Saturday, November 21, 2015

What is it exactly the Tarot of Marseilles?

Many people have wondered and researched on the origins of the Tarot, trying to find a precious original deck. Many others have believed that the first Tarot corresponds to what we know as the Tarot of Marseilles. Furthermore, some have tried to rebuild a primeval version of this deck, claiming that they have accomplished the restauration of the symbols and images to its original state.

All these ideas have brought to the study of Tarot a good deal of misunderstanding. In other words, they take us to dogmas and false pretentions of authority which are very far from what the Tarot conveys through its powerful symbols.

The history of the Tarot is not an easy undertaking. Its true details have been obscured by many errors which came to be considered as a common sense. Fortunately, many serious and erudite researchers have made important efforts to clarify that which before was clouded and doubtful.

Now we know that the Tarot is not as ancient as we thought before, though its symbols have a long history behind. Tarot is not found prior to the XV Century, when the Visconti family ordered its first magnificent samples. After that, many versions and variations came to life by the hands of artists spreading through different places in Europe.

In France, we found a very specific pattern of design for the cards that conforms to the Tarot pack. This particular pattern was denominated as Tarot of Marseilles for the first time in the XIX Century –in 1856 and 1859 by Romain Merlin and then in 1889 by Papus–. Later in 1930, Paul Marteau used this name to publish his deck and then in 1949 its very popular accompanying book. Since these two publications made by Grimaud, the Tarot of Marseilles is the common way to refer to this pattern of French design.

But looking back, we find that there are many different decks which belongs to this pattern and were not manufactured in the city of Marseilles. Each one of them is now referred to commonly by the name of its artist or cardmaker. Some examples of these decks are the following: Jean Noblet (Paris, circa 1650), Jean Dodal (Lyon, circa 1701), Jean Pierre Payen (Avignon, 1713), Pierre Madenié (Dijon, 1709), Claude Burdel (Fribourg, 1751), among many others.

But it is undeniable that the city of Marseilles has given us some of the greatest cardmakers and fine examples of the Tarot of Marseilles pattern: François Chosson (1736), François Bourlion (1760), Nicolas Conver (1760), Joseph Feautrier (1762) and Bernardin Suzanne (XIX Century).

Today Marseilles is the city where Yves Reynaud has taken some important steps to forward our knowledge of the Tarot by publishing facsimile editions of some ancient decks, as the Madenié (1709) or the Chosson (1736). And here Wilfried Houdouin is also in process to finish a complete new version of the Tarot of Marseilles.

All this allows us to state that there is not a single deck that can be exclusively called the Tarot of Marseilles. Instead, what we have is a tradition whose main peculiarity is a certain pattern of design of its cards. This pattern is the foundation over which each cardmaker builds his own work, and the result will be always personal and full of singular details that can or cannot be present in other decks of this same tradition.


Depaulis, Thierry
“The Tarot de Marseille – Facts and Fallacies I”. En: The Playing-Card, Vol. 42/ N° 1, 2013-14, pp. 21-41.
“The Tarot de Marseille – Facts and Fallacies II”. En: The Playing-Card, Vol. 42/ N° 2, 2013-14, pp. 101-20.


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