August 24, 2004

The Mantegna Tarot

The so-called Mantegna Tarot (I Tarocchi del Mantegna) is not a Tarot, nor, according to most authorities, is it Mantegna’s. This set of prints, dating, it is thought, from the 1460s, comprises fifty engraved designs arranged as five series of ten cards. While a few of the designs correspond to some of the Major Arcana in the standard Tarot deck, there are more differences than similarities between the two.

Card no. 1 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Misero', the Beggar or Pauper. Card no. 5 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Zintiluomo', the Gentleman.

The cards numbered I-X depict various levels of the Human Condition, from its base, no. I Misero (the Beggar or Pauper) to its apex, no. X, Papa (the Pope). Those numbered XI-XIX represent the nine muses, and card XX, Apollo. Cards XXI-XXX depict the realm of knowledge, and feature the seven Liberal Arts, Astronomy, Philosophy and Theology. The cardinal and theological Virtues are illustrated on cards XXXIV-XV, and are preceded by three cards representing the Cosmos, Time, and the Sun, respectively. Lastly, cards XVI through to L constitute an ascent through the celestial spheres, with representations of the seven planets, of the ‘eighth sphere’ of the fixed stars, up to the Primum Mobile (the Prime Mover) and Prima Causa (the First Cause), which is to say, towards God.

Card no. 13 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Terpsicore', the Muse of Dance. Card no. 18 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Euterpe', the Muse of Music.

These cards are an important document of the Renaissance at a fairly early stage of its unfolding. According to Joscelyn Godwin, in his book The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, this ‘Tarot’ is a microcosm that owes something to Mediaeval representations of the Great Chain of Being, but which also has a distinctly Neoplatonist flavour in its implicit purpose as a map & model of the ascent (or descent) of the soul. The imagery too, combines traditional (Mediaeval) motives with the new enthusiasm for all things Classical: the card for Mercury (the 9th image, below), for example, is partly based on a sketch of an ancient statue made in Greece.

Card no. 24 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Geometria'. Card no. 29 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Astrologia'.

It is debatable as to whether these designs were intended for use in a game, or as an instructional tool, or as an aid to contemplation. The engravings survive only as grouped prints on uncut sheets of thin paper, and there are no known examples (recent facsimiles aside) where these designs have been found on decks of separate cards. The present images are taken from a version of the ‘Tarot’ printed in Cologne ca 1550.

Card no. 32 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Chronico', Time. Card no. 36 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Forteza', Fortitude.

The captions on the cards follow northeastern Italian (Venetian) orthography. Mantua and Ferrara have been proposed as plausible points of their origin. Given the likely place & date of their making, it is not inconceivable that Mantegna could have made some contribution to the designs. A line in Vasari’s life of Mantegna has, moreover, been taken as proof of his authorship of the designs: ‘Andrea delighted in copper engraving, and, among other things, reproduced his Triumphs [Trionfi]’ While the word Trionfi here most likely refers to Mantegna’s series of paintings of The Triumph of Caesar, it was also, apparently, a contemporary term for playing-cards, in which context it simply meant ‘Trumps’.

Card no. 42 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Mercurio', Mercury. Card no. 48 in the 'Mantegna Tarot', 'Octava Spera', the Eighth Sphere.

Click on the images above to see enlarged versions of the same. For smaller versions of the complete set of images, click the following links: A, B, C, D, E (source here). My source for the larger-format card pictures above was this site (note: Geocities image-hosting). For more information about these images, this page by Andy Pollett is a good place to start.

Posted by misteraitch at August 24, 2004 01:25 PM | TrackBack

Unfortunately, the Mantegna deck that I bought, although has accurate nice pictures, came with game instructions...

Posted by: Tia O'Connor on January 22, 2007 01:19 PM
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