Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Order of the Triumphs

In ancient tarot cards and in XVIth century documents


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

This article will be about the list of Triumphs as they were described in some of the most remarkable documents, manuscripts and printed works, of the sixteenth century, and as found in four specific early packs:  the Charles VI Tarot, the Bologna Tarot, the Tuscanian Tarot and the Rosenwald Tarot.  

The problem of attribution is - in our opinion - still far from being solved for the so called Charles VI Tarot (1). The writer, not being an art historian, must rely on experts' judgments, whose conclusions are yet quite far from agreeing. However, we believe we may express an opinion on the basis of a few considerations suggested by our conclusion  that the  tarot originated in Bologna (regarding which see the articles The Prince and  Bologna and the origin of Triumphs)  

In the first place we must  appreciate that the same iconographical version appearing in two or more separate packs does not necessarily indicate a same place of origin. Giuliana Algeri claims (2): “Actually, if on one hand, as it has been unanimously pointed out,  the cards find specific structural and formal matches mainly with the Catania series (3), and on the other, they show remarkable iconographical and formative similarities with the New Haven Cary Collection's Tarots (4) whose relation with the Ferrara court is proved by the Este family's coat of arms on the shield of the Queen and Knight of Staves and the Queen of  Swords. The most specific iconographical matches particularly deal with the depiction of the Fool, in both packs represented as a clown mocked by a group of children. The relation between the two depictions is even clearer if you consider the complete difference of such iconography from  the Lombard tradition in which the Fool instead appears like a goitrous beggar. Also the depictions on the cards of the Pope, Temperance and the World appear as if they were inspired by the same formative patterns as the New Haven cards, as well as the picture of the two astronomers studying the moon, directly connected to the iconographical pattern adopted in the picture on the Este Star card. Therefore, if we agree with the assumption of a Ferrara origin about the Este family's cards, we cannot but  end up saying also  that  the Charles VI tarot was made in the same city. Moreover, a reflection of Ferrara painting can be picked up independently of any relation with the Este cards - in the Lover and the Chariot images , both of which can be traced back to the jubilant parades in the Hall of the Months at Schifanoia Palace”.

Regarding Algeri's argument, we can object that the same iconographical structure does not necessarily assume the same origin: the reasons for the similarity could be many, starting with a merely imitative attitude. The picture of a Fool surrounded by children-  for example - can be found in various Bibles of the  XVI century (see the iconological essay ascribed to this Triumph). Besides, The Hall of the Months at the Schifanoia won such a high reputation that it was felt reasonable to draw inspiration  from it for clothes and figures. Though ascribing to the above packs of cards specific commemorative purposes (i.e. the pack of Ercole I d'Este was made to commemorate Duke Ercole's wedding to Eleonora of Aragon, as may be deduced from the Este coat of arms engraved on the Queen of Swords and on the Queen and Knight of Staves, while that of Aragon is found on the King and Knight of Swords), it is difficult to determine its author. As we pointed out - Bologna and the origin of Triumphs - on more than one occasion the Este court turned to the competence of cardmakers from Bologna for packs of cards to be used at court, and Bolognese artists must have been more than accustomed to make clothes and triumphs in the Ferrarese style, if asked by their customers. However, there is one more important element which makes us think that the Charles VI pack was not made for the Este court but for Bologna instead: that the order of Triumphs is of the Bolognese type, in which the Angel card appears as the highest triumph, in contrast to Ferrara's order which instead considers the World the highest triumph (5). Why should an artist from Ferrara have given the Bologna order for a pack of cards to be used by the Estes? One other possibility: it might have been an artist from Ferrara making that pack on the order of a gentleman from Bologna. A Florentine intervention should be excluded: given the distance which divides the two towns, it would have been more sensible to apply to the Bolognese, who were among other things very capable.

In figure 1 
we can compare the order of the Charles VI cards to that of the Bolognese Tarot, very similar to that of the Rosenwald cards (6). The latter are printed on three uncut sheets: on the first appear all the Triumphs except the Fool, and three figures (Queen of Coins, Queen of Swords, Queen of  Cups); of the other two sheets,  one  shows twelve figures and the other thirty-six numeral cards. Algeri argues that while the iconographical structure of the Triumphs is apparently drawn from  the Charles VI tarot, the remaining cards most probably belong to a later development. Of an opposite opinion is Depaulis, who sees in this pack of cards a sort of Florentine “proto-minchiate”. On top of that, from a comparison he performs between the orders of these cards, the Charles VI and those indicated in the  Strambotto de' Trionfi of the early XVI century, a strong similarity is shown, allowing him to claim that the Charles VI might have been made in Tuscany.  

In the order of all the packs of cards  examined we find  very small changes,  made - in my opinion - both by the differences in playing  the game, which could differ from city to city, even more from  from region to region, and by a temporal change, that is, from the different times of manufacture of the packs. Actually the Charles VI tarots were made in the second half of the XVth century, as the art historians affirm, while both  the Strambotto and the Rosenwald Tarot belong to a slightly later age. In that period ten years could have a large influence (figure 2
: Order of Bolognese Tarot  and of Tuscanian Tarot  -  figure 3: A section of the first sheet of the Rosenwald Tarot).

As for the number of various typologies of orders,  historian Michael Dummett has pinpointed three different groups, identified with the letters A, B and C: “Cards which vary in a more fanciful way from one order to the other within the sequence are the three virtues. Leaving the virtues aside, we can say that the sequence of the remaining triumphs can be divided into three separate segments, an initial, an intermediate, a final one, and that  all the changes of order only occur within each of these segments” (7).

-  The first segment includes the Magician, the Empress, the Emperor, the Popess, the Pope.
-  In the second   we find Love, the Chariot, the Wheel, the Hermit, the Hanged Man.
-  In the third, Death, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, the Angel and the World.

The various orders basically differ according to the position of the virtues and of the Angel (Judgment):

- In the Type A order the highest triumph is the Angel, followed by the World, with the three virtues close to one another and usually placed above the lowest cards of the intermediate segment (Love)

-  The Type B order has the most documentation before the eighteenth century: here the World card is the highest, followed by Justice and the Angel.  In this order the three virtues are always placed below, but not in sequence.

-  The Type C order is the one most usually known nowadays, which corresponds - though with variations, which is why it would be more advisable to talk about different Type C varieties - to those of the Marseille tarot and the Lombard and Piedmontese tarot: the World turns out to be the highest triumph, followed by the Angel; Temperance is between Death and the Devil, ecc. This the principal C Order: the Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, the Empress, the Emperor, the Pope, the Lovers, the Chariot, Justice, the Hermit, the Wheel of Fortune, Strength, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, the Devil, the Tower, the Stars, the Moon, the Sun, the Angel (the Judgement), the World (8). 

All this shows adjustments, which in the long run were done more for ludic than for doctrinal reasons. Actually, considering the writer's close examination about the order of tarots structured according to the Mystical Staircase, we must reckon how the most ancient known list of triumphs, described in the manuscript  Sermo perutilis de ludo (figure 4) of late XVth century, accurately mirrors the Stairs. The meanings of the triumphs reported by the monk who wrote the document, prove to be advised by a religious campaign aimed at condemning tarots as a gambling game [gioco d'azzardo]. At that time  the original bond which connected the 22 triumphs to the Staircase had been almost completely forgotten, or better, no longer recognized by a people who in these cards could only see a way to have fun. Indeed the Church felt  duty-bound  to intervene, claiming, among other things, that the tarot had been invented  by the devil in order to damn humanity, as the good monk also writes. We can see how the meanings that the monk gave the cards were consistent with such an attitude if we examine what the monk writes about the Popess: ("those renouncing the Christian faith"), an attribution that stands in sharp contrast to the meaning then universally understood of ”Catholic Faith”, as portrayed, in example, by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. What proves to be important therefore, is their order, which slavishly reflects the teachings expressed by the Staircase  (About this read the essays The History of Tarot and The Mystical Staircase).

From the first known list of Triumphs of the beginning of the 16th century, it is evident that it was a game with an ethical background The Magician [Bagatto] shows a common man who has been provided with both temporal guides, the Emperor and Empress, and spiritual guides, the Pope and Popess (i.e. Faith). Human instincts themselves must be mitigated by the virtues: Love by Temperance, and the desire for power, or rather the Chariot,  by Strength (the Christian virtue Fortitude). The Wheel of Fortune teaches us that success is ephemeral and that even powerful persons are destined to become dust. Thus the Hermit who follows the Wheel represents Time, to which all beings are subject, and the necessity for each person to meditate on the real value of existence, while the Hanged Man (The Traitor) depicts the danger of falling into temptation and sin before the arrival of physical Death.

Even the afterlife is represented according to the typical medieval idea: Hell, and thus the Devil, stands at the centre of the earth, while the celestial spheres are above the earth. According to the Aristotelian vision of the cosmos, the terrestrial sphere is surrounded by celestial fires which in the tarots are represented as lightning striking a Tower. The planetary spheres are synthesized in three main planets: Venus (the pre-eminent Star), the Moon, and the Sun. The highest sphere is the Empyrean, the seat of the angels who will be summoned to awaken the dead from their tombs at the Last Judgement - when divine Justice will triumph in weighing the souls and dividing the good from the evil. Highest of all is the World, or "the Holy Father", as an anonymous Dominican commentator on the tarots wrote at the end of the 15th century. The same author places the Fool after the World, as if to illustrate his complete alienation from all rules and teachings, since, because lacking reason, he was not able to understand the revealed truths.

Scholastic thought, which aimed to confirm the truths of faith through the use of reason, united in this category all those people who didn’t believe in God, even if able to reason. In the tarot the presence of the Fool has therefore a further and deeper sense: the Fool, in its meaning of unbeliever in God but possessing reason, had to become, through the teachings expressed by the Mystical Staircase, the "Fool of God", as the most popular saint became, that is, St. Francis, who was called “The Holy Minstrel of God” or “The Holy Fool of God" ("None was more beautiful, / More joyful, or greater, / Than he who, by zeal and love, / Became the fool of Jesus": dance song by Girolamo Benivieni, 1453-1542). (For more on this subject, see the iconological essay The Fool).

There would be no need to look up in written  documents of the time attesting the concept of the Staircase in reference tothetarot: the knowledge of theology, including the sacred-mystical values of numbers, was mandated in the great treatises on the subject, like St. Thomas's Summa Teologica. For example, no one would have ever dreamt of  advising the people in writing why their city's own baptistery had been built octagonally  (on this see the essay The Stars). In the same way, for the meaning of the fool,  one would be sent to read the Bible's Psalm 53 (Psalm 52 in the Vulgate), where he was identified as the “nonbeliever” (read the essay The Fool) (9).

The  following figures show the orders reported by XVIth century documents  (figure 5
- figure 6 figure 7 - figure 8). The absence of the Pope and Popess in the order of Lotto festevole, fatto in Villa, fra una nobil schiera di Cavalieri & di Dame, / con i Trionfi de Tarrochi, esplicati in / lode delle dette Dame by Giulio Cesare Croce (1602), (figure 9) apparently comes from an adjustment in the number of ladies to whom the various sonnets are dedicated.


                                                                    An hypothesis on the first Order of the Triumphs 

I am getting more and more positive that the game of Triumphs was originally conceived by Prince Fibbia while living in Bologna “sub Capella Sancti Prosperi”. Apart from confirming through documents his existence as well as his being in Bologna during the very years mentioned in the renowned XVIIth century painting, we should very carefully consider the close examination we have undertaken in the essay The Prince, as follows: “First of all, the customer who ordered it didn’t know the precise epoch when tarots were created, because it was unknown to those who wrote about them in the XVIth century and following. On the picture it is written that Francesco Fibbia was the inventor of Tarocchini, but we know that these represent a XVI century variation  of the game of tarot, already existent in Bologna  since  the XV century with the name of Triumphs. All this means that the writings’ author pointing out someone living between the XIV and the XV century  as the inventor of Tarocchini, did not know the correct date of their creation, considering them as an original form and not a later variant (10). Despite  this, the dates indicated on the picture are very near to those hypothesized for the time of the birth of the game of Triumphs, and this could not surprise us more. If the writings' author had quoted a later date in comparison to the one we nowadays know as hypothetic origin of the Triumphs - the beginning of the XV century - we would have immediately understood that it dealt with a kind of  operation conceived to strongly underline the role of this Family, since the tarots cards in Bologna were really loved and used at every social level. Is it by pure chance that the author of the writings indicated dates so close to reality, an unconscious guessing, wanting to promote the image of his own family, or is it perhaps more plausible that he has come into possession of an old document that has reported this, knowing that this also would bring prestige to his family? Personally I hold that this second possibility is the more realistic one."

One question immediately arises: did Prince Fibbia conceive the Triumphs in the way we know their order and number, or was it an embryonic game? Lothar Teikemeier has presented very good evidence that the cards of the ancient Triumphs were 14 in number, then later on  became 16 and finally 22 (see link Collaboration

As we know, the Triumphs became 22 quite a while later, when the need was felt to adjust the number of cards to the mystical course. Indeed Mons. Lorenzo Dattrino, teacher of Patristics at the Lateranense University says: «In the order of numbers, each single number contains a certain force and power over things. Of this power and force the Creator of universe made use, in some instances for the constitution of the universe itself, in others to express the nature of each thing as it appears to us. It follows, then, based on the Scriptures, that one must observe and derive those aspects that belong to the numbers themselves. And in truth itought not to be ignored that the books of the Bible itself, as the Jews transmitted them, are twenty-two, also equal to the number of Hebrew letters, and this not without reason. As in fact, the twenty-two letters seem to be the introduction to the wisdom and doctrine engraved with these figures in human beings, so these twenty-two books of Scripture also constitute the foundation and the introduction to the wisdom of God and the knowledge of the world” (Select in Ps I - PG 12, 1084). In other words, Origen, referring to these 22 inspired books of the Bible, perceives in the twenty-two letters that comprise the Hebrew alphabet an introduction to the wisdom and divine teachings imprinted in humanity (A. Quacquarelli, s.v. Numeri, in DPAC, pages 2447-2448)».  (Abstract from The History of Tarot).

The Triumphs were thence brought to 22 when the need was felt to direct the contents of the game toward ethical values. But why? there is no better teaching method than teaching through playing (Ludendo intelligo). Handing down the mystical contents through cards was something the Church would accept gladly. Was it the Church herself changing the deck or was it others, say for instance some players? We cannot say for sure. If someone claimed that it was the Church, there most probably would have been tracks left in documents; but, as historians are well aware, the lack of written evidence does not mean disclaiming such a possible event, as the documents (or  document) might have got lost or have not yet been found. Besides, as already stated above in this essay, it was not something that needed proof. On the other hand, if we assume that it was a player or more players changing the number, it must have been someone who knew the concept of the Staircase quite well. And here we can spot two possible reasons which might justify such operation: either merely as a religious attitude, or so as to be allowed to keep playing such a beloved pastime without feeling the all but inquisitional Church's breath on one's neck. Should such assumption sound ill-advised, a more careful assessment can justify it: giving the game an ethical aspect meant distracting  the attention of the clerical authorities from it, allowing the players to have fun with no worry at all. In fact the rules against gambling [gioco d'azzardo] enacted by the Church throughout the Fifteenth century disregarded the Ludus Triumphorum (11). 

Now back to our Prince Francesco Antelminelli Castracani Fibbia. As we said above, he was a descendant of the celebrated condottiero Castruccio Castracani, who was excommunicated by Pope John XXII in 1327 for opposing the Church's temporal power. For this reason we can assume that he could hardly have thought of making up a game about the Christian mystical religious perspective of the time. The game he invented could have consisted of 14 Triumphs, as we find it in the early painted cards, or by a lower number of Triumphs (probably 8) mostly paired to numbers so as to reach fourteen cards. However, these are just hypotheses. For sure, given the excommunication to which his family was inflicted, the game might have been presented as a parody against the Papacy (remember that in those very years, that is in 1411, there was a revolt in Bologna against papal authority, put down with bloodshed) or, if we want to avoid such a conjecture, it might revolve around any other aspect (12).


1 - Ca. 1470-1480.
2 - Giuliana Algeri, Un gioco per le corti: i tarocchi miniati (A game for the courts; the illuminated tarot), in "Le Carte di Corte. I Tarocchi. Gioco e Magia alla Corte degli Estensi" (The Cards of the Court: Tarot. Game and Magic at the Court of the Estensi)", by Giordano Berti and Andrea Vitali, 1987, p. 34.3 - The Tarot of Alessandro Sforza, Ferrara, ca. 1450-1460.
4 - The Tarot of Ercole I d'Este, Ferrara, after 1473.
5 - The order that sets off these cards, somewhat later coupled with Roman numerals, proves to be that of the Bolognese Tarot,  with the card of the Angel above  that of the World and with slight variations in numbering for the Chariot, Strength and  Temperance cards.   
6 - National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection, Washington. The order is as follows:  Angel, World, Sun, Moon, Star, Tower, Devil, Death, Hermit, Wheel, Chariot, Strength, Justice, Temperance, Love, Pope, Emperor, Empress, Popess, Magician, Fool.  
7 - Michael Dummett, Il Mondo e l'Angelo (The World and the Angel), Naples, 1993, page 173.
8 - A very  close examination of  variations is found in  Michael Dummett, quoted work., page 174 and flwg. 
9 - The doctrine of the Staircase  (its concepts and  numerology) belongs to Christian mystic ascetical theology. To consider the sequence of  22 Triumphs as in accordance with such doctrine,  is therefore an affirmation that should  not be understood as an esoteric formula or of some other current.  It is a shame that Professor Michael Dummett, to whom we all owe so much for his studies on the history of tarot, has never deeply investigated their symbolic and doctrinal aspect as a whole, a subject detached from his main interests.  
10 -   The fact that the Bolognese forgot the word tarot and its game of 78 cards is not surprising. On this subject, Michael Dummett writes: "Although still in existence in 1588, the old form and complete pack had been completely forgotten in mid seventeenth century, although the name Tarocchino persisted". Michael Dummett, Il Mondo e l’Angelo, Naples, 1993, pag. 224.
11 - In this regard see note 4 in the article Saint Bernardino and the Playing Cards
12 - Prince Fibbia, whose most reliable date of death, 1419, is documented by the piece of writing reported on the painting  (on a  later document it is indicated as 1399), for sure made up the game in the early Fifteenth century. That was a very rough period in papal history, with nepotist popes and antipopes. As the oldest known documents about triumphs dates back to 1440 (Anghiari) and 1442 (Estense Court), by historical assumption they must date back to at least twenty/twenty-five years earlier, a period which matches with the Prince being in Bologna. This type of conjecture, with reference to practice of use, is commonly made by historians of the middle ages. Specifically, professor Rolando Dondarini, teacher of medieval history at the University of Bologna and professor Paolo Aldo Rossi, teacher of history of the scientific thought at the University of Genoa, are an agreement with the writer. We should actually consider the time needed for this game to become so popular that it is the objects of artistic illuminated production in the courts (that is, currently practised). Also, their content must to be compared with the cultural contexts of the time, a subject that in specifics has been dated back to the end of the XIVth century or the beginning of the XVth by professor Franco Cardini. In the same age when the first illuminated triumphs appeared, cards of popular manufacture were used  in Bologna by common people (1442) testifying to a long-existing practice (in this regard see the essay Bologna and the origin of Triumphs) The fact that popular cards failed to survive is due to their manufacture, as the paper and cardstock they were made of would easily deteriorate.

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