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Themes and Games

Posted: 15 Aug 2010, 17:22
by Al Craig
Themes in the Tarot

I expressed a view in another thread concerning the origin of the Tarot and I'd like to explain what I meant.

It has long been noticed that the Tarot trumps have images that may relate to things like classical philosophy and Petrarch's poetry. I'd like to suggest that it is possible to organise all of the cards into a few such themes and that the resulting groups represent small trump sets for use in games. It may even be possible to identify the games for which they were intended.

Here is a possible scheme:

Group 1

Size: 4
Cards: Papess, Empress, Emperor, Pope
Theme: Emperors, Imperatori, Kaisern
Game: Kaiserspiel

Group 2

Size: 4
Cards: Emperor, Pope, Devil, Angel/Judgement
Theme: Kaiser, Papst, Teufel ...
Game: Karnöffel

Group 3

Size: 6
Cards: Lovers, Hanged Man, Death, Chariot, Hermit, World
Theme: Petrarch's Triumphs
Game: Trionfo

Group 4

Size: 10
Cards: Fool, Bagato, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Wheel, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun
Theme: Boëthius' philosophy
Game: Unknown

(Edit: I've changed this group in later posts. The Angel has been added and the Fool removed.)

That makes 24 but two cards have been used twice.

These groups could represent special trump cards for use in pre-existing games where players would have had to remove other cards to make room for them. The usual way to do this is to take out one or more ranks but the groups would each have to be multiples of four to give the correct total of cards which is not the case with the above scheme of 4-4-6-10. A possible solution would be to extend the re-use of two cards to all of the groups to give 4-4-8-12 but to keep things as clear as possible I havn't done that here.

I need to justify my choice of cards for the various groups but I'll do that in separate posts as some of the arguments need to be illustrated.

Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 31 Aug 2010, 03:16
by Al Craig
Petrarch's Triumphs

Because the word trionfo, trionfi was used in the name of at least one card game and as a name for the trump cards, there is a suspicion that the popular poems called I Trionfi, "The Triumphs", by Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) were a source for the names and imagery of some the Tarot cards. The poems are here grouped under their six headings and a few examples are provided from the many representations of the Triumphs in art.

The Triumph of Love

Card: The Lovers. Examples from art with the image of Cupid/Love above a group of his victims forms a match with this card.


Four steeds I saw, whiter than whitest snow,
And on a fiery car a cruel youth
With bow in hand and arrows at his side.
No fear had he, nor armor wore, nor shield,
But on his shoulders he had two great wings of
a thousand hues; his body was all bare.
And round about were mortals beyond count:
Some of them were but captives, some were slain,
And some were wounded by his pungent arrows.
The Triumph of Chastity

Card: The Hanged Man. Chastity was depicted as a woman dressed in white with Cupid tied at her feet. However, lines in the poem referring to the character Love/Cupid suggest that the Hanged Man was the intended card here:
I saw him bound, and saw him then chastised
Enough to wreak a thousand vengeances

The image at the right is not a depiction of the Triumph but shows how Cupid could be portrayed in some circumstances.

The Triumph of Death

Card: Death. In the poem Death was a woman dressed in black, but the name of the card and it's imagery are still good matches with the artistic representations.


The Triumph of Fame

Card: The Chariot. Fame is most frequently depicted as a woman within a roundel holding a sword and a book or small statue but there is at least one example showing a man in armour more like the Tarot de Marseille card.
Folk armed alike with valor and with steel,
As in the triumphs that in olden times
Proceeded through the sacred ways of Rome.

The Triumph of Time

Card: The Hermit. This card was sometimes named Time and the Triumph's depiction in art showing an old man with an hourglass makes a match with the earliest cards. There was no personification of Time in the poem.


The Triumph of Eternity

Card: The World. Examples of this Triumph show Christ or the Trinity inside a round or almond-shaped halo, with the four winged creatures in attendance. This, with a few changes to the central character, forms a reasonable match with the Tarot de Marseille card. Somewhere underneath is either a celestial sphere or a depiction of the world from which the card gets it's name. It's missing from the Tarot de Marseille card but present on other versions.


... I turned
To my heart, and asked: "Wherein hast thou thy trust?"
"In the Lord," the answer came, "Who keepeth ever
His covenant with one who trusts in Him ...
... I at last beheld
A world made new and changeless and eternal ...
... There will be One whose judgment will be sure.

Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 09 Sep 2010, 10:19
by Al Craig

Ludus Imperatoris / Kaiserspiel

Cards: Popess, Empress, Emperor, Pope. Because these characters can be seen as ones that would rank above kings in the real world they make an obvious decoration for special cards used as trumps in trick-taking games. Also the subject of these cards fits well with the name of the game Ludus Imperatoris, "The Emperor's Game", which is mentioned in a number of sources of the period when the Tarot first appears. The name of the early German game Kaiserspiel has the same meaning.

If these were cards for those games there is a likely reason why there were four of them. When trumps in a game were few in number they were represented by a rank of cards rather than part of a suit.


Cards: Emperor, Pope, Devil, Angel/Judgement. The appearance of the names of these cards in the game of Karnöffel as Kaiser, Papst and Teufel is too much of a coincidence to be ignored. The topmost trump card was called the Karnöffel. It seems strange that an Italian pack of cards should have included cards to play a German game.

This game had more than four trump-like cards but only the top four were full trumps. Either the other cards were not given special cards in the Tarot or this game, like Kaiserspiel, only had four trumps originally. The games Karnöffel and Kaiserspiel were later considered to be the same but at the time of the appearance of the Tarot may have been distinct but very similar.

The model for the Karnöffel trumps may have been that the Pope and the Emperor were above the kings and above them God and the Devil. The card needed to represent the Karnöffel card should have a subject that suggests it could beat the Devil, for instance God, Christ, an archangel or a saint. The Angel/Judgement seems to be a good fit here.

Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 09 Sep 2010, 11:38
by mmfilesi
Hi friend! Thanks by the post.

Sorry, please, can you tell me which document we use to say the karnoffel have Emperor, Pope, Devil, Angel/Judgement? (I am very interested in the exactly date).


Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 09 Sep 2010, 12:20
by Huck
hi Al,

you're relatively new here, so I've to explain a few things.

There is a relative complex "theory-in-development" usually called 5x14-theory.

It took it's start from an observation of the Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo-deck, which was - as far the trumps are considered - painted by two different painters (one is assumed to have been Bonifacio Bembo, the other is "unknown"). This condition was earlier explained by "some cards were lost and replaced later", with the "5x14-theory" was proposed, that painter Nr. 1 had a commission for a deck with 5x14 cards, and painter Nr. 2 added to the complete deck 6 further trumps - some time later.

With this it was assumed that these 14 trumps plus the 4x14 smaller arcana were a complete deck in the intentions of the designer and of the commissioner.

Generally Tarot History had presented the theory or opinion before, that Tarot had have reached the modern standard form in ca. 1450. As "evidence" served (more or less only) just the Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo deck, but naturally, with another second explanation like the 5x14-theory, it wouldn't serve this way. It's plausible, that this deck form developed ca. 1452 (there is a letter reporting a Trionfi card production in Cremona in 1452), but with 14 trumps or special cards it would contain another message and meaning as with 22.

In 2003 the domain was started to research the oldest conditions of playing card development with a special attention to the 5x14-theory. Then three new, former not considered were found, which suggested, that the 5x14-theory was correct and none factual piece of evidence, that a Tarot or Trionfi deck with the standard form existed till the Boiardo poem (which definitely uses this form).

1. A document of 1.1.1441 reports the production of 14 paintings (called "figure") as present for Bianca Maria Visconti, which was then as a guest in Ferrara. The painter was Sagramoro (later Trionfi card painter variously), his objects are also called "figure" later, the commissioner was probably Leonello (who a year later really ordered and paid for Trionfi cards), the date (1st of January) was a date used for gambling and card playing during the Christmas season. A lot of indications exist, which serve in the argumentation, that these 14 objects were playing cards, but a definite declaration, that these objects were Trionfi or playing cards wasn't given.

2. A letter of Jacopo Antonio Marcello about a playing card deck in November 1449 uses "Ludus triumphorum" for a deck with 16 gods as trumps, with birds as suits and totally 60 cards. With this the generally used assumption of the older theory, that "Trionfi cards (or similar expressions)" meant naturally decks with 4x14+22 cards, was contradicted.

3. A production note of 1457 in Ferrara speaks of "70 cards" for each deck (two are produced). 70 cards (instead of 78) are no problem for the 5x14-theory, but it was a problem for the older assumption, that every Trionfi-deck meant a standard Tarot deck with 22 trumps or special cards.

We did a lot of research to get a plausible dating for the Boiardo Tarocchi poem - the first sure appearance of the later deck form, though as a deck rather unusual. The momentary state is, that this poem was likely made for the wedding of Lucrezia d'Este in January 1487 (the Roman Lucrezia is the highest trump in this deck, which has 22 "figures of history" and not the usual 22 motifs).

From this some security developed - though still opposed by many - that the 5x14-theory had taken a well protected position in the discussion.

Naturally ideas developed, how the state of a 5x14-deck developed, which other conditions were there and what happened after ... from 2003 - 2010 is a lot of time. Meanwhile there are seen 2 major developments (A + B):

A. 5x14 deck development ... evidence is ..
1. document 1.1.1441
2. the 4 Bembo trumps in the Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo deck
3. document with 70 cards from 1457

B. 5x16 deck development or "16 trumps + unknown number of small arcana ... evidence is ..
1. Michelino deck with 16 trumps, described by Martiano da Tortona in ca. 1425
2. Cary-Yale Tarocchi, which has 11 surviving trumps, but could be reconstructed with 16 trumps, assumed to have been made 1441 (with competing other explanations)
3. Charles VI. deck with 16 surviving trumps

In the B development it's seen in the interpretation, that these decks followed Chess ideas ... 2 x 16 figures fill a chess-board and a chess iconography had been already developed since Cessolis. Chess was very popular in the considered time.


In your own analysis ... as you has shown above ... you follow similar lines as we did in our analysis. It's also perceived by us, that Tarot developed from the Imperatori/Karnöffel/Kayser game, it's also perceived, that Petrarca's Trionfi and the group of Virtues (you relate them to Boethius) were important factors.

Actually ... the Imperatori cards, somehow connected to the number "8", likely developed about the Ober and Unter position in a usual card game (which also are 8 cards) as King-King-King-King, Ober-Ober-Ober-Ober and Unter-Unter-Unter-Unter. Kings had to rule in their kingdom (the 4 suits), Ober and Unter (the marshalls) had the profession for military activities, which in a card game would form the "trump-function". Generally some fantasy was spend to illustrate the Ober and Unter, but Kings stayed Kings usually.

This trumping form (Ober and Unter = trumps) is still used in Schafkopf, a game played at the border to old Bohemia (in Bavaria and in the Riesengebirge north of Czechia).
In the relevant early playing card time (later 14th century) Bohemia was the emperor country, from here he ruled the Roman Empire (Charles IV, then later King Wenzel; Sigismondo still was a son of Charles IV). Schafkopf as a name of a card game appeared first in ca. 1700, but the basic rule is very simple and very near to the original iconography (it should be understood, that the original iconography likely influenced the early games more than later games).
The trumping form in the "oldest Tarot cards" (Michelino deck 1425) had 16 trumps, but these seem to be just "extended court cards", as the description speaks only of kings and no other court cards ... so the gods (likely) were court cards and somehow also independent trumps, prdeining the later really independent 5th trump suit, which became in the development Tarot cards.

Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 09 Sep 2010, 20:04
by Al Craig
mmfilesi wrote:tell me which document we use to say the karnoffel have Emperor, Pope, Devil, Angel/Judgement?
There is no document that says the Angel was one of the Karnöffel cards, that's just a piece of guesswork by me. I only said that the other three matched with the evidence, of which, I believe, the earliest mention is the poem by Meissner c.1450.

Huck, I'll reply to you when I've read your post all the way through.

Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 09 Sep 2010, 22:23
by mmfilesi
Perfect, thanks friend. :)

(Interesting topic about Mesnier:


Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 10 Sep 2010, 04:46
by Al Craig
Huck, thanks for the response. Sorry for the delay in reply but I had to read through your arguments for the 5x14 theory on as well.

You've presented a good argument backed by hard evidence and I have to respect that. The ducumentary evidence seems to lean in favour of an earlier 70-card pack but I'd say it's far from conclusive, there seems to be too low a volume of evidence.

I can make a set of 14 by adding together the Emperors and the Philosophy groups but then there will be no Triumphs from which the games and the trumps could have taken their name.

I assume you are objecting to my assertion in another thread that the 78-card Tarot is very early. I can't see that the scheme put forward by me in this thread is dependent on an early date, so I'll avoid mention of one.
Tarot developed from the Imperatori/Karnöffel/Kayser game, it's also perceived, that Petrarca's Trionfi and the group of Virtues were important factors
Then let's match the cards to them.
the Imperatori cards, somehow connected to the number "8"
I'd prefer four. In modern Karnöffel-Kaiserspiel there can be both a suit of trumps containing a Kaiser and also a rank of Kaisern. It sounds like two games mixed together. The Kaisern may have been the trumps of Kaiserspiel just like the ones in the Tarot.

Modern German games show the influence of Karnöffel-Kaiserspiel with their combination of suit and rank trumps. Schafkopf may have 8 in rank, but Skat and Watten only have 4.

Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 10 Sep 2010, 08:29
by mmfilesi
Hi friend :) ...

Exists two great research lines. You may find interesting these two topics:

a) The 5x14 Theory aka the Chess Theory


b) The Bolognese Theory


Re: Themes and Games

Posted: 10 Sep 2010, 18:47
by Al Craig
mmfilesi wrote:You may find interesting these two topics
Thanks, Marcos. I'll need to concentrate on finishing my posts in this thread first. I'll have a look at them after that.