Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on Tarot

Tarocchi “of new invention”

In the “Universal Plaza” of Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo - 1585


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  - © All rights reserved  December 14, 2018


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


What surprised some historians of the tarot [tarocchi] was the term "tarocchi of new invention" reported by Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo (1549-1589) talking about different games in his work The Universal Plaza of all professions in the world, published in 1585. In mentioning this, Garzoni made reference to what would have been said by Francesco Maffei, called Volterrano or Volaterrano from his city of origin, Volterra.


The phrase is reported in the Chapter on Players in General, and in particular, where, after having discussed the games of the ancients, he comes to dealing with those of his time, among them the tarot [tarocchi], in which he writes: “Some others are tavern games, such as mora, quoits, keys and cards, either ordinary ones, or tarocchi, recently invented according to Volterrano: in which are to be seen Coins, Cups, Swords, Batons, the ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, the Ace, the King, the Queen, the Knight, the Page, the World, Justice, the Angel, the Sun, the Moon, the Star, the Fire, the Devil, Death, the Hanged Man, the Old Man, the Wheel, Fortitude, Love, the Chariot, Temperance, the Pope, the Popess, the Emperor, the Empress, the Bagatella, the Fool (1); and with carte fine [French-style cards] hearts, flowers, and pikes; where one played at tarocchi, at primaera, at Moro with Brescian receiving one of forty at least at a time, at trionfitti, at trappola, at flusso, at flussata, at bassetta, at cricca, at thirty, at forty, à minoretto, at thirty-one for strength or for love, at Raus, at the card of the merchant, at pisciare, at cede bonis, at herbette, at sequentia, at calling, at three, two, ace, at to give cartaccia, at banco fallito [failed bank], & others similar" (2).


Speaking therefore of cards, both the common ones, that is, the decks consisting only of number and court cards, and the tarot. i.e. those to which were added the 22 Triumphs, Garzoni. in reference to the latter and citing what Volterrano would have written about it, that it is "newly invented", proves that he does not know the cards in depth, having to rely on the contemporary explanation of another personage. No wonder: Garzoni in his Universal Plaza talks about every human activity and it would be unthinkable to know every aspect of them. So much so that, to talk about the tarot, he relies on what Maffei had expressed the in a work he did not mention. Garzoni therefore was not aware that the Triumphs were already present in Italy since the early fifteenth century, about one hundred and fifty years before the publication of his work. Obviously they could not be considered a game "of new invention".


At this point it is necessary to know the meaning of "of new invention", i.e. how long before this attribution the object could have made its appearance, which we will do by citing what we wrote about it in our essay The Prince: “This conjecture in reference to the practice of use is commonly supported by historians of the Middle Ages. A single example will suffice: from Chiara Frugoni we are informed that eyeglasses were invented around the year 1285, based on the fact that the Dominican Giordano da Pisa, in his sermon of 1305 delivered at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, cites them as dating back to about twenty years before: ‘Not yet twenty years have passed since the art of making eyeglasses was invented, for seeing well; one of the best and most necessary arts that the world has, and it is from such a short time that it has been invented: a new art, which previously did not exist.’ And the reader [Giordano da Pisa] said: I saw the one who first invented it and practiced it, and talked to him’” (Non è ancora venti anni che si trovò l’arte di fare gli occhiali, che fanno vedere bene; ch’è una de le migliori arti e de le più necessarie che ‘l mondo abbia, e è così poco che ssi trovò: arte novella, che mmai non fu. E disse il lettore: io vidi colui che prima la trovò e fece, e favellaigli) (3). So not only did the good Dominican communicate on the occasion of the sermon that eyeglasses, still unknown in Florence, had been invented about twenty years previously, but also asserted that their creation had taken place at what was considered a very short time before. An affirmation that suggests that for the men of that age twenty years had to be considered a short period of time, and that it was therefore a recent invention.


For the tarot to be cited as a card game "of new invention" at the time of the publication of Garzoni’s book does not make sense since, as mentioned, Triumphs were known for about one hundred and fifty years. It acquires instead the time from when Garzoni attributes that phrase to Volterrano. We will see why


Some historians have hypothesized that Garzoni deduced this statement from the volume Commentariorum Urbanorum XXXVIII Libri published in 1506, in the Chapter “De ludo diverso quo summi viri quandoque occupati fuerunt” (On the various games in which great men were occupied whenever). But in reality the phrase reported by Garzoni as attributed to Maffei is not found in that Chapter. The first thing historians wondered was whether it was present in another volume, but because, according to the research done by Robert Steele on the entire book produced by Volterrano, that phrase would seem not to exist, it became necessary to identify the link that connected the phrase "of new invention" by Garzoni with what Volterrano wrote about the tarot. Is it possible that the phrase could instead be found in a work by Volterrano that has not surivived, of which today we do not know its existence? This hypothesis has not been taken into consideration by any historian.


Prof. Michael Dummett, professor of formal logic at Oxford University and author of several monumental works on the history of the Tarot, identified, in his opinion, this connection. This is the original text: “The explanation appears to be that Garzoni meant that playing cards in general were a recent invention, and that he was alluding to the remark by Maffei that ‘Chartarum vero & sortium & divinationis ludi priscis additi sunt ab avaris ac perditis inventi’ (‘To the ancient games have been added those of cards and of lots and of divination, invented by covetous and dissolute men’). This remark occurs in the section ‘De ludo diverso quo summi viri quandoque occupati fuerunt' of book XXIX of the Commentaria Urbana (p. 421 verso of the Rome, 1506, edition, p. 313 verso of the Paris, 1511, edition, and p. 694 of the Basle, 1559, edition; the second ampersand, present in the 1506 and 1511 editions, is missing from that of 1559). Maffei is meaning to convey by this observation no more than that the games he is referring to were not played in classical times. Garzoni was not, therefore, quoting him in support of any thesis that the tarot was of recent invention, only as saying that playing cards are of modern, as opposed to ancient, origin” (4). 


In supporting this, Dummett stresses that it is impossible for the tarot was of new invention since, as we have already observed, they existed for over a hundred years after the publication of Garzoni and at least fifteen from 1451 or the birthdate of Maffei. For this reason he interprets the phrase "of new invention" as referring to the game of cards in general and not specifically to tarot, considering how in ancient times the game of cards was not contemplated, differently from the time when Garzoni published his work.


First of all, it is necessary to observe the structure of the sentence of interest that could, through the insertion of the commas, to corroborate Dummett's thesis: “[…] e le carte, ò communi, ò Tarocchi, di nuova invenzione, secondo il Volterrano” ([...] and the cards, whether common, or Tarot, of new invention, according to Volterrano).


But why did Garzoni, citing Volterrano, define the tarot as "of new invention"? Maffei's book came out in 1506, that is, after the fifteenth century Ludus Triumphorum or game of Triumphs was superseded by the Ludus Tarochorum, the game of Tarot [Tarocchi]. Since the first document that speaks of the new game belongs to the Estense Court dated 1505 (5), it is obvious to suppose that this change must have occurred years before and not abruptly, that is, following logic, it is possible to assume that the two games for some time coexisted together, and that the tarot had prevailed over time, stabilizing at the Este court in 1505. While the term Ludus Triumphorum from the sixteenth century onwards went to identify a particular game of Triumphs, also known as the game of Trionfini or Trionfetti (6), among other things mentioned by Garzoni, the new game of Tarocchi, just because it was new, must have employed different rules of play than the previous Ludus Triumphorum, otherwise it would not make sense to change the name.


Therefore, the attribution to Volterrano by Garzoni of the expression "of new invention", referring only to the tarot, has a precise temporal sense, as that game, in respect to the date of publication of the work by Maffei, would go back to about twenty years previously. This attribution would be consistent with the suggestion that it came from a text by Maffei now lost (7). In any case, in affirming the presence of those cards in the early fifteenth century, Dummett referred to the game of Tarot, while he should have referred to the game of Triumphs. He writes that “the Tarot pack had existed for a hundred and fifty years when Garzoni was writing, and for least fifteen when Maffei was born” (8), which is obviously a mistake, since those cards assumed the name of Tarocchi only in the second half of the 15th century.


Dummett published his theory in 1980, when the distinction between the two types of game and name had not yet been discovered, but because our interpretation is also considered a hypothesis, we are sorry that Dummett left us: It would be extremely interesting to know his evaluation, if he had known the difference between the two Ludus and the date on which the Ludus Triumphorum changed into Ludus Tarochorum.




1 - A historian of the seventeenth century who reported the phrase quoted by Garzoni, drawing up a list of Trionfi copied almost slavishly from the latter, was Andreas Senftleben, who in De Alea Veterum (Lipsia [Leipzig], 1667), still referring to the indicated work of Volterrano, writes in Chapter XVIII: "De nova etiam Chartarum Invention Volateranus ait, quod in illis scriptæ sint (On the new invention still of cards, said Volterrano, who has written on them) Monetæ, Scyphi, Gladii, Caducei, X, IX , VIII, VII, VI, V, IV, III, [II Missing], I, Rex, Regina, Eques, Viator pedestris, Mundus, Justitia, Angelus, Sol, Luna, Stella, Ignis, Diabolus, Mors, Patibulum, Senex, Rota Fortunæ, Propugnaculum [Instead of attributing to this Triumph the name of the virtue of Fortitude the author makes an error identifying it as a physical structure, i.e. a fortress], Amor, Currus, Temperantia, Summus pontifex, Papissa, Imperator, Imperatrix, Minimus & denique Stultus" (pp. 237-238).

2 - Our edition of reference: Tomaso Garzoni da Bagnacavallo, La Piazza Universale di tutte le Professioni del Mondo, e Nobili et Ignobili. Nuovamente formata e posta in luce [The Universal Plaza of all the Professions of the World, Noble and Ignoble. Newly formed and brought to light], In Venice, Printed by Gio. Battista Somasco, MDLXXXVI [1586], p. 574.

3 - Chiara Frugoni, Medioevo sul naso. Occhiali, bottoni e altre invenzioni medievali [Middle Ages on the Nose. Eyeglasses, Buttons and other medieval inventions], Rome, Laterza, 2001, Chap. I p. 3. See: Giordano da Pisa Quaresimale fiorentino 1305-1306, critical edition by C. Delcorno, Sansoni, Florence, 1974, Sermon XV (23 February 1305), p. 75.

4 - Michael Dummett, The Game of Tarot, London, Duckworth, 1980, p. 389.

5 - The first known document in which the term Tarochi refers to the game, is an accounts register of the Este court concerning the second semester 1505, in an annotation dated 30 June. It then reappears a second time in the same register on December 26th.

6 - In this regard, read the essay Triumphs, Trionfini and Trionfetti.

7 - Suffice it to say, with regard to lost works, that in the musical field, for example, manuscripts of famous authors of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth eenturies are currently being discovered, of which absolutely nothing was known of their existence.

8 - Michael Dummett, op. cit., p. 389.