Sunday, September 17, 2023

Aug. 20, 2023: Brescia 1786 - almanac on the tarot

Translator's introduction: This is my attempt at a translation of Franco's "Brescia 1786 - almanacco sul tarocco," at It is a machine translation corrected by me as best I can. I cannot hope for it to be authoritative, but only to make Franco's research more accessible to readers not familiar with the Italian language. A few comments of my own follow the translation. 

Brescia 1786: almanac on the tarot

Franco Pratesi                 

1. Information and research

    In recent months I have been researching the first editions published in Milan at the end of the eighteenth century on the game of tarocchi. Thierry Depaulis[1] had reported them as still remaining to be studied despite the fact that Dummett and McLeod[2] had used many subsequent reprints of them in their fundamental treatise on tarot games. The results of my studies have been included on a website and among these I would like to highlight two[3] because they highlighted a series of three editions of an unknown manual which, unlike the others, taught precisely the most convenient ways of playing.
   Here, however, I am studying for the first time an apparently similar almanac, which we will see has practically only the title similar: The rules for playing tarot well, or Practical observations on the said Game. Unpublished work by a famous author. Almanac for the year 1787. Brescia (1786). Of particular interest is the date, an almanac for 1787, and therefore almost certainly already printed in 1786, in any case before the Milanese editions studied. This isn't even a Milanese edition, but a Brescian one, truly unusual.
    This rare example was also reported to me privately by Thierry Depaulis, who had found the title in the bibliography of a well-known book on the history of playing cards.[4] Naturally, I immediately started the research by checking the main digitalized catalogs available online; this research ended with the result that only one copy of this almanac was preserved throughout the world, in the collection of the US Playing Card Society. I don't know if that entire collection, or just a part, was then transferred to the Vanderbilt University library; certainly, the work to be studied is found there today.
    I had had the opportunity to contact libraries in the USA several times and I had never encountered any difficulties, indeed in some cases they seemed "closer" to me than some of the European and even Italian ones. I therefore confidently wrote to the library asking for information: in particular I needed the scans, but only of the part on the tarot cards, and I didn't know how many and what the relevant pages were, before the calendar and any other miscellaneous information typically present in that type of almanacs. I was then waiting for the response to order the exact number of scans. The answer didn't reach me. Fortunately, on the library's web page there are the addresses of the librarians with their portraits, roles, and specializations, in an incredibly large number; almost all of them appear smiling and suggest kindness and helpfulness. I chose a lady who specialized in Italian books, but she didn't answer me; I tried to contact a lady curator of the section involved, with the same result; in the end I didn't get any response even from the director of the entire section himself.
    To understand and seek help I tracked down the address of the librarian who had been in charge of the USPCS collection before it moved to Vanderbilt; he replied that he also understood that those librarians were not very helpful towards scholars who asked for personal assistance, and he couldn't help me; he suggested a possible intermediation to gain access, which however didn't work.
    I had recently had very useful assistance from Francesco Cignoni of the State Library of Cremona, a library that has some form of association with that of Brescia, and so I asked him if those two libraries could find a suitable opportunity to request the scans. So Marina Gentilini, from the interlibrary loan service in Cremona, made a standard request and incredibly quickly received a free scan of the entire almanac, including the covers, in a short time. All's well that ends well.

2. Summary of the text

   In general, we learn that a certain Abbot Cantelli was interested in the developments of science and sought useful applications for the people; in the environment, there were those who did not follow him, but there were also scholars who continued his research after his premature death. He had left various writings, including one dedicated to the game of tarocchi, from which some suggestions are taken here, with also references to other cases that make us understand the versatility of that "scientific" method.
   After the Preface, we get to the heart of the "instructions". The 6 of Coins is “the unhappiest card”; if it turns up, you must discard it as soon as possible, preferably on the opponents' tricks to reduce the loss. The Page of Cups was considered this way in the century past, but Cantelli's research has shown that it is a card like any other. The Ace of Batons, considered an "omen of misfortune" for fifteen years, has been confirmed as an unfortunate card equal to or worse than the 6 of Coins. The widely followed habit of systematically discarding swords is not recognized as valid. The right to raise before the distribution must not be waived.
   By winning 13 points in the first hand, if in the second you lose even one, you lose the game; However, if you win a few more points it becomes double. Reaching 31 in three hands, the game will be won easily, and between four experts the fourth hand is not even played. However, if the points are less than 30, a favorable contract can be made to achieve a simple and not double loss. There follows an

example of a change from 28 to 35 points with the hope of winning triple and then an error in the fourth hand and a simple loss; then another with a similar outcome.  
   On the first card played in a suit "mostly the player has either only one, or many of that suit, which he plays" [per lo più il giocatore ne ha o una sola, o molte di quel palo, che gioca”]  and therefore the King must be played immediately. On the partner's King, the Queen must be given without hesitation.
   Example of the jurist: playing with someone who knew the rules, he sees that everything that was predicted occurs and asks for explanations. The answer is that experience teaches us, as in the case of cats who, if born in March, are better at catching mice; black hens are better than white ones for headaches, dark-haired cows give more milk than light-colored ones. Dr. Balbi of Bologna was unable to cure a tertian patient but when asked how much he had to suffer, he replied that he would be cured on the solstice, as he was. Explanation? The doctor's response was that no merit was attributed to the treatment because it was simply experience that taught him that those fevers pass on their own with the seasons. It is surprising that jurists, like the ecclesiastics introduced shortly after, do not engage enough in the game of tarot.  
   On the playing of Lotto [the lottery], observations have shown that dreams are deceptive, while it may be that a low moon corresponds to low numbers and vice versa for high ones. On the game of Pharaoh, studies are still underway, but there is the risk that when scholars find a valid system they will not be able to apply it. 
   The rules are useless "when you operate differently", as happens with the "witty Ladies" who talk about other things while playing and lose a lot of money. The abbot's last observation concerns the study of "knowing how to raise well" which remained unfinished due to his premature death; there is only criticism of young people who make them divide.

3. Comments and conclusion  

The first comment that immediately comes to mind is that this text is different from all the others of the genre and that it can also be considered an exception as a way of "teaching" the rules of tarocchi. Other booklets of this kind could also be criticized, as they typically limited themselves to teaching only the penalties incurred by players who made mistakes, but in this case you learn nothing, or almost nothing, from reading the text.
   The text is very incorrect and also ungrammatical, for several reasons. The first is the use of antiquated terms, the second is spelling with errors repeated partly in a coherent manner, partly intermittently - and in this regard, the lack of experience and attention of those who composed these pages for the press is also evident. This contributes, but is not the primary reason, to the rambling character of the whole text. The presence of some Latin phrases which in effect simply translate what has already been written in Italian is not enough to raise the level.
   Once the reading difficulties have been overcome, there remain some difficulties in understanding the environment, which were probably not felt by the readers of the time, starting with the "Cantellian theories" themselves and their respective followers. The main question is how seriously the thing was to be taken. Possibly everything lent itself to a double reading: those who were seriously trying to learn something here, those who laughed about it - read today, naturally only the second remains.
   In the Preface, we begin with the protagonist of the whole discussion, Abbot Cantelli, the presumed author of a work on tarocchi that the publisher uses for publication. I haven't found any traces of him in the encyclopedias, and therefore he could be a completely invented character. I think rather of a “natural philosopher” known in the environment. Given how he is quoted, and how his followers are presented, one could also think of a derision of scholars who spend their time making calculations on astrological observations, in order to derive useful information for the most diverse practical cases. In contrast to such a hypothesis is the news of the premature death of the protagonist: no one insists on making fun of a personage who recently died young.
   Leaving aside the protagonist, the abbot author behind the suggestions; let us examine the suggestions themselves and, above all, the environment that is shown to us. In the background are the scholars

of astronomy, or rather astrology, but their presence serves to give strength to the suggestions and  to enhance the progress of knowledge in the scientific field. In the foreground is the population of players, first of all the tarocchi players, but then also of other games including the lottery, with their long-standing habits and their credulity. Typical in this regard is the habit of playing lottery numbers based on dreams, a custom that lasted (and lasts!) for a long time; in this context, confidence in the position of the moon no longer appears scientific to us.
   A recurring aspect is the need to come to the table to play tarocchi with a good knowledge of the "scientific" rules. The jurists on the one hand and the ecclesiastics on the other would seem to be the best predisposed to take the game seriously, also due to the commitment necessary to reach their professions, but those among them who prove themselves to be good tarocchi players are an exception and not the rule; they are therefore invited, as a category, to dedicate themselves to learning and practice. But the greatest attention goes to another category, that of women: they are described as distracted and incompetent players, so much so that they systematically lose a lot of money; hence the recommendation to women to study and not show up at the gaming table to make the usual "sad appearance".
   Perhaps the most important information for the history of the game is that in Brescia it is known that "The game of Tarocchi has now come into fashion not only in the conversations in Italy, but also in different parts of Europe". The game of Tarocchi is seen as a fashionable game in gaming halls. It happened with the game of hombre, it will happen with whist – long-lasting and European-wide fashions. Evidently in these "conversations" was not played with small change. As a rule, these were the cream of society, people who could lose a lot of money before they were completely ruined; even passing players who came from nearby locations - such as the Milanese patrician and the Como knight -  were evidently part of the higher social class.
   We learn little about the actual game of tarocchi, and nothing that we didn't know from other sources. Some habits of players are criticized, such as that of systematically choosing the cards of the suit of spades for discarding, or that of giving up raising the stakes before the distribution. The various levels of losses and the attention necessary to avoid increasing the liabilities are encountered.
   We are struck, and this is new, by the fact that there were cards considered harmful. This about the tarocchi still has nothing to do with the Egyptian ideas of Court de Gébelin; here they are long-standing local traditions: in one case we are talking about fifteen years, but in another we are even talking about a century. It seems indicative to me that these "special" cards are not found among the tarocchi, but among the cards of the common deck, which suggests that the same cards also had that fame in other games. We aren’t talking about cartomancy, but if some cards have an ominous meaning it is possible that there are others with an auspicious meaning and, above all, one can imagine that they retained that meaning even outside the game, for example by randomly extracting them from the deck to see which one happened. This path is imaginary, but from here the journey towards - if not from - divination is still very short.

4. Full copy of the text [Translator’s note: this translation should not be relied upon in detail, because of the text’s misspellings, grammatical errors, archaic expressions, etc., which are beyond the translator’s scope to deal with.]

   /p.3/ PREFACE. Unfortunately [reading pur troppo as purtroppo], the tireless effort practiced by the famous Abbate Cantelli on various subjects and objects aimed at enlightening with patriotic zeal people eager to learn the sciences that were previously recondite is well known to the public.
   Among his other laborious experiments, which could be gleaned from his writings and Cantellian followers, said author set to work making all the most minute astronomical observations on the game of Tarocchi. /p. 4/ Perhaps such effort practiced by the immemorial Cantelli will seem popular and ridiculous; but if men of common sense penetrate to the core, they will know that the proposed system is more advantageous and profitable than anything else the designers of our times can invent.
   A comparison can be made on the basis of the present observations; and on the new systems, which are being spread by modern designers, and they will clearly know that becoming an expert in Tarocarian science is of no expense, where all the current experiments that are being invented by said Designers are almost always useless, and they make those who carry them out poor.

   The game of Tarocco has now come into fashion not only /p.5/ significantly in conversations in Italy, but also in various parts of Europe, and consequently it must push everyone to take possession of the rules, which cost so much sweat to the Author Cantelli.
   In fact, if the Noble Matrons who spend almost all day either in romantic entertainments or in embellishing themselves, now with paintings, and now with vague Garlands, want to consume some portion in the reading of this little Cantellian booklet, they will certainly not make that sad appearance in the evening at the game of Tarocco, which they have already done before with considerable disadvantage to their purse.
   The great Master therefore proposes this more than safe enthymeme in his new writings to those who want to attend /p.6/ the Tarocarian conversations. Either the player wants to put into practice what from long experience with astronomical reflections it has been possible to combine, and then it is certain that the player will make a good appearance, or he wants to neglect the knowledge that is unfortunately too evident, and then he abandons playing, because such a player will always be ridiculous.
   /p.7/ The Celebrated Cantelli says that in the game of Tarocco there is no card more unfortunate than the six of coins, therefore whoever, by bad luck, will have said card should be undeceived, that he will absolutely have to lose points in that hand in sight also of excellent cards; He therefore proposes the remedy so that the loss can be less noticeable.
   Therefore, whoever has the six of coins should immediately try to play it, and make sure that it falls back into the hands of the adversary, finding no other remedy than to hand it over to the enemy party, because according to Astronomical observations, said card brings a pestilential influence, thus it will also be communicated to the adversary, and in this way the loss will be less noticeable.
   In the last /p.8/ century the Page of Cups was kept in view by players as an unfortunate card, but as much as the Author Cantelli sweated over the speculation of said card, he found that it was prejudice that previously dominated, given that it has no influence.
   Therefore the author says, players should not be saddened if they have the Page of Cups, because it has no pestiferous influence, being a card equal to the others, which does not produce anything either malignant or propitious.
   The famous author left nothing relating to the Ace of Batons; Furthermore, it was about fifteen years ago that this card became known to players as a harbinger of misfortune and fatality. In fact, this card is on par with the six of coins, and brings, if not worse, at least equal influences to whoever holds it.
   This advantageous discovery is entirely due to the zeal and tireless study of those who in the most lunar hours, were able to fix the pestilence.
   The famous Author follows says openly, that whoever discards swords, discards on his partner! Who could ever sufficiently praise such a Hero, /p.9/ who was able to match with [coi] continuous Astronomical Calculations, the pestilential influence that leads those who obstinately want to discard swords. He says that he who wants to discard swords at his own discretion will probably find the King in the hands of his partner, and if it is not, the opponent will do so because that King, according to astronomical calculations, is exempt from any storm: He therefore urges all players to abandon such a discard and cling to another pole, and despite the fact that according to the laws of Tarocco it seemed disadvantageous, it will always turn out useful to Professor Canteliano.
   When things go well, don't do anything new, and whoever doesn't raise [azare], doesn't win, says the erudite Master. There are many who do not raise [azare; can also mean “lift up”] the cards, and allow the Adversary to give them out like so. This is madness; while no matter how many mathematical and astronomical experiments the Author has carried out, he has always recognized as a loser those who embrace this practice of not raising. In fact, there is a certain noble Matron, who remains with her hands on her apron, so as not to bother moving her hand to /p.10/ lift up [azare] the cards, she lets the cards go as the discarder likes, and thus remains mocked by the shrewd player.
   Always intent on new discoveries, the erudite Author was able to establish that whoever wins thirteen points in the first hand, if in the second hand he loses even just one point, the game is lost, there is no escape; but if in the second hand he still wins a few points, in that case it is certainly by two [doubled]. This rule is very certain, and therefore Cantelli warns the players to keep an eye on this observation, and try as best they can to reach a transaction: such are the feelings of the Author Cantelli: Si autem una pars tresdecim puncta vicerit in prima manu, punctum aliquod vicerit etiam in secunda, tunc alia pars ludens illico, & immediatè transactionem facere curet; aliter parcella absolute erit de duobus. (But if one party has won thirteen points in the first hand, and has won some point also in the second, then the other party, playing on the spot, shall take care to make a transaction immediately; otherwise the parcel will be absolutely two).
   How excellent Cantelli has ever been, and how exact in his astronomical observations, it seems impossible, and yet it is very certain. He therefore says whoever has reached the winning point 31 in three consecutive hands will never be able to win the game except by one. Which also says the a- /p.11/ stute Cantelli instructing his followers. Make sure that the opposing party, stunned by the loss of so many points, comes to a transaction of two, because if you manage to reduce it you will make a great coup. This is how the learned Cantelli speaks.
   Hortor vos Carissimi, ac dilectissimi Cantelliani ut transactionem faciatis cum parte adversa : Contenti estote si vobis offeratur ocasio lucrandi parcellam de duobus, nam diversimode ludendo nisi de una tantumesse non poterit.
   (I exhort you, Dearest and most beloved Cantellians, to make a transaction with the opposite party: Be Content if you are offered the opportunity of winning a parcel of two, for by playing in different ways it will not be possible to win but one.)
   In fact today, the Cantellian system is so clear that four Cantelians playing, if on the one hand you can win 31 consecutive points in three hands, the fourth is omitted, since it can only be of one alone.
   However, the erudite Champion follows and says, whoever has won less than 30 points in three hands, in the fourth hand will win the game by two. A great man indeed who knew how to form such a perfect calculation with his astronomical reflections.
   Here the acute Cantelli proposes a sure way to avoid losing the game by two, and thus losing it by only one. /p.12/ Do as the author says, show to the opposing party that instead of 28 or 29 points [ponti] you give three or four others, and thus pull them into the Trap [Trappola], surrounding them to cross the 30 points, if that suits you it succeeds, it's done, and in this case the game will be by only one [di una sola].
   Two very recent cases on this particular should be exposed to public view as indisputable proof of what Hero Cantelli has written. In a respectable house it was played by a Cantellian professor who losing 28 points [ponti] in three hands, he immediately had in mind the expedient proposed by the author, and told a Milanese patrician who was an unsure opponent of the Cantellian laws, if tosto [toasted?] more than 28 points he would have desired to have 35., he immediately said he accepted the proposition, and called all those present as witnesses of the stipulated contract.
   Having therefore established the number 35, he moved on to the fourth hand, and when he was claiming victory for the sure win of three, he made a horrendous refusal, and the game remained by only one [rimase la partita di una sola].
   A similar case followed a Knight from Como, to whom, having made the same offer, he accepted it willingly /p.13/ knowing full well that the option of a prudent nation was advantageous, and yet who would believe that despite him passing for a player, and that in his hands he had cards of four honors, and ten Tarochi, yet he was so astonished, that in that hand he made only thirty-three points [ponti]; These cases are evident effects experienced by the famous Cantelli, which do not admit of exceptions.
   The tireless Cantelli did not fail to continue his astronomical reflections on the first play, and says that the first play must always be regarded by the opposing side as venomous, because for the most part the player has either only one, or many of that suit, which he plays, therefore he says that the King must always be given on the first play without any doubt interfering, because prima ludenda, semper timenda, he who then, at the invitation of his partner with the King, will have the Queen, and card, and will want to make a good mood by not always giving it at the King's invitation, and then always losing it in the second hand. In fact, Cantellians, for your glory, hear an event following a virtuous Lady, who was /p.14/ mocking the Cantellian rules.
   She played this, and didn't want to give the queen on her partner's king, so she lost it in the second hand, this case was believed to be a pure accident, but when later her partner played the king, and she wanted to be obstinate as is the feminine style, by not giving her the Queen, equally lost her, and so she too was forced to profess the Cantellian law, and today she has become an eminent observer of the same.
   Not only did the evident facts that followed reduce the incredulous to become Cantellians, but also such facts boiled the heads of several people, and especially of a consulted player.
   Three Cantellians were playing, and as this good man, according to the Cantellian rules, responded what should follow, and in fact everything came true; he was astonished, and the lawyer astounded, and once the games were over, he took a Cantelliano aside, and told him, dear friend, I have seen that everything said in the game, everything occurred without alteration. Please /p.15/ I would like to know from you why this must happen; To which Professor Cantelliano replied, dear friend, you are looking too much, while you want an answer to a question that has no answer. These verified accidents that you observed come from nothing other than the astronomical observations made by the Erudite Cantelli, on which he labored quite a bit to establish an infallible system, and which was corroborated by long experience; dear friend, I can't tell you more, but I want to point out indisputable examples with which the same thing follows.
   Tell me a little why March-born cats are more apt to catch mice than other cats that are born in any other month of the year, I can't tell you why.
   Why black feathered hens are excellent for certain headaches unlike white ones, why the experience made the black ones known as the appropriate ones for said evils, and not the others.
   Why dark-haired cows are better suited to producing milk than light-haired ones, who can justify this except that experience / p.16/ has taught that dark-haired cows are better than light-haired cows? In fact you will always have seen that Bergamo people keep all their cows dark and not light.
   The learned Doctor Balbi from Bologna was treating a patient with tertian fever. No matter how many remedies the talented doctor had used to free the patient from tertian fever, he was unable to do so. Meanwhile the poor patient lay there
grieved without relief from the remedies provided. One day the impatient patient said to the doctor, how long will I have to remain in this painful situation, to which the doctor replied, do not doubt that on the solstice you will be absolutely freed. So the solstice came, and he recovered perfectly. He thanked the Doctor for the salutary advice, who saw it verified in all its parts. And he told them, as Mr. Doctor was able to establish, that I should free myself in this season. The famous Doctor replied, who spoke sincerely and who did not attribute knowledge to himself, as do certain modern physicists who want to attribute to their knowledge what by mere chance /p.17/ yields. He therefore said the reason for your healing you owe to the present season, which with continuous reflections has made it known that such fevers are ceasing by themselves. This, dear friend, is the only reason, nor any other reason can I give you.
   From such incontrovertible examples the good layer remained content and satisfied, and went home happy and full of Cantellian maxims.
   For example, if today's Jurist-experts in their hours of idleness or quiet fell in love with being enlightened by Cantelli's instructions, it would be of great benefit to them as they turned to the fun of the Tarocco to free themselves from the painful hardships of lawyers.
   Cantelli once said, is it possible that people so erudite and full of talent at the game of Tarocco make such a sad appearance that to find someone who knows how to play a game well can be called a prodigy of nature?
   Cantelli had a very enlightened mind, and was always intent on working, very much blaming Color [colui= those?] /p.18/ who spent their entire days in idleness. Cantelli therefore was an exemplary Ecclesiastic and looked with displeasure at the Ecclesiastics, mainly lawyers, who sat idle now in the squares, now in the countryside [companne], spending hours among the landowners; He therefore instilled in said ecclesiastics to enjoy the game of Tarocco but with such ecclesiastical precision.
   Hortor voi carissimi Fratres ut expletis Ecclesiasticis Functionibus ad ludum Tarroccarium incumbatis, cum meliusit, ac laudabilius in hoc modo animum recreare. quam per plateas otiari in cauponis morari, ac invillicorum luguriis conversare.
   (I exhort you, my dearest brethren, to finish your Ecclesiastical Duties and devote yourself to the game of Tarrocco, when it has improved, and to refresh your mind more praiseworthy in this way. rather than loitering in the streets, lingering in taverns, and conversing in peasants' houses).
   The always praised Cantelli applied the game of Lotto [the lottery] quite a bit to the object of whether it was possible to lift poor women and ordinary people out of misery, but no matter how tired they were, the author on astronomical observations and lunar reflections could determine nothing, except that the dreams to which many cling are false, and affect nothing except the misfortune of those who cling to them.
   /p.19/ Where he was able to establish something that might be of interest, it was on the lunations, observing that if the moon at the time of the extractions were low, the points [ponti] that arose were also low, and if they were high, the numbers were also high.
   If the lunations of today run in the manner of Cantelli's times, that and the practice to be followed, if they have changed then it is also appropriate to change the manner of play, but above all leave dreams aside because they will make you increasingly poorer.
   Nowadays various professors of the game of Pharaoh are working day in and day out, with the aim of being able to rediscover with daily astronomical reflections (by the immemorial Cantelli’s example) the way of determining the cards. therefore many try to determine the face, others the Englishman, others the fourth Knave, all of them are in the middle of the lunations applied to strike a system to be held on this matter.
   Up to now it cannot be denied that with their continuous study something has been established, but I fear, and rightly so, that today's blowing wind /p.20/ is certainly not so propitious, even if these Heroes of the century could establish the safe way to play, they could remain with the science, without being able to put it into execution.
   Finally, the virtuous Cantelli, although he was a placid man, even knowing that for many his efforts would have been of no use, under the third chapter where he speaks of male ludentibus, openly protested that his rules should never be of use to those who play badly.
   The author therefore says, what is the use of studying and mastering the Cantellian rules when one operates differently? Of what use are the rules that cost me so much sweat and effort to so many witty ladies, if at the same time, while they hold the cards in their hands, they talk about fashions, bonnets, ribbons, or even hold a conversation with the gallants [young men] besides? Poor Ladies, I cry to see that from month to month your clothing is miserably disappearing, and the true Cantellians, like rapacious wolves, devour it.
   To complete this great work /p.21/ the famous Cantelli recognized it was necessary to know how to raise well, and at the beginning of this work he had greatly disapproved of the manner of certain young players, who found no other way than to have them divided. This was the point on which he was making the observations, but he had to pass to eternal rest at a young age, leaving this great work still imperfect with those rules, which from

astronomical observations equally, as in the other cases specified above, he was able to wisely determine.
   Therefore, true Cantellian followers, it must be important to you, following the wise guidance of the famous Master, to continue the study of astronomical observations and continuous calculations, to establish that truthful point of view, the only means of taking possession of the rule called by the author of the arte levandi, which if you succeed, will also make your name immortal.

[Comment by Franco:] Two pages follow on the Seasons, one on Eclipses, and from p. 25 to p. 48, at last, the Calendar.

Florence, 08.20.2023

[1] Th. Depaulis, The Playing Card. Vol. 38, No. 1 (2009) pp. 9-13.

[2] M. Dummett, J. McLeod, A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack. Lewiston 2004.

[4] C. P. Hargrave, A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming. New York 1966.


Comments by the translator:

What interested me was the intimations of a cartomantic tradition. First, the text seems to me of satiric intent, not describing any actual text or person, but rather a tendency to use cartomantic associations as a winning strategy in the game. By "cartomantic" I mean any predictive inference from being dealt particular cards: "sortilege" is another term for the same inferences. When the text refers to "astronomical" calculations, I think what is meant is not only astrological ones, but anything like them, in the sense of generalizations justified by their efficacy in practice rather than any theoretical underpinning. No one knows why the stars should influence our lives, yet, it is claimed, the fact is, from long experience, that they do. People born in certain signs of the zodiac, as recorded thousands of years ago when the constellations aligned with the dates of people's birth, etc., have the characteristics assigned by the astrological associations with that sign, even if we do not know why. That is the point of the examples of black cows vs. light cows, etc. How hair color may be related to milk production may be unknown, but it is nonetheless true, or so it is claimed. Actually, it is a fact that Holstein cows, of speckled black on white, produce more milk than Jersey cows, which are light brown, but the latter's milk is of higher butterfat content (see e.g.

There is only one correlation noted in the essay that I can see, and it is astronomical rather than astrological:

Where he was able to establish something that might be of interest, it was on the lunations, observing that if the moon at the time of the extractions were low, the points [ponti] that arose were also low,and if they were high, the numbers were also high.
I cannot help wondering if by "lunations" there is also a connotation of "lunacy." Although I cannot find a word for craziness in Italian that overtly relates to the moon, the association was common enough.

The question then is, what is the source of the generalizations advanced in the essay? Is it really a matter of careful empirical studies, or rather just of superstitions deriving from extraneous properties of the cards in question, or their relation to other events, such as the height of the moon in the sky. And to the extent that they are without real basis, what is their origin? 

The recommendation, held to be false, to divest oneself of the suit of swords would seem to be based on the association of swords with war and killing. While sticks can also kill, and poisons in cups, and people can be paid in coins to kill, swords are designed as weapons to kill or maim. If, as is likely from another of Pratesi's studies, the work of Gebelin and de Mellet was known in northern Italy at that time, 1786, it could only reinforce the association. De Mellet says of Swords (Monde Primitif, vol, 8, p. 402), "It appears there is no happy Card in this suit except this one," meaning the Ace. And also:

    The Hearts (Cups), portend happiness.
    The Clubs (the Coins), wealth.
    The  Spades (the Swords), misfortune.
    The Diamonds (the Batons), indifference & the countryside.

De Mellet also speaks of particular cards having particular portents. The Ace of Batons is "the lucky baton, symbol par excellence of Agriculture" (p. 406). It is the card that predicts good crops in his example of Pharaoh's dream. If in Milan the same card is an unfortunate one, that probably has to do with the different role of the Aces in French vs. Italian games. The French predictions, for the suit cards, are based on the pack used to play the game of Piquet: not only are there no 2s-6s, so that there are only 32 cards in the pack, but the Aces were the highest card in each suit. In Tarocchi and other Italian games, Aces were low in Batons and Swords, high in Cups and Coins. Hence the difference in prognostication: while good in Piquet, the reverse in Tarocchi, etc.

Piquet had no 6 of Coins, so that is probably something added in Italy, where Piquet was not a common game. Why it should be particularly unfortunate is not clear. I suspect that in this essay it is just added in mimicry of things that de Mellet does say: for example, speaking of the suit of Batons, he says, "the two alone, in which the batons are the color of blood, seems consecrated to evil fortune" (p. 402).  Here it is the color of the suit-sign in that card that leads to the prediction, not experience. 

If the Page of Cups was considered unfortunate, that is something pertaining to Italy. Why it should be is not clear, since it is a relatively high cards and earns an extra point. Nothing de Mellet and Gebelin say suggests that it is an unfortunate card. All I can think of is that since Cups was associated with love, the Page reflects inexperience, which in that area can be disastrous. We need also to remember that in the previous century the Page of Cups was in some decks female - in Bologna and in Minchiate. That may have played a role, unwanted pregnancies being disasters.

Nonsensical portents are mixed with good advice in this essay. It is good to play one's King early, because  the chances are better that no one is void in that suit at the beginning. It is also good for the partner to play the Queen, for the same reason: it is a good point-getter for the team, even if the one who plays it loses it.

The thing about experience is that it can confirm just about anything, if it is selective enough. Unless we keep careful records, we remember the times the prophecy was fulfilled. And if the prophecy is not fulfilled, there are other cards to explain that eventuality. To tell the difference, in lieu of such systematic records, the play in question has to make sense. That, it seems to me, is probably the point of this satire on good and bad ways of playing the game. 

Friday, September 15, 2023

Aug. 3, 2023: More Lombard editions from Court de Gébelin

In this post I offer my translation of Franco Pratesi's note of Aug. 3, 2023, posted in Italian at It is a continuation of what he began in his July, 2023 essay, which focused on a publication of 1796. At some point I will append some comments of my own regarding it. I apologize for the formatting problems that remain here. I may try to fix them later, but for now I thought it more important to post the translation, which is my corrected version of what Google Translate produced. I don't doubt that errors remain.

More Lombard editions from Court de Gébelin

Franco Pratesi


1. Introduction

As far as I remember, it seems to me that historians have the questionable habit of considering everything recorded in written documents as history and all that precedes as prehistory; thus the largest part of human history would be lost. 

The story under examination here is far more limited and refers to the diffusion in Italy of the texts on the ideas introduced in Paris by Court de Gébelin: it is the explanation or, better, a particular interpretation of the tarot figures. 

In this case, it seems to me that there would even be two independent "prehistories": first, any previous interpretations, more or less close to the Italian origin of the game; then, any editions published in Italy, of which knowledge has been lost, but which would document an early arrival of Parisian ideas. Here I am only interested in this second prehistory, before moving on to the known publications, that is, the documented part, whether more or less consultable. Therefore, I will also collect some information on editions that have not been preserved (and I will indicate two, from different years and cities, and one later), but I will not look for anything published before 1781, the date of the first French edition of Court de Gébelin.

2. The zero editions

A. Possible previous Cremonese edition

This edition is by no means certain to exist – there are only a few clues about it. One is not a real clue, but it helps to establish the context: it is a known fact that the printers who published almanacs with calendars and useful information for citizens usually changed even the initial part from year to year, but often republished one already printed by them, perhaps a few years later.[1] The beginning is: “My trip to seen, the author talks about his journey in the way someone who has recently returned to his city would talk about it, but this does not correspond to the year 1795, the year the almanac was printed, when Bianchi was now in Cremona had been recovering for several years.On Isidoro Bianchi (Cremona 1731-1808) we have an extensive biography available, with much information, among which is also mentioned the writing on the tarot, corresponding to the early 80s.

In Cremona he became closely linked to the publisher Lorenzo Manini, collaborating on the Novellista patriotico and the almanac published by him (with writings on the freedom of the grain trade, on the "influence of trade on talents", on "common sense", “on the game of Pharaoh” and “of the tarot”)[2]

This sentence is followed by another which cites works by Bianchi himself dated 1781, 1785 and 1781. Unless the author of the biography has confused the dates and publishers, also for the tarot, it should be a previous edition because the Almanac found in Cremona was printed in 1795 and even the name of the publisher does not correspond. If we then assume that Freemasonry functioned as a transmission channel, we know that Isidoro Bianchi's relationships with


Freemasonry had been early, with activities in several European cities. On the other hand, Bianchi had long had close relationships with the Parisian cultural environments.

    In short, it can be assumed that Bianchi had written the First and Second Letters a few years after returning to Cremona from his trip to Europe in the Seventies, and that these were done for almanacs that have been lost, while the printer would have reused the material subsequently for the two editions known to us, the one on the pharaoh of 1794 and the one on the tarot of 1795.

     I started by saying that I wasn't interested in the part of "prehistory" prior to 1781, but there is a phrase that deserves a comment. Bianchi tells us that "no one tries to penetrate the meaning of the allegorical figures" and that "Among us such a book also serves our entertainment", clearly meaning here that the deck of tarot cards is used by card players for their own amusement and nothing else; that is, no one has noticed that he is holding cards that represent something more or less sacred. He then adds that "a certain Court de Gebelin . . . only in Europe" managed to uncover the mystery and report it. In short, no one previously would have asked themselves the problem of the possible meaning of tarot cards; on the other hand, even if he had asked himself the question, no one would have found the right solution before.

     B.  Probable Milanese edition

    The clue in this case is found in an edition of which I have only found citations in later works.[3] The most important reference to this edition is found in the well-known Bibliography of Alfredo Lensi.[4]

Game of Tarot and its rules. Treatise attached to the newspaper for the current year 1790. Milan, Giam Battista Bianchi, s.a. (1789), in -16, pp. 48, 24 and 36 nos.

In the preface it is said that this booklet is the translation of a Latin treatise published by Eutrapelius Manfridius. It talks about the general use of playing tarot in those times, divides the games into those of chance  of study, mentions the meaning of the tarot cards and finally gives the rules. The second part entitled: “Newspaper” is nothing more than a calendar.

     Lensi's information that the book in question "mentioned the meaning of tarot cards" appears particularly important because it is not clear in what context other than the Parisian one the "meaning of the cards" could be inserted. The date of printing, 1789, is therefore very important, as it would be very close to the original text of 1781 by Court de Gébelin. The fact that here we find Milan and not Cremona may be more or less important. Less important would be if it were found that the hypothetical first Cremonese edition of Isidoro Bianchi's text was not only published but could also serve as the original for the Milanese copy (the possibility of an extension to the capital of the knowledge of the Egyptian ideas). More important would be if it were shown that an independent version was published in Milan; and then the corresponding transmission route would also have to be investigated. 
     Unfortunately, no traces have been found of this brochure seen by Lensi. Only a few passages are known, taken from a reprint three years later, which tell us nothing about the question under consideration here.[3]
  3.  The first edition
      I recently described this tarot-calendar almanac by transcribing in full the "ideas of an Egyptian”[1]. Subsequently, I have been able to add other information found in the meantime.[5] Mine of the “Egyptian" presentation of this almanac caught the interest of Michael Howard, who translated it into English[6] and then used it to widely extend the discussion.[7] Evidently the diffusion in
Italy of this idea has a certain interest. Usually those who write on the topic limit themselves to the main passages, that is, first in France, then in Great Britain and perhaps even reaching the USA. As stated, I limit myself to the Italian environment, or rather Lombardy, if not even Cremona, and in this case I can refer to the specific studies cited and summarize the essentials.

   We find the booklet in question indicated in the Supplementary Essay in the Lensi Bibliography [of n. 4].

 77.1. Ideas of an Egyptian on the game of tarot. Almanac for the leap year 1796. Giuseppe Feraboli, Cremona, s.a. [1795], in 32°, pp. 8 nos.
Today it is so rare that only two copies can be found in the State Library of Cremona, and of one only the introductory part is preserved. In particular, the date of this Almanac is important, because it approaches 1781, the year in which Court de Gébelin published his pioneering text with these ideas.
    The fact of using the topic as an introduction in the almanac of the year 1796 makes it clear that it was expected to receive considerable appreciation from the public. Regardless of the acceptance of these ideas among tarot players, which is difficult to reconstruct, one can easily assume that from then on the Egyptian ideas were able to interest even those who did not play cards, and it became of interest to verify if and how the novelty managed to spread.

4.  The second edition

The Cremonese almanac for the leap year of 1796 could appear to be an edition without precedent and without sequel. Instead we have seen that perhaps there had been a precedent, while there was certainly a sequel and we have news of it from the usual Lensi [of n. 4]. 

7. Almanac published by Monsignor Antonio Dragoni. Cremona, 1814. Cicognara in his History of copperplate engraving on page 131 cites this almanac and says that it contains an interesting article on the meaning of tarot cards.
In the Supplementary Essay to the same Bibliography there is other information.
7* Almanac.
It is probable that this pamphlet (of which no copy has yet been found) constitutes further evidence of the diffusion of Court de Gébelin's fantasies in certain Cremonese circles. See n. 77.1. of this bibliography. Information on Antonio Antonino Dragoni in G. Biffi, Diario (1777-1781), edited by G. Dossena, Milan, Bompiani, 1976, p. 137.

 Contrary to the usual, Lensi does not give us information about a book he had seen, but only takes the essential data from a subsequent description. Even Giampaolo Dossena, of Cremona, a very expert writer on the subject, testifies to us that no examples can be found. If this is the case, it will be useless to look for a copy today to check for any differences from the previous edition. The information on Monsignor Dragoni in the edition of Giambattista Biffi's Diario appears only because Dragoni was the first after Biffi's death to publish biographical notes on that author. In the Repertoire, on p. 137, we read the following.

Dragoni, Antonio Antonino XXXIII // Son (1778-1860) of an Alessandro; tutor of the children of Serafine Sommi;  coordinator of Biffi's papers; forger; Biffi's first biographer; minus habens. See DOSSENA 1967, pp. 83-84. 
The further reference is to a year of Studia Ghisleriana, a periodical which is not easy to consult. However, the summary attestations presented would already be sufficient to indicate the personage’s lack of cultural importance. Without the possibility of a direct comparison with the previous edition, one can rely on the usual practice of these printers, that of reproducing the texts either with no modifications or at most with minimal editorial corrections.
5. The third edition

This is not strictly a re-edition of the previous ones but an extended annotated quotation of the Egyptian ideas by Leopoldo Cicognara (Ferrara 1767 – Venice 1834). His important work in this context is in fact known and appreciated at the time in the political and artistic environment. On his multiple discussed activities you can find many notices in the Biographical Dictionary of Italians.[8]  His relevant work in this context is a monograph of art history, in which, however, the topic under examination here is taken up in detail.

Gibelin in his research on this subject, with great ingenuity and wandering pleasantly perhaps in dreams, claims that the cards of Tarot, a game not known in France, are an ancient book, whose allegory he finds in conformity with the civil, philosophical and religious doctrine of the ancient Egyptians, and he wants to recognize it as a work of the profound wisdom of those peoples, where everything was great and mysterious, and the only ones who could invent it, rivaling in this regard the Indians, to whom the invention of chess is attributed.

He derives in fact the name Tarocchi from Tar, which means way, road, and Ros, Ro, Rog which means royal King, and literally explains the royal road of life, so that by reviewing the different states into which the life of men is divided, it is easy to find how to explain, without too many contortions of ingenuity, any allegory of this game.

In fact, everyone knows that the images of things served ancient peoples as characters, and since the various combinations of objects that are reproduced in the visual faculty dispose the observer to meditation, so in them he easily finds a mystical language, which especially in the East it was reserved for the priesthood, and which in our age forms the occupation of many scholars, and gives rise to many controversies. Therefore, if the face of an Obelisk or a Scarab presents us with a quantity of images to which we are forced to attribute a meaning, why would we want to find it extravagant, or rather why would we have liked what each of the Tarot cards expresses to be empty of meaning, and why wouldn't we want that representing these many movable characters, due to their various combinations, might not equally denote a various discourse symbolizing the events of human life under this mystical and joking veil? It seems to us much stranger to want to deny these little pages a meaning, [even while] laughing at the investigations that have been carried out to explain it.

However, we do not pretend that the interpretation given by the aforementioned author cannot encounter many exceptions, and that these enigmas could not be explained differently by others. It is nice to mention it briefly here also for the favor with which this same explanation was received in an Almanac published in Cremona in 1814 by Monsignor Antonio Dragoni, very versed in pleasant and profound studies, who having reproduced it as an instructive and joking object at the same time, in a country where this game is still a common entertainment, he complied with the research of some of his friends without delving further into the obscure matter. The emblematic cards of the Tarot, being XXI, immediately presented the idea suggested by the Egyptian doctrine, which was later so dear to Pythagoras, being the 3rd perfect number and the 7th mystical number par excellence. So it is that That, because his book or picture of creation and life contained all possible perfections and was mysterious par excellence, he composed it of three classes of images, noting the three first ages of the World, the age of gold, that of silver, and the third of bronze, and each class of images therefore had to represent in seven divisions that greater perfection and deeper mysticism.[9]

Cicognara does not seem to personally attribute any particular seriousness to the interpretation of tarot cards: an interpretation born "perhaps pleasantly wandering in dreams" cannot have a rigorous basis, much less a scientific one. Indeed, he expresses himself explicitly in this regard: "However, we do not pretend that the interpretation given by the aforementioned author cannot encounter many exceptions, and that others could not explain these enigmas differently.” In short, for him the main reason for entering into the question is the acceptance of those ideas.
     Thus, Cicognara testifies to us that the "ideas of an Egyptian" had caught the interest of the Cremonese monsignor, "very versed in his pleasant and profound studies" (the judgment of minus habens was  
still far in the future); not only that, the interest had also extended to the city's cultural environment, with some of the monsignor's friends immersed in the corresponding research. In short, only a few years after the first publication, there was a group of scholars in Cremona who continued their research toward developing those Egyptian idea.
     In short, the main importance for this study is that Cicognara confirms the importance of the previous edition. Today we know Monsignor Dragoni's speech and its setting mainly from here: without these pages, both Lensi and then Dossena would not have been able to tell us anything about it. But at the same time Cicognara's recapitulation could certainly serve as a relaunch for a further diffusion of Egyptian ideas in subsequent times and in different locations.
     Not only; more generally, in his main work, Leopoldo Cicognara dedicated a considerable part to the tarot; this could serve as a beacon to draw attention to a subject that had until then been little studied at an academic level. Some of his hypotheses and reconstructions were later discredited but the pioneering importance of his treatment remains valid.
     As for Cicognara's involvement with the tarot, I can finally quote a letter addressed to him on 15.1.1829 by Francesco Aglietti, of which I transcribe the beginning.
My dear friend,   
The matter that you hold so dear in that tarot game was strongly opposed by President Cornacchia in the Genoa conference at which it was desired to present it. Despite this conflict,t which is due to the rivalry that reigns between the directors of public establishments, this affair will end according to your wish.[10]

I have found no precedents or follow-ups for this information. Even though it is about tarot, I don't think that the Egyptian ideas for  which I was looking in other Italian publications are directly involved here. However, for the history of tarot in Italy, this could also be a trail to follow.

 Florence, 03.08.2023


[4] A. Lensi, Bibliografia Italiana dei giuochi di carte [Italian bibliography of card games]. Ravenna 1985.

[9] L. Cicognara, Memorie spettanti alla storia della calcografia [Memoirs relating to the history of copperplate printing], Prato 1831, pp. 130-131.

[10] Milan, Braidense National Library, Cicognara, Cart. Cicognara 2/1-2.