The Renaissance Origin Of Tarot - Giovanni Pelosini - ebook

The mystery of the origins of Tarot is linked to its creators during the Italian Renaissance, who designed the cards for the artistic and cultural legacy of humanity, while also feeling inspired by the liberation of humankind's spiritual nature. The Renaissance was an extraordinary moment of cultural syncretism and artistic freedom of thought. In the fifteenth century, alchemy, astrology and the ancient traditions of Hermeticism had an opportunity to come together in a unique iconographic, mnemonic system of educational experiences which became the Tarot deck, complete with twenty-two original Triumphs (Trump cards). After creating this deck, humanists, scientists and writers, driven by their passion for knowledge, gathered in academic settings, protected by the Lords of Florence, Ferrara, Bologna, Rimini, Milan, Mantua and other cities, while continuing a centuries-old tradition of spiritual initiation. This Renaissance offering to humanity was created not only for recreational purposes, or divination, but in order to reveal secrets of the Neo-Platonic philosophy founded on the apparent multiplicity and uniqueness of an ordered, holistic cosmos, enriched by free spirited creativity, which through the images of Tarot, could then soar above the illusory dualism that exists between mind and matter and move towards self-realization.

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Giovanni Pelosini

The Renaissance Origins of Tarotby Giovanni PelosiniEnglish Translation by Arnell Ando© 2015 INTERWIDEOISBN 9788899691028TABLAB.ITdigital [email protected] image: Bembo, Gli innamorati, Tarocchi Visconti


Over time many theories on the origins of the Tarot have been formulated as well as some fanciful hypothesis, which continue to contribute to a rather diffused and confused view on the subject.

It is best to first distinguish playing cards from the Tarot. The former, which we do not cover in this book, most certainly originated in Asia,1 while the Tarot is an Italian innovation from the Middle Ages; a Renaissance codification of cultural models of various origins, engaging in significant adaptations on the system of an eastern matrix card game, which arrived to Europe, most likely through contact with the Arabs.

Either with Arabs directly, or the crusaders and merchants who interacted with them on eastern shores of the Mediterranean, may have contributed to the spread of ancient card games (Ludi Chartarum) in Europe, for they were, for the culture of alchemy, “the link in the chain that connects the ancient eastern to western Middle Ages”.2

It is plausible that the first eastern playing cards arrived in Italy (where they were called Naibi) shortly after the introduction of card making technology, which in the Middle Ages became increasingly more in demand from emerging universities. This technology was imported in the thirteenth century thanks to trade routes opened to the East due to the Crusades. One of the first European paper mills in fact, arose in Amalfi perhaps as early as the first three decades of the thirteenth century. Production technology advanced and developed particularly in Fabriano during 1276 and then in Bologna, which became one of the most important industrial centers. 3

From these early playing cards, the modern Minor Arcana were derived and so over time appeared the emergence of Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles; 4 while the Major Arcana of the Tarot developed from the original Triumphi (Trumps), which were a kind of fifth nucleus conceived in northern Italy in the first decades of the fifteenth century and were distinct from the carticelle, (namely those ordinary cards divided into four suits). 5

1 Perhaps in China, India, or Persia. Initially the cards were meant as games that simulated military strategies, positions and forms, as with chess.

2 Fulcanelli, Les Demeures Philosophales, Paris, 1965 (The Dwellings of the Philosophers).

3 Historically the use of paper came from China at least by the beginning of the second century; Arab discoveries during the conquest of Samarkand in 712, borrowed technology of their Western domains. In the thirteenth century paper was being produced and used in Christian parts of Europe, particularly at universities, which made extensive use of it for copying of textbooks.

4 From original “Italian suits” came the more modern “French suits”: Clubs (Clovers), Hearts, Spades and Diamonds.

5 See: Rodolfo Renier, Tarocchi di Matteo Maria Boiardo, pp. 7-8. See also: Romain Merlin, Source des cartes à jouer, nouvelles recherches sur le naïbis, tarots et les autres sur les espèces de Cartes, Paris, 1869.


Esotericists of different eras took to imagining the birth of Tarot as connected to the initiation culture of ancient Egypt, the Jewish Kabbalah, or as conventional ancient Oriental wisdom. Various theories on the origins of Tarot began to spread in France, during the eighteenth century thanks mainly to the works of Antoine Court de Gébelin (1719-1784), who in 1781 published the first book on the modern culture of esoteric Tarot, Monde primitif Analyse et comparé avec le monde moderne (The Primitive World Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World), which was a scholarly and massive tome consisting of eight volumes.

Court de Gébelin believed that the Tarot had been brought to Europe by nomadic Gypsies, and consequently so followed popular belief, especially during the nineteenth century, perhaps confusing the mantic use of the cards with the practice of palmistry, or because of the familiar use of fortune telling by this culture. In the wake of the theory of de Gébelin even Eliphas Levi and Papus proclaimed this unlikely hypothesis of the origin of Tarot, which had already been refuted by historians since the eighteenth century.6

Over the centuries ancient Egypt was a place of mystical ancestral knowledge and throughout Europe stories were shared about the mysteries of a visionary secret discipline hidden in the symbols and shapes of pyramids, obelisks and hieroglyphs. This lost science was thought to also be where the Tarot was derived.

In the nineteenth century, largely through the Kabbalistic studies of Eliphas Levi (Alphonse-Louis Constant, 1810-1875),7 the dominant view however was that the Tarot had a Jewish origin, relying in particular on the fact that both the triumphs (as the Major Arcana were originally called) and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet contained exactly twenty-two.

Although it is undeniable that the unknown creators of the first Tarot were familiar with the Jewish Kabbalah and even the rudiments of Egyptian culture, or at least as they were portrayed in the Hellenistic, Greek-Alexandrian zeitgeist; today however, we are aware that the cultural contributions were many and varied during the syncretistic and extraordinary period known as the “Italian Renaissance”.

6 Even though the hypothesis was never supported by credible evidence, it was also endorsed in the 19th century by historians Paul Boiteau of Ambly (1854) and Jean Alexandre Vaillant (1857).

7 See: Eliphas Levi, Dogme and Rituel de la Haute Magie, Paris, 1856 (Dogma and Ritual of High Magic).


In the late nineteenth century Papus referred to a legend of the origins of Tarot which subsequently inspired Shmakov and Van Rijnberk.8 This legend may have kernels of truth, as is often the case, when sharing secret and esoteric knowledge that perhaps the creators of the Tarot during the Renaissance may actually have had in mind.

In the oral tradition spread by these two scholars, there was told of an ancient and lost civilization of a distant past, doomed to destruction and oblivion.