freedom than aristocrats to respond to Cupid’s arrow and marry for love. The Love cards in these mass-produced decks from the 15th through mid-17th centuries depict a courtship scene where the woman succumbs to Cupid’s arrows.
Although very few decks remain from the 16th century, we have many Italian essays, sonnets and lists of card names from that time. All the evidence indicates this card’s Italian name was singular: L’Amore (Love). It refers to the abstract concept, not the people involved; so courtly love is the only possible interpretation for this card.
Only one Love card comes down to us from the French transition period before the deck settled into the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) pattern. The Tarot de Paris Lover card shows a rather frisky mature couple, with Cupid goading the man along. This card illustrates two of the three ways the Tarot de Marseille card deviates from its Italian ancestors.
The card title, LAMOVREVS, is a misspelling of the standard TdM title: Lamoureux/L’amoureux (The Male Lover). In spite of how it looks, the title is not plural. The Lover, singular, refers to the man in the center of the TdM card. In the Tarot de Paris, and the later Tarot de Marseille style, the man is Cupid’s target. Coupled with the card title, this makes the male lover the most important figure in the card.
The other French innovation is the inclusion of a third person with the pair of lovers.
Tarot de Marseille
The Tarot de Marseille that emerged in the seventeenth century is radically different from the Italian Love card. The courting couple is replaced by a young man standing between two women who pull him in opposite directions. One woman is young and lovely with flowers in her hair; the other is older, homely and wears a laurel wreath.
What’s the story here? Is the young man standing between his bride and his mother-in-law? His wife and his mistress? His mother and his fiancée? His girlfriend and a chaperone? Are two women fighting over the man? Is the man trapped between staying in an arranged marriage or following his heart? The author Rachel Pollack sees the man torn between his wife and his mistress, having to make an existential choice. Should he play it safe and take the conventional and responsible path, or follow his heart, abandon his family and take the risky option? This is the choice we face many times in life: stay in our comfort zone or risk going forward into the unknown.
In some cards, like the Milanese deck shown here, the older woman is replaced by a king who might be reminding the lover of his duty to serve his country rather than staying at home with his girlfriend. This fits with the trump sequence, since the next card is the Chariot, showing the lover as military hero triumphing over love.
In the Dotti card, as in most Italian-style decks, Cupid takes aim at the woman. Notice that the Italian title is plural. When the Tarot de Marseille entered Italy and Italian printers started making their own versions, they translated the French title as Gli Amanti/The Lovers. This may be the origin of the English title.
The tarot threesome may have been inspired by the story of youthful Hercules being lured by women who embody two radically different life paths: Vice and Virtue. “Hercules’ Choice” was a very popular theme that inspired artists and playwrights at the time tarot cards were evolving into the Tarot de Marseille pattern. J. S. Bach wrote a cantata based on the story. The philosopher Montaigne pondered how one could reconcile the two paths and lead a virtuous life of duty yet still have some fun.
This painting by Annibale Carracci, Hercules at the Crossroads, is considered the quintessential rendering of the theme in European art. Hercules sits between two women vying for his attention. One woman (Aphrodite) is voluptuous, scantily draped, and accompanied by musical instruments, theater masks and playing cards. She tries to lure Hercules into the dark forest by offering an easy life devoted to indulging his senses. Virtue (Minerva) is modestly dressed and points to a steep, rocky path where Pegasus, friend of the Muses, waits at the top. The steep path of duty and service is not easy, but holds out the promise of fame and glory.
A painting of the same scene by Veronese shows a well-dressed Hercules being mauled by Virtue and Vice. Just as in the Tarot de Marseille, Vice wears a circlet of flowers while Virtue sports a spikey laurel crown.
Socrates is the first to mention Hercules in connection with the popular allegory of Vice as a smooth and easy road, and Virtue as a steep and rocky path. This allegory was repeated by Greek and Latin writers through the centuries, until it migrated into the Gospel of Matthew as the choice between the wide gate and broad way that leads to destruction, or the strait gate and narrow way that leads to life. With the Renaissance rediscovery of Greek classics, Hercules returned to the story. Carracci followed Socrates closely in his rendering of the women.
Card readers interpret the Tarot de Marseille Lover card in two ways. It still represents love in all its many manifestations. But the card could also mean a crossroads in life: having to choose between competing values or lifestyles, then making a commitment. It could also mean being indecisive, hesitant, and doubting your ability to choose wisely. Some authors read the story a bit differently and see the middle figure as an unfaithful lover. Cupid’s arrow suggests the lovers, like Romeo and Juliet, are victims of fate.
French Occult Tarot
Influential nineteenth-century French occultists Eliphas Levi, Papus and Oswald Wirth explicitly state that this card depicts a man deciding between the paths of Virtue and Vice. Wirth retold the story of Hercules in his book Le Tarot des Imagiers du Moyen Age (Tarot of the Magicians), and put a bifurcating path in front of the man in his own deck. Wirth’s Cupid aims his arrow rather forcefully at the top of the man’s head, demonstrating the force of will he’ll have at his disposal once he commits to a path. The Hebrew letter Vau associates this card with Taurus.
French occultists found the symbolism of 3 + 3 = 6 to be significant. They associated these numbers with two interlaced triangles, illustrating the alchemical marriage of Soul and Spirit. But this pair of numbers could also be a push-pull relationship between commitment vs. indecision; or taking responsibility for your life vs. being seduced by temptation.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the major arcana sequence was sometimes seen through a Jungian lens as the Fool’s journey toward individuation. The Tarot de Marseille Lover card, coming immediately after cards representing parents, church and society, depicts a young person at the stage of their journey where they break away from home, take risks and acquire their own values. He’s an adolescent feeling pulled between wanting to stay home and be taken care of by mother, or following his heart and moving toward independent adulthood.
The Golden Dawn
When Tarot jumped the English Channel in the 1880s and was adopted by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Lover card underwent a radical change. They assigned the Hebrew letter Zain to this card, which allied it with Gemini. This should have emphasized the French concepts of duality, polarity and the bonding of opposites. Instead, the Golden Dawn’s card image, astrological association, and divinatory meanings seem to come from parallel realities. The card illustrates the myth of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea monster. According to the Golden Dawn, she’s chained to the rock of materialism. As the Greeks tell it, Perseus made a stopover on the north African coast on his way home from beheading the Medusa. Andromeda had been chained to a rock by her father and left to be devoured by a sea monster to placate Neptune, who was extremely annoyed with the royal family. Perseus fell in love with Andromeda while rescuing her. The couple married, lived happily ever after, had many children and became the ancestors of the Mycenean royal dynasty, as well as Hercules’ ancestor, which circles us back to the TdM. The image vaguely relates to the Golden Dawn’s divinatory meaning of “motivation and action arising from inspiration” if you see Perseus as being inspired by love.
Thanks to the Golden Dawn, this card experienced a name shift in English from The Lover to The Lovers (plural). This may have happened because the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn favored Italian decks based on the Tarot de Marseille with their plural title, Gli Amanti. At least one member, W. B. Yeats, owned a Dotti deck. New members were required to copy the official Golden Dawn deck for their own use, but until that was accomplished, they used a TdM.
(See Mary Greer’s article referenced below for details on the Golden Dawn’s use of the Perseus myth.)
The Waite Smith Lovers Card
A. E. Waite went in an entirely different direction when he designed his Lovers card. Although he was an enthusiastic member of the Golden Dawn, after its collapse he drifted into Christian mysticism. The Waite Smith deck has numerous Christian elements mixed in with astrology, Kabbala and a touch of Egyptomania, thanks to Eliphas Levi. But this card, depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, is probably the most thoroughly Christian of all his major arcana cards. Adam stands in front of the Tree of Life with twelve fruits that look like flames. Behind Eve is the Tree of Knowledge with apples and a snake. Waite does not identify the angel, rather he describes it as “a great winged figure pouring down influences”. Later Golden Dawn initiates, like Paul Foster Case, identified the angel as Raphael pouring blessings equally on both sides of the male-female polarity. Psychologically inclined authors see the three figures as the trinity of conscious, unconscious and superconscious mind.
According to Waite, Adam and Eve are in a state of purity and innocence before eating the apple, signifying spiritualized love before it’s contaminated with material desire. Adam is looking at Eve, and Eve looks at the angel. Adam, as the conscious/rational mind, needs Eve to be the bridge to the superconscious realm.
In his book The Pictorial Key to Tarot, Waite rejects the traditional interpretations of this card as marriage, or a choice between virtue and vice. But perhaps without realizing it, Waite referred to Hercules’ choice by depicting Eve standing in front of the Tree of Knowledge with everything in place for her to tempt Adam into sin.
In the twentieth century, the card circled back to the fifteenth-century concept of a pair of lovers, often eroticized, reflecting our culture’s obsession with the search for a soul mate, and the belief that romantic love will resolve all of life’s problems. The concept of choice is absent from the card, and Cupid is usually left out as well, since we see love as an impulse that comes from within each individual, not a force imposed on us by the gods.
The artist Niki de Saint Phalle, creator of The Tarot Garden in Italy, paid homage to both the Tarot de Marseille and the Waite Smith deck when she named her card The Choice. Adam and Eve enjoy a picnic in the Garden of Eden, using the snake’s coils as a blanket. The artist felt Adam and Eve were most appropriate for this card because they were first people in history to make an important, life-changing choice.
Perhaps the Halloween Lovers card should be renamed the “No Means No” card. A vulnerable-looking young woman sits in bed reading a love letter while a rather goofy-looking Dracula climbs in the window. But this damsel in distress knows how to take care of herself. Her hand hovers near a very sharp dagger hidden under her papers.
Using the Little Prince’s devotion to his rose as an example, the author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry teaches a lesson in genuine love. The rose is vain, demanding, and not entirely honest (a stand-in for the author’s high-maintenance wife). But the Little Prince, on his tiny volcanic planet, devotes himself to the happiness and comfort of his rose, putting her under glass every night to keep her warm, watering her every day, and listening patiently as she alternately complains and boasts. His dedication to her safety and happiness makes the rose special to him, and is a testament to his love for her.
The Little Prince may have the key to the card’s essential meaning. This card encompasses romantic love and all its illusions, the temptation to stray, the willingness to make a life-long commitment, as well as the desire to risk everything for something better when the chosen life path starts to feel boring and confining. It also implies the choices a young person must make: education, a career path, a life partner, whether to break from your family’s values and how high a price you are willing to pay if you do.
Like the Little Prince tending his rose, your commitments define you. With your values as a guide, you weigh your options, then commit with all your heart and soul to a special person, a life path, or a project. Then begins the hard work of tending this commitment daily. Choice, love, struggle, and commitment are all implicit in this card.
See more images and art at http://tarotwheel.net/history/the%20individual%20trump%20cards/l’amore.html
Trumps History Home
Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone. Il Meneghello, 2017. Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
I Tarocchi dei Visconti. Milan c. 1450. Il Meneghello, Milan, 1996. Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.
Wedding Scene. Codice di Donazione. San Sigismondo Church, Cremona. Attributed to Bembo workshop, 1464.
Tarocchi Charles VI, c. 1460. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
The Rosenwald Tarot, c.1480. Recreated by Sullivan Hismans, 2017. Collection of the National Gallery, Washington, D. C.
Roman Tarot (Colonna Sheets) c. 1625. Collection of the British Museum.
Tarot de Paris c. 1650. André Dimanche/Grimaud, 1983. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
Nicolas Rolichon Tarot, Lyon, mid-17th century. Restored by Marco Benedetti, 2019.
Edoardo Dotti Tarocchi, 1862. Restored by Giordano Berti, 2021.
Hercules at the Crossroads. Annibale Caracci, 1596. Collection of the Capodimonte Gallery, Naples.
The Choice Between Virtue and Vice. Paolo Veronese, c. 1565. The Frick Collection, New York.
Oswald Wirth Tarot, 1887. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
The Golden Dawn Magical Tarot. Sandra and Chic Cicero. Llewellyn, 2006
The Centennial Waite Smith Tarot Deck. London, 1909. U.S. Games System, Inc., Stamford, CT, 2009.
Morgan Greer Tarot. US Games Systems Inc., 1979.
Ink Witch Tarot. Eric Maille, 2021.
Niki de Saint Phalle Tarot. JNF Productions, 2002.
Halloween Tarot. Kipling West. US Games Systems Inc., 1996.
The Little Prince Tarot. Paul and Rossi. Lo Scarabeo, 2019.
Greer, Mary. “An Iconographic History of the Lovers Card.” In Tarot in Culture Volume Two. Edited by Emily E. Auger, 559-596. Valleyhome Books, 2014.
See the Bibliography for books and websites that discuss all the trump cards.