Friday, October 19, 2012

Giotto, Petrarch, and the early Milan tarot

[Note: This essay was revised slightly in December 2012, adding the point about "bishop" and "fool" in chess (suggested by "Huck" on Tarot History Forum), and deleting one sentence that Ross Caldwell pointed out, in response to my Tarot History Forum post of this material, was probably a too-literal interpretation of an inventory item cited in Hind's Early Tarot Engravings. I thank both of them.]

Giotto's "Virtues and Vices" series of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua c. 1305, have sometimes been connected with the early tarot, especially the PMB (Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo) deck done, probably in the 1450s, for the Sforza ruling family of Milan. At the same time, Petrarch's six poems known collectively as the Triumphi have also been linked to the early tarot, whose special cards (which I am calling "trumps") in fact were initially called "triumphi" and the game played with them, "Ludus Triumphorum".

Revisiting these issues, I came across a 2003 Aeclectic Tarot Forum post by "Robert", his first on Aeclectic. He also wondered if the trumps were a combination of Petrarch's triumphs, the Scrovegni Chapel virtues and vices, and the Emperor and Empress cards left over from the game referred to as Imperator ( There were some holes and, in the discussion, disagreements about what corresponded to what. But I think the suggestion has merit.

First come the seven virtues (independently of Giotto), the Petrarchan triumphs and the two royals. Together they make 15, one less than 16, which might, as I and others suspect, have been the number of trumps in the earliest extant deck with cards similar to those later associated with the tarot later,known now as the Cary-Yale (CY). Now the Cary-Yale is not the ur-tarot; it's too late. Depending on how one old one judges the coins copied onto the suit of coins, it is no earlier than the late 1430s and more likely the early to mid 1440s. But perhaps there was an ur-CY, from 1428 or so, of which the CY and the Brera-Brambilla--unless it was an Imperator deck--are the only survivors, an ur-CY that looks very much like what we have left of those two. (The BB looks very much like the CY, but there are only three surviving trump cards.) They, and at least the CY, are examples of a particular pattern.  In the language of 20th century philosophical logic, they are tokens of a type.

In this ur-CY, all of the Petrarchans are there: Love, Chastity (Chariot, in the CY's version), Death, Time (the Old Man, or Vecchio, in the PMB), Fame (the lady with the trumpet), and Eternity (Judgment). It is true that the Old Man is missing from the CY as we have it; I infer he was there by virtue of the other five. In the PMB we see him with his hourglass, below; he is also in other works, sometimes on crutches, as Time appears in the engravings of Petrarch's Triumph of that name.

The match-up of Chastity with Chariot doesn't work so well in other early decks. The BAR (short for Beaux-Arts plus Rothschild, Kaplan Encyclopedia fo Tarot vol. 2 p. 128f), for example, can't very well have Chastity as the Chariot; it has a warrior on top, not an elegant woman. Also its World card is not so clearly Fame; she lacks a trumpet. (I'd show you the images, but my image-processing program stopped working in the middle of writing this. A nice assemblage is at

So what is the 16th card of this ur-CY? Well, we have to think of the Petrarchans as forming pairs, as in chess but also in many other games: two cards with towers, Fame and Judgment/Angel (like the rooks, which are towers); two cards with horses, Chariot and Death (like the Knights, which are horses). This is Huck's layout. Then for the bishops we have the Old Man and one other card. On the Tarot History Forum, "Huck" informs us ( that the bishop was sometimes in chess called "old man." The other bishop, he says, was called "the fool." So the Fool is a possibility for the 16th card. The only problem is that the Fool was not, in the early cards, represented as an old man. There is no common element between the two cards.

Another Petrarchan triumph that has not yet been assigned to a pair is the Love card. But the CY Love and the hypothesized Old Man are also not a pair; there's nothing in that card that corresponds to an element in the Old Man card. Huck suggests Love as an 8th virtue. The virtues divide into four cardinals and three theologicals. Love is an 8th, so that we have two pairs of 4.
What else could go with the Old Man to form a pair? I think one good candidate is the Wheel of Fortune, which has an old man on the bottom: two cards with old men. The Wheel of Fortune is one of the two surviving trumps of the Brera-Brambilla (center above); and the PMB would have it (right above), so probably the CY also had it. This solution is another one that won't work on the BAR or the Charles VI: the Charles VI doesn't have one to see, but if it's anything like the BAR, the bottom figure isn't old.

True, the Wheel of Fortune is neither a Petrarchan triumph nor a virtue. Perhaps it was a card in Imperator, a game we know very little about. It certainly was a common enough image. In fact Time and Fortune were associated in the Middle Ages: the "Mechfeldt Tapestry", which Durer reportedly said was copied from an old tapestry, calls the lady turning the wheel "Zeit," Time. Also, the truimph of Fortune in this world was a common medieval theme (i.e. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy).

For someone using the chess analogy, it would be tempting to see Pope-Popess, the two religious figures of the tarot, as the cards corresponding to the bishops. But then there would be no Petrarchan Time. The Pope is not typically a symbol of Time. Also, the Popess was not part of the iconographic tradition at all, before the tarot. It seems to me that the "old man" category fits better. Bishops were typically old men, unless they got their appointment by being related to someone important.

Since the cards form a hierarchy for trick-taking purposes, we have a nice sequence about virtue overcoming the evils of life. The Emperor and Empress, who embody the virtues, are our guides. We overcome Petrarchan Love with Chastity, and Death and Time with Eternity, acquired by means of the seven virtues. We see the ephemeral and unreliable nature of Fortune and Fame, although Fame is not an unworthy goal when striven for in accord with virtue. It's a good educational game, just the thing for young children and their mothers (but designed by a father).

I imagine such hand-painted decks being commissioned by Filippo Visconti for his family, in a very limited number, a trifling thing for women and children. Perhaps he gives one to a condottiere like Piccinino, who has copies made to give to the ruling families of the places he conquers, such as Bologna. Or someone brings one to the conclave of 1437-1438, to pass the time. Anyway, it catches on. Among adults, there is a need for more complicated rules, requiring more cards. And the Christian educational part serves now as a defense against possible prohibition by the Church. I am not actually assuming that this was how the tarot started. I am merely reflecting on the earliest cards we can actually see, the Cary-Yale. It seems logical for that deck, and any previous deck it was based on, that its guiding principle was the Petrarchan Triumphs and the Seven Virtues. It may have started with at least some other cards, and even in some other place than Milan.

Also, I am not assuming that the deck-designer or artist actually knew Petrarch's poem. In fact Petrarch's description of these figures varies considerably from those in the cards. Petarch's Love is on a cart, while the CY's is not. The CY's Chastity is on a cart, while Petrarch's isn't, and so on. All that inspired the cards, I hypothesize, is the titles, and the idea that each triumphs over the one before it. In that way Petrarch's sequence resembles the sequence in the suits of ordinary cards. In the trick-taking games of the time, the higher numbers captured, or triumphed over, the lower numbers played in the trick. So Petrarch's figures are a natural extension of the general principle of card-games then. At some point, besides the hand-painted luxury decks there is a demand for stenciled decks at a lesser price. Likewise, as I think might reasonably be supposed, as the game becomes known outside its original circle, people want a game with more complexity. Someone remembers Giotto's vices and virtues. Someone has sketches of the images. Virtues and opposing vices are just the thing for a card game, with its winners and losers. This type of allegory was called a psychomachia, after Prudentius's poem by that name, which imagined the virtues defeating the vices in armed combat. In the Michelino "Game of the Gods," as another example, there were the better Virtues and Virginities vs. the worse Riches and Pleasures. Character is strengthened in struggle with vice.

But I want to focus on more on visual similarities, of the kind a card maker might see, and less on those that a moralist would focus on. Several are fairly noncontroversial.

Giotto's Justice has two pans, an angel protecting a worker at his table in one and an executioner in the other. We already have the lady with the pans in the CY, and again in the PMB.
Fortitudo has a lion on her shield. We already have the lion in the CY, and again in the PMB--but not in other early cards, unless you count the tarot of Mantegna.
Hope has a crown in the upper right corner, replaced by a heavenly body in the Cary-Yale Hope card. In the PMB, this is the Star card. We have the beginnings of a conversion of the theological virtues to the luminaries.
Giotto's Faith. as Robert noted, has a scroll in one hand and a staff in the other, making her similar to the Popess card of the PMB, the Cary Sheet, and--minus the staff--the Marseille tradition.
She also has a key at her abdomen (viewable below at the bottom margin, about one third the way from the left side); that is another feature found in early Popess cards. I show below the Catelin Geoffrey of Lyon 1558.
Other depictions are less clear-cut: Temperance holds a sword to her chest and a bridle in her mouth. I can't see what she has in her right hand. We don't know what Temperance would have looked like in the CY, but probably, if it was there, it was like the PMB and most other tarot Temperances. Giotto's image doesn't relate at all to the tarot Temperance card; the bridle, however, connects her to the PMB Moon card, if Marco is right that what she is holding is a bridle. The bridle was a traditional attribute of Temperance and didn't need Giotto for inspiration
Prudence has a book on a high table, of the sort traditionally used for accounting or lecturing, and also a mirror. The mirror is a traditional attribute of Prudence. It seems to me that there is a resemblance to depictions of street conjurers as depicted in the "children of the moon" series. Next to the Giotto image I have put the one in the [i]Da Sphaera[/i] series done for the Sforzas in the 1460s. He is at a table and holds one arm up.
In the tarot, similarly, the Magician is always at a table, typically holding something in one or both hands, usually a wand but sometimes a cup or coin. Below are three of the earliest, the PMB, the Cary Sheet, and the d'Este. How many other tables do you see in the Giottos or the early tarots?
One could conceivably think of the Magician as prudent in a narrow sense, in that by his tricks he knows he will win against anyone who bets against him. His only danger is the wrath of the authorities and also the audience, if they catch on to him. However such short-term prudence, even if successful, is no good in the long term, because practicing deception will keep one out of heaven until one has atoned in the torments of purgatory.

Charity offers her heart to God while offering food to others. That is a similar message to that of the CY Charity card, but a different image. The Sun card sometimes showed a sun shining down on the trees, giving them the energy needed for them to thrive. It seems to me that this is another example of a theological virtue being changed to a luminary.
It is an allegory that works with more difficulty for the BAR and the Charles VI, which have the lady with the distaff under a sun--to me not a very clear message of the sun's bounty, although in a stretch the material being woven might count. (To see the Charles VI, one site is  Or the message might be: your fate (Clotho, the one with the thread) is in God's (the Sun's) hands.

The PMB 2nd artist image, with its beaming child under a sun, also is not very close to the idea of Charity. Perhaps the child is a symbol of new life, thanks to the sun, allegorically God. But visually it is similar to the CY Charity in having a child and a large round object, in the CY held in the two hands of Charity. As a "second artist" card, it might have received some modification, compared to an earlier counterpart in the PMB.
On the side of the vices, there are also matches, as people have frequently pointed out, although not agreeing on which correspond to which.

Giotto's Stultitia clearly relates to the PMB Fool, as Moakley observed.
Inconstancy, with its woman in an earthquake, matches the Tower, which typically was visited by earthquake as well as fire (below the Charles VI, c. 1460, and the Rothschild, early 16th century).
Despair matches the Hanged Man, with its hanged person. In the center below, I have enlarged the to right part of the card, to show more easily the devil grabbing at her soul and the serpent-like cord coming down from her gown. The "Charles VI" suggests Judas, who hanged himself in despair and in fact many early lists called the card "Judas". Some have seen Giotto's "infidelity" for this card. However the iconography suggests otherwise. Also, it was not betrayal that induced Judas to hang himself, but despair when he realized what he had done.
For Infidelity, I think there is already a card in the CY: the Wheel of Fortune. Fortune was seen as a fickle lady.

On Envy, notice her horns, bat wings, and fire underneath (Robert noticed the parallels). That is a parallel to the medieval image of the Devil. In the tarot, or perhaps in this case the Minchiate, we also see horns and bat wings.
There are two vices left, Anger and Injustice, and two cards, Pope and Moon. Injustice somewhat resembles the d'Este Pope, an older man sitting down showing his profile with one hand raised; he still has his hand raised in the PMB, as though in admonition. Perhaps the designer meant to convey a secret message to those who knew what he was doing: his anger makes him unjust.
In Bologna and Ferrara, which were part of the Papal States, popes were feared more than loved, given their propensity to send domineering prelates, exact unreasonable tribute, and threaten and occasionally act in ways calculated to get their way regardless of the wishes of the city's rulers. They also had ways of intimidating even Milan, by excommunication of rulers and the striking of bargains with other powers.

We are left with the Moon card. Most of the early Moon cards look merely astronomical or geometrical and so unrelated to all this virtue and vice talk.
It is possible, as M. J. Hurst has suggested, to interpret such a card in terms of the "end times", as midway in brightness between the "morning star" and the sun, after which heaven shines brighter than any of them. But in itself the image just doesn't suggest such "end times".

It is conceivable that Florence introduced their card, in place of the ur-CY's Faith, because of an interest in astronomy there. The Hope card, with its star, would have given them an opening. In the Minchiate, Hope, Faith, and Charity are the cards immediately after the Devil and Tower; that suggests to me that possibly in Florence earlier it was that way in the tarot, too.

Giotto's Faith had a woman with a book plus a long cross. The CY substitutes a communion cup with a wafer floating above it for the book. I see at that Donatello, 1427-29, did a Faith holding a communion cup. Also, the image of cup and wafer above it is in a 15th century German ms. meant to revive 12th century ideas, as an attribute of Ecclesia. Fides at Chartres shoed a chalice to catch the blood of the Lamb.

The PMB Moon lady is different from these Faith ladies, in the CY and after. But as in the case of the the Star and the Sun cards, a visual correlation can be maintained between the CY and the PMB. The right hand of each is raised: Instead of the communion cup floating next to the CY Faith-lady's raised hand, the PMB Moon lady has her raised hand on a crescent moon. The left hand of each is lowered: the one holds a long cross, the other a bridle. I show both cards below; if my image-processing program were working, I'd show you the detail of the cup.)  I have added the Moon card from a 16th century printed deck, which I think conveys the same mood and symbolic meaning as the PMB lady's face, sadness.
The bridle may mean restraint of the will, and maybe the sadness is following anger at frustration. In terms of the Faith lady's cross, it might mean that we must "bear our cross," and not rebel against our fate--a suitable message for young people, who must learn to obey their parents in all important matters, such choosing a career and marriage partner. So the symbolic meaning is that in the dark night of this world, we have the Moon of faith as our guide. Compare it for example to Bosch's [i]Saint John at Patmos[/i], who to be sure is not sad but beatific, the proper attitude to have:
Whatever the interpretation, the PMB Moon is a visual variation on the CY Faith card.

On the CY's image of Caritas, an article by R. Freyhan, "The Evolution of the Caritas Figure in the Thirteen and Fourteenth Century" (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1948), is useful. It's a combination of two ideas: love of God, in giving the heart, and love of neighbor, the fruit-basket.

The suckling infant image appears, according to Freyhan, in Tino da Camaino's statue of Caritas for the Baptistry of Florence c. 1321. You can see it at It derives from some statues his master Giovanni Pisano did in Pisa, with personifications of Pisa, Grammatica, and a larger figure, apparently Ecclesia, all with two infants suckling. This is also the origin of the Madonna del Latte motive, he says. Freyhan says that Tino only did this one like that; the rest had flames, a convention started by Niccolo Pisano.

Another pupil of Giovanni Pisano's, Giovanni di Balduccio, did a Caritas at the Or San Michele in Florence; it had two infants, but instead of breasts, their mouths sucked at flames coming down from her heart. Balducci did similar sculptures in Milan, Bergamo, and Pavia. Meanwhile another sculptor in Florence Andrea Orcagna, did a Caritas at the tabernacle of Or San Michele. Of Orcagna Freyhan says:
...and being in daily contact with Balduccio's Caritas there, it is no accident that he, as the first within the Giotto succession, submits to the Pisano motive. His Caritas (PL 16e) holds the burning heart in her left hand, nurses a child with her right and bears the flaming crown on her head, thus combining as gracefully as she can the main symbols and motives of both Giotto and Pisano traditions.
Another instance of the suckling infant, probably the closest to the CY's, is in a manuscript owned by the Visconti and in Milan at the time of the CY, called the “Canzone delle Virtu e delle Scienze” ("Song of the Virtues and Vices"), by Bartolomeo di Bartoli, done in Bologna for Bruzio Visconti. After his banishment it was taken by other Visconti to Milan. (For information on this manuscript, see the Tarot History Forum thread I will eventually put my portion up as a blog.)

In the PMB, as I have said, the second artist, on this way of seeing his work, has replaced the CY's suckling infant by a naked child on a cloud, and the mirror that the Charity lady holds is now a sun.

The correlations are complete. They work well for all the PMB original cards, a little less well for the last three the second artist cards, which may have been influenced by a different framework. (In the Plethon thread on Aeclectic, I suggested Filelfo's familiarity with MIddle Platonism. In any case it seems to me that the PMB World card is just the CY Fame card with two putti--Sfroza children, I suspect--below instead of a lady above: in each case, it's a Grail Castle-type motif.) In the case of the 2 cards not in the PMB, the Scrovegni framework works for the versions in other early decks. The 16 of the Cary-Yale are now 22.

It is not at all clear how the Moon card as depicted in the Charles VI and the BAR relates to a program of the triumph of virtue. they look like a lesson in astronomy or geometry. However the visual parallels of the PMB to the CY make the relationship clear.

I also note that the lion of Giotto's Fortitude and the bridle of his Temperance appear only, among the early tarot, in the PMB cards, suggesting a special affinity of the ur-standard tarot to the Visconti-Sforza family. Moreover, the Popess and the Hanged Man have a special relationship to Milan's ruling family due to Sister Manfreda, the ancestor-Popess, and Muzio Attendola, the ancestor hanged-man poster-person of antipope John XXIII.

In summary, here is my proposal for a deck of the PMB type:

0. Fool: Giotto vice Stultitia
1. Magician: Giotto virtue Prudence
2. Popess: Giotto virtue Faith
3. Empress: Giotto virtue Justice (chess Queen, Imperator Empress)
4. Emperor: Giotto Injustice (chess King, Imperator Emperor)
5. Pope: Giotto vices Injustice and Anger
6. Love: Petrarch Love (pawn = 8th virtue)
7. Chariot: Petrarch Chastity (knight = paired with Death)
8. Justice: Giotto virtue (pawn = one of cardinal virtues)
9. Hermit/Old Man: Petrarch Time (bishop = paired with Wheel)
10. Wheel: Giotto vice Infidelity (bishop = paired with Old Man)
11. Strength: Giotto virtue (pawn = one of cardinal virtues)
12. Hanged Man: Giotto vice Inconstancy
13. Death. Petrarch Death (knight = paired with Chariot)
14. Temperance: Giotto virtue (pawn = one of cardinal virtues)
15. Devil: Giotto vice Envy
16. Tower: Giotto vice Inconstancy.
17. Star: CY and Giotto Hope (pawn = one of theological virtues)
18. Moon: CY Faith, Giotto Faith/Temperance/Anger (pawn = one of theological virtues)
19. Sun: CY and Giotto Charity (pawn = one of the theological virtues)
20. Judgment/Angel: Petrarch Eternity (rook = paired with CY Fame)
21. World: Petrarch and CY Fame (rook =  paired with CY Judgment)

Now another question is, did the new cards all come quickly, so that the entire set of 22 was complete by the time of the actual PMB (say, 1452), or was it slower? The reason I ask is that the PMB and its copies have no Tower or Devil.

It seems to me that three of the original PMB cards that were probably not in the CY look much like their Scrovegni counterparts: the Fool, the Popess, and the Hanged Man. Given those three, Giotto's Inconstancy and Envy are so close to the conventional Tower and Devil that I can't imagine that if someone was inspired by the first three, he wouldn't have also been inspired by the second two. So it may well have been all at once, going immediately from 16 to 22. Possibly he borrowed one image first, the Fool, for his wild card. But by the time of the original PMB, all the others would likely have followed. In other words, from the perspective of the Scrovegni (and only this perspective, as there are other considerations) I would expect some decks of the PMB type to have had all 22 trumps. (I was rather surprised at this result. I expected a lower number.)

I am aware that some people will say that the simplest account is that the standard 22-trump tarot was created all at once, with no need for any intermediary, just taking conventional images from a variety of sources to build up a sequence of virtue triumphing, or the course of Christian salvation, etc. It seems to me that the psychology of human invention doesn't work that way. Shakespeare could have made up his plays from nothing either, but he didn't, most of them. Letting someone else invent the plots and focusing on the best means of expressing them on stage seemed to work better. Likewise, Kepler was trying to confirm Pythagoreanism and got something else instead. People start from pre-existing structures, not just masses of data. So we have the seven virtues and the Petrarchan sequence of triumphs. We have existing card games, both ordinary and special, such as the Michelino. We have Giotto's virtues and vices. Putting them together isn't easy and doesn't quite get you to the standard tarot anyway; but with an ur-Cary-Yale as an intermediary and an ur-PMB as its successor (with perhaps other intermediaries before), it's easier and it does. Even the Michelino, the deck with 16 gods which we do know was created "from scratch", was built on pre-existing models. There was the ordinary deck of cards with its 10 number cards in four suits plus court cards, conventionally used in trick-taking games. There were the 12 Olympian gods, as a set, and assorted demigods. All Marziano did was to remove all the court cards except the kings and add 3 gods plus one more god orr demigod to each suit as special cards which presumably beat the suit cards in winning tricks. The result was a game that helped to educate the young about Greco-Roman mythology. The CY, in this scenario simply combined the two pre-existing sequences of the sevne virtues with those of the Petrachan Triumphs,with the conventional deck, the only other innovation being the addition of female pages and knights, for 16 suit cards, matching the 16 special cards. Then the PMB goes one step further and adds more negative cards, drawing on the vices of the Scrovegni Chapel (as well as removing the female pages and knights). The result is an educational game for children and their parents. To be continued. (Until I have time, see, starting at the 3rd post.