The Zavattari family & Tarot cards

Mary K. Greer writes in herblog about the history of the Visconti tarot cards. One suggestion for the possible creator/s of these first still-existing tarot cards is the Zavattari family. I promised Mary to post whatever information I could find regarding the family. So here’s the result. Not that much really, but hopefully it will inspire more tarot history fanat enthusiasts to research into their archives and libraries.

“These works of art, to judge by their content, were undoubtedly conceived by Humanist scholars, while the same artists commissioned to paint portraits, frescoes or illuminated manuscripts actually realised them. Recurring names, well-known to art historians, are those of Marziano da Tortona, Bonifacio Bembo, Francesco Zavattari, Antonio Cicognara and Michelino da Besozzo, although scholars are not in full agreement as to which packs to attribute to which artists.” -Giordano Berti, Introduction to the Visconti Tarot Cards (Lo Scarabeo, 2002)

So who were the Zavattaris? Stuart Kaplan informs us: “Bonifacio Bembo is often cited in association with the Zavattari style, and it is possible that he apprenticed in their shop. The Zavattari brothers worked in Milan and neighboring areas, together or individually, between 1407 and 1479. The brothers were Ambrogio, Cristoforo, Franceschino, Francesco, Giorgio, Giovanni, Gregorio and Vicenzo (Wikipedia gives a different version of the family here). In 1444, the Zavattari brothers executed the famous frescoes in the chapel of Queen Teodolinda (Theodelinda) at the cathedral of Monza. The frescoes describe the life of Queen Teodolinda: her arrival in Italy, her marriage, the death of Agehalf (Authari, aka Agilolf), her second marriage, her dream regarding the construction of a basilica, and so on. The frescoes depict beautiful costumes and elegant gatherings with a multitude of people, horses and dogs. It is not known which of the brothers participated in the Monza project. Van Marle (1926) suggested that the paintings which decorate the fifteenth-century Cary-Yale, Brera-Brambilla and Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo tarocchi cards closely approach the manner of the Zavattari and perhaps were executed by a progeny of the family. Giuliana Algeri (1981) attributed the tarocchi cards to the Zavattari brothers instead of to Bembo.” (Kaplan, Stuart R.: The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. II, p. 140. U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1986)

The Brothers are also briefly mentioned in Kaplan’s The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. IV (p. 669) and concerning the above-mentioned Van Marle, M. L. D’Otrange writes in his article Thirteen Tarot Cards from the Visconti-Sforza Set (The Connoisseur, vol. 133, 1954, p. 60): “Van Marle, although suggesting a Zavattari attribution for the cards in the Bergamo Museum and the Colleoni Collection, admits that this set (here referring to the so-called Tozzi cards) is of later date..”

Michael Dummett says nothing, nada, zero of the Family in his The Game of Tarot (Duckworth, 1980) but luckily, in his The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards (George Braziller, Inc., 1986, p. 12) Sir Dummett offers us a very enlightening revelation (added the bold bit just to make sure you won’t miss it):

“The style of the Brambilla pack, from which remain only two trumps, the Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune, is indistinguishable from that of the Visconti-Sforza deck: it is inconceivable that they are not the work of the same artist. Serious study by art historians of the three tarot packs (here Dummett refers to Brambilla, Visconti di Modrone aka Cary-Yale, and the Visconti-Sforza) dates from 1912, when Tosca first assigned them all to the circle of the Zavattari brothers. In 1928, Longhi proposed that they were painted by Bonifacio Bembo, a hypothesis firmly adopted by Wittgens in 1936 and by Rasmo in 1939. This attribution has been unanimously accepted until very recently, when Giuliana Algeri suggested that both the Brambilla and Visconti-Sforza packs were painted by Francesco Zavattari on the ground of their stylistic resemblance to his work in the chapel of Theodolinda at Monza. She explains the even closer resemblance to the illustrations in the manuscript Story of Lancelot, attributed to Bembo, by assigning them to Zavattari as well. An attribution on stylistic grounds is shaky because there is little attributed with certainty to Bembo, save the frescoes in the Cavalcabo chapel in the church of S. Agostino in Cremona. Nevertheless, nothing would stand in the way of attributing the Visconti-Sforza pack to him if the Brambilla deck did not exist. Bembo is known to have worked for Francesco Sforza, but not for Filippo Maria; the attribution to him of packs painted for the Visconti duke leaves quite a narrow margin for dating them. He was born around 1420; the earliest datable work ascribed to him is from 1442. Filippo Maria is unlikely to have commissioned so young an artist at that date, or to have had playing cards made for him at the very end of his life, when he was almost blind. The difficulty is resolved if the artist were Zavattari, who was active between 1417 and 1453. The Brambilla pack might then have been painted at any time between 1420 and 1444, while the Visconti-Sforza deck must be dated to 1450 or at the most two years later.”

Dummett continues (p. 14): “The attribution of both the Brambilla and Visconti-Sforza packs to Francesco Zavattari – the first made for Filippo Maria and the second for Francesco Sforza – may, thus, be tentatively accepted, but not a late date for the Visconti di Modrone cards, which must be dated 1441. For the history of tarot cards it is the dating, rather than the artist, that is important: the identification of the latter only serves as a key to the former. Several artists may have worked on the Visconti di Modrone pack; if none of them was Francesco Zavattari, they were of the same school. So far, there is only the vaguest dating for the Brambilla pack, but the best clue lies in the nonstandard composition of the Visconti di Modrone one.”

Dummett also mentions the Algeri / Zavattari connection in his article Tracing the Tarot (part of Tarot Triumphant in FMR Magazine, No. 8, 1985): “The earliest surviving packs are the three now usually ascribed to the Cremonese painter Bonifacio Bembo (c. 1420 – c. 1480), although Giuliana Algeri has recently argued the claim of Francesco Zavattari, in Gli Zavattare (Rome, 1981).”

Ross Caldwell has produced an english translation of Algeri’s arguments on dating the decks here.

Thierry Depaulis equally favours Francesco Zavattari, when writing in the exhibition catalogue Tarot, Jeu et Magie (1984): “A little after the First World War, Italian art historians advanced the hypothesis of Bonifacio Bembo, presumed author of the majority of “first hand” cards. This attribution, which has had some success among specialists, has been recently disputed by Giuliana Algeri (Gli Zavaratti: Una famiglia di pittori e la cultura tardogotica in Lombardia, Rome, 1981): not only do the dates not harmonize well, but there is no other certain work (“documented”) of Bembo. The name of Francesco Zavattari, author, with his brothers, of a signed fresco in the Chapel of Monza, appears more convincing.” (link here from

So that was in the mid-Eighties. Then in 1991 appeared a book entitled Bonifacio Bembo – Tarocchi Viscontei della Pinacoteca di Brera / Visconti Tarots of the Brera Gallery (Martello Libreria, 1991) by Sandrina Bandera Bistoletti, where we find:

“When the tarocchi deck known as Brambilla appeared on the scene, in a Finarte sale in 1971, its relationship to the Visconti-Sforza tradition was clear, and the attribution of the Brambilla deck to the same artist recognised by Longhi, Bonifacio Bembo, was unanimous (footnote on this mentions three authors; one being herself). The possibility of attributing the three aforementioned decks (Brera-Brambilla, Visconti di Modrone aka Cary-Yale, and the Visconti-Sforza aka Colleoni-Baglioni) to a single artist has been questioned by Algeri and Mulazzani (1981). The expert recognised the hand of Francesco Zavattari in the Brambilla and the Colleoni-Baglioni decks, returning to the attribution of Venturi, and, as has been mentioned above, dates the Visconti di Modrone deck to a later period, interpreting the presence of the Savoy coat of arms together with that of the Visconti-Sforza family, as a reference to the marriage of Galeazzo Maria Sforza to Bona di Savoja in 1468. Mulazzani, instead, considers the Visconti di Modrone tarocchi to be the earliest of all, in fact even earlier than period of Bonifacio Bembo’s activity; the other two decks have been attributed by Mulazzani to an anonymous “Maestro dei Tarocchi”, quite different from Bembo who was considered to be a painter of pictures and frescoes only. Recently, Boskovits (1988) discovered an ink drawing, painted in water colours, in the Ledger of the Consorzio di Sant’Omobono in use in Cremona between 1450 and 1484, which a document declares to have come from the Bembo workshop, the work of Ambrogio, Bonifacio’s brother and close collaborator. Being beyond all doubt of the same style as the tarocchi and other works from Cremona (paintings and miniatures), this drawing confirms Longhi’s initial attribution, clearing any shadow of doubt regarding the origin of the three Brambilla, Visconti di Modrone and Colleoni-Baglioni decks – the Cremona workshop of the Bembo family.” (p. 14 & 16)

Regarding the Zavattari brothers Bistoletti continues: “Compared with the Visconti di Modrone deck, the Brambilla cards show no traces of the influence of the figurative style of the Zavattari family, who, with the Monza frescoes of 1445, made a decisive development with a taste for round faces, figures with a solid aspect, together with a basic cultural eclectism which was able to combine the influence of Pisanello with that of Masolino resulting in a knightly tradition, closely linked to the purpose of the court. The Brambilla deck can therefore be considered as a production of the Bembo workshop, and can be dated about 1442-43…

The influence of the Zavattari style on the cards now in Yale (aka Visconti di Modrone) should be mentioned: there is a clear reference to the spirit of chivalry and worldliness which is present in the series of frescoes in the cathedral of Monza – the best-known work of the Zavattari family. This influence can be noted in the ritual attitudes of the figures in the Yale deck: they are frequently accompanied by pages, as was the custom at court. Another Zavattari characteristic is the emphasis on the facial features which can be seen in the cards. In the cards of the later deck, split between Bergamo and New York (aka the Visconti-Sforza deck), on the other hand, we find a greater sense of the monumental nature of the figures: they are characterised by imperious gestures, by the architecture of the thrones which are no longer gothic, but squarer in shape, and by the less frivolous surroundings; perhaps this was an adjustment to the new political climate introduced by the rough soldierly origins of Francesco Sforza at the outset of his dukedom, with some stylistic influence from the followers of Squarcione who worked in Lombardy.” (p. 32 & 34)

Okay, now Ich bin confused. So, according to Bistoletti, Bembo and/or his workshop wins the prize for “who painted them cards” but influence of the Zavattari Bros. in the Visconti di Modrone is obvious? Well, that does make sense – the past usually does influence on what we do, be that then in art or anywhere else. But I’m still thinking what Van Marle/Algeri/Depaulis/Dummett wrote.. with a young Bembo painting for the old Filippo, with a narrow time margin. Or then there is something which I haven’t quite grasped (that happens a lot so I wouldn’t be surprised). Also, there’s the frivolous question of “Why should I care who painted the cards?”, which I can easily neglect due to being a tarot history addict. Yeah, it does matter. And no, most likely we will never find out “who did what” (unless a letter should present itself which would state something like “I, Francesco Zavattari, painted the whole deck just by myself – Bembo had nothing to do with it!”). An enigma. One could say that is the essential – if not the central – element of tarot itself, and it is also present in the history of tarot, like it or not. I noticed Bistoletti has another tarot themed book as well: I tarocchi: il Caso e la Fortuna (1999). I wonder if she says anything regarding the Zavattari / Bembo question there.

While pondering these nagging questions, why not enjoy a couple of YouTube clips which feature the Zavattari art:



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Traces du Sacré: Thoth Tarot

Traces du Sacré (Traces of the Sacred) was an exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, between 7th May – 11th August, 2008. From the Press Release:

“With “Traces du Sacré,” already promising to be one of the major artistic events of the year, the Centre Pompidou returns to the tradition of major multidisciplinary exhibitions that made its reputation, offering a visual exploration of one of the most pressing issues of our time. Following what has come to be called “the disenchantment of the world,” a significant strain of modern art has found its roots in the turmoil attendant upon the loss of conventional religious belief, a terrain that continues to nourish the development of contemporary forms. Taking in the whole history of twentieth-century art, from Caspar David Friedrich to Kandinsky, from Malevich to Picasso, and from Barnett Newman to Bill Viola, the exhibition looks at the way in which art continues to testify, in often unexpected ways, to the existence of a universe beyond, remaining, in a thoroughly secularised world, the profane vehicle of an ineluctable need to rise above the quotidian. —

This broad selection of paintings, sculptures, installations and videos brings together some
350 major works – many of them never seen before in France – by almost 200 artists of
international renown.”

The exhibition was organised into 22 thematic sections (excluding the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Close’, surely not a coincidence?), which examined “the major aesthetic and spiritual preoccupations of the twentieth century” (from the Press Release). In the third section, Les Grands Initiés (The Great Initiates) we find a familiar name: Aleister Crowley. He is in a good company; other names include Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Jean Delville, Charles Sellier, Paul Elie Ranson, Rudolf Steiner, André Bély, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Hugo Ball, Hilma af Klint, Usco, and Gino De Dominicis.

The exhibition featured Aleister Crowley’s self-portrait from the 1920’s (24,2 x 19 cm, you can see the picture here) and four Thoth Tarot paintings; the Priestess, the Hermit, the Moon and the Aeon, each measuring 61 x 45 cm. Apparently the Thoth paintings were placed on the walls inside a white cubicle, where Kenneth Anger’s film “Lucifer Rising” was shown. It is likely that the paintings were missed by many people simply because of this ‘misplacement’.

While I wasn’t able to visit the exhibition myself, I did get the Exhibition Catalogue (a small comfort), published by the Centre Pompidou. It’s an impressive work with 455 pages and around 400 images. Unfortunately it is entirely in French, so I’ll be working my way through it very slowly.. Information on Aleister Crowley is on page 100, with his self-portrait shown on the following page. The Thoth Tarot paintings are shown on page 344 (the scanned image at the top of this post), with Harry Smith’s version of the Tree of Life in the Four Worlds shown right next to them (my all-time favourite Tree of Life pic!). The Warburg Institute was still working on the restoration project of the Thoth paintings at the time of the Exhibition, but the four paintings displayed there were among the finished ones (notice the bright colours compared to the standard Thoth edition). It is also these restored paintings that the Thoth Tarot Neuausgabe edition is based on.

The article on Crowley is written by Marco Pasi, who is a historian of religions specializing in the history of modern Western esotericism and the history of magic. Pasi certainly knows his subject well; his laurea dissertation analysed the relationship of A. C. with the politics of his time, while his Ph.D. dissertation was devoted to the idea of magic in British occultism. Here’s what Pasi writes about concerning the Thoth Tarot:

“Le dernier grand projet artistique qu’il réalise, dans les années 1938 – 1942, est la création de son jeu de tarot, “The Book of Thoth”. Il s’agit d’un nouveau jeu dans lequel la symbolique des cartes, tout en conservant la structure fondamentale des jeux traditionelles, est profondément renouvelée, sur la base de la doctrine magique de Crowley. Pendant la préparation du jeu, Crowley écrit aussi une monographie, où il présente son interprétation personnelle du tarot et explique la valeur symbolique de chaque carte (Master Therion [Aleister Crowley], 1944).

Crowley ne s’occupe pas directement de l’exécution matérielle des images, qu’il confie à une artiste anglaise, Frieda Harris (1877 – 1962), dont il avait fait la connaissance vers la fin des années 1930 et qui était devenue sa disciple. Leur correspondance pendant la préparation du jeu (qui comprend en tout 78 cartes) nous éclaire sur la forme de leur collaboration, et l’on aperçoit que Crowley suivit de très près la réalisation des cartes. Les sujets, la composition, le choix extrêmement soigné des couleurs: tout fut décidé par Crowley en fonction du message symbolique que chaque carte était censée transmettre, alors que Harris se contenta d’exécuter fidèlement les instructions reçues. Selon Crowley, le jeu dans son ensemble est supposé offrir une image complète de la structure de l’univers, et est destiné à la méditation plus qu’à la divination.”

Traces du Sacré was also exhibited in Munich, Germany, but without the Thoth paintings.

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Lecture on the Tarot by Lady Frieda Harris – Sesame Club 1942

Included in the ‘Original Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot’ Neuausgabe edition (2008) companion book there are two essays by Lady Frieda Harris, the artist of the Crowley-Harris ‘Thoth’ tarot deck. The first one is ‘Lecture for the Sesame Club’ (ca. 1942) and the second one is ‘Lecture for the Tomorrow Club’ (1945). On page 50 there is also a picture of Lady Harris (here on the left) which I haven’t seen anywhere else and have no idea where it originally comes from.  Unfortunately there is only the German edition of the deck available currently, and no news have been released concerning the English edition. A part of the Tomorrow Club lecture can be found here but finding a complete english version of either lecture was starting to feel like a mission impossible. Therefore I was very happy to discover in “My Dear Aleister – Creating the Crowley-Harris Tarot” by Marlene Packwood (2009) a complete version of the Sesame Club lecture, which I’ll post here.

While there are a few notions which, from today’s perspective, are probably false (Mantegna cards were most likely designed by an anonymous artist from Francesco del Cossa’s school, not by Andrea Mantegna; it is unlikely that Commedia dell’arte originated in the tarot, instead its roots date back to the Greek theatre and Etruscan festivals; the Emperor card as trump No. 17 is an idea from Crowley, in the history of tarot the trump has traditionally been among the first ones) it is nevertheless a unique piece of tarot history. So, take a comfortable seat, have a cup of coffee or tea, and enjoy the Lecture.

“Contrary to everybody’s impression, the Tarot Cards were not intended for the purposes of divination. They are a Map of the Universe and they might quite easily be compared with the symbols of mathematics. Regarded as such they represent a convenient means of stating cosmic problems, such as the grouping and regrouping of forces, elements and so on, which have in the last accounted for the course taken by history of the universe and they will probably continue to shape it in the future.

Like mathematics too that admit of numerous different interpretations and just as there have been different forms of mathematical thinking, so the designs used for the Tarot Cards have differed greatly through the ages. In fact the difference between Euclid and Einstein are not greater than the differences between any two sets of Tarot Cards. These packs of Tarot cards have been described as the Tarot of the Egyptians and the Bohemians, in other words the Gypsies.

Now the Tarot Cards that I have seen seem to represent the thought of the period in which they were designed. The 17th and 18th Century have got a definite stamp of the Baroque and are decorated with scrolls and curves. Mantegna has done 5 or 6 which I saw at the British Museum – they are classical, restrained and dignified pictures of goddesses. The earlier and more primitive ones are much simpler and they state the symbol coarsely but frankly; some of them are quite gay and childish, but the meaning is clear. I have made an effort in this present pack to embody this current mode of the century. Therefore I have tried to introduce among the cards the element of Time. In nearly all the designs, the straight lines of the former cards – such as the check patterns, the rays of the sun, the chart of the Universe and the stars – are expressed in a curve. I hope to convey the idea of movement. ‘Death’ in Trumps has to suggest the idea of re-incarnation, as opposed to putrefaction, he is weaving with his scythe a geometrical web of new forms. One must remember in looking at these cards, that they are to convey to the mind the continual play of opposites. The conception was that the Earth is the home of two opposites forces – the active and the passive. This really means that you can look at any of the pictures, thinking in what I may describe as four dimensions. This requires great concentration and is an incentive to meditation. At this moment of great material activity, it is necessary for us to make the utmost effort all day to continue to exist. It may be that we may find relief and balance in passive contemplation of the cards, during which we may learn to understand and submit to the cosmic laws of God. Thus taking the four suits which represent the four elements, earth, air, fire and water we begin thinking like this.

The Wands stand for Fire and they express its contradictory nature, which is at once destructive, purifying, creative and the source of all magical power. In this pack there are three degrees, the Wand of Mercury or the Chief Adept Wand, the Lotus Wand and the Phoenix Wand. Water, which is the second suit is a contradictory one to Fire. It stands for the negative side of the bounties which may be enjoyed; it is the feminine element, its reflective and receptive powers typifying the element of Woman as opposed to the generative power of the Man. It also contains the opposite, though it typifies compassionate, receptive soothing ideas its plenty is an over-copious endowment which destroys effort and it leads to a luxurious-ness in which creative self-consciousness is lost. The Ace shows the Cup of the Holy Grail, where personal individuality is completely lost in ecstasy. Air is represented by the suit of Swords. Air stands for the Intellect and as a sword may be wielded by any hand; Air, the intellect is impersonal, and is at the service of any force, good or evil. The intellect divorced from consciousness is not concerned to distinguish between good and evil.

We can see in the Ace the intellect used to symbolise the highest form of scintillating intellect. The No2 of Swords still shows that the intellect coupled with beauty is a controlled force, but after that we are clearly shown, by the old tradition, a picture of destructive intelligence. The fourth suit is the Discs. They represent passive receptivity, also putrefaction with its subsequent generation. Here again we can get the best aspect in the Ace of Discs and from that right up through the numbers, we see a deterioration of constant elaboration of material until we reach the 10, in which we see the Disc becomes a massive stodgy pile of coins.

With regard to the Court cards in all these suits, the Knight represents the Father, the Queen the Mother, the Prince and Princesses the children, and they represent the uniting of 2 elements and the subsequent generation of a third different element. The Princes may have been introduced by the Adepts as the generation of the heat and electricity which takes place at the birth of the new element and the return of the original ardour. Before coming to the Trumps, I would like to speak of the tradition that the Commedia dell’Arte originated in the Tarot. The suggestion is that Harlequin is to be found in the Trump card called ‘Justice’, its name now changed to ‘Adjustment’ and is the French meaning of La Justesse. This Justice holds a sword and stands tip toe. The Balances are suspended from her headdress and contain the bubble of Illusion or Maya.

Now in the Commedia dell’Arte the Harlequin holds a Wand (it may have been a sword) and adjusts, judges or resolves every incident in the comedy. His diamond check costume may have been taken from the four points of the diamond on the Tarot card and would typify, I suppose, the four elements which are in his command. The first Trump, the Fool, is supposed to be the Pierrot of the Commedia dell’Arte, and I can well imagine his drifting gaily, or dismally, through all literature, unconscious or innocently right. When I was watching a Punch and Judy show the other day the Puppets made me think of the Tarot cards, and as a butterfly floated across the Stage, I discovered the symbol which is in the old card, and it seems patent that these cards were the source of many fairy stories and recognisable in ancient and modern Literature.

There is some tradition about the way these cards are numbered, but I really cannot go into that, because in different ages they have been numbered quite differently. The Position of the Emperor used to be No17 and now he has been reinstated in his proper place as No4. The vale of the Trump cards must be fixed according to the circumstances of their position. This is clearly shown in the Trump card of the Sun, because the strength and nature of the Sun’s influence depend upon its position in regard to the earth. Once more to employ mathematical analogy, the fixing of their value is something like that of the symbol ‘Pi’ which is determined by the use to which it is put.

It would need much more time, and we should be standing here all day long and be bored, to give an adequate description of the Tarot cards. They really must be loved and studied, for each person a new meaning is to be discovered which helps him to solve his own problems and trains him in the art of meditation and disciplined thought. In this pursuit of self-study he will be emulating Shakespeare’s Prospero “Neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness, and the bettering of my mind”, and gaining Prospero’s reward – “by my prescience

I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not but omit, my fortunes
Will forever after droop”

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Gertrude Moakley: Il Bagatino (The Magician / Magus)

  “I Il Bagatino (Quarterpenny, The Juggler)

The lowest of the trumps, as we have said, is the Carnival King, Bagatino (Quarterpenny). The procession of triumphs which he leads is taking him to his own execution. The card shows Bagatino on the last day of the Carnival, when he is having his last meal. He is still dressed in holiday red and green, and has in his left hand the simple rod which is the sign of royal office. His right hand hovers uncertainly over a covered dish, which is white with touches of gray. We see by this how he became the Little Juggler of the later commedia dell’arte. That dish-cover offers many opportunities for cleverly “nervous” comic juggling. In the modern tarocchi Bagatino is often a juggler or conjurer, and his kingly rod becomes a magician’s wand.

Before the Carnival King is executed, he is first given a trial, and accused of keeping people up late and making them drunk. Often a personification of Lent accompanies the procession to be sure that King Carnival gets his just deserts.


For the theory that Bagatino is the Carnival King I have no direct authority. It is based on these facts: (1) Bagatino must be a proper name, since the modern form of it, Bagatto, has no meaning except “the first of the tarocchi trumps.” (2) The clowns of the commedia dell’arte were thought of as Carnival figures, and one of them was named Bagatino: cf Harlequin, by Thelma Niklaus (New York, Braziller 1956) p 42; The Italian Comedy, by P. L. Duchartre (New York, John Day Co 1929) p 160 and pl showing Bagatino as the Little Juggler, facing p 228; also Pulcinella, by A. G. Bragaglia (Roma, G. Casini 1953) p 49-50. The whole triumphal procession may have become a comedy troupe, but for this I have no authority, though Brueghel’s painting, “The Battle of Carnival & Lent,” strongly suggests it. (3) Playing cards were associated with Carnival, and often forbidden by law at other times: cf Arch stor ital, 4 ser, XVIII (1886) 28-29, for one instance. (4) As Il Matto is Lent accompanying the procession (see notes on that card), it seems likely that this is Carnival’s farewell procession. I was convinced of this long before I had any idea as to the character of Bagatino. When I found that his rod was a sign of royal office it struck me that he was, of course, the King of the Carnival. For the plain rod as sign of royalty see the Empress in our set, the King in the so-called “Tarot of Mantegna,” and a picture of “L’Imperatore Sigismondo in Trono” (detail of pavement in the cathedral at Siena, by Domenico di Bartolo d’Asciano (Assum (1), pl facing p 80.)

For the custom of personifying the Carnival and trying him for his sins see Sir James G. Frazer The Golden Bough, pt III “The Dying God” (London 1951) passim.

In the Milanese dialect (see Angiolini, Vocabolario) the word bàgàtt has come to mean “chatterbox,” “the first of the tarocchi,” “cobbler”; and “scàrtá bàgàtt” means “to make a long speech” and also “to speak one’s whole mind.” This throws a good deal of light on Bagatino’s character; he was evidently a juggler with a good line of patter. As to “cobbler,” in modern Italian tarocchi there is often a shoe on the table in this card. When I saw the Visconti-Sforza tarocchi in the Morgan Library, this card was in an envelope marked “Cobbler,” although in the library’s catalog it was titled “Castle of Plutus.”

Moakley, Gertrude: The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family – An Iconographic and Historical Study (1966), p 62-63.

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Mary K. Greer: Moralization of the Deck of Cards, Part 3

The third chapter on the topic of ‘Moralization of the deck of cards’ from Mary Greer. What a real treasure trove of information this whole series has been – and her entire blog, for that matter. If I remember correct, Mary has said somewhere, “I try not to presume anything.” She certainly is able to keep an open mind, and is never afraid to look at things from a fresh perspective. What I also love about her work is that she clearly states when something is of her own speculation, and what is stated by someone else. The lines can get blurred, and they very often do, especially when one is dealing with tarot.

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O Fortuna & Fortune plango vulnera

The first two tracks from Carl Orff‘s Carmina Burana. I think this video is taken from a 1975 production (, made into DVD in 2002.

Lots of Tarot symbolism here; the Wheel naturally most obvious together with Fortuna, but many other cards “in the flesh” too. Or, more correctly put, classical allegories which were then transformed into triumphal parades, and then found their way into Tarocchi.

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A Japanese Devil?

“Among Pamela Colman Smith’s teachers at Pratt was Arthur Wesley Dow, who was trained in France. Apart from being an important painter of the period, he was also an art teacher strongly inspired by Japanese art.. Dow emphasized the Japanese virtues: the use of harmonic colours; the lack of shadowing; giving equal attention to what happens in the foreground and in the background.. He encouraged the students to study Japanese wood block prints with their bright colours. Such prints were already familiar to Pamela since her father had a large collection of them, and their significant influence can be found in Pamela Colman Smith’s illustrations in general and also in the Waite-Smith Tarot.” (Jensen, K. Frank: The Story of the Waite-Smith Tarot, p. 39)

I wonder if PCS discovered the Devil’s face in one of those wood block prints, or did it manifest out of PCS’s unconscious without a direct visual model. The RWS (or WST, which ever name you prefer) Devil’s face could also be a hybrid, combining some Japanese demon figure and that of a samurai.

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Wasps’ Nest: Asking the Unpopular Question

Card example: 3 of Wands from the Waite-Smith (“Rider”) deck


(image from here)

Client A: “I had just moved from Chile to Finland. I hated being here. I hated these people. And I hated myself. I was looking back at my home country which I had to leave, I had no choice. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, yet I couldn’t start my life again. But you can’t keep on looking back forever, can you? Now.. (takes up the card and places it in the ‘present moment’ position) -Now I’m looking over my shoulder at you and me sitting here. I’m going to turn around. In a few weeks I will open a Café here.”

Client B: “Ships.. that is uncanny. You see the real problem here is exactly that: I didn’t board the ship. I didn’t. I stayed on the pier, waving at others who did have the courage I didn’t have. I wanted to go but I listened to the wrong people, those who needed me for the wrong reasons. Now I’m going there, 20 years too late. But I’m going.”

Client C: “I don’t know.. it doesn’t say anything to me. I can’t really relate myself to the image. Well, maybe that headband, what I’ve achieved. (I explain to her the traditional meanings). Success, right? Yeah, I want more success. Do you think is that wrong? I want to show them what I can get if I really want to. Does this card say that will happen?”

Client D: “Best year ever, hands down! It’s been.. “amazing” doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’m so, so, lucky.. and who would’ve believed a year or two ago things would go this way? Seriously? I’m healthy again, free as a bird.”

Next, the Readers.

Reader E: “According to Waite’s Pictorial Key, this card means established strength, enterprise, effort, trade, commerce and discovery, among other things.”

Reader F: “Astrological correspondence of this card is Sun in Aries. This would imply getting things done, behaving in direct and straightforward manner, being a pioneer, also being impatient, being brave or using bravery.”

Reader G: “This card means that you should cast aside doubts and fears; turn your face to the future, trusting in your own power, making no compromises.”

Reader H: “This card indicates our powerful nature, it suggests we allow our desires to tumble into our laps like ripe fruit; no action is needed here.”

Reader I: “Well the meaning of this card is that our dreams turn into reality through circumstance and being in the right place at the right time.. there’s success here, it’s a very promising card.”

And now for the unpopular question: Can any card – tarot, oracle, playing card or other that you use to read, divine, etc. – mean anything and everything?

How ‘fixed’ are your card meanings? If the card in question is the 3 of Wands and you connect it with the Fire element, can it still refer to thoughts and/or emotions? If you emphasize astrological factors, do you stay with those meanings you’ve learned from book/s or do you play with them, see how they combine with other cards? If you do, how far are you willing to go? Can one card replace another, take up its position in a spread? Where does the interpretation come from? Who does the interpretation?

I’m not looking for naming or blaming by asking these questions. What I find interesting is why the above-mentioned “unpopular question” remains unpopular. It’s not uncommon for a Tarot book to contradict another in giving card meanings. This was especially true in the past, not so much so anymore. And if you take into account the card meanings given by e.g. Etteilla, Waite and Crowley, you’ll see very quickly the differing opinions.

So, can any card mean anything and everything?

“It depends on how you read with them”, is the easy answer.


Posted in Rider Tarot / A. E. Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot, Tarot Psychology, Tarot Spreads | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mary K. Greer: Moralization of the Game of Cards, part 1

Once again a wonderful post from Mary, this time exploring the relationship between the Church and playing cards (echoing carte da trionfi in the game of Triumph) from the viewpoint of two famous churchmen; Hugh Latimer and Martin Luther.

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World Tarot Congress 2012

This is big: Janet Berres is organizing a fourth World Tarot Congress in July 2012, after a long pause. See you there!

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