DID WOODBLOCK CARD PRINTERS DESIGN THE FIRST TAROT DECKS? Much of the research in the early tarot has focused on the cultural meanings the tarot trump images had for for the courtly players of the game of triumphs. This led Gertrude Moakley and subsequent researchers to the tentaitive conclusion that the card designs of the trumps had a secular source, probably Petrach's poem and the triumphal processions that were part of the civic culture of Northern Italian cities. Art historians would call this strategy a "reception study" and would deem it as incomplete unless coupled with a "production study." The artwork, in this case the tarot deck, or more precisely, the structure ot the tarot trumps, is best analyzed as a product of the interaction between its producers and consumers (see Baxandall).
But a production study for the tarot presents researchers with a problem. It is more likely that the first triumph decks were woodblock prints made by the same printers who did regular card decks than handpainted decks made by court artists. Moreover they would have been made for commoners, not courtiers. While there are hand painted decks dating from the 1450s, Florentine commercial registers repeatedly mention the production of large numbers of triumph decks in the 1440s. Therefore, block printed tarots quite likely were an established business by that time. However, the bulk of surviving triumph decks are not these cheap, frequently used items, but the far more rare and precious handpainted decks created for special occasions for the nobility and used only sparingly. The details of a court painter's craft would tell us little about the design of tarot decks if these painters were basing their work on models previously created by the woodblock printers.
The solution is to look at what woodblock card printing shops were doing in their formative years between 1400 and 1425, immediately prior to the earliest tarot decks, and ask what would happen if such a shop were asked to produce a triumph deck. The regular cards would be no problem at all, since a large portion of a wood block printing shop's business was in printing regular playing cards. But, say around 1430, customers were wanting decks with a sequence of picture cards added, so they could play the trendy new game of triumphs. The players of this new game would have no particular images in mind, they just need a well defined sequence where the later cards triumph over the earlier ones. How would a 1430s woodblock printer supply such an image sequence?
If the answer to this question results in an account of tarot origins that explains the facts more satisfactorily than current hypotheses, it should be given serious consideration.
WOODBLOCK PRINTED BROADSHEETS Besides printing cards, woodblock printers in this period also printed pictures. One part of the a woodblock printer's picture business was producing comic book like broadsheets that illustrated sermons, mystery plays, bible stories, or other popular religious narratives. These would be sold as a single large sheet, rather than being cut into separate cards like playing card decks. Between 1450 and 1500, these sheets would sometimes be sewn into folio books (blockbooks); but this practice is unconfirmed at this earlier date. The other imagistic part of the business would be postcard like devotional images of saints and other religious figures. These would be sold as souvenirs to the pilgrims and visitors of the local shrines and churches (see Parshall)
It is no great speculative leap to suppose that rather than carving a new set of images to fulfill what might be a passing fad, an early printer of triumph cards would repurpose these already carved and printed images for use as trumps.
But each woodblock carver would have their own idiosyncratic set of storybook broadsheets and devotional postcards; rather than anything as standardized as tarot trump images were after 1500. Would this create technical problems for either the printer or player? Not really. As long as the trump images are mountable on the the same size cards as the others, and fit into an easily memorized sequence, the technical problems are solved.
- Sequence: The requirement for a sequence means that the comic book style broad sheets would be a far more suitable source of images than the single devotional images. The order in which the images appear on the sheet would determine the order of the trumps. These images are part of well known stories, so their order is easy to learn. Moreover, the deck could be supplied along with the source broadsheet which shows its proper sequence, just like the little white books accompanying contemporary decks.
- Size: If the broadsheet images are too large, they can be cropped. There are cropped images on old Tarot de Marseille decks. If the images are too small, that would create a minor problem. They could be given generous margins when the paste boards were created. But This would mean that the final layer of the trump cards is slightly raised around its margin. I don't know enough about playing cards of the time to tell if this would have been an issue. If it was an issue, a more expensive deck would have to be made by using two broad sheets instead of one, so that each image carried the margins of the surrounding ones
The full standardization of the deck is a lot easier to explain. In the second phase of this hypothetical tarot history, we go from the initial stage where each printer produces their own unique deck based on their illustrations of a single popular story, to the much more standardized sequences of the 16th century. This development can be explained very simply, by the economics of running a printshop. As the triumph game gets more popular, the sales go up, and it becomes profitable to produce a custom set of printing blocks for the triumph deck. Once this stage is reached, the safest course for carving these blocks (a non-trivial capital investment) is to go with the most standardized and popular design. In other words, there is a tipping point as the game gains in popularity and standardization. Prior to that point, it pays to produce decks by repurposing existing woodblocks; after the tip, it pays to create custom blocks with standardized designs. Clearly this tip to standardized designs occurred everywhere by 1500, and probably fifty years earlier at the centers of woodblock card production like Florence.
How can this scenario be confirmed? It would require finding a trove from an early woodblock printer that contained regular cards, early printed tarot decks, broadsheets and devotional images. If the trumps turned out to be both idiosyncratic and based on the broadsheets, this hypothesis would be proven. Sadly, this is very unlikely to happen. It is certain from the contemporary reports that a vast number of these broadsheets and devotional pictures were printed, just as were playing cards of all the extent varieties. But very little survives from any of these categories. Unlike printed books or handpainted cards, these woodblock printed items were consumables, not collectables. So we have to turn to the far less probative and far more treacherous realm of interpreting the card images themselves.
SERMONS ON THE TRIUMPH OF THE VIRTUES Even without the added evidence of new discoveries of early printed decks, I believe the broadsheet hypothesis is stronger than the Petrarch hypothesis. This assertion is based not on the iconography of individual cards. Since the design of each single card is based on wiidespread, common and stereotyped iconogaphy, these designs can never point to a specific origin. For instance, fortitude breaking a column or calming a lion are both widespread images; so the choice of one over the other does nothing to locate the deck in any particular time, place, or tradition. Instead the evidence must come from the structure of the trumps as a whole.
The decks mostly standardized to 22 trumps, with the same cards in all variants, and just their order changed. The Minchiate added 18 more cards, while some of the early decks show the theological virtues and may have had fewer cards. But Petrarch celebrates just six triumphs, which are repeatedly illustrated in sets of six prints or paintings. How can six triumphs structure a 22 card deck, or even a 14 card one? How can an equally small number of floats in a civic parade do the structuring? There is a far better source for the trump structure, the common sermon theme of the triumph of the virtues. Mostly these would be about the seven virtues triumphing over the seven mortal sins, in the manner of Dante or Aquinas; or the seven virtues deployed to correct situations distorted by their excess or deficiency, in the manner of Aristotle and other the classical sources. These sermon narratives are complex enough to actually carry a 22 card trump sequence.
But a story of the triumph of the virtues is not just a better explanation for the trump structure than secular triumphs; the evidence suggests that it was far more available as a popular theme than Petrarchan or civic triumphs (see Rivers).
In the 14th and ealy 15th century, prior to the development of the tarot, Northern Italy experienced a transformation in preaching. The new style of preaching by Dominicans and Franciscans eschewed the close reading and interpretation of bible passages and instead went for elegant and vivid narratives of the religous life. Probably the most popular of these narratives was the triumph of the virtues. A person would go through life, and at each stage would have to muster the characteristic virtue and avoid the characteristic vice or vices. The result was salvation from a vividly described hell and entry into a much more desirable heaven. The full panoply of classical rhetoric, including vivid imagery to aid memorization, would have been deployed. The simple narrative and the vivid imagery of these sermons would lend themselves to the production of broadsheets that that illustrated them'; especially since they were already reproduced in exempla manuscripts that may have acted as models for the broadsheet. These sermons remained popular throughout the formative period of the tarot; moreover, the theme of the triumph of the virtues migrated easily from church sermons to court painting, that is from sacred to secular, as Mantegna's 1497 and Veronese's 1554 grand oils on the theme demonstrate.
It would not be necessary for every one of the early broadsheet tarots to be based on triumph of virtue sermons. If enough of them were so based, the subsequent standardization of the deck would have retained that structure.
We have now located the orign of the tarot in the woodblock printers of Northern Italy, somewhere around 1430. The cards they were supplying were for a game that in its infancy was understood as the triumph of the virtues. Now to the final question: why are the virtues a popular theme among both the very religious Domincan and Franciscan preachers of the time, and among the very secular aristocracy. It is hard for us to imagine not falling asleep when listening to a preacher drone on about temperance. So why was temperance so much more exciting then? Why would anyone dream of creating a card game about the virtues?
SPIRITUAL EXERCISES I must admit to a motive other than pure curiousity in advancing this hypothesis.
I have long been fascinated not just by the history of the trumps, but also by their psychological impact. The evidence is very much against the source of this fascination being the card's echoing Renaissance Neoplatonism and Hermeticism. The Tarot de Marseille star to sun sequence has astrological symbols that the handpainted cards lack, but the overall trump structure is not astrological or hermetic. Even more damming is that the trumps predate Ficino's translations. However, there is a good basis for positing that the triumph of virtue sermons, along with their broadsheeet illustrations, the basis for the trumps in this hypothesis, were reviving a tradition of spiritual and contemplative exercise that goes back to the Stoics and middle Platonists. I believe the trump structure's accidental derivation from these spiritual disciplines is what gives the cards their continued fascination.
Late 14th and early 15th century Northern Italy was awash in reforming Christian movements and classical revivals. Both these groups went back to the original sources of virtue ethics in classical spirituality and reformed their medieval versions. This moves the virtue ethic away from the static juxtaposition of each virtue with a corresponding vice, and towards dynamically centering it between situations of its deficiency and excess. In effect, people were trained to recognize everyday situations as either balanced, or deficient or excessive in some emotional or intellectual aspect. Acting virtuously meant diagnosing these implances and acting to restore the correct balance. The promise was that virtuous action was simultaneously pragmatically effective and morally good. The appeal of a virtue regimen then is similar to the appeal of a self-help, meditative or therapeutic regimen now: it promises not just goodness, but also power and influence.
The presence of explicit virtue cards without explicit vice cards, and perhaps the three step periodicity in the Tarot de Marseille sequence, is structural evidence that this revived classicism in the understanding the virtues shaped the Tarot's trump structure.
More generally, the entire thrust of popular religion at this time is away from relying on sacramental relics and towards using spiritual exercise to get a direct experience of the divine, and a direct line to salvation. In this classical conception, the pursuit of virtue becomes the a spiritual and contemplative discipline of finding the correct physical, intellectual and moral balance in each situation. In other words, the tarot tumps could very well have begun life not as a trace of courlty amusements like Petrarch's triumphs; but as a trace of the far more serious revival of Stoic, Platonic, and early Christian contemplative disciplines that ulimately led to the reformation and the enlightenment.
The concept of spiritual exercises -- a combination of contemplation, self discipline, mental and physical exercises, logical questioning of immediate experience, and personal ethics -- was the stock in trade of Greek and Hellenistic philosphers. For them philosophy was a way of life, not a form of knowledge. From there, spiritual exercises migrated to early Christian, Jewish and Muslim contemplatives. finally, in the late medieval and early renaisaance, they were being strongly revived in the popular preaching by Dominicans and Franciscans of all shades of theological orthodoxy (see Hadot). These widely performed exercises make a far better candidate for a trans-denominational "western traditon of mysticism," i.e. the counterpart of Indian and Chinese contemplative traditions, than any collection of obscure hermetic and alchemical texts.
If this is the case, there is a clear irony here -- the original decks based their trumps on the illustrations from printed broadsheets that were meant as manuals for spiritual exercises. So they are probably far more enlightening than any of the current, post occult revival decks. The old decks carry the echo a real and proven traditon of self-cultivation, whlle the new ones feature a magical bricolage that may be valid as a metaphor for something ineffable, but does not translate into a plainly workable practice.
REMAINING PROBLEMS AND SOME PROCRUSTIAN ROTATIONS There are two obvious problems with this origin story. The first is why an underlying narrative of the triumph of virtue would be lost in the 16th century, The second is how the current trump sequence actually maps into a discourse on the virtues and vices.
The occasional tarot verses produced in the 16th century secular and are closer in spirit to the Petrarch triumphs; but don't really favor any origin story. The recently pubished Piscina and anonymous essays are more moralistic than the verses, but display the same off hand scattershot of educated humanist tidbits. In all these cases, the tarots are used as starting points for an oratorical performance rather than a close examination of the deck. The highly systematic approach to the virtues found in Stoic and Platonic classical sources or in scholasticism, are entirely absent here. In fact, there appears to be a complete lack of curiousity about the sequencing of the cards until the occult speculations of the 19th century. Whether this means that these early commentators knew that the sequence's explanation was common knowledge, and not worth mentioning, or whether the whole question was simply not on anyones mind, is impossible to tell. I would posit that the sequence's origin went from being common knowledge to being a matter of inidfference as the images gradually lost their external significance and were considered solely from the point of view of the card play.
Mapping the trumps into an original triumph of the virtues narrative is fairly straightforward, certainly more so than mapping them into Petrarch's poem, but it will always involve some arbitrary assignments. First off, we only have the three appetitive virtues left (the same three that appear in the sun of Mantegna's triumph picture). What of the other four? Wisdom or prudence is fairly easy to recover, since it figures as the world card in the Este trumps. The Cary-Yale deck supports the idea that the three theological virtues morphed into the Papess (faith), Empress (love) and Star (hope). These assignments allow the Tarot de Marseille sequence to be laid out into a (mostly) three by seven tableau with two cards adjacent to each identified virtue:
Fou, Batteleur, Papesse
Imperatrice, Empereur, Pape
Amoureux, Chariot, Justice
Eremite, Roue, Force
Pendu, Mort, Temperance
Diable, Maison, Etiole
Lune, Sol, Jugement, Monde
Unfortunately, some of these associations make no sense. Exchanging temperance for justice would make ense of those two sets: Temperance sets limits on potentially endlesss war and heads over heels love. Justice avoids the harshness of branding innocents as traitors, or the laxness that ends in kings and popes getting their heads chopped off. Kindness and charity (the empress) would seem more appropriate to the straitened circumstances of the fool and juggler, while good faith and sincerity (papess) are certainly to be recommended to prelates and princes. Finally, it would require that the final heavenly trumps be interpreted cognitively. If the highest virtue is wisdom (as it is among Stoics and Platonists), the moon, sun and judgmement cards would indicate the parts of wisdom. Assigning intuition to the moon and rationality to the sun immediately suggests itself to us, but is anachronistic for that era. More plausible parts of wisdom are imagination (moon), thought (sun), and memory (judgment as in resurrecting, i.e. "re-membering," and commemorating forgotten things, note the alternative guise of this card as fame).
For the time being, this piece remains more a call for a new avenue of research than a convincing bit of historical deduction: Look in detail at the sermons on the virtues at the time, find the remaning broadsheets, find out more about the woodblock printers of the era. My piece here is all unreasearchd generalities. If the thesis does hold, there should be idiosyncratic twists, rhetorical figures, etc, in the sermons that align irrefutably with some of the more unusual features of the early trumps. For instance, is a traitor a stock character in this genre of sermons? In any genre of sermons? If that were the case, it would be strong evidence, since none of the other origin stories feature traitors (presumably, the trumps are not a reprise of the gospel story).