A Brief History of the Tarot de Marseille
The earliest card decks recognizable as Tarot cards date from mid15th century Italy. These cards survived because they were hand crafted luxury items created for specific noble families. Cheaper, mass produced versions of these cards were used to play games such as ‘Trifoni’ or ‘Triumphs’, from which the word ‘Trumps’ is derived; and ‘Tarocco’, possibly an old Milanese dialect word meaning ‘blockhead’ or ‘fool’ and the origin of the word ‘Tarot’.
Understandably, most cheap, mass produced gaming cards have not survived the last five centuries, with one notable exception. Dated from around 1550, a series of uncut, uncolored woodblock images known as the Cary Sheet contains the earliest complete set of Tarot cards. The significance of this sheet from our point of view is that several of the images are almost identical to those of the Tarot de Marseille.
The designation ‘Tarot de Marseille’ does not refer to any one specific deck of cards but to a common design shared by many different decks. All of the Marseille pattern decks share a similar structure and imagery making them easily identifiable as belonging to the Tarot de Marseille family. Copies of these early decks are available in two forms: as photographic reproductions of the historical deck itself, with all of the variability in coloring and definition that the age of the cards implies; and as restorations. Restorations of such old artifacts are, of course, subject to some degree of interpretation.
To restore a deck the fading coloration of the original cards needs to be refreshed, and this demands careful discrimination. What tones of red and blue were used and what tones would look better after the printing process? Blurred outlines and small design variations between different versions of the same deck need to be taken account of. Which features to retain and which to dismiss? Finally, the limitations of modern printing technology need to be factored in. As a result of careful, dedicated work a whole range of historically accurate, restored and highly usable Tarot de Marseille decks are now available.
The Cary sheet images and some of the earliest extant Tarot de Marseille decks, such as the Jean Noblet (1650), Jean Dodal (1701) and Jean Payen (1740), are sufficiently similar to be grouped together (TdM I). Restored versions of these early decks have been created by tarotist Jean-Claude Flornoy. Please note, some of the restorations are of the 22 Trump cards only, not the full decks.
The most influential surviving Tarot de Marseille deck, however, is that of Nicolas Conver (1760) which has slightly different imagery from the TdM I decks. It is therefore classed separately, along with other decks similar to or derived from it, as TdM II. The Conver deck is especially influential since most modern decks are, ultimately, based on it. Paul Marteau’s reconstruction of the Conver deck, the ‘Ancien Tarot de Marseille’, first produced in the 1930s is still one of the most popular Tarot de Marseille decks.
Because of changes in printing technology more recent restorations of the Conver deck have come far closer to the original deck’s color scheme which is far more nuanced than Paul Marteau’s restoration. The color scheme may well have had a profound symbolic significance in the context of the craft guilds who produced the cards over the centuries coding additional layers of meaning and affecting the interpretation of the cards. Recently restored versions of the Conver deck include the ‘Camoin-Jodorowsky Marseille Tarot’ (1990) and the ‘Conver-Ben-Dov Marseille Tarot’ (2011).
Most Tarot de Marseille decks come from a time before the eruption of popular interest in an ‘esoteric’ Tarot starting in the 1780s. The idea of the Tarot as ‘The Book of Thoth’, a repository of ancient Egyptian wisdom, and the resulting enthusiasm to change its traditional symbolism to showcase these ideas ultimately overwhelmed its traditional imagery.
One reason for the renewed interest in the Tarot de Marseille is a sense of wanting to turn back towards a more direct, less elaborate and ideologically purer Tarot. Simpler decks allow more play for our intuition since their imagery is less distracting and retains a far more ‘archetypal’ look and feel. In addition, the minor cards are free of the kind of scenes characteristic of the popular Waite-Smith Tarot (1909) and all of the modern decks that follow that pattern. It appears to have been the first popular deck to incorporate elaborate images for the minor cards, almost certainly inspired by the beautiful Renaissance artwork of the 15th century Sola Busca minor cards.
For those who simply want to work with a traditional Marseille Tarot rather than study its historical variants or ‘hidden’ symbolism, the differences between these beautifully restored decks are probably negligible. For the historian or the seeker after hidden truths, however, the devil, as they say, is in the details. What all of these restorations do share, however, is a profound sense of the purity, vibrancy and directness of the Tarot de Marseille. And it is surely this feeling that points directly towards the source of their inspiration, the hidden world itself.