How is it possible to interpret the Magician card, the Bagatella or Bagatino as it was first called, as a "Name of God" reflecting a Platonic archetype? As one who engages in tricks, either to deceive or to entertain, the Bagatella’s morality was not exactly divine. Where does he belong? With the archetypes, the virtues, or with their antitypes, the vices?
From one standpoint he is the archetypal trickster. Plato did not write about that exemplar: the term "archetypal trickster" is too modern. His archetypes (a term invented by Philo of Alexander, 1st century b.c.e., but it fits) were not psychological categories but perfections, noble and good. Whatever the origin of the word "bagatella", it does not designate a Platonic perfection, even of one who is flawless at his art.
The historian Ludovico Muratori (1672-1750), researching the history of the word, quotes a poem of 1298 in which the word clearly means "trickster" and "illusionist" (Dissertazioni sopra le antichità italiane, t. 2 (1751), pp. 171-172). On Tarot History Forum this text was cited by Ross Caldwell; Marco Ponzi translated the whole stanza:
Lassovi la fortuna fella /Travagliar qual Bagattella...
(I leave to you wicked fortune/ who acts like a bagattella:
whenever she seems most beautiful,/ she slips away like an eel.)
That is a characterization of an illusionist. Plato's main examples of illusionists are scene-painters and dramatists, who create imitations of people and things in the material world, without regard to what is truly beautiful or good Such works are not allowed in his Republic (401b-c), as they are merely the illusions of illusions. Plato argued that what people ordinarily call reality is in fact partly illusion, in the sense of a mixture of truth and falsity. You see a stick partly in water that looks bent, but when you take it out, it is not bent at all. If reality is partly illusion, an illusion of an an illusion is even worse. Card-painters would of course fit in this category. A prestidigitator also creates the semblance of reality without its substance. Plato in fact denigrates imitative painting through just such a comparison with conjuring (Book X, 602d, Grube translation; to see this in context, find "magic" at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.11.x.html
Scene painting relies upon this weakness in our nature and is nothing short of magic; so does conjuring and other such trickery.
The "weakness in our nature" he refers to is our tendency to get confused by what appears to our senses, as by a stick in water (his example). However Plato himself presented illusions: chariots flying through the sky and above it (Phaedrus
), magic rings (Republic
), people with four hands and two heads (Symposium
). These, however, are illusions that convey truths in memorable ways. What. then, is the Platonic truth conveyed by the Bagatella, that would justify such an image?
On the one hand, he can be seen as an example of the morally bad and ugly, put there for our desire to climb above him on the ladder of truth. But even what appears to our senses, such as a stick in water, is itself a confused mixture of truth and falsity. From a Platonic perspective, the world is a combination of truth and falsehood, filled with illusions. In the Republic
, Plato even compares the world to a cave in which unseen hands deceptively move cut-outs in front of a fire to create the illusion, on the cave wall, that the cut-outs' shadows are reality.
We may ask, then, who created such a world? We hear about him at Timaeus
28a-29b. He is a Demiurgos
, an “artificer” or "artisan" who, because the world is so well made, must have used the archetypes themselves as his model. In 31b-32b we learn that the four "elements" were his materials (he holds that they are not really elements because they themselves are made up of more basic structures, which he holds can only be described mathematically; his guess is that they are triangles). The result, Plato seeks to show us, is a world constructed on precise mathematical principles. Its creator, a world based on the archetypes, is himself an image of the creator of the archetypes.
Humanists already knew that text (although I am not sure when pp. 31-32 got to them). Now they had before them the Republic
--translated first in 1402 Milan, improved in the late 1430s (Hankins, pp. 104, 124). There Plato said other things about the world, not as it is in itself but as it appears to us. It is in the Republic
that he argues that the world is one of illusion, where good and beautiful things look bad and ugly, and courses of action that look like roads to happiness end up making us miserable. From that perspective the world is a deceptive one where things are not as they seem. It is like the street game with balls and cups, which looks easy and is easy until one invests some real money. And if what we take to be real is actually like shadows on a wall, the Demiurgos
must be the one responsible for the cut-outs that made these shadows.
From here a number of implications may be developed. The Christian God, in so far as he has created this state of affairs we call the world, is, from a Platonic perspective, a Demiurgos
. There is even a specific culprit within the Trinity. The Gospel of John starts by declaring that "in the beginning was the Word" (1:1), and "all things were made by him" (1:3). To this extent John is a Platonist; his Demiurgos is the Logos, Christ. But if he made all things, he is, by Plato's standards, and however beautiful this world may appear, a creator of a world in which it is all too easy to mistake false for true; it is a world of traps for the unwise. This world is one of trial, and there is no virtue unless vice and its illusions are also a choice.
As the Gospel of John develops, Jesus is a wonder-worker, different from a bagatella in that his miracles are true and convey spiritual lessons. There is also the "last supper", prototype for the mass. On the table of the first known Bagatella (above), part of the 1450s "PMB" deck for the Sforza ruling family of Milan, there is an odd woven, probably straw, white hat on one end. In appearance it resembles the covered communion cup of the Eucharist, with which the priest does the magic of inviting Christ to come into the wine and bread. The Eucharist in turn is like, in appearance, a magician's trick. "Hocus Pocus", some Protestants said, making fun of "Hoc est Corpus mea", that archaic Latin formula. Just in looking and hearing, in the world of the senses, there is no difference between the priest and the conjurer. It is in the soul and the mind that we know the difference.
The word "Bagatella" fits an application to Christ in another sense, too, its sense of "trifle". The Word came to earth as a man of low position, a mere carpenter (a different kind of demiurgos
), who then appears to sink even lower, becoming a wandering beggar. The Good appears bad., and he is eventually considered a heretic to his faith. For Plato, his demiurgos
, like the Bagatella, is lower than any of the archetypes, which he copies. At the same time the Bagatella is more powerful in trick-taking ability (an odd use of the word "trick") than any King, and so like the "King of Kings".
The Bagatella has on his table objects suggestive of coins, cups, knives, and, of course, batons. These objects, the four suits of Italian cards, were variously related at the time to the four elements and the four temperaments. An example is a woodcut of 1476 (my source is Laurinda Dixon, Bosch,
So we might imagine the Bagatella not only as the Logos creating the world out of the elements, but as God assigning us our own little world, our "lot in life". We get good cards and bad cards. It is up to us to use the good to overcome the bad, and not be deceived by appearances.
The metaphor of Christ as a dealer of cards was not unheard of during the Renaissance. In 1529 England a priest of uncertain Catholicity preached "sermons on the cards", in which he imagined Christ dealing the cards for a game of "triumph": hearts were trumps (so it wasn't tarot). and some other cards were Christ's commandments. If people played these cards, everyone would win, including the dealer (Sermons by Hugh Latimer, Sometime Bishop of Worcester
, edited by Canon Beeching, 1906). There is also the more severe poem that Marco posted at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1000
Hombre I Dios juegan al trunfo,
cielo i mundo es la baraja,
ponense ambos a la mesa,
i Dios reparte las cartas.
Man and God play “trunfo”,
the sky and the world are the deck,
they both seat at the table,
and God deals the cards.
Again, this is probably not tarot, as Marco observes, but the game imitating it with regular cards. "Cielo" also means "heaven". Here it might just means "sky", in reference to the Star, Moon, and Sun cards, or include both.
That an identification of the Bagatella with Christ might have actually been intended is suggested to me by the same "Coronation of the Virgin" I showed in relation to the Popess, attributed by Tanzi to Ambrogio Bembo of Cremona around the time the card was painted by him or his brother Bonifacio (Bandera and Tanzi pp. 50, 69). It seems to me that this Bagatella's face is similar to that of Christ in that altarpiece. The Bagatella's doleful expression (much like that of the Popess) is not one I would associate with an entertainer. It is also like another image of Christ, in the upper corner of the "Ascension of Christ" whose Virgin I showed in the previous section, attributed to Bonifacio Bembo in the 1440s (Bandera and Tanzi, pp. 69 and 71; the two artists had similar styles). Christ is rising into the air while looking down sadly at the friends and family he is leaving. These are not typical Christs. It is a powerful idea, that of a demiurge entering his own creation, delivering his message, and then going away.
As though to convey the allegory, the value of the Bagatella is reflected in the Milanese game of tarot not by its trick-taking ability, which is the lowest of any trump, but by the number of points it earns after the hand is over, higher than any other trump except the World, which it equals (also the same as the Fool, which is not strictly speaking a Trump, since it has no trick-taking ability).
In the earlier Cary-Yale deck, either there was no Bagatella, or the card is missing. But there is a similarity to the King of Cups. It seems to me that the suit of Cups was probably associated with the Church; its Ace of Cups is a baptismal font. And cups bring to mind water, which is associated with a man praying the Rosary in the engraving of the four elements and temperaments.
An ancient Greek text on a Platonic theme is the Tabula Cebetis
, translated into Latin in 1497. In this dialogue, a visitor sees a puzzling fresco on the wall of a Temple of Saturn, and an old man explains it to thim. What is depicted on the fresco is another old man, this one at the gateway to a garden loaded with various temptations (i.e. Fortune, on the right of the engraving) and virtues, rather like the tarot sequence. He is handing out pieces of paper to souls about to be born, which in fact are maps of instructions about how to triumph in this maze. In Plato's philosophy, these are the archetypes with which every soul is imprinted before birth. It is similar to the dealer of cards: there are bad cards--in the garden, temptations--but this dealer gives everyone the cards he needs to win, symbolized by the papers he is handing out.
Hans Holbein (1497-1543) did an illustration of the scene in around 1523, of which I give a portion above. The old man does not look much like our Bagatella: there is no table, his hat is wrong, his stick is not a wand, his beard is too long, and he's too fat. But one could imagine him dealing cards. as in the preacher's sermon, instead of handing out scrolls.
The old man at the gateway is not so far the creator of this garden. He is merely its "Genius", i.e. guardian spirit. But it is not much of a leap to suppose that the garden full of traps is his creation, and that he is the proprietor, now also Demiurgos
, the artisan who made it. Christ in the Gospel of John is both the ordering principle of the world and also the one who tells us how to get out of it alive, so to speak, by heeding his Word.
In about the late 1460s, in Venice or Ferrara, a series of engraved cards was produced later known as the "Tarot of Mantegna"; many of them are similar to those of the tarot. Its third card, after one for "Il Misero", Poverty, a wandering beggar similar to the tarot Fool, and another called "The Servant", comes "the Artisan", with a worker standing at a table. While this word fits the context of the sequence, as the next card is "Merchant", the title "artisan" also precisely translates Plato's word Demiurgos
The Bagatella card also seems to have acquired a title corresponding to the old man of the Tabula Cebetis
. Andrea Alciati (1492-1550), writing in 1544 or Milan, listed the Bagatella card under the title "Innkeeper" (Parerga iuris: libri VII. posteriores
, p. 90). And in c. 1565 the Piedmontese writer Francesco Piscina used the term "innkeeper" as part of a metaphorical account of the card's meaning (in Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack
, edited, translated and commented on by Ross Sinclair Caldwell, Thierry Depaulis, and Marco Ponzi, p. 15). He explained that people used to go to the "Inn of the Looking-Glass"--meaning self-knowledge, reflection, and prudence--but now they go to the "Inn of the Fool", who makes fun of the Mirror; this inn's Innkeeper, Piscina says, is the "Bagato", as the Bagatella was known (he seems to use that term without knowing any meaning other than the card). By "Inn of the Fool" Piscina is referring to the unreflective life of the player who doesn't stop to think about the allegories in front of his face, but instead is dazzled by the prospect of fame and fortune.
While there are no surviving cards from Piedmont of that period, one from c. 1830 does show what appears to be an innkeeper holding in his upraised hand his illusory happiness; at the same time, he has on his table the tools of an artisan, in this case a cobbler (image and dating from Depaulis essay in Il castello dei tarocchi
, edited by Andrea Vitali, p. 151).
The modern Sicilian card (above, called I Picciotti,
Sicilian dialect for "The Young Men") shows what looks like an innkeeper arguing about money with two customers. Tarot was reportedly introduced into Sicily in the 17th century by a governor who had just before been governor of Milan (Dummett, Il Mondo e l'Angelo
p. 277). Although the Sicilian deck and game has much in common with those of Florence, Bologna, and Rome, this card is not like theirs.
These may be pure coincidence. But the Bagatella is an unprecedented figure in art before his appearance in the tarot. When I look for representations of a slight of hand artist in earlier Italian art, I find nothing. When I look for a man standing at a table, all I find are people drinking at an inn (first below, dated 1437 Pesaro by Bellosi, Come un prato fiorito, studi sull'arte tardogotica
, fig. 273), and gods, such as Jupiter as a priest (second below, from Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, fig. 14, 14th century), These are both close to a Platonic interpretation of the card: the inn as this world and the god-priest as the Word that provides entry to a higher world. I posted them earlier, but here they are again, to be seen in the present context.
Finally: Teofilio Folengo (1491-1544), in chapter 13 of his mock-epic Baldo (1517), combined the demiurge/artisan/innkeeper and the sleight of hand artist in one comic character named Boccalo, who both cooks for Baldo's gang (one of the innkeeper's services) and performs magic tricks, including one with balls on his cook's table. The name "Boccalo" is also interesting, in this poem of twisted Latin. There is the Latin "baculum", stick, and the Italian "bocca", mouth. In connection with the tarot, Folengo is best known for presenting, in his work Triperuno
, a series of sonnets incorporating the titles of the tarot cards.