Explaining the Tarot

Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack is a translation of two early essays on the meaning of tarot, which view the cards as reflecting the structure of society and the meaning of life.

By Marco Ponzi & Ross Caldwell & Thierry Depaulis · Book - 56 pages · Published by Maproom Publications

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

I am often amazed at the material that comes my way. In the case of ”Explaining the Tarot”, I am simply in awe. This book reflects an incredible work ethic, and a true coming together of some very big names in the Tarot community. The authors express gratitude to a series of people, and I am going to include that list here: Giordano Berti, Claire Lesage, Franco Pratesi, Giorlamo Zorli, and the team of the Tarot History Forum.

As the title indicates, two Italian Renaissance essays are translated in this book. One is by a known author (Francesco Piscina, “Discorso”), while the other is by an unknown author (Anonymous Discorso). The texts are deemed nearly contemporary by the authors (Caldwell, Depaulis, and Ponzi), yet they could not have influenced each other. Piscina’s book was published in southern Piedmont, while the anonymous book never seems to have been printed at all. It is indicated in the introduction that the anonymous essay follows the “B” type Tarot trump order, indicating that it must have been written in a Ferrarese context. Both texts address the meanings of the trumps and the suit cards from the perspective of philosophy, religion, poetry, contemporary science and the rules of the game of Tarot itself.

Both essays address the cards as being more than a game. They view the cards as reflecting the structure of society and the meaning of life. In this respect the Tarot is then placed alongside chess, regular playing cards and dice as avenues of reflection on the human condition.

Piscini’s “Discorso” is a lighthearted look at the ordering of the trumps. It is also postulated by the authors that it may well be the first attempt to “moralize” the Tarot. It is interesting to note that Piscini was prompted to write this essay upon seeing an honored gentle Lady of the city playing the game. The “good order” of the trumps was supposedly an indication that the inventor of the game was a ”good and loyal follower of the Catholic and Christian faith”.

In their introduction to the “Anonymous Discorso”, the authors indicate several unsolved problems. The text is only in manuscript, is unsigned and undated. It is appearing translated in this book for the first time. It is of a more formal nature than Piscini’s work, and was composed to deliberately fill a void in the moralizing literature on games. The suits are related to the four “goals” of human life – riches, arms, literature and pleasure.

The trumps are divided into two classic ethical divisions – the active life (from the Fool to the Devil), and the contemplative life (from the Heavens to the World). The meat of the essay describes how and why the trumps follow each other in succession.

The essays are presented with the original text on the left hand page, and the translation on the right hand page. They are well footnoted and commented on, with a bibliography and index at the end of the book.

For anyone interested in the history of the Tarot, or in simply studying the sequence of the cards, this is a must read book. The scholarship is excellent, and the material is quite easy to follow. This is a stunning addition to any Tarot library.

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer.

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