Regular playing cards and tarot cards are interconnected in several ways.
During 1375 through 1380 in Islamic Spain, playing cards became popular. It soon
quickly spread to the rest of Europe, especially among the Christian population. The
regular deck of playing cards was composed of 52 cards (the same as today‘s regular
deck without the two jokers). The first tarot deck consisted of 56 cards, 14 cards per
suit (the modern deck is 13 cards per suit, thus a total of 52 cards), then 21 trumps
and The Fool card was added to form the standard 78-card tarot deck.
The 21 trump cards and The Fool card are what makes up the
Tarot cards, however, have constantly developed for about 40 years after 1377. Tarot cards were initially known as Trionfi,
which means triumphs, but eventually became to be known as Tarochhi, and then Tarot. The
first evidential text of the tarot card‘s origin is what is left of the written works of Martiano da
The specific date when Tortona‘s text was written is unknown but it can be approximated as
somewhere between 1418 and 1425 because the painter Michelino da Besozzo, who discovered this
text, returned to Milan in 1418, and Tortona died in 1425. Though we cannot be completely assured
that tarot cards have not existed earlier than this time, it is the most logical date in terms of
solid evidence. Furthermore, it seems highly implausible that tarot cards could date much further
back than 1418 since the Tortona text itself already dates about 15 years earlier than any of the
other authentic documents, thus even 1418 may be a date that is about a decade too early.
Nonetheless, Tortona‘s text is treated as the first evidential piece of writing for the
development of tarot cards because around 25 years later, a well-known speaker of Tortona‘s time,
Jacopo Antonio Marcello, addressed the deck in one of his letters as
ludus triumphorum, which is a term that is often used as an indicator of tarot-related
objects, especially in correspondence to playing cards.
The descriptions that Martiano da Tortona gives of the Tarot cards, however, is not of the
typical tarot cards in the modern world. It is rather an underdeveloped version for which it only
consists of 16 trumps, has a distinguishable difference in motifs (Greek gods), and the suits
are four kinds of birds as opposed to the more familiar Italian suits. The similarities between
the Tortona deck and the regular tarot deck lies in its reference and use; it was referred
to as trump cards used for a card game.
The evidences of tarot origin following Tortona documents are two other card decks, Bera-Brambrilla
and Cary-Yale-Tarocchi, both of which are from Milan, along with three documents from Ferrara, Italy.
Although the two decks of playing cards do not have a written record that tell us a precise date, it is assumed by many professionals that they were created sometime around 1440. The three
documents date from January 1441 to July 1442, during which the term Trionfi appeared in February 1442.
There are very few documents, or any sort of record, after 1442 that confirms the continuance or
modification of the playing cards, thus it is somewhat safe to assume that there was no major
distribution for the next 7 years.
All these early documents suggest that the origins of the Trionfi cards were from the
upper class of Italian society, specifically of Milan and Ferrara. During this time period in Europe,
these specific places were the major areas, and not many decks existed.
These early forms of tarocchi cards already show a significant difference from the normal playing
cards just by the unique motif that each tarocchi trump possesses. According to the historical
contexts, these motifs were ideologically given. The motifs on the tarocchi cards suggested
philosophical, social, poetical, astronomical, and heraldic ideas.
For quite some time, tarot cards were considered to be more fitting for the upper class in society as
opposed to the middle and lower classes. However, The Roman Catholic Churches (often were the most
influential and powerful in European society at that time) along with other types of governmental bodies did not always prohibit the use of tarot cards to certain people. In fact, in some places they
were not even mentioned in laws. On the other hand, there were also places that claimed that tarot cards
suggested evil conceptions and notions, and thus banned its possession.
The earlier tarot cards all had to be hand-made, thus consuming quite a significant amount of time
to produce a deck. It was only after the printing press had been invented that tarot cards were allowed
to be mass produced.
Day, Christian, and Sandra M Power "Tarot History" Salem Tarot Dec 2006
Little, Tom T "A Tarot History Site" The Hermitage 11 June 1999 Dec 2006
Little, Tom T "Evaluating Tarot Origin Theories" The Hermitage 1999 Dec 2006
"Tarot History" Tarotpedia 31 Mar 2007 Dec 2006 <http://www.tarotpediacom/>.
"Tarot: Origin and History" Trionfi Dec 2006 <http://trionficom/>.
"Tarot" Wikipedia 30 Mar 2007 Wikimedia Foundation Inc Dec 2006