Aër felice, col bel vivo raggio
rimanti; et tu corrente et chiaro gorgo,
ché non poss’io cangiar teco vïaggio?
Happy air, remain here with your
living rays: and you, clear running stream,
why can’t I exchange my path for yours?
The most reasonable key for the sequential inspiration of the Tarot is the parade, and combined with its function as a Humanist document, a popular illustrated poem written in the 14th Century by Petrarch, called Il Trionfi. Each Trionfi was a float, or a boat in the case of water parades, spectacles put on by the nobility for all, depicting mythological, historic and religious scenes. An ancient tradition for communication, they travelled among the imperial cities spreading a spectacle and shaping cultural perspectives. By visiting this page you will find a strong index of these illustrations, giving an idea of the time range – the close similarities between the themes and the cards in the Tarot become immediately apparent.
Petrarch is sometimes called a ‘father of Humanism’ and his writing also helped develop the modern Italian language style. Looking at his character might explain the thoughts of Tarot’s compilers. One of his books criticizes the presence of the Pope in France, it is a series of private letters to friends urging his removal to Rome. A concern with separating church power from government, this adds possible cause for the intentional limitation of Christian symbolism in the Tarot. He is also known to have coined the term ‘Dark Ages’, to describe what had come before, and his work clearly involves an appreciation for the wisdom of any time, and not just the authorities of the present. It is without question that the themes of the Tarot, Petrarch’s poems, and Carnival parades are closely matched. These works shared learned audiences and culture makers, remember that early on, hand painted cards and books were luxury goods, as with the set of il Trionfi plates produced by a student of Mantegna, creator of one of the earlier competitors for the modern Tarot. And in these images you see that the association between myth and the cards is not imagined or arbitrary, but is directly sourced to a popular movement in Renaissance culture.
The following illustrations are by Godefroy Batave, made in France in 1489-1515. Looking closely at the images, you begin to see characters throughout that have their own places in the Tarot, such as the presence of Hercules in the Triumph of Love, and the goddess with a Column who also sometimes appears as the Strength card, here as the Triumph of Chastity, or just standing in the crowd of other Triumphs.
The Triumphs begin with Love, and in these illustrations, they begin at the Temple of Venus, with what appears to be the fiery resurrection of a blindfolded Eros. The horses that pull the cart of Eros are labelled Independence. Regrettably I don’t have a good enough scan to read all the labels, but the crowd is populated by Emperors and heroes throughout antiquity. If you look closely, you will see that all the men have a woman interacting with them, often just behind, and these include likely vengeful connections, such Cleopatra behind Caesar, Judith holding up the head of Holofernes, and more esoteric, a mysterious shadow character labelled Le Umbra, or Shadow, standing next to a man labelled Le Feur, or Fire. Before them all, three successive high Father Gods of the ancients, Pluto, Neptune and Jove stand before the cart, and Jove appears to be stabbing the horse.
Chastity has no exact match in the deck, but in the image above, you’ll note that Chastity is relegated to a castle shrine, while the central figure is labeled mysteriously only as Laura. Indeed, the poem is probably about a Laura specific to the poet’s life, an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade of all people, whom he loved but could not be involved with because she was married. This makes the poem at once personal, about the ethics of sexual conduct, and the personal nature’s striving to be independent of a religious morality is sensible. Here Eros is no longer blinded, but fixed upon her with his arrow is blocked, and the horses now have wings. In the next panel, she has replaced Eros in the chariot, who now sits bound passively at her feet, the horses have become unicorns, and women in the entourage are show breaking wood. Perhaps describing the taming of desire, the loss of will or volition, or describing the loss of love when one is attached to objectives of purity. Faced with the unreachable, he writes of romantic love being pitted against his goal of being a mystic, something he is unable to reconcile, revealing the poem to be existential and not particularly in the service of religion, rather frustrated by it.
The interesting elements of these panels on Death are numerous. The first Panel of Death’s triumph over Love begins with a group of women and children. The only man in the group seems to be labelled Sypion Lustrion. Scipio the Roman general who defeated Hannibal makes another connection to Iberia, and a Lustrion was a five year period between the census, which was completed with an important animal sacrifice of purification, fitting for a Death scene. Scipio is known for a story in which his devotion to women was illustrated; when the captured fiancée of an Iberian chief was brought before him as a slave, he returned her to her tribe. He was disparaged in the Senate for being too obsessed with Greek culture to be a proper Roman. Pliny the Elder recalls that Scipio had such a memory that he knew the names of every person in Rome. In the Next panel Death carries away Laura, who in fact died of plague, her column lying broken beneath its wheels. It is a reminder perhaps to take measure of all that one cares for, as it will be lost. In a way, Death as a symbol may show it to have lost some of its sting, explaining the matter of fact appearance of the reaper, a product of this time, inhuman, unimpeachable, and incontestable. Shades of death are explored in other cards, but the Death card itself is, like other humanist symbols, flatly allegoric.
The Triumph of Fame is a most interesting revelation – for it plainly connects the theme of resurrection on XX Judgement to one’s memory in history, without turning the page towards ascension or departure to another world. This is mirrored in the arrangement of the Tarot. In these panels, the now dead Laura has a triumphant Death standing on her body, but then through the Triumph of Fame, or perhaps a better meaning would be Memory. Death is bound where eros once was, and sits passively in the cart, while Laura’s body has been wholly replaced with the spirit of Fame, her banner the blue field and stars. In this scene, people who have been buried long ago are standing up, Alexander is one, just beyond a fresh pile of unrisen dead, those left behind by Fame, and these include a Pope and a Cardinal.
This stunning allegory, following the passing of Laura to her Fame, continues what I consider a tale about the fate of women in history that is embedded in the Tarot. It is not idle but a call to action. In the first panel, the virtues of Time, the procession appears to be singing or calling, above them a group of women labelled the Hours of Day and the Hours of Night, along with the Zodiac, describe a pragmatic, nearly clockwork idea of passing time. Now the cart heads back the other direction, and the horses have become elephants. Meanwhile the next panel presents a solar chariot which follows the arc of time, while seated in it and looking back at the singing throng is a bound figure called Lenoiree, undoubtedly Le Noire or darkness, who is shown to be bound to the recurring movements of the Sun. Perhaps it is in part to say, the Sun will always rise, here timelessly set upon on an ornate golden rendition of the Tree of Life. Drawing this cart are four horses colored and named for the Four Humors, or physical matches to the four Aristotelian elements – Blood, Phlegm, Yellow and Black Bile, all to underline the cycles of Time as a process of Nature.
One of the interesting things revealed in the last Triumph’s pages are just how exceedingly strange and inventive the friezes were, especially in a masterpiece like this. The theme of Time continues on the virtues of Eternity panel, but the there appears to be a clamor of life, of creatures and fish, and people are hiding in the rocks from it all or perhaps are also coming up to the surface. The elemental horses seem to be trying to pull apart but the sun is fixed in its arc. Above the belt of time is a striking move – a deity seen only from the torso down. We have a clue as to the identity, and I will just say it involves the rainbow behind. In the new panel is an interesting gathering of the Roman Church, that especially shows an important theme in Renaissance art, the destruction of Constantinople and the final scattering of the Eastern scholars. The handling of paint shows the influence of their icon paintings. There are four Saints – Augustin of Hippo, Ambrose, Gregory, and Theodore, who I do not know enough about to comment, but all seem to have been writers, and perhaps inspirations for Petrarch. What’s very interesting is the depiction of a Christ and Pope sitting side by side on a little couch. All of Petrarch’s Triumphs end in a Christian motif of a kind, at the end, but not a standard one. The Tarot, however does not include this closing image.
Petrarch was considered a master of allegory, and in his writing extolled an inner life as being more important than outer symbolism, through the weighing of stories old and new for their usefulness in obtaining wisdom. This alone answers critics of esoteric side the Tarot who insist subtle meaning and metaphor are entirely absent. His poem a possible inspiration for the Game, as both a man of reason and a spiritual thinker, a person of the courts, and a poet willing to climb Mont Ventoux in the French Alps, once sacred while in his time being rapidly deforested for ship building. He is said to be the first to write about climbing for its own sake, and so is a called a father of Mountaineering also. It was on this mountain he had an epiphany, a humanist realization which we can still admire today, regarding the value of cultivating an inner life. It’s said at the top of the mountain he decided to read St. Augustine, and as the wind blew the book open, Petrarch’s eyes were immediately drawn to the following words:
“And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”
Petrarch’s response was to turn from the outer world of nature to the inner world of “soul”:
“I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. […] [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. […] How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation […]”
In Petrarch’s lyrical poems, the Triumphs do indeed run in order, signifying one theme overcoming another. Eternity trumps Time, which in turn trumps Fame, Death, Chastity, then Love. Part of an ongoing discussion about the order of the Tarot involves the question of the Trumps, do the cards really mean to state a similarly explicit order? Does the Hermit really beat Justice? Does Justice really defeat Victory or Chastity? Is this Fool’s Journey like a ladder, the right way to look at the Trumps?
We can look at this by comparing the order of Petrarch’s Triumphs as they appear in the cards. Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity are the way he ordered his lyrics. Among the cards we can match the Triumph of Love to VI The Lovers. For Chastity, we have XI Strength it would seem; Death is unchanged for card XIII. Fame appears to be XX Judgement, and while Time is played by IX The Hermit so frequently in the illustrated poems, this stunning series by Batave is more intensely esoteric, and matches Time to XIX The Sun, the impassive Apollo a good match to the archaic solar chariot, which reveals new attitudes about natural science. Finally, the Triumph of Eternity seems to match XXI The World, but in the case of the card, it is Gaia, Rhea or Hera, or Fortuna, or some goddess of the whole package who is present, and not an Ecclesiastic scene, and this replacement seems to be of a specific intention.
The cards that match this poem’s sequence are scattered and not adjacent in a group, and filling the space between them are other cards that are like mirror images of Hermetic meaning, filling out the parade and making it more of a pageant, than the allegory of a man’s romantic suffering.
The mystery of Laura and the Pillar she carries around remains to be solved. Perhaps the pillar refers to being sturdy or upright, or to her virtue, or to being bound to something heavy, like duty, that she must carry everywhere with her. The analogy of a woman as a pillar of society is very old, and some say the colonnades and caryatids of old are just civilized depictions of the sacred groves of trees. Since Petrarch was quite preoccupied with the question of memory, and of the memory of many people who had passed on before, I think on one level the pillar is a humanist symbol for wisdom. This pillar is broken in the Triumph of Death, but is replaced in some new form fashion defeating death in turn.
Another clue in the analysis of this pillar is that the poet never physically describes anything above her foot. Now, foot is pied, as in pedestal, and pied is also stone, we have this word play behind the numerous pillars of Victory stretching back in time. And in the name Laura we have a root in Laurel, the tree from which the Victory crown is made. In the earliest forgotten times, when the Animals and Trees themselves were the main characters of mytho-poetics, and not the humanoid gods they would become, the Laurel stood as the queen of the Dryads. Known as Daphne to the Greeks, this is the tree into which the virginal girl is transformed to escape the aggressive desire of Apollo, making her a symbol of the entrapped feminine. Indeed, like the humanist objection to church corruption, the temples of Apollo kept women as sex slaves, making a Dionysian intention in using the Triumphs more possible. Another interpretation could be drawn from finding an allegory of the loss of love caused by striving for purity, where Apollo is a source of light and time, but is destructive if approached directly, as anyone with a sunburn can explain. So it might be that Daphne and Apollo cannot touch, just as Idealization and Reality cannot touch except to result in destruction (like the century of religious war that leads to this time period). In all of these, the myth is a protest of the abuse of power and regret at the losses it caused.
Perhaps another allusion to Petrarch’s untouchable love Laura, a kind of pragmatic chastity rather than a sexual one, that what he’s really saying is that he can’t say everything. If she is Laurel, it makes her the ‘first’ of many feminine goddess symbols that have served as the ‘support’ of the sun or moon. Just in the immediate region where these images were painted, Provence, the Celt-Iberians and neighboring tribes have quite a few variations on goddesses who are represented as trees and pillars. In this lies another key as to why the Tarot would contain strong female as well as male reflections in a book of Hermes… the origin of the alphabet, along with the trees and standing stones themselves are all represented as distant memory in what we now call Hermeticism, and Hermes was neither male or female, but the embodiment of wisdom escaping the confines of death. This does reaffirm the tradition of the High Priestess card serving as Isis, who has her own tradition of being referred to as the Pillar, in symbol form, appearing as the ankh.