Tom Tadfor Little: "Inventor of the Tarot?" (2001?)

As far I know the first internet article to the Michelino deck. Somehow also the begin of a longer friendship.

The original article is lost at, but preserved at ... ... rziano.htm

Tom Tadfor Little: "Inventor of the Tarot?"
according ... rziano.htm written end of 2001
Inventor of the Tarot?

For the first time since I started studying this subject, I feel like I can speculate with a great deal of confidence on the invention of our favorite cards. What happened? I read an article in a couple back issues of The Playing Card (1989) by Italian card historian Franco Pratesi. The subject of the article is the Marziano cards.

What are they?

In the standard tarot history accounts, you may encountered references to an early card game with "gods and birds" dating back to around 1420 or maybe earlier. It's easy to dismiss that as irrelevant, because the tarot we know is not about gods and birds. But let us, with Pratesi, look a little closer.

Marziano da Tortona served as secretary to duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. But that perhaps gives the wrong impression of him. He was a scholar, Filippo's tutor, and specialist in astrology (or astronomy, as the two disciplines had not yet gone their separate ways in the 15th century). Some time around 1415 (date not entirely certain, but not later than 1420), the young duke (he was in his early twenties, having assumed the title in 1412 at the age of 20) directed Marziano to devise a card game according to the duke's instructions.

Instead of the ordinary suits of swords, coins, staves, and cups, the new deck was to have suits representing virtues, riches, virginities, and pleasures. The suit signs were appropriate birds: eagles, phoenixes, turtles (turtledoves?), and doves. Each suit also had four cards higher than kings, depicted as classical deities. This was apparently an early exploration into the idea of "trumps", because whereas the regular suit cards have no power of cards of different suits, the sixteen deities have an internal ordering that bypasses their suit assignments and determines which card wins over others.

The amazing thing is that Marziano actually wrote a book to go with this deck of cards. In the book, he describes the structure of the deck, and then goes into great detail about each of the classical deities, what they represent, and how they are depicted on the cards. This was the first ever "companion book" for a deck of cards, and it is sitting in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris to this day! Not surprisingly, it does not give divinatory meanings. But interestingly, neither does it gives the rules of a card game. The focus is on the allegorical meaning of the pictures and their proper ranking.

But Marziano didn't make the cards himself. They were turned over to a noted artist, Michelino da Besozzo, who apparently made cards of extraordinary beauty. In 1449, after the duke had died, a Venetian captain named Marcello (in alliance with Francesco Sforza in the attempt to capture Milan) heard of the enormous value of these cards and "acquired" them from the duke's estate and had them sent to the queen of Lorraine as a present. He was also determined to get the book along with them, which he did. The cards apparently have not survived.

Now obviously, these are not precisely tarot cards. But this is the earliest and most extraordinary insight into the way in which allegorical playing cards were being invented in northern Italy in the 15th century. (The Boiardo game is a somewhat later example of a similar idea, and we might toss in the Sola-Busca and the 16th-century workshop inventory that included such items as "the game of our Lord and the apostles", "the game of the triumphs of Petrarch", and so on).

Think for a moment on the process by which the Marziano cards were invented: the duke has the original idea for an allegorical card game, he passes it on to the court astronomer/astrologer/scholar for intellectual development and refinement, and finally has it executed by the best artistic talent he can procure!

Isn't it rich? Isn't it wonderful?

We know that duke Filippo was an unattractive, introverted soul, who preferred to stay indoors playing with his beautiful games or studying astrology. In his twenties, he conceived this game where classical deities appeared as allegories for virtues and temptations. Let's see him now ten years later: he's had his wife executed for adultery, his illegitimate daughter Bianca has just been born, and he is hiring the ambitious free-lance military commander Francesco Sforza to help him through his political difficulties. As a man in his thirties, perhaps his thoughts are turning to new concerns: the wages of power, morality, and his own place in the cosmos. He proposes to Marziano (or perhaps his successor--Marziano died in 1425 or maybe a year or two earlier) a new game, in which the allegorical cards are not classical deities pressed into rather trite compartments, but instead will signify the forces that control human fate.

The astronomer, with this new assignment, brings his scholarship and intellect to bear on the subject, making sure that the powers of the world are arrayed according to a sound cosmographic sheme. The artist entrusted with executing the designs ensures that they are beautiful and stir the spirit.

Study of other evidence had led me to believe that the tarot was invented to be a game, but that the game was "smart"--philosophically coherent and with a scholar's attention to numerical and theological principles. I think tarot scholarship has been crippled by the prejudice that a "smart game" is an oxymoron. If it is a game, then the symbols must have been assembled casuallym carelessly, arbitrarily. If, on the other hand, there seems to be a profound stucture behind these pictures, then surely it could not have originated as a game: it must have crept from the dark library of some medieval magus.

But now, I encounter this beautiful gift from the past: the story of an astronomer who designed allegorical card games for the duke of Milan.

And he left us his notebook.

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