The Italian Almanac

tarot card

Italian News - December 21

The history, symbolism and mythology of tarot cards is the focus of a new exhibit which opens in Siena today.

The Tarot: Art And Magic looks at material ranging from the 15th century to the 20th century, including a number of engravings by well-known artists such as Albrecht Durer, Hendrick Goltzius and Bernard Picart. Among the antique documents on display are the most famous treatises on Renaissance iconology, a series of esoteric texts, and a wealth of documents on laws governing card games and gambling. There are also, naturally a variety of cards, mostly hand-painted, while one deck is even made of ivory.

Although some have traced the origins of the tarot back to Ancient Egypt, tarot cards are now thought to have originated in northern Italy in the early 1400s. The three earliest surviving sets were all made during this period for members of the ruling Milanese Visconti family. The oldest was probably painted by miniaturists to celebrate a mid-15th century wedding between the Viscontis and the Sforzas, another powerful family in Milan.

Originally known as "carte da trionfi" or "cards of the triumph", the 78-deck pack soon started being used in a trick-taking game called tarocchi (tarock). Tarocchi is one of the oldest known card-games, and versions of it are still played today in Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Slovenia. Tarocchi is also the English word for tarot.

The deck's more familiar association with divination only arose later, as the result of mistaken speculation that the cards were first used in Ancient Egypt. This fuelled their association with myth and paganism, prompting mystics to start using them for fortune telling.

The Tarot: Art And Magic runs in Siena's Magazzini del Sale until January 23.