The facsimile of the De Sphaera codex.

The small parcel arrived on Aug. 31, 2000. Inside it, I found a blue cardboard box stamped with gilt armorial bearings, which contained a small book, bound in red morocco, with no title, that opened on the pages, reproduced to the perfection, of an illuminated manuscript. It was a facsimile copy of an Italian astrological treatise of the Renaissance, known under the name of De Sphaera.[1] I turned the pages, paying close attention to the details of the sumptuous illuminated miniatures. Since February that same year, I had completely revised my method of investigation. Before, I had thought it possible to understand the meaning of the cards by mere observation of their figures. The problem with such a method is that the lack of context made it almost impossible to understand what the images meant. Gestures, for example, do not have the same meaning in different cultural contexts. A raised hand would be interpreted very differently by a Greek merchant of Antiquity, a Florentine accountant of the Renaissance and a basketball referee from our times. I, thus, realized that to decipher the Tarot of Marseille, it was necessary to know its origins, to know where and when it had been created and, ideally, by whom. Unfortunately, the oldest samples we have of this type of tarot do not date back to the time of its creation. Playing cards always have been an everyday consumer product. When a deck is worn out, it is simply thrown away. This explains the fact that the oldest cards preserved that correspond to the Marseille type are not datable before the second half of the 16th century. The specialists had good reason to think that the Tarot of Marseille existed before, but without knowing exactly where and when.

In reality, discovering the origin of the Tarot of Marseille does not require us to have cards produced at that time in our possession. Actually, the figures represented on later samples correspond to a tradition faithfully reproduced by the numerous card-makers that succeeded each other throughout the centuries. The decks produced nowadays still replicate the ancient model, with only slight variations. Therefore, the images of these decks must still reflect the world in which the original model was created. Many things vary only slowly throughout time and space, but among human creations, one notoriously changes continuously: fashion. Thus, if we can date and locate the costumes represented on the Tarot of Marseille cards in a coherent way, we can infer the dating of the card design. This consideration had led me to compare the clothes worn by the characters represented in the cards to works of art from the medieval and Renaissance periods. Within a few months, after visiting museums and libraries, I had firmly established that the figures populating the Marseille cards are all dressed in the fashion of northern and central Italy in the last third of the 15th century. I had ordered the De Sphaera facsimile precisely for this investigation, but this manuscript hid a surprise.


De Sphaera codex, leaf 11 recto, dedicated to the children of Mercury.

The De Sphaera is essentially a picture book. Most of its full-page miniatures represent the “Children of the Planets”; that is, human characters representative of the influence of the seven celestial objects known to astrology before the late modern period: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The recto of the 11th folio of the manuscript, dedicated to the “child of Mercury,” depicts an imaginary city. In the center of the image, a cook is roasting a piece of meat that a servant is going to take to a dinner table under the archway that dominates the composition. Three men are at the table: One is sitting, emptying a glass of wine; another one, wearing a red hat, is taking some food from a dish with his left hand; and the third is the most interesting. He occupies, right in the middle of the archway, the most eminent position in the scene. Standing firm on his legs behind the table, he seems to be holding the place of honor. He is, from head to toe, an almost perfect double of the Magician of the Tarot of Marseille.


The diner on folio 11 r of the De Sphaera codex.


The Magician of the Tarot of Marseille.


Both have blond, curly hair covered by a wide-brimmed hat, the head slightly tilted. They are dressed similarly, with a padded doublet vertically seamed in the middle, tightly fitted at the waist by a yellow belt, with a round collar underlined by an edging. Under this garment, they both wear a shirt with long sleeves finished by a cuff at the wrists. If we consider the gestures of their arms, it seems that they are replicating each other’s position, as in a mirror. Both have a hand raised at shoulder level, with the palm open, while the other hand is held over the thigh, slightly under the belt. The two tables are also very similar, having tapered feet and covered by a thick top surrounded by the same kind of bric-a-brac: coins, a knife, a glass, and round bread. Under the table, the characters’ legs appear covered by chausses, and the feet are wearing  pointed shoes.

Let us now play the “Spot the Difference” game with these images, as here, even more than the similarities, the differences are revealing: 1) The Magician is holding a wand in his hand, not the child of Mercury. 2) On the table of the Magician can be seen a flared tumbler that does not appear on the child of Mercury’s. 3) The dish on the child of Mercury’s table is replaced on the Magician’s by an open bag. 4) The position of the arms is not exactly the same. 5) The Magician appears to be a conjurer, whereas the child of Mercury seems to be the guest of honor.

We can now turn the page of the manuscript.


De Sphaera codex, leaf 12 recto, dedicated to the children of the Moon.

On the other side of the parchment leaf, so thin that it is almost transparent, right in the middle of the miniature dedicated to the children of the Moon, another character appears:


The juggler on folio 12 r of the De Sphaera codex.

1) Like the Magician, he is holding a wand in his left hand. 2) On his table appear three tumblers whose flared shape is reminiscent of the Magician’s tumbler. 3) The alms purse hanging from his belt resembles the pouch that lies open on the Magician’s table: same trapezoidal shape, same rimmed mouth underlined by a series of vertical fine lines, same kind of clasp at the top. 4) The position of his left arm matches exactly that of the right arm of the Magician. The limb outlines the shape of a teapot handle, the elbow forming an open angle, the hand placed right under the belt on the hip, the junction of the wrist being exactly aligned in both figures, along the characters’ doublets. 5) At the center of a gathering of people, the child of the Moon also appears to be a conjurer, like the Magician.


Comparison of the Magician’s right arm with the De Sphaera juggler’s left arm.

The figure of the Magician thus reveals itself to be a combination of two characters drawn from two successive leaves of the De Sphaera manuscript, integrating various features from both miniatures – physical appearance, clothing, profession – into a unique image. The conclusion is obvious: The person who drew the Tarot of Marseille card had the illuminated manuscript under his eyes when, blending into a single figure two characters taken from two consecutive leaves of the book, he gave birth to the first card of the deck, which bears the number one. Art historians estimate that the De Sphaera was painted between 1460 and 1470.[2] Inspired, as it appears, by its miniatures, the Tarot of Marseille must have been created at a later date,  probably in Italy.

[1] Cf. Ernesto Milano, Commentaire du codex De Sphaera de la Biblioteca Estense de Modène, Modena, Il Bulino edizioni d’arte, 1998.

[2] Ibidem, cit., p. 81.

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