Some thoughts on the Mantegna.


I have some thoughts relating to early tarot history. This isn't the result of any particularly novel or new research; it's just a series of thoughts that has occurred to me after reading many posts on this forum, particularly the history threads, as well as the material on the Trionfi site, plus other web sources. Please bear with me if I get a few words wrong...

First, going back to the early days of the cards, what do we have? We know that the Mamluk cards, which are arguably originally from China or thereabouts, gave us the suits. There is no evidence or suggestion that they came with either court cards or trumps -- which are apparently a European invention.

When we get to the early tarot decks, the consistency of the decks is a mess, to put it mildly. There are different numbers of trumps, different orders of trumps, different numbers of court cards. Some decks are missing some cards, others are missing other cards... is the Papess 2 or 4? Is Justice 8 or 20? .The Devil was originally the Visconti snakes... The old man's hourglass became a lantern... the Chariot driver is male/female... A mess of fun for tarot researchers, but clearly proof that in the early days, there was no standard tarot, and there was much ''artistic" exploration going on. Probably a fair bit of political sucking-up, as well.

And some of these early tarots were apparently made for rich northern Italian families, for such occasions as the weddings of daughters, etc. Not exactly an environment in which we could expect too much attention to the meaning of the images, the internal integrity of the system of ordering, etc. Remember, it's a rich kid's wedding. These days, mum and dad Visconti might hire a rap star or Britney Spiers for the reception. In those days, they went with a fad and got a fancy, custom-made deck of cards made. We're not talking intellectual rigor here, we're talking about the Renaissance equivalent of a Bratz dolls skateboard for the youngster.

What a relief that the Marseilles finally shows up a couple of hundred years later as a standard! It's a bit of a reach that some regard it as the original (ur-, I think, is the word that's used...) tarot, when the evidence seems to suggest that the Marseilles system just outstayed the competition, much like VHS beat beta tapes -- but people always like to believe in the primacy of the system they choose, so who is to argue... but I digress...

Amidst all the uncertainty and inconsistency of the early tarot, is there anything that stands out?

One answer: the Mantegna image sets.

We have fifty images, no suits -- so there is no initial link to tarot, or cards, or games, and they are all ordered in neat groups, named, in sequences that make sense, and clearly a representation of hermtic/alchemical thought. Many of the images are the same as the tarot equivalents, while other are unique. Plus there are several Tarot images which are not included in the Mantegna set -- the Tower, the Devil, etc. Also, they are, from what I've read, not printed as cards, but are on paper -- which argues against them being intended for any sort of game.

However, the images themselves tell us that there is obviously a connection between the Mantegna and the early tarots.

What's going on? How did this happen? There are two possible scenarios that I can think of:

1) The first tarots were the Visconti images, or thereabouts, whether the 5x14 approach (i.e. the original Bembo cards), or the 20 cards (no Devil or Tower), or the full 22 trump sets that soon evolved. Amidst the early mess of how many cards, what ones are in and what are not, and where they are ordered, some enterprising and esoteric-minded soul looks at these cards that were a rich kid's party treat, and thinks "hey, I can put together a tight, well-ordered, sensible, thorough, manual of hermetic thought from this lot. That might be fun."

And said person then takes most of the trump images, and uses them to create the Mantegna set. He adds whatever images are necessary to make sense of his system, and loses a few that don't help his cause.

So, what has happened is that an unfocused piece of upper class indulgence has become the source material for a tightly focused, coherent, system of metaphysics. Does this happen very often in real life? How often does crap mass culture become the source for cutting edge thought? It's as if someone were to take words from a kid's crossword puzzle book, and use them to write a treatise on quantum mechanics. It doesn't work.

2) The other scenario is the reverse: someone has laid out a 5x10 system of images for the purpose of illustrating hermetic/alchemical ideas -- which as is well known, were very popular in Italy and the rest of Europe around this time. It is a tight, orderly, self-referring system that, within the world of hermetic philosophy, makes sense. These images are used by the Renaissance intelligensia in their discussions and their instructions.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is playing cards. They've taken up the Mamluk decks, couldn't figure out what polo sticks are, and they called them batons. They've added some kings and queens. And some bright spark has come up with an idea for a game that uses another suit that can trump the rest of the cards. Hmmm. What images to use... hey what about that high-brow hermetic stuff. That'll impress everyone, and the Duke will like it... it'll look as though the Viscontis know their stuff...

In other words, it's the cultural equivalent of a rock band using some cool-looking gothic imagery or a pentacle on a CD cover, or a hokey new-age web site using an ankh or a sphinx -- it's not about the real knowledge and history behind the images, it's about using them for an effect, and to do a quick and easy stake-out of cultural identity. It happens all the time. It's the Nike logo on the T-shirt. The Duke's daughter got some nice cards.

So, which is more likely -- a) for the knowledge of the Mantegna sets to somehow distill itself from the popular Tarot, to be refined like a precious metal from rough ore, or b) for the original knowledge of the Mantegna to be dissipated and watered down from an esoteric system into the mass culture? For its imagery to be purloined for the sake of a card game and a commercial art job for some rich folks?

Which process has occurred more often? I'm putting my money on b) for now. History repeatedly shows that ideas spread out, dissipate, morph -- they don't become more refined, more economical, and tighter. For the Mentegna to have evolved from the Tarot just goes against the flow. It makes more sense for the Manetegna to be the source of the images.

So, there you have it. I just thought I'd put this in front of people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do, and see what you think.

Some Mantegna links:


I want to add a couple of notes:

1) I realise that the conventional wisdom is that the early tarot decks predate the Mantegna images. To that, I would reply that, firstly, we have prohibitions against playing cards dating back to the 1370's (in Florence), which is up to 70 years before the dates usually given to the early tarot decks such as Viscontis. 70 years during which anything could have, and probably did, happen. 70 years during which people apparently played cards with, possibly, no help from trumps. What was happening in terms of the Mantegna set of images during those years is anyone's guess. Unless someone knows of a document or source that suggests an actual date of creation for the first Mantegna images...

2) Some people suggest that the Mantegna are an artist's model book. I don't think that flies. As an artist's reference, it would be too limited in its use. There are lots of images of people standing around, looking philosophical and pensive, and apart from a few props and costume changes, not much else. There are few military images, no putti, no christian images... if it was a model book, there would christs on crosses, weeping magdalenes, dead and dying saints. Most commissions in those days would have been for religious art, not secular humanist hermetic projects. There is not enough content that would satisfy the needs of a renaissance art studio. Also, they used to dress people up and use them as models in those days.


Visconti Tarot and Mantegna Tarot do not have much in common. I think it is possible that the two developed independently.
I read somewhere here on ATF that the Mantegna had a huge success at the time. For instance, we have copies by Albrecht Durer of many of the engravings (Kaplan vol. I). Another interesting example is the "Labirinto" Game by Andrea Ghisi, Venice 1616 (Kaplan vol. II).

I think both products (Bembo's and pseudo-Mantegna's) made perfect sense in XV century Italy. I don't know if the Mantegna were a game, but they could have been. The fact that the engravings have arrived to us in the form of prints on sheets of paper does not prove that they were not used as cards. Engraved cards were printed on paper, and than glued on cardboard. So maybe these cards only arrived to us in the intermediate state of prints on paper.
Anyway, my impression is also that these images were not a card game.
I know very little about the Mantegna Tarot, but I agree it is a fascinating topic :)



There are more Mantegna engravings extant as there are Tarot cards from 15th century ... so it was really popular.

... a long list


The wayward and erroneous nature of my thinking in my original post has been pointed out to me on the Ltarot list. It's apparent and certain that the Mantegna did in fact come after the tarot -- this being deduced from several factors, including the printmaking technques used, and the general social and cultural environment.

Still, the Mantegna is an interesting exercise/diversion. But for the main course, back to the tarot...

le pendu

Hi dminoz,

I would rather have a question asked in earnest than a theory stated as fact.

Much of Tarot History is Theory. Many people have differing viewpoints, some with more facts behind them than others. But even the facts can be misinterpreted. It is only by questioning the theories, questioning the facts, and asking questions that we are bound to grow.

Good job, keep asking.



Thanks, Robert.

Well, there is one thing that's keeping me awake at night... it was suggested as part of setting me straight on the Mategna stuff that one of the differences between the tarot and the Mantegna sets is that whereas the Mantegna is hardcore Renaissance/humanist classical, etc -- obviously --, the tarot is fundamentally medieval and Christian. Which of course places the tarot before the Mantegna.

Which is OK -- the Medieval bit is obvious -- BUT I have a bit of trouble seeing the Tarot as just a Christian parade, when

a) there are so many symbols missing that we should be justified in expecting to see; doves, fishes, christs on crosses, madonnas, doubting thomases, nativities, holy ghosts... take your pick, they're all missing...

b) Instead, we have symbols which, to link to Christianity, we have to reach a bit.... such as the Wheel, the Star, Sun, Moon, the Tower, Strength... sure, you can say they're ethics and virtues and all the rest, but hardly "Christianty" as such.

Here's the question/suggestion: could it be argued that we're NOT talking Christianity here?


Italy was a Christian region near to Rome. Even when they didn't paint Jesus all the time, the art production could be called with some right "Christian". Even when they painted playing cards and some hectical Christians cried, that one should burn them.
More or less all single figures of normal Tarot reach in their iconography 14th century. You can say something similar from the Mantegna Tarocchi. You cannot give evidence, that the complete series of normal Tarot as a series was extant in 14th century. You can't say that from the Mantegna either.

We ( assume, that Tarot reached 22 special cards first in 1468 (but still hadn't Tower and Devil) . Also we prefer, that the Mantegna Tarocchi reached its final state ca. 1475, others mainly prefer 1465.

If you prefer to say that 1468 is still medieval, but 1465 - 75 already renaissance, okay, why not, world is full of funny ideas. If you say, that copperplate engraving is more "modern art" than handpainting, even this differentiation makes some sense, although contradictious on the common timeline.