MJ Hurst wrote
...But until you do write that definitive history of everything, why don't you write a post like mine, on how to begin? That way we can see how our approaches differ. What guidelines do you suggest to constrain the blather which dominates fora such as this? Or is that endless, haphazard, speculative chatter a good thing, to be encouraged?...
"There is admittedly some danger that iconology will behave, not like ethnology as opposed to ethnography, but like astrology as opposed to astronomy. There is, I am afraid, no other answer to this problem other than the use of historical methods tempered, if possible, by common sense. (Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts).
P.S. IMO the best book for understanding the iconology of Tarot, its place in the larger cultural scheme of things, is Willard Farnham's The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy, (1936). If the trump cycle is anything like what I suggest, then this is also the medieval heritage of Tarot.
P.P.S. I would also recommend Eco's Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992).
OK, now I've read Eco (Interpretation and Overinterpretation
, as well as his Limits of Interpretation
ch 1-3), Panofsky (Meaning in the Visual Arts
Intro., ch. 1), Gombrich (Symbolic Images
ch. 1, 5, 9), and Farnham (Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy
I think that "historical methods tempered, if possible, with common sense" is a good guideline. It sounds like Panofsky, although I didn't see that part in Meaning and the Visual Arts
(1955), just the part where he talks about the danger that iconology will behave "like astrology as opposed to astrography." I assume he meant astronomy. Perhaps you could clarify the reference. [This sentence removed. See next post.]
In accord with Michael's invitation, I will try to give an analysis of the meaning of trump I (Roman numeral One). For the natural meaning, I will focus on the Rosenwald Sheet (from http://trionfi.com/0/j/d/rosenwald/
): I pick that one because it seems the easiest to apply Panofsky's method to.
When I go to "conventional" and "intrinsic" meanings I will expand the scope to include other early cards (15th century) that have a similar picture on them. It would be too tedious and repetitive to go through the natural stage for all of them. I will also cite some relevant texts. When I get to the "intrinsic" part, I will quote some guidelines and state others, to address the issue of "blather". However I think that on THF at least, there's not a lot of that, and progress is being made.
First let me state something theoretical that is not clear in Panofsky. Analyzing the meaning of an image is not the same as explaining why it came to be as it is. One has to do with interpretation; the other has to do with reasons why, i.e. antecedent conditions, causes and intentions. These are different subjects, although they overlap (for more on this, see the last section of my post at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=939#p13781
). For now, on the "natural" and "conventional" levels, I am doing interpretation. Later, on the "intrinsic" level, I will get to explanations, and guidelines. I am going to proceed with the Rosenwald in a historical way; that is, seeking to get at the meaning it would have had at the time it was done, the early 16th century someplace in northern Italy, I'd guess Florence.
1. Natural Level,
what I see is what seems to be a man standing at a rectangular table, dressed in short sleeves, a short tunic, and shoes, with a welcoming gesture. He has on a hood that has two long protrusions on each side of the head, like donkey's ears, but with balls on the end. On the table, from our left to our right, are five small circles, a short stick of some kind in his right hand, three larger circles, and a longer stick. He wears bracelets on both hands. On the left of his head is the Roman numeral I. On the top two corners of the card, are double v shaped marks. This card is one of 21 special cards on one sheet. The other three on the sheet are queens with distinctive objects in their right hands: one with a large circular object, one with a sword, and one with a cup. The particular identical double v shaped marks in the corners of card I are shared by card II, which represents a female Pope, and an unnumbered card representing what looks like a devil. Cards I to XII are numbered, although some of them backwards. Kaplan says that the numbers are correctly written on the other surviving copy of the sheet.
2a. Conventional level, as an image and as an object in a game.
I recognize the man on card I as similar to representations on "children of the moon" engravings of the previous 50 years, in which men and children crowd around a table; he might be an entertainer; he might also, having got their attention, be playing a game with them for money, a game in which one tries, on a bet, to guess which cup the small object is under. In some representations, on cards and otherwise, the small round objects are balls or shells (below a child of the moon from De Sphaera
, for the Sforzas in the 1460s, and next to it the d'Este card, c. 1473).
On the other hand, the items on the tarot figure's table might be shells, cups, a knife, and a wand. I know the knife from other representations of the card in other decks, especially the PMB.
If we take the small round objects as coins or coin-like objects, the big round ones as cups, and one stick as a knife, these could also be the signs of the four suits. So we might also see the man as similar to the dealer in a card game, which would be appropriate for the first card.
The wand is probably used for magic tricks. The cups and the small round objects, however, also fit the betting game. I don't know what the knife is used for, if that's what it is--perhaps to check for counterfeit money, and also in some trick. Or it is there merely to signify the suit of Swords.
Probably there is a title attached to the card, as in the Steele Sermon and other lists of the time: "Bagatella" or something similar. That means "trivial thing" in Italian. That might refer to its trick-taking ability; but by extension might also refer to the person's role in society.The card is used in a trick-taking game of which this is the lowest of the trump cards. It can take non-trump cards but no other trumps except the Matto. It has a particular point value for the one who has it, probably high, based on published rules later. Probably it can have points at the beginning of a hand, if shown to the other players, as well as at the end.
In some decks, it is possible to see the man at the table as an innkeeper, with one stick being a writing quill, the other a knife to sharpen it, the small round objects as coins, and one of the big round objects as an inkwell. In fact Alciato's 1544 description does call him an innkeeper (as does Piscina's Discourse
). However in the Rosenwald it does not look like he is keeping accounts, and if he is, there is no explanation for the other big round objects, nor for his jester hat, unless it is Carnival.
I notice that the sheet does not have a Matto card. Since it has some suit cards, I assume that this card combines the Fool in his capacity as an entertainer with the Bagatella of slight-of-hand fame.
Probably the average person playing a game of tarot would just see the man as an entertainer telling jokes and doing magic tricks, and/or inviting people to match their eyes against his movements in the shell game.
2b. Conventional level: literary sources.
Here I turn to Petrarch's De Remediis
, which is where I first noticed two persons like this Bagatella appearing c. 1400 in a similar context as I see him here, in that other figures in that frontispiece also appear nearby on the Rosenwald Sheet. This book is not a source for the image, because it describes no such people as we see on the card. But it was a popular book, in Italian as well as Latin, and does consider entertainers and gamblers. It consists of a series of dialogues between Joy and Reason, or occasionally Hope and Reason. On entertainers I see Reason saying, against Joy, that while there have been a few great entertainers, such as one praised by Cicero, who "changed the harsh and proud mind of Sulla..and forced to mirth and laughter...those grave and severe old fathers and the very Senate that reigned over the world" (Rawski trans., p. 84), the wits of today have "depraved taste and poor judgment" (p. 85). As for gambling, "he who loses suffers and he who wins is tempted and lured into the trap"(p. 81). Even board games for fun are degrading, for "the stupid rejoicings, the silly rages" (p. 80). The only game Reason recommends is a competition in speeches among friends edifying the company on subjects "relevant to virtue and the good life," where the poor speakers are fined to provide money for a good meal together (p. 81). Of course Reason says something similar about popes and emperors, disdaining them as well, as too caught up in the world and too corrupt.
Reason here might not be expressing Petrarch's own view, or the view that a 15th-early 16th century reader might take. Petrarch considers the music of the spheres, the songs of the angels, the sighs of the saints and the groans of the damned to be good music for the ears (p. 72f). The problem is that one can't hear them except in the mind. In Petrarch's time, and in the 15th century even more so, there was music that sought to emulate these sounds and stimulates our bringing them to mind; surely that is good. Visually, Reason denigrates paintings and says one should look at the wonders of God's creation, such as the sun and the stars. But again, paintings can help us to see these things, and less exalted sights, as God's wonders. In De Remediis
, we have to remember that this is a dialogue between two opposites, Joy and Reason. The first seems to reason poorly, and the second to have very narrow view of joy. Moreover, in his Trionfi
, a chaste love is not bad, nor is a desire for this-worldly Fame, if earned appropriately. In De Remediis
, however, Reason pours scorn on the desire for fame through writing books. In De Remediis
,it seems to me, the reader is invited to make up his or her own mind (I am disagreeing with Farnham, who thinks that De Remediis
unlike his other books, expresses total contempt for the world.) So I, at least as a 15th century reader, say, taking a middle way, that the entertaining products of human artifice are not all bad, if they stimulate us to find joy in God and God's creation. So a game that instructs one on the road to salvation is not to be condemned out of hand. This card instructs one to avoid the world's tricks, lures, and vulgarity. No wonder the decoration at the top links it with the Devil. The connection to the Popess isn't clear.
If the items on the Bagatella's table are those of the suits of the regular cards, there is another lesson: to avoid gambling for the same reason one would avoid this trickster if one saw him on the street: it is at best a waste of time and more likely he is much more expert than you are. But a card game for no or trivial stakes that requires that one know the road to heaven is not out of place, hopefully--to adapt Petrarch's example--where the winnings go to something shared with the loser, like a common meal.
This card game, however, judging from its first cards, is suspect. There should be no numbers on them, as indeed there were not on the earlier cards of this type.Their positions should have to be memorized, to serve such a purpose best. With numbers, its designs may be merely a cover for degrading behavior. On the other hand, we notice that after card XII (the Old Man) there are no numbers. It is perhaps these unnumbered cards that show the road to heaven. The others are perhaps of more relative good, whose value even pagans recognized, in a world of evil, triviality, and distraction. I say "relative good" rather than evil, because the virtues of Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice were considered of great value, even though they relate to this world rather than the world to come.
3. Intrinsic level.
Here I want to start by addressing the question: why is this card the way it is? What is its explanation? This deck is rather late, as early tarot decks go. So to explain the card, we should probably say, he used an earlier model or models. Whether his model also combined features of the Bagatella and the Matto is unknown. We do have earlier decks where the Matto and the Bagatella are distinct, notably the PMB and the d'Este. The Charles VI has a Matto similar to the d'Este's, but no surviving Bagatella.
A problem is that I know of no use of that particular image--a man at a table with something like the objects we see on it, as a trivial performer--in earlier art. The representations of the Bagatella as a child of the Moon are later than the first known instance of the card. That tells us how people understood the image, but not what it meant originally, or why it was there in the first place.
Panofsky advises looking at other images similar to the image in question in previous representations. Here the closest I can find is a representation in Panofsky of Jupiter as a judge (Meaning in the Visual Arts
, fig. 14, from Munich Staaatsbibliothek, Clm. 10268, fourteenth century).
This is a widely diffused type for Jupiter, originating in the mid-13th century in an astrological-astronomical treatise by Michael Scot (Seznec, Survival of the Pagan Gods
, p. 156). Sometimes Jupiter is a monk teaching students. or administering the sacraments (http://photos1.blogger.com/x/blogger/61 ... 29.jpg.jpg
, both from Seznec). However such an interpretation would require considerable elaboration to justify. And he is hardly a trivial performer. (But never fear, I will return to this question later.)
Giotto has Prudence at a lectern, which is somewhat like a table, with one hand up, as in some Bagatellas, and a pen in the other, rather like the wand or knife (http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/giotto/prudence
). That has some visual relationship, but is conceptually distant. It is similar to Scot's image of Mercury, who was portrayed, following his Arab sources, as a scribe (at right below, figure 62 of Seznec; the other is another Scot-inspired illumination, part of Seznec's figure 64)
For other representations of men at tables with things on them, I again see, before 1450, only representations of gods. There is Asclepius next to a table, in ms. vat. regensis 1290, the so-called Libellus
, 14th century, which was the source of many of the images of the gods in the "Mantegna" cards (http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-Pync1cd96q4/U ... lepius.jpg
). Asclepius would make sense as the god of apothecaries. There is also Mercury again, in ms. palat. lat. 1066, an illuminated version of Ridewell's Fulgentius metaforalis
, c. 1420-1425. He stands at a table, next to a woman, with various piles of what look like seeds, while thrusting his lance into the scene below, which has Argos pierced by it in the eye (I can't find a jpg file of that image; it is in de Rola's Alchemy: the Secret Art
, and in Hans Liebeschuetz's 1926 study on Ridewell). It may be that Mercury there, like Asclepius, is being portrayed as a healer. The antiseptic properties of mercury salts were well known (the woman might stand for salt). Another association for Mercury is as the inventor of gambling games, in Plutarch's On Isis and Osiris
, section 12. Since he wins, he might also be the first cheater at games. This Mercury is the same as Theuth, i.e. Thoth, identified as the inventor of "draughts and dice" in Plato's Phaedrus
(http://www.units.muohio.edu/technologya ... /plato.htm
). These associations would have been well known to Milan's resident Greek scholar and tutor Filelfo.
None of these prior images explain why we have the Bagatella images we see. It is a fair assumption that such people as the Bagatella actually did exist at fairs and markets. So the artist and designer need not have worked with any pre-existing convention in art. But this still leaves us up in the air as to why he, or the commissioner of the deck, chose that particular image.
With no numbers on the early cards, we don't know for sure what the order of the sequence was. Yet I think it is a fair assumption that the Bagatella was number One, as it is in the Rosenwald explicitly and in the Steele Sermon and other lists, preceded only, when it is there, the Matto.
The main issue, I think, is why a figure like that, out of all the possible choices, was put at the beginning of the sequence. Without an explicit statement by a designer, I think answers are necessarily speculative. I do not think one has to postulate an Ur-tarot of some specific design, as I don't think it would give any better answer than one might get simply from looking at these early Bagatella cards, with it as number one (allowing also for a zero) in the context of the other cards of the sequence, of which some are known and some unknown.
That he is of the lowest order of society, corresponding to the lowest number, does not seems to me adequate. Slaves were lower, as well as common laborers. He at least has a trade. And morally, murderers, pickpockets, and cheaters are certainly lower. He isn't shown cheating people; he just entertains or outwits them. If he says he's doing magic, that's explicitly part of the show.
One answer to my question comes readily enough if we consider the card's number: it is the first of the sequence. As such, it can function as an introduction to the game for which the deck is used: on the one hand, harmless entertainment as long as you don't take it too seriously, and on the other hand, a word of caution, not to succumb to the folly of thinking there are none better than you at the game, whether played fairly or by cheating, and more generally not to be deceived by appearances.
I am aware that this analysis brings together the sharp separation that Decker, Dummett, and Depaulis make between the "meaning" of a tarot image and its "use"--in games, fortune-telling, novels, etc (Wicked Pack of Cards
p. 29). To be sure, meaning is not the same as use. But meaning arises in the context of use, including past uses of the same word or image. If a woman with a sword and a scales means Justice, that is because that image has been found useful for conveying the idea of Justice: treating people equally and, when necessary, severely. If that image now is made part of a sequence of images, that adds meaning to the card, as part of the sequence. If it is put on a playing card, that gives the image additional meaning: it is a trump with such and such trick-taking power and point value, if any; and its other meanings--which are still there, despite the new use--is less important, the more important winining the game is, as opposed to teaching the meaning of justice. But I would welcome additional discusssion of this point.
In any case, what I have said so far about the meaning of the Bagatella card seems to me not enough. It seems to me that the card's position, at the beginning of the sequence, suggests something more, that it is about beginnings. In fact, I think all 6 initial cards--with the Matto as 0--are about beginnings. I agree with Flornoy on this (http://www.tarot-history.com/Symbolism/ ... cture.html
): they are, on one level, about some basic facts of childhood, the first earthly stage in the soul's journey, where one is subject to external authority but must learn to acquire internal authority. Children are fascinated by magic, and especially they want to become magicians themselves, not in the Harry Potter way, but in the way of knowing from their own experience that what looks like magic in fact has a rational explanation. Young children see the world in magical ways. On the one hand, it's delightful; and on the other hand, what is really happening? Hence the fascination. So the figure's capacity as a magician is relevant to beginnings. And more than that, it's how skillful he is. It is magical how people can read what is on a page just from black squiggles. It's also a skill to be learned. The "Mantegna" sequence, c. 1465-1470, has "Artisan" as its number 3, a young man with skills, at a table like the Bagatella, higher in status than the beggar and the servant. The Schoen horoscope, 1515, on which are many correspondences to the tarot trumps, has a similar figure for its 2nd house, with birth for house 1.
Another thing children need to learn is wariness: watch your back, don't be friendly with strangers unless your parents are with you, and so on. The negative side of the Bagatella teaches that. In this way the person at the table might indeed have suggested the virtue of Prudence, as in the Giotto image, through recognizing the temptation to be imprudent.
But I don't think the Renaissance would have gotten enthusiastic even if that was all there is. Once the humanist sees the card as part of the beginning, he would see other edifying interpretations, following the Renaissance principles of association and similarity, in the contexts of meditation, of developing associations to remember what cards have been played in the game, or of merely displaying his wisdom in the banter that goes on during a game. In the Renaissance, the microcosm reflects the macrocosm; so the origin of the human being is a reflection of the origin of the cosmos. "In the beginning God created heaven and earth," starts Genesis. The First, number One, therefore, is God, as we read also in Macrobius (Commentary on the Dream of Scipio
1.6.8, Stahl translation p. 101) and Philo of Alexandria (On the Creation
In this regard, there is another association to the four types of objects on the table: not only the four suit-objects but the four elements, with which God, in Plato's Timaeus
, created the universe. Actually, it is not only the four elements, but also the four qualities (cold, warm, dry, moist), and the four humors. Two examples are the four Evangelists and the four winds. Duerer did a "Four Apostles," not all evangelists, but associating them with the four elements. The Sola-Busca court cards seem to reflect assignments of suit to humor, as Marco has observed. Another example, I think, is the Issy Chariot of the 1450s, viewtopic.php?f=11&t=917&p=13591
), where I think the four ladies with their suggestive hand gestures represent the four elements, and the lady in the middle the quintessence, in alchemy identified with the color red.
The exact correspondences between object and element/humor varied. Here is one, c. 1476 (Dixon, Bosch
, p. 81); the suit object for water is not shown; instead, we have a priest, who would be associated with the communion cup, which also associates with water; and for air we have the very small falconer's stick. The other two are clear enough, and they are what makes my comparison to suit objects work:
From this perspective, this trickster could be a symbol of the creator, creating out of the elements what appears to be a random world of good and evil all mixed together, but which nonetheless contains a divine plan. Like the dealer in a card game, he deals everyone the cards they are born with, some with good hands and others not, but all lead to God, if the players know and follow the sequence. The world is like that created by the Bagatella, sometimes entertaining, sometimes a temptation, sometimes evil, but always a challenge that strengthens one's character, and to that extent positive.
Along the same lines, there is a resemblance between the Bagatella and a priest at his altar. This is especially pronounced in the PMB, where a cloth covers what appears to be a container of some kind, like a communion cup. The first priest was Jesus, who broke bread and gave wine in remembrance of him. Jesus as Logos is also a world-creator, according to the Gospel of John, which says, directly paralleling Genesis, "IN the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made." The PMB Bagatella similarly has a very weary look, like Renaissance representations of Christ looking down on his corrupt world.
In this context, the precedent I found of Jupiter at a table as a judge would not be as out of place as we might have thought. Jupiter overthrew Saturn, Saturn was associated with the practices of the Jews, and Christ is the one who overthrew those practices, and moreover was a teacher on earth and judge in heaven.
We can see how the image of Mercury or Asclepius at a table of medicines for balancing the four humors is related to the Bagatella, Jesus was a healer, both physically and spiritually. Priests, too, played both roles. Mercury as the inventor of games also makes sense, here dealing out the elements, cards, and humors. Mercury, of course, was also a trickster god. That such associations connect the card to earlier images of men at tables even makes me wonder whether in fact the card was introduced with such associations in mind, so as to compare the Bagatella to God. But whether all these associations would have occurred to the designer of the card I don't know; but they certainly fit and would tend to make the associations, and the card, popular with humanists.
Granted such an interpretation, another question arises. Is the Catholic priest a trickster, and the wafer he offers no more than a piece of bread? One answer: whether the transubstantiation is real or not, it is the symbolism that counts. This question and answer are not too advanced for the Renaissance. The answer would have saved some from the Inquisition, for example the physician in 1497 Bologna who said that Jesus not not divine and died for his own sins (Michael M. Tavuzzi, 2007 Renaissance inquisitors: Dominican inquisitors and inquisitorial districts in Northern Italy, 1474-1527
, p. 114). Fortunately the Bentivoglio successfully intervened on his behalf.
The result, for one who looks closely at the card, and especially the PMB, is a coincidence of opposites, the lowly negative trickster and (in the Rosenwald) the first two persons of the Trinity. Since God is said by Nicholas of Cusa to be just such a union of opposites, the card now reflects the divine mystery. If other cards can be interpreted both positively and negatively, they, too, might have a sacred aspect of this sort.
By now, one might think I have gone too far. So I will talk about guidelines. First: my line of thinking is in accord with Umberto Eco's understanding of Renaissance hermeneutics. He says, in his essay "Intentio Lectoris: the State of the Art," in Limits of Interpretation
, 1994, p. 51:
Medieval interpreters looked for a plurality of senses without refusing a sort of identity principle (a text cannot support contradictory interpretations), whereas the symbolists of the Renaissance, following the idea of the coincidentia oppositorum, defined the ideal text as that which allows the most contradictory readings.
While I am not sure that he has captured the Renaissance "ideal text" precisely, it is certainly in the Renaissance spirit to look for contradictory readings in the images of the tarot. Relying on contradictory meanings is not confined to the Renaissance; it is used in the common rhetorical device called irony (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony
Another guideline is stated by by Decker, Dummett, and Depaulis in their comments on interpretation (Wicked Pack of Cards
People of the Renaissance reveled in hidden symbolism, and the occult sciences enjoyed greater prestige in the Christian world than at any other time before or since. Any theory to this effect must pass a severe test, however. It must depend, not on any direct evidence that can be cited, but on the intrinsic plausibility that of the particular interpretation proposed, which must draw on nothing that was not available at that time and place. But it ought not to be too plausible; it cannot be anything which, if present, would leap to the eye of a man of the Renaissance looking at the cards. The reason is that, if the trump sequence was designed in accordance with any esoteric symbolism, this fact was very quickly and generally overlooked. None of the XV and XVI-century sources so much as hints at such a thing, and the absence of such a hint from some of these sources would be very surprising if their authors had had any inkling that any such symbolism was there to be found.
Decker, Dummett, and Depaulis are contrasting "esoteric" symbolism with "exoteric" symbolism. "Exoteric" symbolism is symbolism that is familiar to people in general at a particular time, e.g. a woman holding a sword and scales means Justice. "Esoteric" symbolism is that understood by fewer people, "symbolism intelligible only to those instructed in astrology and other arcane subjects" (p. 33).
That seems to me extreme; we need not go so far. The preachers and those who thought like them were ignorant of the Renaissance blending of the Christian and pagan traditions, in the context especially of newly available Greek and Latin texts, and old ones in a new context. The only "arcane subjects" required, I think, would have been knowledge of this body of Greek and Roman pagan texts, supplemented by newly available images (although being harder to get to know, they would be less necessary), and well-known generalities such as "the microcosm reflects the macrocosm," "God is a coincidence of opposites," "there is a divine plan behind all things," etc. Knowledge of astrology, beyond the common interpretations of the planets and zodiacal signs, is not required, at least that I can see.
Even so, this symbolism would have been known only to some who played the game: for sure (in the case of the PMB Bagatella) the Sforza family and their friends, e.g. the card-makers, the tutors, and probably allies like the Medici, but also other many other educated people, as there are no secrets involved, in the sense of codes knowable only by those specifically privy to them. As such, the card is a "hieroglyph" as defined by Alberti, a picture whose meaning is hidden from the vulgar but which "could be understood easily by expert men all over the world, to whom alone noble matters should be communicated" (Art of Building
, trans. Rykwert et al, p. 256, full quote at http://www.tarotforum.net/showthread.php?p=2467477
Those who know, don't tell. If nothing else, it would mean taking meanings out of their contexts in the precious ancient works, reducing a mystery to the limitations of language. It also might reduce people's motivation for reading these texts, and hence employment opportunities for humanists. It also might add fuel to the fire of the preachers' condemnations.
And for those without the requisite understanding, the card has meaning enough: cautionary instruction, the prospect of entertainment, and an easily identifiable image in the game.
So far, these are my guidelines. It isn't much, and more is needed. Here it remains important to distinguish interpretaton and explanation. For explanations, there is the consideration of internal coherence and with other known facts, in so far as they are facts and not unjustified assumptions. In looking at the historical context, paying attention to absences as well as presences is important. Simplicity or economy of explanation is not a good guideline, except at a very fundamental level of universally applicable generalizations. I have discussed these issues at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=939#p13781
, in relation to Ross's chart, but they and other issues need more discussion at a more general level. I don't know what to think about the concept of "explanatory power." On the face of it, the expanded account I have given explains more than seeing the Bagatella just as a trivial performer, in that it accounts for the similarity to previous images of men at tables; and explains the card in terms of Renaissance philosophy and the symbolism of the four elements; but I don't know if these needed explaining,.
For interpretations, the limits are something else. Interpretations pertain to texts or images in relation to particular audiences and uses by these audiences; they are different from the author's intentions, but are not whatever an audience decides is there: they have to be responses to something in the text or image. Also, it seems to me that there should be some relationship between exoteric meanings and esoteric meanings: the latter is in some way "higher" than the former. But it does not seem to me that any so-called "esoteric" meaning has to be part of a well-worked out system of esoteric meanings, because we are not dealing with a code, just interpretive contexts that are known by greater and fewer numbers of people. There isn't even a definite boundary between the two categories. Also, the extent to which specific cards have esoteric meanngs may depend on when they were introduced into the sequence and what ideas were current at the time; we don't know that all the cards came at once; the same is true for variations in details on the card. Beyond that, at present I cannot say more than what I have already said here and in the post just referred to. Otherwise, I have nothing to guide me except reason, for making inferences, and facts, for making inferences from.
For now, it seems to me that once we see the Bagatella as the beginning, or part of the beginning, it is inherently plausible that an interpretation will relate both to the childhood of the human being and that of the universe, given that the macrocosm reflects the microcosm and the lowest is the highest. I will continue.
Since the Rosenwald Bagatella has a jester's hat, we should consider whether the Matto can be coherently interpreted as God, too. In Christ, God appeared as one of the lowliest, a mere wandering beggar, a fool and a heretic (to Judaism), but a Wise Fool. The idea of the Wise Fool as representing God and one seized by God is almost a commonplace of humanist thought, expressed eloquently at the end of Erasmus's Praise of Folly
, and the object of Cusa's Learned Ignorance.
In Macrobius, the One exists on three levels: the Supreme Being, which knows no beginning or end but is the beginning and end of all things; Mind (Nous), which springs from the Supreme Being and produces the patterns in created things; and the Soul of the Cosmos, which animates the universe (p. 101). Here, too, there is distinction that parallels that between the Father and the Son in the Gospel of John. As for the animating power, that may have a correspondence in the first six cards of the tarot as well.
It would be interesting but not essential to see whether a Pythagorean (as opposed to Neoplatonic) numerological interpretation, with the One as God, would work for the other numbered cards in the sequence. Another possible interpretation of this early 16th century card is a Kabbalist one, for this is very much the era of the Christian Kabbalah. In the books on Kabbalah published in Latin then, starting with Pico's famous 900 Theses
, there is no doctrine of the meaning of the 22 Hebrew letters. but there is of the sefiroth, which Pico translates as "numeration", numeratione
, e.g. in Thesis 28.11 (Farmer, Syncretism in the West
p. 350). The first numeration is Kether, from which all else flows, but before that, outside the Tree, is the En Sof, the Unlimited. So we have our Bagatella, and outside the sequence, the Matto, the crazy one who doesn't respect social limits (such as, in the d'Este, of keeping his pants on). And so on down the tree, if meaningful parallels can be made, until one gets to the bottom, where at the Wheel the direction reverses, and the soul moves upwards to its source in eleven more steps. While it would be presumptuous to explain the Matto at the beginning as the En Sof (because Kabbalah wasn't very diffused then), he certainly fits as a a later interpretation, and in the case of the Matto, pehaps even before Pico's book. Whether such an interpretation works, and in what order of the cards there is the best fit, is something I have worked out to some degree in a blog, http://latinsefiroth.blogspot.com/
Such an interpretation is not an explanation of the origin of the cards, I want to emphasize; it is an interpretation that would have come later. However there is one thing it might explain, namely: how the so-called "C" order came about, as I think it is the most natural one for a Kabbalist interpretation. As far as I know, there is no evidence for the "C" order before 1544, in Alciato. Perhaps all the decks had other orders at first, but someone in Lombardy or France changed it. Alciato had been living in France before his book came out. That's a hypothesis that further investigation could falsify, or replace with something better, in the sense of fitting the facts.
I could say more on how the "intrinsic" meaning of the card--as expressing beginnings, in the context of Renaissance humanism--would naturally lead to other interpretations in certain times and places. That, too, would be speculation, but historically based speculation to the extent that it is tied to the imagery and texts of concern to particular users of the tarot at a particular place and time. But I'll stop here.