Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Mystical Staircase in the 'Sermo de Ludo'

An example of the concept "Ludendo Intelligo" (Playing and Learning)


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 2018


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, January 25, 2019



As we now know for sure, the game of tarot, at the time when the 22 Triumphs was  contemplated, expressed a Mystical Staircase [Scala, also meanng “ladder”] of a Christian character (1). Nothing could be more useful than transmitting ethical and moral values through a card game, which ensured both entertainment and learning. The number 22, linked to Divine Knowledge, was inherited by the West, through an action of syncretism, from the oriental world where the Green Tara, goddess of Knowledge, is expressed through 21 emanations, which, together with the goddess, forms a complex of 22 aspects. In the Sufi tradition, superior knowledge is achieved through 21 steps (Tariqā) whose beginning is further represented by the condition of the Fool.


The Books of Wisdom of the Old Testament are 22, a number that in the Christian mystical meaning represents the introduction to the wisdom and divine teachings impressed on men. It is interesting in this regard to note how the rays of the rose window of Orvieto Cathedral are in fact 22. The rose window is a symbol of the sun and at the same time of Christ, whose understanding by man requires 22 stages of knowledge.


The 22 Triumphs aimed to teach the unbeliever, expressed by the card of the Fool as we will see in what follows, the path to reach God. A path composed of steps each represented by the individual Triumphs.


To better understand this path, expanding what has already been written in our other essays and to which we refer for a greater analysis, both iconological and in content (2), we will retrace, through the order of Triumphs as reported in the Sermo perutilis de Ludo (Sermon very useful on games) (3), the concept of the Staircase present in those cards. It is a document composed by an anonymous cleric dating from the late 15th or early 16th century. which turns out to be in absolute sense the first known to report the 22 Triumphs. It must be said that despite the express order that clearly highlights the concept of the Christian Staircase, the anonymous compiler lacked the judgment to be able to express it in this sense, resulting rather in a form of general condemnation of this game, considering that in it he evaluated the presence of sacred images as an insult to the Church, which is evident from the expressions he added to some cards, appearing in some cases, however, indecipherable in meaning. It is in fact in a Latin that is not concerned to be somehow embarrassed by interference of a popular nature. Despite this, the document, received in manuscript form, is extremely interesting for a complete definition of the meaning and value to be attributed to each individual Triumph and to the whole.


That some clerics of the time did not realize the concept of Scala present in these cards should not surprise us: many of them were not aware of the concept "Ludendo Intelligo" (Learning by Playing), as expressed instead by several other clerical in later times, such as Francesco Piscina who in 1565 composed the Discourse on the order of the figures of the tarot (4), in which we find the statement that the inventor of this game must surely have been "a good and faithful follower of the Catholic and Christian faith", as well as the French canon Pierre Gregoire who in 1582 wrote "Inventi [...] ludi sunt foliorum, in quibus dum luditur, vestige quoque quaedam eruditionis apparent, ut in Tarotiis" that is: "Card games were invented, in which while playing, the traces of a certain erudition also appear, as in the Tarot" (5).


Later in time, other religious figures understood that informing young people about Christian values through playing cards would prove to be an extraordinary expedient. We will give an example in what follows.


The reading of this Sermon unequivocally confirms the medieval Christian origin of this game, with all due respect to all those who still today, despite the documents that history has revealed to us, continue to affirm a thousand-year age of these cards, without no supporting document.


But let's get to what the Sermon informs us about the order of Triumphs:


1. Primus dicitur El bagatella: et est omnium inferior = The first is called El Bagatella and is the lowest oc all. The Bagattto, to which we refer to our essays to better understand its meaning and the reason for its presence in the Triumphs (6), represented on the one hand the card with minimum value in the game and on the other the social inferiority of the character depicted. The Bagatella was the one who, although believing in God, did not consider it necessary to observe the commandments to the letter, allowing digressions that the Church of the time considered sinful to such an extent as to evaluate them as actions mortal to the purpose of eternal salvation.


2. Imperatrix = The Empress. A presence to be related to the following card.


3. Imperator = The Emperor. The presence of the Emperor in the life of man was fundamental, as he represented that political power desired by God to assure his people of the material goods necessary for their existence. The presence of the Empress was also fundamental because, as the Bible asserted, it was necessary to live in two under the light of the sunm as Ecclesiastes [Ch. 4] saysTwo are better than one alone, because two have a better reward for their labor. 10 In fact, if they come to fall, the one raises up the other. Woe to those who are alone: if he falls, he has no one to raise him up. 11 Moreover, if two sleep together, they can be heated; but how can one be warmed alone? 12 If one attacks, two can resist him, and a threefold cord does not break as soon." The emperor was therefore the first to set a good example by placing his own wife beside him.


4. La Papessa. O miseri quod negat Christiana fides. The Popess (Oh miserable ones since the Christian faith repudiates you [plural]). This is the Christian Faith as we find in many of its representations, such as the one painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.


5. El papa. O pontifex cur, & c. qui debet omni sanctitate polere, et isti ribaldi faciunt ipsorum capitaneum. The Pope. Or pontiff. because, eetc. to him, every sanctity is owed, and these rogues make him their captain. Also in this case, for an attitude of equality with the representatives of temporal power, the Popess, or the Christian faith, had to be present next to her most representative witness, namely the Pope. Both took part in the teaching of the exercise of the spirit according to the dictates of the Gospels. (On the fact that these last two personages were located after the representatives of temporal power see our essay Emperor Moon and Pope Sun)


6. Temperantia = Temperance, a cardinal virtue that teaches moderation of the passions and is placed here before the Love card that Petrarch in his Triumphs understood as human instinct tending to the satisfaction of one's own pleasures.


7. L’Amore = Love. or the frantic search for pleasure that must be moderated by the virtue expressed above.


8. Lo caro trionphale vel mundus parvus = The triumphal chariot or small triumph. The Card of the Chariot is given a minimum value based on the fact that everything under the sun is vanity, as Ecclesiastes [I] says: "2 Vanity of vanities, sayeth Qoèlet [the Peacher], vanity of vanities, all is vanity. 3 What profit hath a man from all the labor which he taketh under the sun? 4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” Continually seeking laurels and glory and rising to them was an illusory success because every man was destined, like everything else, to become dust. according to the Vulgate of the Bible (Genesis 3:19) "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris" (Remember, man, that dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return). The desire to triumph must therefore have been won by the virtue of “Fortitude”.


9. La forteza, that is, Strength, in Latin Fortitudo, is the cardinal virtue that is the cornerstone of Christian orthodoxy, which teaches to repress any attitude that can lead mankind to look for earthly illusory goods. Unlike Temperance, which teaches moderation of such instincts, Fortitude teaches that the intelligence given by God to man must serve him to understand the futility of every earthly triumph and thus deprive himself where his intelligence deems it necessary for the purpose of salvation.


10. La rotta. id est regno, regnavi, sum sine regno = The Wheel of Fortune which is I reign, I reigned, I am without reign. The Wheel of lots, or fate, of destiny, teaches that at any moment we can all fall into the abyss of affliction both physical and material. Given this, since human life is prey to a destiny that only God knows, it is necessary for man to think of his own soul rather than constantly striving to find his own benefit.


11. El Gobbo = The Hermit, here designated as a hunchback as he is an old man with a worn spine. Since the hermit is the one who moves away from society to live in solitude with his own thoughts, this card teaches us to meditate on the real meaning of life and above all not to betray God before Death arrives.


12. Lo impichato = The Hanged Man Being hung by one foot was the penalty imposed on traitors. A 'memento mori' intended to teach us not to betray God before the arrival of death. since for man, otherwise, the gates of Hell would be opened (7).


13. La Morte = Death. That is, the card that indicates the transience of life in its final form. "Vita brevis breviter in breve finietur, venit velociter quae neminem veretur" (Short life ends shortly, death arrives quickly and has no respect for anyone) recites a ballad from the Red Book (Llibre Vermell) of Montserrat.


14. El diavolo = the Devil. The inevitable conclusion for those who have not followed the teaching of the Church in life, seeking only earthly goods and pleasures without caring about their own soul.


15. La sagitta [The arrow, or lightning-bolt] = The Tower. This card, like the following Star, Moon, Sun, teaches to look at the sky to be able to discover, through the stars, the divine will or indications of behavior. In the cosmological vision of time, the spheres, of which the highest was represented by the Prima Causa, First Cause, namely the divine sphere, were extended above the earth. Receiving the superior will, the Primo Mobile, First Moved, transferred it to the spheres below represented by the planets, the sun and the moon and finally the sphere of fire (Sphaera Ignis), the first circle overlooking the earth, from which the deity could draw the fire for destroying those who betrayed him on earth by denying him. A famous example was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by the hand of God through fires and flames.


16. La Stella. = The Star. Since this card represents the spheres of the planets, according to the cosmological vision of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic mold of time, being placed before the moon and the sun would be an error, since the planets were placed higher than the former. One might think that this variant is due to the desire to place the sun close to the Day of Judgment, as a star connected to Christ, the one who will preside over that final event.


17. La Luna = The Moon, to which God has given the prerogative of influencing the earth with its motion.


18. Il Sole = The Sun, or the star from which the earth derives benefits for its existence as well as being, as mentioned, a symbol of Christ.


19. L’Angelo = The Angel or the Last Judgment, an event that will be announced through the powerful sound of a trumpet played by an angel. A call for all people that nobody can evade.


20. La Justicia = Justice. It will be through Justice, that is the right assessment of the actions of men, that the Archangel Michael will separate the elect from the damned.


21. El mondo cioe Dio Padre. The world, that is, God the Father. Only the elect will have the joy of living forever in the presence of the father.


0. El matto sie nulla (nisi velint). The Fool [Crazy One] or nothing (unless they want). If what the cleric wrote does not allow a clear decipherment of the meaning attributed by him, we know that madmen were considered, according to scholasticism, that is, the religious philosophy of the time, those who did not believe in God because, reasoning defeating them, they were not able to understand the revealed truths. Since for scholasticism it was necessary to believe in God through recourse to reason, it gathered together all unbelievers into the category of fools. In the Triumphs the presence of the Crazy One /Fool therefore acquires a deep meaning: as the possessor of reason but not a believer,  had to become not only a believer, without the need for intellectual arguments that would justify what he felt in his heart, but also, through the teachings expressed by this Mystic Ladder of Triumphs, 'Fools of God', a condition that finds its maximum expression in the most popular saint, that is Francis, who was called 'Lo Sancto Jullare e il Sancto Folle di Dio', the Holy Jester and Holy Fool of God. Thus recites a song by Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542): “Never was there more beautiful pleasure, / More joyful or more great, / Than through zeal and through love, / Of Jesus to become crazy [pazzo!] / .... / Let everyone cry out, as I cry out, / Always crazy, crazy, crazy! [pazzo]”.


As anticipated, over the course of the years, several clerics understood the usefulness of composing card games with images inspired by Christian personages or values. One of these was the Abbot Enea Gaetano Milani of Siena, who, as we learn from an eighteenth-century writing, "teaching not only the Noble Youths in their homes, and in the Colleges, and in the Seminaries, but also the Nuns, and the Religious inside their Cloisters, even without the living voice of so many different preceptors, and without so many volumes, invented the means of pleasant amusements, and of many, and varied erudite games" (8).


It was "Sanctified and virtuous games" that dealt with sacred history alongside the profane, with the series of Patriarchs, Judges, Prophets, Kings, with the number and quality of the Sacred Books and much more, arranged in boxes on large sheets of which it was suggested to adorn the sacristies, the sacred cloisters, the rooms and the schools so that they could be taken by the boys and cut out like playing cards: "And these themselves cutting themselves into a noble deck of cards, as the author has already reduced them, gilded around, and colored, to make different games with them [...]. How easy will children now be, playing, sucking with their milk the Maxims of Christian Morals, drawn from the purest, and clearest source, which is the Sacred Scripture, to whose waters few ordinary people approach with their lips, through negligence or obstinancy!".


The religious did not lack inspiration to devote to these games even such as the game of tarot, demonstrating that they knew very well the mystic meaning of the Scala as previously expressed. We read the following: "Who can not praise the good 'order, and disposition of many subjects located in their particular qiadramgles? At the top of which quadrangles in other smaller boxes are mentioned the materials treated in the body of the cards, and are written the own brands , and details of each card, thus in Italian as in French, and the letters large and small with the order of the alphabet, and the syllables, and in some the numbers of the Triumphs, or Tarocchi (since however stated in the aforesaid notice one can with these cards play Minchiate, and any other more used, delightful game decks of 40. or 52. or 97) and in playing to learn".


If in the Middle Ages not all the religious were able to understand the Staircase of the of the Triumphs, condemning them as “diabolical works,” there were several already in the sixteenth century who, as we have seen, expressed otherwise, also writing what they believed in widely used texts. The same happened in the following centuries to confirm a card game that today, for the academic world, represents one of the most extraordinary achievements of Italian humanistic thought.




1 - On the meaning of Mystical Staircase one can read the essay of that name in the historical essays by Andrea Vitali.

2 - See the Iconological Essays by Andrea Vitali

3 - The manuscript was published by Robert Steele in «Archeologia, or Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity», London, Second series, vol. VII, 1900, pp. 185-200.

4 - Discorso dil S. Fran. Piscina da Carmagnuola sopra l’ordine delle figure de Tarocchi [Discourse by S. Fran. Piscina of Carmagnuola on the order of the figures of the Tarot]. In Monte Regale, Appointed Lionardo Torrentino, MDLXV [1565].

5 - Pierre Gregoire, Tertia ac postrema Syntagmatis Juris Universes Pars, Pars III, Liber XXXIX (contrary to the quoted XXX in Buini), Chapter 4, No. 11 (Ludi foliorum qui innoxj, & ludi & lusoris mala), Lugduni [Lyo’, Apud Antonium Gryphium, MDLXXXII. [1582].

6 - In addition to its iconological essay, see El Bagatella which is the symbol of sin.

7 - For a vision of this penalty, read the essay A Gang of Traitors.

8 - Lettera Critica d’ un Pastore Arcade intorno a’ Giuochi eruditi pubblicati ultimamente in Venezia presso il Recurti, ed in Pesaro presso il Gavelli [Critical Letter by a Pastor of the Arcade about Erudite Games published recently in Venice by Recurti, and in Pesaro by Gavelli], no date. The passages reported are found at Fr. I on p. III. Abbot Enea Gaetano Melani was Apostolic Protonotary and Jerusalem Religious. He took part in the Accademia of the Arcades with the nickname of Eresto Eleucanteo.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 2018