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.


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