The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

It is well known that de Mellet in 1781 declared tarot cards to be “hieroglyphes” ( ... les_Tarots). That this terminology did not start with him was exhibited on ATF in 2008. Ross and Kwaw (SteveM) posted some pre-de Mellet references, either quotes or summaries by others, about tarot or other cards being called hieroglyphs, from 1570 (tarot, in the Anonymous Discourse), 1603 (probably other cards, a quote from a modern book in French describing a Spanish book of 1603), 1676 (minchiate), and 1748 (other cards). In addition, there were the emblem-book writers, who saw their work as in the same genre as hieroglyphs: Kwaw cites Alciato (1531), and Cesare Ripa (1597). To the extent that cards are like emblems, the inference is that these writers would have classified tarot and other cards the same way, as hieroglyphs.The most relevant 2008 ATF posts related to what I have just summarized are the first and third at:

On this ATF thread, Ross then raised the question of how this notion of cards as hieroglyphs might have affected how the tarot was viewed even earlier than 1570, and especially in the 1400s. His tentative conclusion (stated in the 4th post on the above thread) was that in the 1400s the concept of hieroglyphs was confined to a small group of Florentine scholars and therefore could have had little effect on the developing tarot until after 1499.

That ATF thread pretty much died in 2008 (despite a helpful post by Kwaw in 2009). But reading the thread helped me to realize that I had not researched this area adequately. What I have found since leads me to think quite the opposite of Ross’s conclusion, that the concept of images produced as hieroglyphs was not confined to a small group of scholars in Florence, and that in fact the idea spread to the courts of Milan and Ferrara, and possibly also to Bologna, at precisely the time Ross estimates for the origin of the tarot, that is, 1437-1441. The idea continued to thrive in these places (as well as Florence, Rome, later Venice and the Imperial court) before spreading to France (especially) and the rest of Western Europe after the 1531 Augsburg and 1534 Paris editions of Alciato, 1536 in French, when it reached a large audience in vulgarized form, although the earlier Italian erudite understanding would have spread as well.

I posted the details of what I found out (following up on Kwaw), with quotes and references, at the end of the ATF thread. But the posts are long, and it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. So I thought I would try to start something here, by means of a time-line, going from 1400 to 1600. But to me the part from 1500 to 1600 is only of interest for showing how the idea spread from Italy to the rest of Europe, with some modification in the process. It is the part before 1500 that is of most relevance to the tarot in its early stages. Also, to say where I am going, I thought it might be useful for me to attempt a summary first.


Hieroglyphs, for the 15th century humanists of the 1420s and 30s, were images of animals and other natural objects first used by the Egyptian priests for their sacred, along with common phonetic letters for other things; later, they thought, the Romans used hieroglyphs on temples and coins. Since coins combined images with short sayings written in the phonetic alphabet, there is the suggestion that short, cryptic sayings even without explicit images could count as hieroglyphs, or at least in the same genre. This is particularly evident in Alberti’s essays “Veiled Sayings” and “Rings,” from the early 1430s. Moreover, the same humanists, using the same sources, who promoted the concept of hieroglyphs also promoted knowledge of Pythagorean maxims, called “symbola.” But as far as I have been able to determine, the idea that hieroglyphs include even, for example, the parables of Jesus, is not explicitly formulated until Valeriano 1556. That is an area for discussion.

The general understanding of hieroglyphs that I have found is quite consistent throughout the period up to 1500, mostly based on writings known before 1400 but also texts made available in the first half of the 15th century. You can read relevant excerpts from some of the ancient sources in the Appendix to Boas’ translation of Horapollo, or go on-line for Diodorus Siculus (Bibl. I.81, at*.html; and III.4, at*.html), Plutarch (Isis and Osiris X, at*/A.html, and LVI, at (*/D.html), Ammianus Marcellinus (XVII iv 8-11, at (*.html), Herodotus (II.36, at, Apuleius (11.22, in The Isis Book p. 97, at Google Books), Tacitus (Annals XI, at (, etc. Or look in myfirst post on ATF, no. 43, where I have pasted all these. In this understanding, hieroglyphs are images, sometimes accompanied by a short saying or abbreviation, usually combined with one another; most importantly, the meaning is sacred and hidden from the ignorant but knowable by the learned.

Why the meaning is hidden, and how the learned are to determine it, is also said by these humanists, extrapolating from the ancient sources. Meanings are hidden so as to keep the most sacred truths from the ignorant and uninitiated, who will misunderstand. As far as interpreting them, there were two methods. In Diodorus, interpreting them was a matter of knowing the essential properties of the objects represented and then understanding them as metaphors to be combined with the metaphors of other objects to produce noble ideas. That Alberti thought in such terms is evident in his c. 1432 essay "Rings," in which he uses that method on twelve examples of of his own invention--hieroglyphs are not just Egyptian, but can be created by the learned in any age. Alberti cast a self-portrait medal of himself with one of these images, a winged eye, along with a Latin motto; he would certainly have talked about his medal and its hieroglyphic aspect at the great conclave in 1438 Ferrara, which he attended as a member of the Roman curia. That the high and mighty were listening is shown by his influence in Ferrara after that. Alberti's short public exposition of this point is in his De Re Aedificatoria, first version available in manuscript after 1452 and printed 1485.

Another part of understanding hieroglyphs was knowing how they were conventionally understood in ancient times and bringing this analysis to bear in the present. The ancient texts gave examples, which the humanists were happy to share with their (paying) patrons and pupils. When scholars who acquired these texts in various places, especially Florence, migrated to the great courts of Italy, often to tutor its children, then the ancient meanings of hieroglyphs (as they thought) became known to those who aspired to being called wise. So in Milan we have Filelfo ,1440, followed by Filarete, c. 1452, both of whom wrote about the meanings of hieroglyphs in Horapollo's terms, and Valla, c. 1465, a 15th century translator of Horapollo, as tutor to the Sforza in Pavia. In 1429 Ferrara we have Guarino of Verona, translator of Plutarch and Strabo, tutoring Leonello d'Este and staying on as Professor of Rhetoric 1436 and interpreter between Latins and Greeks 1438.

These two approaches to hieroglyphs--as conventional and as natural signs--in fact represented two approaches to language, the Aristotelian view of language as conventional and spoken discursively, vs. the Platonic (in the Cratylus), as mirror of the eternal archetypes, best expressed in pictures, but also found in parables, fables, puns, and, I think could be added, the language of dreams and madmen. (I owe this point to D.L. Drysdall, "Filippo Fasanini and his 'Explanation of Sacred Writing,' Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 13 (1983):1, p. 128f.) The humanists of the "early Renaissance" (Drysdall's words) honored both approaches.

The next question is, how extensive was this idea, in some form, and what importance did people give to it? This is where the time-line comes in. It is not an answer, of course, just a map. I have omitted the often lengthy quotations from ancient sources and their humanist followers. For them, please consult my posts at the end of “Cards as Hieroglyphs” on ATP, and/or write something here if you have corrections, questions, or additions. I can also put some of them here.

I have not put tarot decks on this time-line. They have their own, well enough known. In general, I imagine no hieroglyphic influence before 1438 (if there were tarot cards then); I see perhaps a little, not very erudite, in the Cary-Yale (the kings at the bottom of the theological virtues). I see more in the PMB and a lot more in the Cary Sheet. In France, between the Noblet, c. 1650, and the Chosson, 1672, the influence is total. I am mainly talking about the "C" cards of Milan and France. It is there that I find the double vision of churchy allegories for the masses and erudite hieroglyphic mysteries for the few, a double vision which the popular illustrated emblem books later did not change. The "A" cards, at least as we have them, seem to me different, mostly only the usual moralistic, churchy allegories that were common even in the Middle Ages. Whether Florence had its own hieroglyphic tarot we'll probably never know--if it existed, the ravages of Savonarola may have destroyed it forever. I don't know enough about the "B" cards of Ferrara to say anything either way, but the Sola-Busca pips are almost certainly hieroglyphic.


By 1400: Comments on hieroglyphs by Plutarch, Horodotus, Diodorus available in Greek. Clement of Alexandria available but apparently not quoted in 15th century. Possibly some of Plutarch’s Moralia describing hieroglyphs translated into Latin. Latin texts readily available and describing hieroglyphs include Martinus Capella, Lucan, Apuleius, Pliny the Elder, Tacitus, Macrobius, Isadore of Seville. Others, such as Eusebius, seem to have been available by mid-century.

1411: Plutarch, “Education of Children” (part of first book of Moralia), containing interpretations of enigmatic Pythagorean sayings or “symbola,” translated into Latin by Guarino of Verona. Guarino will go on to translate Strabo, a major source on Egypt but with only a few mentions of hieroglyphs. Guarino in 1429 moves to Ferrara, initially tutoring the 22 year old Leonello d’Este, from 1436 at University of Ferrara.

1417: Ammianus Marcellinus manuscript (in Latin) found by Poggio at St. Gall, discussing hieroglyphs. Taken to Florence, Niccolo has it transcribed (passage is included in appendix to Boas’ translation of Horapollo, or see ... n/17*.html, sec. 4). Niccolo also has Apuleius (in Latin), Herodotus, Tacitus (in Latin), some of Pliny the Elder (in Latin), and other texts describing hieroglyphs.

1422: Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica manuscript (in Greek) read by Pogio and Niccolo in Florence.

c. 1422-1430: Pogio identifies the inscriptions on obelisks in Rome as Egyptian hieroglyphs.

1420s: Many Greek manuscripts enter Florence and other Italian cities.

1426: Inventory of Visconti Library, Pavia, lists Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata among holdings, now lost. Also enigmatic alchemical works, i.e. Turba Philosophorum.

c. 1432-1436: Alberti writes “Veiled Sayings,” describing Pythagoras-like sayings in terms similar to those in which he later describes hieroglyphs. The word used for these sayings is “symbola." He also writes “Rings,” describing 12 hieroglyph-like images of his design. Separately, he draws the “winged eye” image described there, which he shows to others and includes on a medal he did of himself, done 1436-1438.

1435-36: Cyriaco visits Egypt, including pyramids at Giza, copies hieroglyphs, may have taken with him a Latin abridgement of Horapollo. Later circulates travel journal.

1437: Alberti in Bologna for Ecumenical Council.

1438: Alberti in Ferrara for Ecumenical Council, meets Leonello d’Este. Alberti probably shows an discusses his "winged eye" medal. Pisanello does a well-received medal of Eastern Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, finished 1439.

1439: Pogio completes his translation of Diodorus, including its comments on hieroglyphs already well known in Greek; circulated to humanists and other Latin-readers.

1440: Filelfo, who had been in Florence, moves to Milan, staying until 1470s.

1440-144: Pisanello in Milan, does medals of Filippo, Francesco, Piccinino.

1443-: Pisanello in Ferrara, doing medals in enigmatic style

1443: Alberti advises equestrian monument competition in Ferrera.

1444: Filelfo writes letter mentioning Horapollo and meaning of “eel” hieroglyph

1440s: Alberti writes initial version of De Re Aedificatoria, saying later it was for Leonello. This book, as published in 1485, has a paragraph on hieroglyphs, based at least in part on Ammianus, and with citations of him by name elsewhere.

1452: Alberti submits De Re Aedificatoria to Pope Nicholas V. It probably enters Vatican Library and is copied for others elsewhere, such as Filarete in Milan. It is the first wholly architectural treatise since Vitrivius.

1447-1455: On commission of Nicholas V, numerous Greek manuscripts translated into Latin and made available to scholars in newly established Vatican Library. Around this same time Cosimo di Medici commissions the translations of texts, a practice continued by Piero and Lorenzo.

1449: Confirmed visit between Leonello d’Este and Cyriaco.

c. 1452: Filarete moves to Milan, soon starting his treatise on architecture, which will include a dialogue between Filarete and unnamed duke discussing hieroglyphs. Credits Filelfo and has his interpretation of “eel” hieroglyph, probably derived, with some distortion, from Horapollo.

1464: Filarete publishes his treatise crediting Filelfo for “eel” hieroglyph interpretation; numerous uncited references to Alberti’s treatise on architecture plus comments praising Alberti by name. Also numerous references to Diodorus.

1465-1485: Giorgio Valla, from Milan, at Pavia. Tutors the sons of Francesco Sforza. Much translation from Greek to Latin. At some point does Horodotus and Horapollo. Moves to Venice for professorship in 1485, dies there 1500.The manuscript of his Latin Horapollo is in the Biblioteca Trivulziana, Milan, ms. 2154, according to Roberto Weiss.

1468: Sweynheym and Pannartz in Rome publish Bessarion’s In calumniatorum Platonis, which argues that Plato, anticipating Christianity, concealed in allegory and paradox that which cannot be expressed discursively and must be hidden from the ignorant. Bessarion earlier, 1440s, ran an informal "academy" in Rome, and was papal prelate in Bologna, 1450-1455. His famous (or infamous) 1452 letter to the sons of Pletho, comparing heaven to the Eleusinian mysteries, is a sample of that earlier time.

1460s: Ficino and Politiano read Plotinus, Clement of Alexandria, Proclus, Iamblichus among others who refer to hieroglyphs and sacred writings in Platonic terms. Starting 1463, Ficino comments on them (but not on Clement’s hieroglyph passage); complete work published 1492. Politiano later cited (by Valeriano) as an early authority on hieroglyphs.

1480s: High demand for Roman coins among the privileged. E.g. Matteo Boiardo writes Ercole d'Este about a new find (reported by Weiss).

1480s: Ferrarino, in Bologna and elsewhere in Northern Italy, composes manuscripts exhibiting numerous obelisk hieroglyphs. Some (e.g. Weiss) think he was also circulating the Latin abridgement of Horapollo now in Naples.

1486: Final version of Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria published, with hieroglyph passage and numerous citations of Ammianus.

1486: Mantegna starts his Trumphs of Caesar in Mantua, with Egyptian-style hieroglyphs on background monuments.

1486: Pico’s 900 Theses published, each of which is a cryptic short statement, i.e. a symbola (= hieroglyph, as defined by Valeriano later). Writes his Oration, which explains importance of enigmatic writing, relates to Pythagorean symbola. Suppressed until 1494.

1487: All copies of 900 Theses ordered burned by Pope Innocent VIII.

1489: Ficino publishes his Three books on life, which discusses St. Rufinus of Aquilea's comment on the “cross” hieroglyph in pre-Christian Alexandria.

1492: Ficino publishes translation of Plotinus and commentary, including remarks on the sacred dimension of hieroglyphs as expressing the language of God.

1480s-90s: Leonardo da Vinci does numerous paintings in enigmatic style, at first in Florence, then 1482-1500 in Milan. Georgione similarly in Venice, next decade.

1493: Fabricated relief in Viterbo dubbed by Annius (its fabricator) as an Etruscan hieroglyph commemorating Osiris’s rule there. Annius traces Pope’s ancestry to Osiris. In 1580 the city of Viterbo will erect a plaque repeating Annius’s claims, despite objections to Annius long before then from some humanists.

1493-1495: Pinturricio does Osiris frescoes in Borgia Apartments, Vatican.

1494: Pico’s Oration allowed to be published, as well as his 900 Theses.

1499: Hypnerotomachia published by Aldus in Venice, with numerous visual hieroglyphs, called by author emblematura, meaning “mosaic work.” This work may have had limited circulation in manuscript since 1467.

1480s to 1490s: Beroaldo gives students in Bologna an abridged Horapollo plus other writers interpreting hieroglyphs.

1500: Beroaldo’s book on Apuleius, including commentary on the comments on hieroglyphs, published in Bologna.

1504: Gentile Bellini paints St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria in Venice, with hieroglyphics on background obelisk, taken from Hypnerotomachia.

1508: Beroaldo’s essay on Pythagoras’s symbola published posthumously.

1505: Greek text of Horapollo published by Aldus.

1508: Erasmus’s Adagia describing hieroglyphs in first entry, published by Aldus.

1509: Greek text of Plutarch’s Moralia published by Aldus.

1510s: High demand for Greco-Roman statues, reliefs, sarcophagi among the privileged in Rome, especially the clergy, as reported by Weiss.

1514: Manuscript of Pirckheimer’s Latin translation of Horapollo with Durer’s illustrations presented to Emperor Maximilian I. 1518, woodcut of Maximilian surrounded by hieroglyphs, composed by Pirckheimer and designed by Durer.

1517-1522: Latin translations of Horapollo published: Fasanini, Bologna 1517; Trebatius, Strassburg 1518; Beroaldo posthumously, Bologna 1522. Fasanini includes an appendix quoting other ancient authors, possibly deriving from when he was Boroaldo's student. Fasanini also published translations of other ancient works dealing with natural signs.

1531: Alciato's Liber Emblematum published in Augsburg, from manuscript lacking pictures, engravings apparently added by publisher without request or review by Alciato. Reprinted with corrected illustrations and 9 more emblems in Paris 1534, in French 1536; 86 more added 1546; various versions 16th and 17th centuries. Born near Milan, he was educated at Pavia and Bologna 1507-1518, then taught in Avignon til 1522, then back to Milan, then Avignon and Bourges 1527-1533, then Pavia 1533 on.

1543: French translation of Horapollo, with illustrations.

1544: Latin translation of Plutarch’s De Isis et Osiride published in collected works of Cielo Calcagnini under the title Rebus Aegypticus. This work done in Rome 1507-1519, according to Giehlow, endorsed by Manning.

1546: French translation of Hypnerotomachia with revised illustrations, reprinted frequently.

1547: Italian translation of Horapollo.

1551: Cartari, Imagini, in Latin. Illustrations added 1581 and in translations after that.

1556: Valeriano's Hieroglyphica published in Latin, stating explicitly that hieroglyphs include sayings, parables of Jesus, etc. as well as cryptic visual images. Nearly 1000 pages, mostly unillustrated.

Other 16th century emblem books: 1552, Aneau, Lyon, Imagination poetique. 1560, Paradin, Devises Heroiques. 1562, Landi, Costanzo (conte) Lettera dell'illustre S. Costanzo Landi, conte di Compiano. 1562, Ammirato, Naples, Il Rota overo dell'imprese. 1562, Giovio, Lyon, Sententiose imprese. 1564, Sambicus, Antwerp, Emblemata. 1586, Whitney, Leyden,A choice of emblemes (in English). 1593, Ripa, Iconologia. These, and two others without author, are viewable at ... blembksa/2.

Re: The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

I believe it was Plutarch that began the custom of using the adjective ( ta hieroglyphika ) as a noun.
The Catholic Church used the term for emblems and impresses or anything that was pictures without words.
So the marks on Calendars were hieroglyphika. The Church tried hard to stop this term because of it's allusion to a Pagan religion (of Egypt); it tried to get people to use the term typicus or Symbolic in English.
The Universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
Eden Phillpotts

Re: The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

Rather good work, Mike ... :-) ... I'll love timelines.

I miss a note about an "Isis show" (poem, theater play or something like this) around 1445 in Ferrara ...
Francesco Ariosti, uncle of the great Lodovico Ariosto, wrote Isis, which was performed before Lionello d'Este in 1444.8 Isis, according to the prologue, is a "true story" (fabula veridica), which recounts the demise of a gay house of ...
says a snippet of "Italian tragedy in the Renaissance" by Marvin Theodore Herrick - 1965

"1444.8" likely means August 1444 ... the wedding Leonello / daughter of Alfonso had been 20.5.1444, so it was not part of the wedding celebrations, which went over two weeks or similar. But wrong ...

A snippet from "Storia di Ferrara: Il Rinascimento. La letteratura" by Augusto Vasina - 1994, says ..
II 23 gennaio 1444 alla corte di Ferrara, dinnanzi a Lionello d Este, fu recitata la elegia drammatica Isis, un brevissimo atto unico del nostro, che nella vicenda del teatro italiano si colloca significativamente in quel periodo di ...
... 23rd of January 1444 (carnival festivity, others say 20th of Januar), a dialog (?) or an "elegia drammatica" (?) ... Beatrice d'Este, Bianca Maria Visconti's girlfriend and later wife of Tristano Sforza and living at the Sforza court, had been the queen of this feast and participated in the activities.
It is said, that there have been between the onlookers a great part of the Ferrarese population, so (likely ?) the show had some function to get money for Leonello's wedding festivities later the year. The theme "Isis" might have been chosen for a new "mother of the state" ... and it was common, that the city population had to pay for new brides for the Signore.
Eine vor Lionello von Este (reg. 1441—1450) aufgeführte Repräsentation in Hexametern u. Distichen in einem Akte.


Further I think it wise to consider the recently discussed possibility of a visitor/diplomat of the Chinese (Mongolian) empire in Florence in the early 1430's, which is assumed to have had longer talkings with Toscanelli.
Chinese writing is also complicated and has some features in common with hieroglyphs.


But I've difficulties to recognize or to believe, that Egyptian hieroglyphs took much influence on the early Trionfi card motifs. It seems clear, that hieroglyphs somehow belong to the general potpourri of the time.

Re: The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

Hi Lorredan,
Lorredan wrote:I believe it was Plutarch that began the custom of using the adjective ( ta hieroglyphika ) as a noun.
The Catholic Church used the term for emblems and impresses or anything that was pictures without words.
So the marks on Calendars were hieroglyphika. The Church tried hard to stop this term because of it's allusion to a Pagan religion (of Egypt); it tried to get people to use the term typicus or Symbolic in English.
I find this interesting - where did you get this information?

Also, you might have missed my question on another thread about the Cary Yale cards - where did you read that Luchino Visconti sold the cards to Cary in order to help him pay for making his movie? I can't find anything about that.



Re: The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

I believe it was Plutarch that began the custom of using the adjective ( ta hieroglyphika ) as a noun.
I think from the International Plutarch Society essays that I read in 2008.
The Catholic Church used the term for emblems and impresses or anything that was pictures without words.
Several books - The Early Alphabet by Healy and the Catholic Encylopedia which is in 6 Volumes.
So the marks on Calendars were hieroglyphika. The Church tried hard to stop this term because of it's allusion to a Pagan religion (of Egypt); it tried to get people to use the term typicus or Symbolic in English.
This came about because Saint Augustine said that the Egyptians believed in Resurrection, because of the fact of their burial rites. It appeared to the Church that Saint Augustine was in some way endorsing the Egyptian Religion- Church who feared hieroglyphs might disprove the historical accuracy of the Bible. The use of sigils on Calendars from Northern Europe looked in Medieval times like Hieroglyphs in part. The Coptic Catholic writings after hieroglyphic use stopped was a worry because they were based on the sounds of the hieroglyphs- so there was this argument about the Throne/Chair of God was the same symbol ws as meaning Isis. The gospels were translated into Coptic and were found in Medieval times in Venice and Genoa.The word Hieroglyph comes from the Egyptian Sacred Carving or the phrase 'These are God's Words'. The same problem came about with a Franciscan priest in Mexico in the mid 16th Century when he wrote to Charles V and spoke of sacred writings and Hieroglyphs and spoke about (Vatican manuscripts)symbols representing the Deluge as conceived by the Aztecs.They thought this was because Saint Thomas the Apostle had earlier taught the locals Christianity via Coptic writing. Very strange assumption and of course totally wrong. So the Church tried to disassociate from the use of Hieroglyphic term. There is a good book that talks about how the Southern Europe got Arabic manuscripts about Alchemy and these were translated into Coptic. It is called Egyptology-The Missing Millenium by Okasha el Daly.
Also, you might have missed my question on another thread about the Cary Yale cards - where did you read that Luchino Visconti sold the cards to Cary in order to help him pay for making his movie? I can't find anything about that.
I did not find direct evidence that is indisputable.I read several biographies about Luchino Visconti- and one said Jewelery(1940)-Manuscripts-Miniatures-Cards(1947). Mr Cary dies in1941 and his collection held by his wife was not well cataloged. It appears that the Museum did not get the cards officially until 1967. Anyway the biography said Manuscripts and Cards for his funding 1947- then Kaplan said 1947 for purchase of the Visconti.
No where did I find that the Cards were what we call the Visconti. It was just that Luchino through a relation was financially involved with the Italian Boutique in Paris and that is where the Visconti cards seemed to have been shown in 1935. He could of course borrowed the cards from other Visconti family- but if you read his biographies- you might take the view his relationships with cousins etc was not good - because his constant gifting and selling of family stuff was deplored, as was his his open homosexuality and the fast crowd he mixed with. Many important artifacts went missing in his shifting them around through different places. That caused great Italian family feuds lol. When he was dying some Renaissance paintings, ceramics and furniture, never arrived in Como and he did not at that stage give a fig. He apparently lost his historical inventory as well. His father Guiseppe was something of a rogue too. So the word was "cards". Were they our Cards? I do not know.
The Universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
Eden Phillpotts

Re: The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

Here is one example of cross over to Latin.
This is from a book written by a 14th Century Arabic Chemist and made it's way to Southern Europe.
The latter is a 14th century scholar/alchemist, who came from Iraq and lived in Egypt. The important thing about his books is that they are full of ancient Egyptian signs and hieroglyphs like those which were perhaps used for their alchemical connection. It also contains another very important ancient Egyptian symbol called Oroboros, or the snake that eats its tail as a sign of eternity and regeneration, a very important ancient Egyptian symbol that becomes a very potent symbol in medieval alchemical Arabic/Muslim and Latin works with the very same meaning.
It seems to me that Hieroglyphs came to Italy from a number of sources. The interest in Alchemy was one doorway.The Church's acquisition of Egyptian Artifacts was another.

Arabic_alchemy_Kitab_al-Aqalim.JPG (53.18 KiB) Viewed 15767 times
The Universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
Eden Phillpotts

Re: The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

I miss a note about an "Isis show" (poem, theater play or something like this) around 1445 in Ferrara ...
It might be interesting to add the following observation.


Mike reported this picture from the ceiling of the Sale della Saints in the appartement of the Borgia in Rome, which was painted 1492-1498 by Pinturicchio, whereby the given date of production time varies between 1492-1494 and 1492-95 and 1492-98. The picture shows part of the story of Isis.

The observation:

1442 Alfonso of Aragon definitely gets Naples

1443 Triumph of Alfonso (with no remark on Isis, but enough on Julius Caesar) ... Julius Caesar once took Cleopatra (Egyptian Queen, well comparable to "Isis") to Italy.

1444 Isis show in Ferrara in January - likely as a preparation of the marriage between "Leonello - daughter of Alfonso" later the year (wedding date given as in May 1444), Maria d'Aragon and Isis possibly given as "mother of a state"

1455-1458 The first Spanish pope of 15th century, an uncle of Rodrigo Borgia. It seems very probable, that a "Spanish pope" in 1455 was chosen cause the influence of the now Spanish-Italian Alfonso of Aragon. Rodrigo Borgia, still rather young, becomes a cardinal.

1473 Ercole d'Este, new duke of Ferrara, decides for another Ferrara-Naples marriage

1485 - 1491 Ferrara and the d'Este court, though they had earned rather difficult economical conditions by the Ferrarese wars 1482-84, surprised the Italian cultural life with gigantic theater shows and a series of "very rich weddings", as there are ...

1487 Lucrezia d'Este - Annibale Bentivoglio
1490 Isabella d'Este - Francesco II Gonzaga
1491 Alfonso d'Este - Anna Sforza
1491 Beattice d'Este - Lodovico Sforza il Moro

1492 spring, Spanish troops take Granada
1492 spring, 2 theater shows in Naples, one praising the victory in Granada, another a Trionfo della Fama (somehow in d'Este style)
1492, August, a new Spanish pope, now Rodrigo Borgia, and with that the start of the Borgia apartment works, which in a detail (see above) show a reference to a "constructed" genealogical descend of the Borgias from Osiris and Isis (as it is said, it was organized by Annius da Viterbo) .

1502 big triumphal celebrations around the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia with Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara. Lucrezia died in 1519.

So somehow, as destiny wanted it, from 1444 (the year of the "Isis"-invocation, as one may call it) till 1519 (about 76 years) Ferrara had 39 "half-Spanish duchessa" years (5 Maria of Aragon, 20 for Leonor and 14 for Lucrezia) and in the rest of the years, there were no duchessa, but lonesome Caesars (1 for Leonello. 21 for Borso, 14 for Ercole).

The Borgia Apartment is described here ... ... nt&f=false

... actually I would love to have a plan, but, damn, I don't find one.

There seem to be 5-6 larger rooms (?), one is the Room of the Saints, where we find the Isis picture at the ceiling, at least 5 rooms are given to the work of Pinturicchio

* The Room of the Sibyls
* The Room of the Creed
* The Room of the Liberal Arts
* The Room of the Saints
* The Room of the Faith

So the place of Isis is erroneously in the "Room of the Saints" and the Isis-scene is only part of the ceiling decoration.

Well, this Isis picture is interesting (I didn't knew it). I don't know, if anybody is aware, that inside the old Osiris myth the "bad brother" Seth did cut Osiris in 14 pieces and distributed the pieces at different locations to avoid a correct funeral (or something like this). Sister Isis (also wife of Osiris) searched for these parts, and found 13 of 14, only the genital wasn't discovered. She replaced the genital with ??? (I don't remember precisely, but a piece of wood), and put the different pieces together on a death-ship, which drove down the Nile and found its way to Byblos in Kanaan.

Wiki has it this way:
"Later, when Hathor's identity (from the Ogdoad) was assimilated into that of Isis, Horus, who had been Isis' husband (in the Ogdoad), became considered her son. Since Osiris was Isis' husband (in the Ennead), Osiris also became considered Horus' father. Attempts to explain how Osiris, a god of the dead, could give rise to Horus, who was thought to be living, led to the development of the Myth of Osiris and Isis, which became a central myth in Egyptian mythology. The myth described Osiris as having been killed by his brother Set who wanted Osiris' throne. Isis briefly brought Osiris back to life by use of a spell that she learned from her father. This spell gave her time to become pregnant by Osiris before he again died. Isis later gave birth to Horus. As such, since Horus was born after Osiris' resurrection, Horus became thought of as a representation of new beginnings and the vanquisher of the evil Set. This combination, Osiris-Horus, was therefore a life-death-rebirth deity, and thus associated with the new harvest each year. Afterward, Osiris became known as the Egyptian god of the dead, Isis became known as the Egyptian goddess of the children, and Horus became known as the Egyptian god of the sky."
Well, myth is a floating process. Osiris (says wikipedia) could be proven to have existed around 2500 BC, but the
major myth seems to have developed since ca. 1700 BC (my memory tells me, that I've read so) and I would assume, that this specific interesting inclusion of Byblos in Kanaan developed in a time, when the Egyptians had reached this successful state, that they possessed Byblos.

There is this so-called Second Intermediate Period (13th - 17th Dynasties) (1759 - 1539 BC), during which Egyptia suffered (Seth - in other words, invaders from the East - had slaughtered Osiris). In the 18th Dynasty (1539 - 1295 BC) Egyptia expanded (thanks to Isis' collection of the different parts of the body).

Egyptia ca. 1450

About the weak Intermediary state wiki summarizes:
The brilliant Egyptian twelfth dynasty came to an end in the 18th century BC with the death of Queen Sobekneferu (1777 BC – 1773 BC).[1] Apparently, she had no heirs, causing the twelfth dynasty to come to a sudden end as did the Golden Age of the Middle Kingdom, which was succeeded by the much weaker thirteenth dynasty of Egypt. Retaining the seat of the twelfth dynasty, the thirteenth dynasty ruled from Itjtawy ("Seizer-of-the-Two-Lands") near Memphis and el-Lisht, just south of the apex of the Nile Delta. The thirteenth dynasty is notable for the accession of the first formally recognised Semitic king, Khendjer. The thirteenth dynasty proved unable to hold onto the entire territory of Egypt, however, and the provincial ruling family in Xois, located in the marshes of the western delta, broke away from the central authority to form the fourteenth dynasty. The splintering of the land accelerated after the reign of the thirteenth dynasty king Sobekhotep IV. It was during the reign of Sobekhotep IV that the Hyksos may have made their first appearance, and around 1720 BC took control of the town of Avaris (the modern Tell ed-Dab'a/Khata'na), a few miles from Qantir. The outlines of the traditional account of the "invasion" of the land by the Hyksos is preserved in the Aegyptiaca of Manetho, an Egyptian priest who wrote in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Manetho recorded that it was during the reign of "Tutimaios" (who has been identified with Dudimose I of the Thirteenth Dynasty) that the Hyksos overran Egypt, led by Salitis, the founder of the fifteenth dynasty. This dynasty was succeeded by a group of Hyksos princes and chieftains, who ruled in the eastern delta region with their local Egyptian vassals and are known primarily by scarabs inscribed with their names and the period of their reign is called the sixteenth dynasty by modern Egyptologists.

The later rulers of the thirteenth dynasty appear to be only ephemeral monarchs under the control of a powerful line of viziers, and indeed, it has been suggested that the ruler in this period might have been elected, if not appointed. One monarch late in the dynasty, Wahibre Ibiau, may have been a former vizier elevated to the office. Beginning with the reign of Sobekhotep IV, the power of this dynasty, weak to begin with, deteriorated. The later king Merneferre Ai (ruled c. 1690 BC) appears to have been a mere vassal of the Hyksos princes ruling there; his successors held onto their diminished office until sometime after 1650 BC.

Around the time Memphis and Itj-tawy fell to the Hyksos, the native Egyptian ruling house in Thebes declared its independence from the vassal dynasty in Itj-tawy and set itself up as the seventeenth dynasty. This dynasty was to prove the salvation of Ancient Egypt and eventually would lead the war of liberation that drove the Hyksos back into Asia.
So we have a nice example, how myth was used by politic ... more than 3500 years before our time.

The story of the collecting Isis was interpreted as background for the cult, which allowed to have had 14 Osiris parts at 14 different locations, such creating a political unity between different cities (the Osiris cult had been a state cult). Byblos in Kanaan as an Egyptian outpost (especially worthwhile for trade) had been political reality in the better times, when Egyptia was very strong.

The picture shows Isis during her collecting activity. A similar motif appeared in the Augsburger Splendor Solis ...


Although a different topic, somehow the same story ... .-)

But let's focus on the interesting detail, that Pinturicchio painted (somehow possibly between 1492-98) or between 1492-95 in the Borgia apartment.


The pictures aren't very good, but at least a way to see a little bit, what the whole picture looked like:



Other side:

The ceiling is described .. ... io-5.shtml
The ceiling in this room is a marvel of richly-gilt and embossed stucco, mingled with painting. The eight large triangular spaces between the bars of framework illustrate the myth of Osiris and Isis which, with its history of the deification of the bull, appropriately symbolises the exaltation of the House of Borgia. The young King Osiris, having conquered Egypt, ploughs the land with bulls and teaches the Egyptian to plant orchards and vineyards. The peace and prosperity of his rule is crowned by his marriage with Isis. Warriors pile their useless armour and children play around their knees. In this segment one particularly delightful putto is riding astride of a swan, the original for which, in marble, had been among the recent discoveries of antiques. As the history proceeds, the wicked brother raises the Egyptians in mutiny and Isis finds the remains of her murdered husband. Isis is a graceful fantastic figure, with swathing draperies, and the cut-up hands and legs of the unfortunate Osiris are disposed about the ground with a very naive effect. Then we have his burial, wrapped in cloth of gold the pyramid erected to him, and his apparition deified in the form of the famous bull Apis, ending with a procession and the bull borne in triumph. The intervals are lavishly filled in with grotesques, which are here very marked in character. It is curious to note Pintoricchio's study of the antique, the classic armour, and the mythical histories in the small tondi on the wide cross architrave Mercury soothing Argus to sleep, and then slaying him at Jove's command. Jove seizing Io, and obtaining possession of the cow into which her friend was transformed. The design of the principal subjects is in Pintoricchio's style and full of fancy and invention, but the execution would seem to have been entrusted to assistants, apparently to the same hand which worked on the archers round St. Sebastian and in parts of the Susanna.
Further said to be in the same room: ... icchio.jpg

... where we see the famous Lucrezia Borgia (in the view at the left), in the complete picture arranged at the middle position, and at the right on white house "Prince Djem" about whom it is said:

... but also there are many details, that prince Djem brought not only a lot of money to pope Innocenz, but also to to the Borgias, naturally only in the time till he lived. And possibly also by his death ... which possibly happened according some poison of the Borgia, and the payment of the murder possibly was done by the arch enemy, the Osman emperor.

Contradicting this small picture ...


... seems to give the information, that there is another Prince Djem on the same picture ... :-) ... so, it's a pity, that one not always the pictures, that one searches.

It's normal to request in the evaluation of a piece of art the commissioner ... of art .. but perhaps one should also evaluate the source of income, from which the commissioner got his money from. In the case of the Borgia apartment probably more than half of the money was indirectly sponsored by Prince Djem.

Another dimension of these Egyptian (Osmanic) relationships of the Borgia is the fact, that Cesare Borgia amused his fans with appearances as matador, killing bulls in the mid of Rome - personally. Right, the heraldic design of the Borgia.


Old Egyptia had a bull cult (Apis) in the delta region, so as Phoenicia had (with El and Baal) as Crete (Minotaurus etc., Zeus as bull got Europe). Spain with its enthusiasm about bull-fighting surely remembered there a few things better than other regions with other hobbies.


Ah, nice, here it is, the other side of the picture ...


commented with ...
Left: The salacious version painted by Bartolomeo Veneto, though it's not certain it is actually Lucrezia (in fact it's just about certain that it isn't).

Right and below: Pinturicchio's image of Lucrezia (just maybe) as Santa Catterina d'Alessandria disputing with the philosophers before Emperor Maximian, in the Sala dei Santi in the Borgia apartments of the Vatican. ... orgias.htm

... well, seems a matter with some doubts, but ... anyway, Catherina of Alessandria would be also "from Egyptia" ... :-)

Interestingly, this female person (whoever it might be) has the position not in the middle, but below the left wing of the triumphal arch in the background. Who's the man in the below the right wing, who seems to give lessons to a reading boy? And the two other figures above in the middle section of the triumphal arch?

Well, this second oriental "man in white" standing beside the emperor to the left seems to refer to Bayezid, so that the identification of the person on the white horse might indeed refer to Prince Djem.

... .-) ..., okay, enough for today.

Re: The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

As far as hieroglyphs entering Italy, Loredan didn't say when that Arabic manuscript entered Italy, or if they knew then that they were hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs were lying around on the ground all over the place in Rome, and on one obelisk still standing in 1400. They just didn't know what they were, didn't know they were hieroglyphs, or even Egyptian. They thought the obelisk that was standing (with no hieroglyphs adorning it) was Julius Caesar's tomb, with his ashes buried in the top (Curran p. 39). A mid-12th century best-seller said so. It had an inscription on it in Latin, "Sacred to the Divine Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Julius, and to Tiberius Caesar Augustus son of the Divine Caesar Augustus." Another Latin inscription in bronze, saying it had been erected in Alexandria, had fallen off.

Then Pogio, sometime in the years c. 1422-1430, identified the strange markings on one of the obelisks as hieroglyphs and the obelisk as Egyptian, based on the manuscript by a Roman general that he'd found at St. Galen, 1417. The science of archeology was born. Even then, it was in its infancy. The word "hieroglyph" didn't mean the same thing then as it does now. It didn't mean those funny things on obelisks and in alchemy books. I will address that issue more fully when I respond to Huck's earlier post.

And Huck, as I said on the other thread, the Pinturiccio murals, in so far as they pertain to Isis and Osiris, are based on Diodorus's account. The accounts on Wikipedia are mostly irrelevant, if they are based on real Egyptian sources. Nobody knew them until after the Rosetta Stone. They went by Diodorus, Plutarch, and other Greco-Roman sources. Diodorus says Osiris's body was cut up into 26 pieces. I can't find where Plutarch gave a number. The alchemists loved that story, witness emblem XLIV in Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens, suitably gory, the motto of which is "Dolo Typhon Osyridem trucidat, artusque illius Hinc inde dissipat, sed hos collegit Isis inclyta" (By treachery Typhon slays Osiris and scatters his limbs abroad, but majestic Isis reassembles them). That comes from Plutarch. I am glad you are checking out Pinturicchio. I hadn't seen the Arab sponsor.

Now back to Huck's earlier post.

Huck wrote,
I miss a note about an "Isis show" (poem, theater play or something like this) around 1445 in Ferrara .
Thanks for mentioning the Isis show, Huck. It shows an early interest in Egypt in Ferrara, if not hieroglyphs per se. My sources did not mention it. You discussed it before. I will look up your reference.

Huck wrote,
Further I think it wise to consider the recently discussed possibility of a visitor/diplomat of the Chinese (Mongolian) empire in Florence in the early 1430's, which is assumed to have had longer talkings with Toscanelli.
Chinese writing is also complicated and has some features in common with hieroglyphs.
Yes, thanks, there might be an indirect connection. If Alberti and other humanists knew a little about Chinese writing, that knowledge might have strengthened their belief that hieroglyphs were a universal language, not peculiar to Egypt, capable of being understood by the learned all over the world, independently of the Babel of spoken languages. China would have been a living example. Toscanelli and Alberti were supposedly friends ( ... denceID=11). But it seems like they could have learned about Chinese writing from many sources. Weren’t there Chinese living in Florence at the time? Where can you send me to read more?

Huck wrote,
But I've difficulties to recognize or to believe, that Egyptian hieroglyphs took much influence on the early Trionfi card motifs. It seems clear, that hieroglyphs somehow belong to the general potpourri of the time.
I am not sure what you mean by “hieroglyphs”. If you mean the actual physical designs on the obelisks done by the Egyptians, well, I don't see any influence of Egyptian hieroglyphs on early Trionfi card motifs either. I was not trying to suggest such a thing.

And if you mean the actual correspondences the humanists read in the ancient writings, such as eye = God, vulture = mother, etc., I also don’t see anything like that, at least not before the Sola-Busca, with its ox-skull (Horapollo II, 17) and perhaps wasps (II, 24). But I haven’t really looked.

But if you mean to say that the concept of hieroglyphs, as then understood, deriving from ancient writings about Egypt, didn’t have an influence on the early Trionfi card motifs (meaning pre-1500, up to the Cary Sheet), that I question. But before that question can be debated intelligently, we have to be sure we all understand one another’s terms, so we know what we are disagreeing on, if anything.

In 1421, before Horapollo was known, the Florentine humanists Porgio and Niccolo already knew a lot about hieroglyphs, even though they had neve seen one, or even an image of one, that they could identify as such. That didn’t happen, as I said, until Porgio went to Rome and did some looking. Before then, they knew hieroglyphs in terms of the two words "hieros" --saced-- and "glyph"—inscription or carving--in a certain context. They were a particular type of sacred or noble inscription, in which the images of various ordinary objects--animals, body parts, builder's tools (!), etc.--were inscribed, as metaphors which when combined made sacred or noble thoughts, expressed in such a way as to hide their meaning from the ignorant and yet make them accessible to the learned of any age. I say "sacred or noble" because the humanists knew that the priests used hieroglyphs to record their rites, and also that they were used to record the deeds of generals and kings. They were used that way by the Egyptians and then the Romans after them, on friezes and coins, the humanists thought.

What I suspect is that it wouldn’t have occurred to the humanists then to think of hieroglyphs as only Egyptian. Diodorus said the Ethiopians used them (I’ll quote him later in this post). And for all the humanists knew, the Romans had hieroglyphs. There were Roman inscriptions that looked like hieroglyphs, for example in the Church of San Lorenzo in Campo Verano, Rome (Iversen p. 66). Mantegna used those inscriptions in his Triumphs of Caesar. And they might have had the living example of Chinese to support this idea.

A hieroglyph was probably any imagery, or combination of brief thought and imagery, that was pictured in a series with others and whose meaning was so obscure that the masses couldn't figure out its deeper meaning, but the learned could. And since Plutarch said that Pythagoras got the idea for his cryptic sayings from the Egyptians’ “symbolism and occult teachings,” they didn’t know whether hieroglyphs had to have images or could also be brief phonetic writing or speech, without images. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 10 ( ... is*/A.html)
: Pythagoras, it seems, was greatly admired, and he also greatly admired the Egyptian priests, and, copying their symbolism and occult teachings, incorporated his doctrines in enigmas. As a matter of fact most of the Pythagorean precepts do not at all fall short of the writings that are called hieroglyphs; such, for example, as these: "Do not eat upon a stool"; "Do not sit upon a peck measure"; "Do not lop off the shoots of a palm-tree"; "Do not poke a fire with a sword within the house."
Apuleius, too, had spoken of sayings, even common and traditional ones, being written in animal-hieroglyphics, although other writing was more thoroughly disguised (Isis Book, p. 97 in Google Books). Thus Aesop’s fables, since their characters were animals, might have been thought derived from hieroglyphics (although I have no evidence until Fasanini, 1515, as discussed by Drysdall). In that general, indeterminate sense—as well as a more particular, mystical sense I will discuss later--Alberti's famous "winged eye" device is a hieroglyph, or very much like a hieroglyph, along with the other such devices he thought up, given in his 1430s essay "Rings." And in that sense I see a clear presence of the idea at the time and place of the first known tarots. But I’m not going to talk about cards until I know that we’re on the same page about what we’re talking about.

An important omission from my time-line was Alberti's early work, especially the piece with 22 chapters. I draw no conclusion from that number, but I really think that Alberti's work, prolific and imaginative, is quite valuable as a sign of his time, both reflecting and influencing, and including the area of the tarot.

Anthony Grafton, Alberti’s biographer, says in his Preface to Boas’s translation of Horapollo (in Google Books, p. xvi:
A reading of Horapollo probably inspired Leon Battista Alberti to analyze the hieroglyphics as a universal symbolic language—one that could not be lost, because all men could decode it—in his treatise on architecture. He used hieroglyphs himself, choosing the winged eye as his own emblem...
There are some mistake here. Alberti certainly did not say that “all men could decode it”—he quite clearly said that only the “expert men” could do so. And he did not use the word “hieroglyph” in describing his winged eye, at least not in his writings, nor the word “emblem.” He called his designs “mysteries”—a loaded word in those days, used in sacred contexts. (After describing a series of such designs, he exclaims, “Then we must explain these mysteries”: Dinner Pieces trans. Marsh, p. 213). Moreover, the winged eye was not a hieroglyph he “chose”: it was a design he made up. Other than that, Grafton is OK. And Alberti is a good place to start.


Alberti’s 1430s essay "Rings" (in Dinner Pieces trans. Marsh) is his most famous example of analyzing a particular kind of image, whether you call it a hieroglyph, a “hieroglyph,” or something else (he himself does not there use the word). Here it is
On the first ring is engraved a crown, the center of which is occupied by an eye adorned with an eagle's wing. Do you understand?...
The crown is an emblem of gladness and glory. There is nothing more powerful, swift, or worthy than the eye. In short, it is the foremost of the body's members, a sort of king or god. Didn't the ancients regard God as similar to the eye, since he surveys all things and reckons them singly? On the one hand, we are enjoined to give glory for all things to God, to rejoice in him, to embrace him with all our mind and vigorous virtue, and to consider him as an ever-present witness to all our thoughts and deeds. On the other hand, we are enjoined to be as vigilant and circumspect as we can, seeking everything which leads to the glory of virtue, and rejoicing whenever by our labor and industry we achieve something noble or divine. Have you understood this? In describing this first ring, I have chosen to be brief, for it would take too long to discuss all the aspects of a matter so rich in lessons. Besides, since you are wise, you will be able to appreciate their value clearly and plainly if you reflect on them. (Dinner Pieces, trans. Marsh, p. 213f).

Alberti here is following the method he saw described by Diodorus (Bibl. III.4) and thereby creating something like hieroglyphs himself. Here is Boas's translation of Diodorus, in the Appendix to his translation of Horapollo, p. 101f. I highlight the parts: most relevant to the present discussion
We must now speak of the Ethiopian letters which are called hieroglyphs among the Egyptians, so as to omit nothing of archeological interest. Now it happens that the characters they use are in the forms of all sorts of beasts and human libms, and even of tools and especially of builder’s tools. For their writing is not built up from syllables to express the underlying meaning, but from the appearance of the thing drawn and by their metaphorical meaning, learned by heart For they draw a hawk and a crocodile, or again a snake, or among the human organs, an eye and a handand the face and other such things. The hawk means to them all things that occur swiftly, because this bird is by far the swiftest of all winged things. And the meaning is carried over by metaphor to all swift things and to things associated with swiftness, as if they had been spoken of. The crocodile is the symbol of all evil, and the eye is the keeper of justice and guardian of the whole body. And of human limbs, the right hand with extended fingers means livelihood and the left closed means the keeper and guardian of property. The same explanation may be given of the other characters, both those derived from the body and tools and all other things. For by concentrating on the inner meaning of each, exercising their souls with great care, and memorizing them, they recognize by habit each of the letters.

In his analysis of the “winged eye,” Alberti was clearly thinking of Egyptian hieroglyphs, both from the method of analysis--close inspection of the parts of the image for metaphorical import--and from the associations he made: bird wings as conveying swiftness and the eye as vigilance and judgment, both from Diodorus; and also the eye as God, from Plutarch or Macrobius, who said that the Egyptians represented their lord Osiris as an eye. (Edgar Wind said it’s also in Horapollo, but he cites a 1551 Parisian version; it’s not in Boas’s translation; there, God is said to be depicted by a star.)

Alberti didn't have to use only Egyptian associations, however; Wind thought that when he added the motto Quid tum, “What then?”, he was thinking of I Corinthians 15:52, which spoke of Judgment Day coming in ictu oculi, “the twinkling of an eye” with God’s swift justice (Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance p. 233). An image could be a hieroglyph, or like one, and yet have Christian as well as non-Christian associations.

We today discuss tarot cards in similar fashion as Alberti did his rings, partly bearing in mind how the image occurs in other contexts and partly by what metaphors we think a thoughtful person would associate the image with. Being historians rather than essayists, we try to say what the contexts and associations would likely have been at the time. At least I do; my point is, people like Alberti would have discussed tarot cards in the same way they discussed other cryptic imagery.

At the end of his acount Alberti says that he is only giving part of what the image means. Let me repeat:
I have chosen to be brief, for it would take too long to discuss all the aspects of a matter so rich in lessons. Besides, since you are wise, you will be able to appreciate their value clearly and plainly if you reflect on them.
He is leaving to the reader that which he has not said and perhaps even cannot say, because of the limits of discursive speech.

The main objection that I can see to what I have just said is that in a sense people had been used to seeing animals and other things in symbolic, moralistic terms all along, in hearing fables, as well as looking at bestiaries, and the pictures in churches and cathedrals. But this is an ability even the common people had been given, since at least the advent of Christianity: Alberti is talking about images whose meaning is hidden from such people, images such as the more secret ones noted by Apuleius. The common people would not decipher his “winged eye,” for example, at least not to the extent that the more learned would.


That hieroglyphs conceal their meaning from the ignorant was said in many of the ancient writings about them, and by Alberti himself a little later, in his treatise on architecture, which he said he wrote in the 1440s:
The Egyptians employed the following sign language: a god was represented by an eye, nature by a vulture, a king by a bee, time by a circle, peace by an ox, and so on. They maintained that each nation knew only its own alphabet, and that eventually all knowledge of it would be lost—as has happened with our own Etruscan: we have sepulchers uncovered in city ruins and cemeteries throughout Etruria inscribed with an alphabet universally acknowledged to be Etruscan, their letters look not unlike Greek, or even Latin, yet no one understands what they mean. The same, the Egyptians claimed, should happen to all other alphabets, whereas the method of writing they used could be understood easily by expert men all over the world, to whom alone noble matters should be communicated... Our own Latin ancestors chose to express the deeds of their most famous men through sculpted histories. This gave rise to columns, triumphal arches, and porticoes, covered with histories in painting, or sculpture. (On the art of building in ten books, trans. Rykwert, Leach, and Tavernor, p. 256.)
It would seem that he is saying here that the Egyptians' system of sign language, i.e. hieroglyphics, using simple and common images, was one by which the most noble thoughts could be hidden from the ignorant, yet easily understood by the experts in every age and place. The ignorant would see birds, eyes, and the like, but that wasn’t what the images were about. That is also what many people have said about tarot cards, of course fancying themselves the experts and dismissing the need for careful consideration of individual details, previous documented historical contexts, and the recognition of sphinx-like enigmas.

I will let Brian Curran say more. In 2008 he came out with the most comprehensive survey of Renaissance Italy's interest in ancient Egypt yet (400 large pages, all on Italy 1400-1558, and even then not attempting to be comprehensive). Everyone interested in 15th century tarot should read it (either that or Karl Giehlow's 1915 monograph in German, or the 2004 Italian translation of Giehlow). Here is Curran
Alberti argues that the hieroglyphs had the ability to veil or encode the most secret doctrines of the Egyptian elite, so that only the most enlightened and noble viewers could hope to understand their true significance. The paradoxical juxtaposition of universality and exclusivity had a rich appeal to the humanists of Alberti’s generation, who fancied themselves as just the sort of “expert men” that the Egyptians had in mind when they devised this extraordinary code. (The Egyptian Renaissance: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt in Early Modern Italy, p. 73)
The impact of Alberti’s explication of the hieroglyphs has been acknowledged by generations of scholars, from Giehlow and Wittkower to the present. Most important, perhaps, is the insight the passage provides for the circumstances surrounding the emergence, at this same period, of a taste for the invention of “modern hieroglyphs”—a form whose precise character is difficult to fix, but is intimately related to the host of other forms that proliferated during this period: imprese, emblems, epigrams, heraldry, and so on. The taste for symbols had deep roots in the chivalric traditions of the northern Italian courts at Ferrara, Mantua, and elsewhere, a milieu that Alberti knew well. Indeed, Alberti’s personal contribution to this taste would appear to be a significant one. Indeed, it has been argued, for instance, that an enthusiasm for hieroglyphs inspired the invention of Alberti's personal device, the "winged eye." ...(p. 75)
Indeed, Alberti’s “hieroglyph” would seem to be most directly related to the allegories and devices—inspired by the imagery of ancient coin reverses—that began to appear on the reverses of commemorative medals designed by Pisanello and Matteo de’ Pasti for their noble patrons in the northern Italian courts and elsewhere at midcentury. (p. 76.)

I suspect that Curran places the word "hieroglyph" in quotes partly because Alberti himself did not use the word for his own and his colleagues’ designs, and partly because the meaning is so different from the one to which we are accustomed today. Yet it is a term which did come into use in the 16th century to describe modern creations (no later than Valeriano, 1556), a term soon applied to tarot (Anonymous Discourse, 1570), and which people like Alberti paved the way for in their development of designs and thinking that corresponded to what they read about the ancient Egyptians’ hieroglyphics.


In applying the term "hieroglyph" to tarot, however, the Anonymous Discourse seems also to have debased it, because, so far as I can tell, the author described the cards’ “mysteries” as simply those of everyday Christianity, known to all, in which even the images were mostly not enigmatic, to those who knew their catechism. For Alberti and his friends, however, for certain ancient hieroglyphic texts, it was not only the images that were enigmatic, but also what was portrayed. For them, the reason for hiding certain noble and sacred thoughts was that they were not suitable for the masses, and that they would be misunderstood. Only those of the proper learning could understand them. For the rest, let them be satisfied with what they saw. For example, Apuleius’s Lucius said, describing his first initiation
“Behold, I have related things about which you must remain in ignorance, though you have heard (Isis Book p. 99, in Google Books).
This is right after he has described the priest consulting his book with the two types of hieroglyphs (p. 97).

In Alberti’s milieu of the late 1430s and the 1440s, Cardinal Bessarion (with Pletho, I suspect) was a major exponent of this view that there was, and had to be, a secret tradition, even in Christianity. We see it in his major polemical work, (Calumniator Platonus, not printed until 1468 (by Sweynheim and Pannartz), but I think representative of long-standing views. The passage is quoted in Hankins’ Plato in the Italian Renaissance (p. 256, in Google Books):
Plato therefore wrote nothing down relating to primary and supreme realities—or very little, and that in a very obscure way—because he felt it impermissible to share such high matters with the multitude, and he thought it far holier to worship and venerate such realities with his whole mind...

While this is about Plato, he is writing in defense of Plato. And by “the whole mind,” he probably has in mind a passage by Plotinus later translated by Ficino (published 1492, but surely well known much earlier), which again brings us back to hieroglyphics:
The Egyptian sages...drew pictures and carved one picture for each thing in their temples, thus making manifest the description of that thing. Thus each picture was a kind of understanding and wisdom and substance and given all at once, and not discursive reasoning and deliberation
(my source: Wittkower, "Hieroglyphics in the Early Renaissance,” p. 116 of his Allegory and the Migration of Symbols.

It is in this way that I think we are to understand these lines in a 1452 letter that Bessarion sent to the sons of Pletho:
:Il cardinale Bessarione saluta Demetrio e Andronico, figli del sapiente Gemisto. Ho appreso che il nostro comune padre e maestro ha deposto ogni spoglia terrena e se n'è andato in cielo, al sito di ogni purità, per unirsi al coro della mistica danza di Jacco [id est il Dioniso dei Misteri di Eleusi - ndr] con gli dèi olimpici. (
(Cardinal Bessarion greets Andronicus and Demetrius, children of learned Gemistus. I learned that our common father and teacher has deposited everything earthly and gone to heaven, the site of every purity, to join the choir of the mystical dance of Jacco [id est the Dionysus of the Mysteries of Eleusis - ed] with the Olympian gods.)

Such language was easily misunderstood. But it was just such language and imagery, in Plato as well as in the accounts of the Mysteries, that helped to express the sense of mystery and ecstasy that Bessarion associated with the Christian hereafter. (It is probably in that sense also that Alberti has his character somewhat pretentiously call his rings “mysteries.”) Thus also, I would suggest, are the Greco-Roman and Greco-Egyptian “mysteries” to be found by the wise in the tarot, starting in the 15th century, themselves expressions of hidden Christian mysteries.

Pletho’s and Bessarion’s followers in the 15th century were many (for Pletho, from before the period when he returned to Greece, of course): the Medici, Ficino, and undoubtedly Alberti. Wikipedia reports of Pletho:
In 1466, some of his Italian disciples, headed by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, stole his remains from Mistra and interred them in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, "so that the great Teacher may be among free men".
I cannot attest to the accuracy of that report: it has no citation. Alberti, of course, was the Templo’s architect, and Maletesta a documented fan of the tarot, from his letter to Sforza of 1452.

And I believe that many people in later centuries, despite the platitudes of the emblem books, were not misled by them into thinking that that was all there was. These were only the common hieroglyphs, the ones that expressed thoughts capable of being grasped by the multitudes, even though they heard or read them in the context of enigmatic pictures (although I cannot myself judge of Valeriano); there were also pictures that represented enigmas as such, incapable of being understood by the unlearned—and, to some, in the “secret society” years, even by the learned, unless they submitted to certain initiations. However I have no intention of going as far as that. We are historians. Any initiations we experience will be by means of the ordinary printed or written word, or the ordinary printed or painted picture, or the ordinary dramatic production or musical composition, as available in the time we are writing about.

Got that?

Re: The 15th century understanding of "hieroglyph"

mikeh wrote: Got that?
... :-) ... NOOOO ...

These people in 15th century occasionally take too much words, so that my mind gets tired and I get nothing (a special friend of this "too many words" is Cusanus, it's horrifiying). I then take short ways to keep my mind functioning.

I (try to) understand their problems, and I perceive, that they behave this way, cause they haven't our 500-600 year history, which have shortened a lot of things, just by inventing new technologies and new words and new definitions.

Alberti is known to have found a few things about optic and perspective, which impressed 15th century. About this he wrote ca. 1434/35 and it made him famous.

His "Winged Eye" ... whatever he attempted to explain with it, likely his finishing result was to teach perspective. At least some has realized it this way: The "Winged Eye" as a personal symbol expressed Alberti's successes in this specific development.

Also Alberti made himself a name as a cryptographer ... we now this special development of 15th century, as it was a practical problem for diplomatic posts. His hieroglyphic ideas seem to correspond to this interest.

What I learned from your description, is, that Alberti knew our modern understanding of hieroglyphs, but he called it Egyptian understanding of hieroglyphs. Naturally ... Alberti couldn't know, how we will treat this expression in his future.

Alberti attempts to find the meaning of older hieroglyphs by analogies. Actually he is somehow on the ways of Champollion and others who tried to get some sense in these old texts. Also by analogy he reflects the possibility to create other new signs, which are only understood by clever people, so talking "over the head" of common people ... well, that's a general problem, which repeats always in communication. So - for instance - I would identify the general heraldic approach of 14th / 15th century as an attempt to form new hieroglyphs (I'm not sure, if Alberti really talks of this or really means, but I could imagine, at least it would be natural).

Well, Alberti had his interests and his communication problems at his time, and he worked on it and left a lot of interesting stuff and found a lot of solutions - and likely partly he found no solution.
I've mine (interests, communication problems) and I search my solutions - ... and to keep things short and readable I reduce it here to that what's relevant to the topic "Tarot research" ... :-) ... and I'm not shy to reduce also Alberti's wonderful work to that, what is usable for "my moment".

Another "hieroglyphic" approach, now by Mantegna ca. 1449

These instructions are of such a nature that [any painter] who really understands them well both by his intellect and by his comprehension of the definition of painting will realize how useful they are. Never let it be supposed that anyone can be a good painter if he does not clearly understand what he is attempting to do. He draws the bow in vain who has nowhere to point the arrow. (Emphasis ours. Alberti, 1966, p. 59).8

Generally I think, that Alberti was important for the Trionfi card development, so I appreciate a study of his work. But it shouldn't get the result, that things get more complicated than they are.

There was a general attempt to develop a "standard" for iconographic representation (Saints, virtues, allegories of all kind) and we do a lot of decryption work in these Tarot talking groups by discussing pictures, art productions etc.. Naturally there were persons, who took influence on the "work of encryption", and likely Alberti belonged to them with "de pictura". This process one might call "creating hieroglyphs" ...

So, do we have now the same understanding of hieroglyphs?

If yes, then could we assume, that Alberti's use of the terminus hieroglyphs [which, as you say, didn't happen] tells us something about the general use of this word? Or do we have to assume a specific-scholar-terminus, only used in specific context by very few people only?

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