The Origin of Tarot cards by Jean Verame

The contribution of an enlightened collector

Jean Verame, a quest for the extraordinary

Well known for his monumental works in the Sinai, Tibesti, and North Atlas deserts among others, his quest for the extraordinary has led this artist to interest himself in the history of games and the objects originating from them.
For over forty years, he has accumulated playing cards and games in general and, as a passionate collector, has shared the fruits of his research on their historical, as well as fun and social dimensions in four volumes.
Concerning more precisely the history of Tarot cards, recent research in the museums in Avignon, center of the Christian world during the 14th century, has led him to propose a new approach to their origin, supported by numerous elements rarely taken into account until now. Derived from works that he devoted to playing cards in their considerable diversity, the following texts come especially from «Sublimes Cartes à Jouer» (Editions du Félin, 2007) and «Les Très Beaux Objets du Jeu» (Editions Face&Dos, 2014)

The Origin of Tarot cards: the Avignon hypothesis

Despite what is said, despite what is written, we know NOTHING about the origin of tarot cards. Art historians who have focused on the subject are the Italians who, understanding that they could not reach back to the original source, preoccupied themselves with what they had at hand, that is to say essentially the Visconti Tarot cards (2nd quarter of the 15th century) and a few other scattered cards. I am speaking here of art historians, very specialized and who, quickly abandoning research that seemed to them in vain, assumed that since these cards were in Italy (and for good reason, since they had been made for the Visconti families and the Este families), they could only have been invented by painters from the region. Therefore, the Tarot was a game of Northern Italy, and their focus should be on discovering the authors of these cards. So they began by studying and comparing the techniques of different painters, without much regard for the eminently gothic influence these illuminations revealed. The first half of the 20th century thus saw assertions, denials and nullifications. Then, after the battle of possible authors’ names, there was the war of dates, all carefully followed by question marks since there was no possible conclusion. Thereby, as a result everything became Italian despite non resolved enigmas and certain incoherencies.

No one seems to have done a global study to solve the mystery; not on painting in the Middle Ages, but on illumination and miniatures.

I think the time has come to open a new field for reflection.

Avignon was, in the 14th century, from 1305 to 1403, the center of Europe and the Christian world, the seat of the Popes and multiple cardinals and courtesans. This city had attracted a great number of artists from Flanders, Ile de France, Spain, Moselle, Northern Italy, England and beyond, without forgetting the Parisian miniaturists. Avignon was a city of the Comtat Venaissin and was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Thousands of drawings, sketches, in black, in bistre or in colour were accumulated over nearly a century.

But now, a paradox, this cosmopolitan city, teeming with artists, luring pilgrims, artisans, bankers ; where Provençal was spoken, Parisian or French, and Florentine, plus Latin of course, was emptied of all its riches. So one should not be surprised by the unbelievable absence of any trace of playing cards, since everything had practically disappeared except the buildings and their frescos.

Click to enlargeAt the time numerous symbolic elements and images of allegorical figures circulated, intended for a mainly illiterate people. The lives of saints, Jesus, Marie, but also vignettes for educational purposes, from the antique and Christian world. In Provence, they were called nahipi, and also ybes or ybys, like the naïbis for children in Italy, which afterwards became naipes in Spain. Among all these images, there are those that were added in certain card games, thus creating the Tarot’s trump cards. There was a choice : a sheet was found ( end of the 15th century ) with fifty images (Fig. 1) on which one finds, along with those that are the Tarot’s trump cards, Logic, Rhetoric, Theology, Misery, Time, Prudence, Charity, Hope, Reason, Melancholy, and also Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Apollo, Calliope, etc., that could have been in the place of Temperance, the World, the Lovers, the Tower, Strength, the Moon, the Sun…etc. One must read Christine de Pisan, Martin Le Franc and up to Le Cœur d’Amour Epris by René d’Anjou (King René), where we find, besides Temperance, Strength, Fortune, in other words all the known trump cards, Virtue,Reason, Hope, Melancholy, Vice, Idleness, Love, Chastity, all elements that could have been in the place of existing trumps.

Moreover, the total absence of women in the Italian card games, as in the games referred to as Spanish, while the French cards always had them, brings us straight to our tarot.A legal document dated 1381, that prohibits a sailor from Marseille to play cards while sailing to Egypt, proves there were indeed cards (Cf. Note 1). And one cannot imagine for one instant that the card makers in Marseille or Avignon could have been aware of the existence of the Visconti Tarot, hidden in a case or safe in the Ducal palace in Milan. The contrary seems more probable. We find ourselves faced with the dilemma of the chicken or the egg but, I insist, who today can demonstrate that Marseille copied the Ducal tarots and not vice versa? ...

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeBetter yet : In the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon, there are frescos from a house in Sorgues, one of which shows a Page of dogs (Fig. 2). These frescos would have been painted between 1360 and 1380. In Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, painted during the same papal era, there is another Valet of Dogs! (Fig. 3). And yet, the Tarot Fools, or Fol, or Mat have a dog attached to their coattails. Better yet, there are a multitude of Valets with dogs in the playing cards made in Marseille, Avignon, Paris, Lyon, Rouen, Strasbourg, but also in the games with French portraits edited in Brussels, Munich, Düsseldorf, Vienna, Prague, Liechtenstein (Fool in Fig. 4). They are generally Jack of Spades (Fig. 5), with some exceptions (Fig. 6). There are practically none in the Italian cards except the Fools taken from the Marseille Tarot.

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Fig.4 : Fool by par Renault, Amphoux, Solesio. Tous ces tarots sont dits Tarots de Marseille.

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Fig.5 : Valets, portraits of Paris and Eteilla

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Click to enlargeThe oldest card known is the one that is part of the series called « Goldschmidt’s cards », the name of the collector who owned nine cards, painted on parchment, and which are considered to be Provencal. This game includes, besides a valet of dogs (Fig. 7), a five of batons, an ace of cups and an ace of coins! They were the current signs in the South of France at that time. The problem however, for those who overlook the fact that nothing was institutionalised in the 14th century, the one that saw playing cards appear and where there was a total creative liberty (see the handmade cards of the Ambras hunting pack and those of Stuttgart, and also see the Fool from another Visconti Tarot that is in the Yale University library), it is manifest that the Tarot could not have been created once, but that the images were introduced to render the regular game more complex..
Fig.7 : Goldschmidt’s jack

These images were diverse, and never mind their « on view » because they were considered as so many trump cards or triumphs, images that otherwise one found as well in Charles V’s library as in that of Charles VI. The only trouble, for those who believe wholeheartedly that the Tarot has been invented all in one piece and conceived by one painter, when it has nothing to do with painting but indeed illuminators is that the painter to whom one attributes the « invention » of the tarot is more accurately known as a fresco painter.

Click to enlargeOn this matter, it is the moment to keep in mind the immense success throughout Europe of The Hunting Book by Gaston Phébus, the most beautiful copy of which was created at the beginning of the 15th century, that corresponds to the flowering of the subtle art of illumination encouraged by the Dukes of Berry, of Burgundy, Bedford. At the time when this manuscript 616 (Bibliothèque Nationale) was illuminated, and whose illustrations have guilloche backgrounds, exactly like earlier manuscripts made by illuminators in Avignon at the end of the 14th century everything was done by different teams of artisans who did not sign their work. In any event, and to come back to the Jacks and the Fool with a dog, a great English collector at the end of the 19th century, George Clulow, possessed what he thought to be the oldest playing cards in Europe and considered them and considered them to be Provencal. They consists of two jacks accompanied by a dog of course (Fig. 8), but a number of these Jacks and Fools can be found in dozens and dozens of packs !(Fig.5 et 6). Another discovery. regardless of the tarot that you might have in your hands, you can note that the Empress and sometimes the Emperor have an « eagle » on their coat of arms (Fig. 9). Inquiry made, in no way is it an eagle (for those who think that, Avignon being part of the Holy Roman German Empire, it is a matter of an eagle that later became a two-headed eagle). This coat of arms shows in fact a Gerfalcon and… it was precisely the emblem of Avignon, up until the Queen Jeanne sold the city of Avignon to Pope Clément VI in 1348 (Fig. 10).

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeClick to enlargeClick to enlargeFig.9

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The latter wanted to change the official coat of arms by putting three keys, but the people of Avignon protested, making him revise his decision. Moreover, the walls of the room situated on the first floor of the Avignon Media library, Cardinal Ceccano’s ancient livery, are decorated with coats of arms topped with an arch realized between 1340 and 1350 and the Gerfalcon is well present (Fig. 11).

Click to enlargeAvignon’s last pope, Pedro de Luna, said Benoît XIII, escapes, disguised the palace and Avignon to Châteaurenard. The end of the papacy in Avignon causes a real turmoil, initiated in 1398, emptying the city of large part of its population and dispersing throughout Europe everything that could be carried away… however, these new clues should enable one to consider new research leads. Alas, during the war for the reattachment of the papal city to France, all the archives have been destroyed in 1790 -1791.


Some historical facts to support this hypothesis

In the area surrounding Avignon, in the small cities of Sorgues and Entraigues, have been identified a good number of mills from the 14th century for manufacturing paper. Thus an act signed before a solicitor from Avignon on January 15, 1431, tells us that an artisan operating mills around the city sold his entire paper production to Italian merchants, including paper for playing cards.( Cf. Note 1 ).

The existence of «tailleurs de molles» (mold cutters) having been found in Dijon in 1393, at Ulm in 1398 as well as in Florence, nothing prevents a city like Avignon to have had mold cutters for cards. Pope Clement V advocated the diffusion of saint images. The first known card manufacturer in Avignon was designated as a factor cartorum (card maker), then factor cartorum et picto (card and picture maker) crafts far from being incompatible in the 15th century ( Cf. Note 2 ). One can suppose a part of this production was sent out around the region and even towards Lyon. (Cf. Note 3 ). Indeed, a document, dated 1337 and found in the Saint-Victor Abbey in Marseille, forbid playing with «paper sheets», which became known as cards thereafter.

Petrarch, settled in Avignon from 1312 to 1354, composes on his return to Italy his Trionfi, the names given to the trump cards in Italy.

The first mention of the word « taraux » has been found in 1501, precisely in Avignon; and we know since then that the word tarocchi, for which the Italians have never found the origin, comes from the South, (the right bank of the Rhône) from what was not yet France.( Cf. Note 4).

When one examines the rare packs that have survived - « La Chasse à la Cour d’Ambras », the game said to be from Stuttgart, the Goldschmidt’s cards, not to mention the ones offered to Visconti or the ones said to be of Charles VI, one sees that the creativity was total : King of flowers, queen of parrots, knaves of pomegranates, on foot or on horseback, series of animals, mixture of civil and ecclesiastic worlds , symbolic elements and allegorical figures… An incredible imagination very much of its time, very much of its period, as evidenced by the hundreds of illuminators and miniatures made throughout France, royal territory, but also in Avignon, papal territory (Cf. Note 5 ).

Reference works

Note 1 - H.CHOBAUT, in Les Maîtres-Cartiers d’Avignon du XVème Siècle à la Révolution, in Mémoires de l’Académie de Vaucluse, Forth series, Volume IV , 1955, precise : «Paper manufacturing in this region dates back to the second half of the 14th century».

Note 2 - H. CHOBAUT , op. cité : « The first known card manufacturer in Avignon… was both haberdasher, painter and card manufacturer. These three trades were related in the 15th century, we note this on many occasions. One must not forget that during this period the haberdashers sold playing cards, and that these were often hand painted… At the end of the 15th century, Avignon’s card manufacturers, along with painters, belonged to the brotherhood of Saint-Luc, more proof of the relationship between these two trades»

Note 3 - H. CHOBAUT , op. cité : « On January 15, 1431, Bernard de Guillermont, paper manufacturer…, tenant of mills in Entraigues and in Sorgues sells to two Italian merchants established in Avignon all of his paper production, among other things playing cards, during the following year »..

Note 4 - Vaucluse Departimental Archives, 3E/1139, fol.246 v-247 v, 6-XIII 1505.

Note 5 - Francesca MANZARI : La Miniatura ad Avignone al Tempo dei Papi.

Les merveilleuses Cartes à Jouer du XIXe Siècle, Paris, Nathan, 1989.
La Toma del Cielo y de la Tierra, Vitoria, 2003.
Sublimes Cartes à Jouer, Editons du Félin, Paris, 2007.
Les Très beaux Objets du Jeu, Editions Face & Dos, Paris, 2014


Text written by Jean Verame and synthetizited by Agnès Barbier (Curator of the French Museum of Playing Cards)- Illustrations included by Marion Lamy