Tarot's Romantic History
For centuries, the Tarot has been used to answer questions about love and romance. From teenage girls in Renaissance Italy to contemporary cartomancers, the cards have been shuffled and spread in search of tall, dark strangers.
Love at First Sight Picture yourself in Italy, in the year 1440. You are living during a momentous time in history. The Renaissance has begun, and culture is literally being reborn. For the next two hundred years, society and culture will undergo a dramatic transformation, as Europeans leave the dark ages of medieval times behind and give birth to the modern world.
The leading thinkers and artists of the day are inspired by the golden age of Greece. Age-old myths are told and retold, and the ancient gods and goddesses are everywhere- in art, in song, in poetry, and in drama. Young people are even memorizing the classic philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle.
In the winter of 1440, a teenage girl named Bianca Maria Visconti found herself immersed in the heart of Renaissance art and culture when she was sent to visit the royal court of d'Este in Ferrara, Italy, a regional center of Renaissance art and culture. Bianca was the daughter of a duke, so she was a member of high society. In those days, young nobles would travel from palace to palace to study and spend time together. Their pursuit was high-minded: the young aristocrats were preparing to assume the rulership of their country. So by day, Bianca and her friends would read, ponder, and debate the great works of science, history, and literature.
But at night, they played cards.
Bianca was especially fond of a new card game called tarocchi. It was a complicated pastime, because it involved a whole host of literary and mythological figures, all of whom embodied the virtues and ideals of the ancient Greeks and Romans. There were twenty-two cards that depicted allegorical figures like Justice, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Moon. There were also four suits in each deck, numbered one through ten, as well as four sets of court cards-a page, a knight, a queen, and a king.
Bianca was so captivated by the game that when it was time for her to go home in January 1441, one of her friends gave her a set of fourteen hand-painted cards to take with her. And later that year, when Bianca was engaged to marry a young man named Francesco Sforza, her father Filippo actually commissioned a deck of his own to commemorate the wedding.
Bianca's tarocchi deck, of course, was the forerunner of today's Tarot. And Bianca's wedding deck, the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, is one of the oldest Tarot decks still in existence. To this date, it also rates as one of the most romantic decks of all time. In fact, the Lovers card may even be a portrait of the newlyweds Bianca and Francesco, dressed in their wedding best. Many of the surviving cards are housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, and you can find replicas of the deck practically anywhere Tarot cards are sold.
At first, tarocchi was a game reserved exclusively for royalty and upper-class socialites like Bianca. Typically, adventurous noblemen would discover card games on their travels, and then bring them home to entertain the ladies at court. From there, the pastime spread-to the cooks in the kitchen, the maids throughout the palace, the gardeners.
Before long, the game moved off of the palace grounds and out into the rest of society. Initially, Bianca may have been attracted to the game because the cards themselves were breathtaking. Every card was a miniature masterpiece, hand-painted with expensive pigments that had been ground from semiprecious stones and gilded with real gold. Later, the designs were simplified a bit, as wood-block printing made it relatively easy and inexpensive to produce card decks for the masses. Playing cards soared in popularity. Parents even bought specially designed decks for their children to use-in part, to keep them entertained, but also in the hope that their children would pick up a few moral lessons from the game.
The Game of Life Ultimately, a core set of ethical values and beliefs were at the heart of tarocchi. While most people treated the cards as a game, it was a game with meaning-because those who played it, like Bianca and her friends, were well versed in the allegorical symbolism of the cards.
Renaissance people were trained to see beyond the literal and the obvious. They spoke the secret language of symbols that was firmly woven throughout their culture and their studies. That language was the foundation of their worldview. Bianca and her friends had been taught that the world was a place of symmetry and order. They believed that four elements-earth, water, air, and fire-combined to form the physical world. They believed that mankind was the measure of all things and that humanity's place was squarely at the center of the universe.
They also studied the metaphoric language of astrology, in which the movement of the planets measured and reflected the forces that shaped human existence. They knew that the sun was more than a mass of incandescent gas: it represented enlightenment and the illumination of God's will.
Bianca and her friends were well versed in the corresponding symbolism of mythology, too. They knew that Apollo was the Roman god of the sun, Venus...(Continues)