The Historical Tarot 3: Symbols and Influences
Some early philosophical and cultural backgrounds
The first two parts of this series on the Historical Tarot examined what we do—and don’t—know about Tarot history, and explored the stories art can tell us. Part 2 left off with the question of which came first: the beautiful hand-painted cards now housed in various museums, or the early printed Tarots that became the basis of popular “modern” decks.
Many ideas about the origin of Tarot were shaped by a few scholars who depended largely on the belief that hand-painted cards were the earliest Tarots. And in fact, a whole social-historical approach to Tarot history has been based on the assumption that the Visconti-type painted cards were the prototypes of the deck, given that the surviving examples of painted cards are older than any known printed trumps by at least twenty or thirty years. 
And yet . . .
Chickens and Eggs
In his 1986 book Tarot Symbolism, Robert O’Neill disagreed with the paintings-to-print assumption. He pointed out that valuable hand-painted decks were likely to have been carefully preserved, whereas printed ones would have been discarded when they became worn — so it should not be surprising that painted cards have survived longer.
The “which-came-first” question is important because, as O’Neill observes, the early printed trumps were often more interesting in their symbolism than the hand-painted decks. In the Visconti cards, for example, the figures on the Wheel of Fortune are human; the asses’ ears that symbolize their foolishness are not growing from their heads, but are part of the gold background.
By contrast, some of the early printed cards depict animal figures, or figures that are part animal and part human; in one late-fifteenth-century printed deck, the Wheel is surmounted by an animal figure resembling the jackal-headed Egyptian god, Anubis.
Because the painted decks have less of the overt psychological and/or magical symbolism found in the popular printed decks, the question of sequence is relevant in considering whether the original Tarot was “meaningful” in some way, or just a form of casual entertainment. O’Neill argues that 15th-century court painters were expected to produce art that flattered their patrons — and since relations between the Italian nobility and the common people were not warm, it seems unlikely that the populace would be eager to imitate the imagery of court decks.
O’Neill also contends that painters in those days were not usually creators, but rather craftsmen, which suggests that artists who created the hand-painted Tarot decks were probably elaborating on existing images.
But most intriguing of all is O’Neill’s last argument on this subject:
There are seven partial decks now existing which appear to be derived from the original deck designed by Bembo. Among all of these survivors there is not a single example of the Devil or Tower cards. The probability of losing these cards by chance from among the surviving decks is twelve in 10,000.
So I will argue that they were not lost by chance. They never formed a part of the hand-painted decks [because] when the ducal parton commissioned a deck to be played at court, he requested that these dismal cards be omitted from the deck since they were unsuitable for the ladies.
Whatever the reason may have been for an apparent omission of The Devil and The Tower from hand-painted decks, the fact of their absence could argue in favor of the primacy of the printed decks. It seems unlikely that these two “dark” cards would have been added by cardmakers to a set of images already established by the painter or patron of the trumps — but it is quite believable that the nobles would choose to leave out of their richly painted decks images they thought to be common, or unsuitable for life at court.
That’s all hypothesis, of course. But it raises interesting areas for thought. Even though we now know that the Tarot originated in Renaissance Italy — rather than Egypt, Atlantis, or India — it doesn’t necessarily follow that the images have no symbolic significance.
In fact, O’Neill and others have made an effective argument that the imaginative atmosphere of the early Italian Renaissance was more than sufficient to produce all the symbolic power captured in the Tarot.
On the Cusp
Further along in Tarot history —late in the 18th century — an explicitly “esoteric” or “occult” interpretation of Tarot will emerge. But in concluding the present survey of early Tarot, we can look at some lines of esoteric influence that converged in the Renaissance, and consider whether they might have incubated the Tarot.
In a sense, the two “borders” of the historical Tarot were Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320) and Shakespeare’s earliest plays (1590). In between those two points, almost everything changed. And the midpoint of the period occurred in 1455 — exactly the time when Tarot was taking on its characteristic form.
This pivotal century saw a gradual, but dramatic shift from the intensely religious and hierarchical world of the high Middle Ages to the more intellectually open atmosphere of the early Renaissance. There were many contributing factors, of course. But in relationship to Tarot, we can look at four particularly significant developments:
early stirrings of Neoplatonist scholarship
a revival of interest in magic and Hermetic philosophy
the continued survival of Gnostic beliefs, and
the revitalized tradition of ars memoria
Perhaps the strongest of such influences was Neoplatonism, a philosophical construct based on the works of Plato (4th century BC) and elaborated centuries later by syncretist philosophers like Plotinus and Iamblichus (3rd and 4th centuries AD). The Neoplatonists held that mystical experience is the true goal of life — a notion that proved fascinating to the adventurous scholars of Renaissance Italy.
By 1440, a Platonic Academy dedicated to the study of Neoplatonist doctrines was established in Florence. Among the influential thinkers in this group were Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino.
The Florentine Academy was to become a focal point of the Renaissance interest in magia — a Christianized magical doctrine based on the idea that a network of sympathetic relationships links every facet of creation, and that these relationships can be used by the “magus,” or magical practitioner, to manipulate the material world.
An important influence on the Florentine group occurred when they were introduced to a collection of texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum, which had long been lost to the West. Its doctrine of correspondences (“as above, so below”) and complex cosmology seemed to confirm many ideas that were circulating in the early Renaissance, and it quickly became an important text.
The story of its influence will be taken up in more detail when we begin to look at the evolution of esoteric Tarot. Suffice it to say for now that although the Corpus was in fact quite old (most of it dating to the early centuries of the Christian era) it was not — as the Neoplatonists believed — an ancient repository of primordial wisdom.
Both magia and Neoplatonism inherited some of their conceptual background from Gnosticism, a religious and philosophical movement of the Hellenistic and early Christian eras. Gnostic doctrine held that the universe expresses a conflict between the spiritual and the material, between good and evil; and that the power to overcome this duality comes only through the attainment of special knowledge — gnosis.
A fourth stream flowing into the Renaissance imagination was the ars memoria, or art of memory. This technique of creating mental structures
(such as a journey or a building) to store and recall information had been developed in ancient Greece as a simple device for expanding the capacity
of memory, in a time when written materials were scarce.
But the idea was carried much further in the 13th century, especially by Ramon Lull — and through a coalescence with Jewish letter and number mysticism, ars memoria became not only a sophisticated way to organize knowledge, but also a method for achieving higher states of consciousness. Both practices reached their highest point in the late 16th century, with the work of Giordano Bruno.
All of these ideas (and many more which flourished in the Renaissance) have been linked with the Tarot. For example, several authors have suggested the Tarot images might have been used by hidden groups of Gnostic heretics — such as the Waldensians or the Albigensians — to preserve and disseminate their theology.
Others have proposed that the Tarot images were used for the practice of ars memoria, or for magical meditation. There have been efforts as well to link Tarot imagery with the complex, mysterious world of alchemy.
And it’s easy enough to see a general resemblance with all these systems of thought. But in spite of much searching, there seems to be no evidence of
direct links. It’s more likely that Tarot reflects, in a general way, the 15th century’s intense application of imagination to a project of understanding and illustrating reality — from microcosm to macrocosm. 
Whatever the origins of Tarot symbolism may have been in those early days, it seems there was little exploitation of their symbolic power. Only the scantiest evidence suggests the cards were perceived as anything more than gaming devices — and what little there is appears mainly in the sensitive renderings of some of the early Tarot artists, and in the later, occasional use of the trumps as allegories in poetry.
One Italian poet, around 1550, compared the ladies of the court of Isabella D’Este of Ferrara to the trumps, saying that one of the ladies was like The Chariot because she “triumphs as a woman by her greatness,” while another was like The Fool, because her beauty included her craziness!
There may also have been some early awareness of the psychological richness of the Tarot trumps. Girolamo Gargagli wrote in 1572 of seeing the game of tarocchi played, and “each participant was given the name from a card, and then the reasons were stated aloud why each participant had been attributed to such a tarocchi card.” This provocative note suggests that even in those days, the Tarot could have been used to probe the depths of personality.
Still earlier, in 1527, the trumps had appeared in a play by Merlini Cocai, where their use could fairly be described as “fortunetelling.” The protagonist Limerno is asked to compose sonnets based on four “readings” with the Tarot trumps. These readings were apparently accomplished by dealing out the cards (five each for the men, six each for the women) and interpreting the “fates” they described. 
Limerno’s version of these fates, however, seems more along the lines of character-reading and general philosophizing than true divination. In fact,
no specific reference to divination with “cards” was recorded until 1540,
and in that instance, there is no clear mention of the trumps.
So consider this: During the early Renaissance, the study of philosophical systems was a thriving enterprise. Alchemy, astrology, and natural magic were the preoccupations of great men — from Ficino and Pico to Giordano Bruno and John Dee, along with many others. Quantities of books were written on metaphysical subjects of all kinds
But not a word about the Tarot.
And that is a very curious fact, because the Tarot deck seems so naturally suited to esoteric interpretation. In fact, as soon as people began to look for esoteric structures in the Tarot, they found an embarrassment of riches.
By the end of the 18th century, a wellspring of such speculation had bubbled up — which leads to a new chapter in our investigation of Tarot history.
The earliest surviving woodblock-print playing cards were manufactured in 1440, but only court cards remain from this deck, so it is not known whether it was a Tarot deck or not; the earliest printed trump cards that have survived date from sometime late in the fifteenth century. (The uncut sheets referenced in the captions for illustrations in this story are generally thought to date from around 1500.)
Suggestions about esoteric influences on the early Tarot can be found in several classic books — Alfred Douglas’s The Tarot, Paul Hudson’s The Devil’s Picturebook, and Richard Cavendish’s The Tarot. More recently, Robert K. Place has done much work in this area.
As to why the men in Cocai’s play received five cards and the women six, I can offer no illumination. But if you’d like to form your own opinion, the text itself is partially presented in Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. 2.