The Chariot of the Tarot of Marseille with two of its graphical sources.

If the first prints of the Tarot of Marseille cards have all disappeared, some of their ancestors nevertheless have survived. In the first decades of the 15th century, tarot was very popular in the lordly courts of northern and central Italy. To play the game, the aristocracy of the time used hand-painted illuminated decks. Because these were very precious objects, some of them have been carefully preserved and thus survived. One day, as I was visiting a playing-card museum in Issy-les-Moulineaux, in the suburbs of Paris, my attention was attracted by one of these luxury cards. Stylistically akin to Ferrarese art of the middle of the 15th century, it was probably made for one of the Marquis of Ferrara, Leonello or Borso d’Este. The image is very different from that of the Chariot of the Tarot of Marseille. However, as I was considering them side by side, I was struck by some surprising similarities: Both present a chariot seen from the front – a rather unusual point of view in the art of that time – with a large wheel on each side. Most importantly, the compositions are extraordinarily similar, in two halves separated by the upper edge of the chariot’s body. It seemed unlikely that such similarities were a mere coincidence. In fact, the Issy-les-Moulineaux Chariot was the missing link that would allow me to trace how the Tarot of Marseille was created.[1]

Ferrarese school, tarot card, c. 1450-1470


Nicolas Conver, Le Chariot, 1760

The Venetian painter Jacopo Bellini was in Ferrara in 1441, at the time of the death of the lord of the city, Niccolò III d’Este.[2] In the years that followed, Leonello d’Este, the son and heir of Niccolò, organized a contest for the creation of an equestrian monument to honor the memory of his father.[3] Bellini’s sketchbook, preserved at the British Museum, contains many studies that art historians believe to be related to this project.[4] Among them is this sketch of a triumphal wagon pulled by two horses, decorated on the front by a medallion bearing the Este’s eagle.[5]


Jacopo Bellini, Triomphal Wagon, c. 1441.

Several clues reveal a relationship between this drawing and the Chariot of Issy-les-Moulineaux. In both cases, the chariot is represented in a view from the front, with a great wheel on each side of the vehicle’s body, whose rectangular front panel bears an emblem. Indeed, similarities should be noted: the small, pointed, conch-shaped ears; the design of the horses’ nostrils; the lines under their necks; and the circular piece of harness on their forehead. In all likelihood, the Venetian’s drawings, having been presented in Ferrara at the time of the contest, inspired the Ferrarese artist who later designed the card. This hypothesis is consistent with the dating usually given for the Chariot of Issy-les-Moulineaux, at around 1450. The contest was won by two Florentine sculptors, Antonio di Cristoforo and Nicolò di Giovanni Baroncelli.[6] Another Florentine, the famous Leon Battista Alberti, participated on the judging panel at the request of Leonello d’Este.[7] The collaboration between the Ferrarese and the Florentine in this contest may have facilitated the transmission of the graphic designs related to the projects. A niello attributed to the Florentine engraver Maso Finiguerra bears witness to this.[8]


Maso Finiguerra, The Triumph of Faith, c. 1460.

Designed in Florence before 1464, the niello represents an allegory of Faith carried triumphantly on a chariot pulled by two horses. The superior part is clearly transposed from the Chariot of Issy-les-Moulineaux. The central character has the same attitude, holding a spherical object — a globe (Issy-les-Moulineaux) or a fireball (Finiguerra). Several details in the costumes are similar: the cut of the dress with its round-edged neckline, the high belt, and the pleats over the legs. Cherubs have replaced the four female companions.

Considering the inferior part, however, the niello appears obviously inspired by Bellini’s drawing. The horses’ legs are in exactly the same position, their heads are oriented in the same directions, and the vehicle’s big wheels are very similar, with spokes and reinforced by round nails. It also should be noted that the Y-shaped form delineated by the animals’ croups was transformed into a beam by the Florentine, and that the wing of the cherub representedfrom the back is identical, in reverse view, to that of the emblematic eagle on Bellini’s chariot. Regarding the line of weeds and cracks that delimits the inferior part of the image, a similar motif can be observed in the Ferrarese card. The niello thus appears as a hybrid of Bellini’s Triumph and the Chariot of Issy-les-Moulineaux.

The Chariot of the Tarot of Marseille prolongs this line with a new mutation, as it reproduces the general schema common to the three images, while at the same time borrowing specific elements from each of them. The horses’ legs take up the same position as in the Ferrarese card and Finiguerra’s niello, but with the latter, the animals’ morphology has the most kinship, especially when considering their round, full shapes. Likewise, the animals’ harnesses have many common points, notably the breast plates and the round ends of the bits. The Y-shaped beam remains in a stylized form. The platform of Finiguerra’s vehicle is prolonged to the front by a protruding element whose brace-shaped outline can be observed at the same position in the drawing of the shield that decorates the front panel of the Marseille Chariot.[9]



Comparison of the Y-shaped and brace-shaped parts in Finiguerra’s Triumph and the Marseille Chariot

Regarding the carriage body, Bellini’s niello was the model for the Marseille Chariot. The structure of the cabin was transposed as a canopy held by four posts, while the flat, rectangular emblem-bearing front panel was simply refurbished. (An initials-bearing shield replaces the Este eagle, and a cornice is added.) A strange detail can be observed in many versions of the Tarot of Marseille, notably in Nicolas Conver’s version. At the bottom of the card, in the middle, between the two horses, is a triangular shape topped by four curved blades. Its design irresistibly evokes the crack adorned by a tuft of grass positioned almost at the same place in Finiguerra’s niello. Most likely, the strange shape is a transposition of the crack and tuft.[10]


The crack compared to the triangular shape.

The Ferrarese card also inspired the design, as the Chariot draws from it a spectacular element, nothing less than the composition: Both images are divided in two halves separated by the horizontal line drawn by the superior edge of the wagon’s body.

Showing these dependency links between the seventh trump of the Tarot of Marseille and images whose creation date is known (if only approximately) allows for the proposition of an inferior time limit, before which this particular figure cannot have existed. Indeed, the Marseille Chariot, being inspired by Finiguerra’s niello, which was carved around 1460, cannot be dated earlier. Furthermore, if the Chariot utilizes elements that are common to the three sources (Bellini’s drawing, the Ferrarese card, and Finiguerra’s niello), it also borrows some features specific to each of them. All three could not, by nature, have a wide diffusion. Bellini’s drawing was a draft hidden in a sketchbook, jealously kept by its proprietor, for whom it constituted not only a working tool, but also a patrimony for his heirs. The Ferrara card was a luxury object reserved for use by its wealthy owners. Finiguerra’s Triumph could only have been printed in a very limited number of copies because of the niello technique and the fragility of sulfur casts, allowing only for a small print run. (The only extant print is at the Louvre Museum.) The creator — who had access, directly or indirectly, to these sources of various origins and natures, from which he imagined the synthesis constituted by the Chariot card of the Tarot of Marseille — probably took part in the Ferrara contest, or at least knew one of the participants. It is therefore reasonable to conjecture that this trump card was not conceived a long time after the competition, probably no more than a generation, or some 25 to 30 years. According to this estimation, the Chariot of the Tarot of Marseille must have come into existence in its original version between 1460 (Finiguerra niello) and 1475 (30 years after the Ferrara contest).

However, the process that leads from Bellini’s drawing to the Chariot card is a graphic evolution, not a thematic one. Indeed, the characters that occupy the upper part of the vehicle appear very different: simple shadows for Bellini, the drawing being unfinished; a feminine figure equipped with attributes of power – globe and sword – in the Ferrarese card; an allegory of Faith for Finiguerra; a crowned young man brandishing his scepter in the Tarot of Marseille card. These different images, although visually related, represent very disparate subjects. The study of the graphic ancestors of the Chariot of the Tarot of Marseille thus does not inform us directly on the meaning of this trump figure. For this, I would have to take another path. Above all, it seemed most necessary to identify the figure that appeared only in the Marseille Chariot: that of the young male driver.


An attempt to reconstitute the Chariot from its graphical sources.


The Chariot with its driver faded.


[1] I already have exposed the ideas presented in this episode in my « À mi-chemin entre Venise et Florence: le Chariot ferrarais du Musée français de la carte à jouer », The Playing-Card 41-4 (2013), p. 227-234.

[2] See Georg Gronau, Die Künstlerfamilie Bellini, Bielefeld, Velhagen & Klasing, 1909, p. 8-9, 14, 18.

[3] On the history of this monument, see Antonio Videtta’s introduction to his edition of Leon Battista Alberti, De equo animante. Il cavallo vivo, Naples, Ce.S.M.T., 1991, p. 41-53.

[4] See Corrado Ricci, Jacopo Bellini e i suoi libri di disegni. Il libro del British Museum, Alinari, Firenze, 1908, p. 8, 9, 11 ; H. Tietze et E. Tietze Conrat, The Drawings of the Venetian Painters in the 15th and 16th century, New York, Augustin, 1944, p. 97, 102, 103.

[5] See Colin Eisler, The Genius of Jacopo Bellini. The complete paintings and drawings, New York, Abrams, 1989, p. 249, 253.

[6] For this sculptor, see Anna Maria Matteuci, Baroncelli, Nicolò di Giovanni, detto Nicolò del Cavallo, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 6, Rome, Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1964.

[7] See Leon Battista Alberti, De equo animante, cit., p. 58.

[8]  For this niello, see André Blum, Les nielles du Quattrocento, Paris, Compagnie des arts photomécaniques, 1950, p. 14, X (fig. 21), XI (fig. 21bis) ; Catherine Loisel et Pascal Torres, Les premiers ateliers italiens de la Renaissance. De Finiguerra à Botticelli, Paris, Le Passage, 2011, ill. 97.

[9] I thank Thierry Depaulis for having drawn my attention to this correspondence.

[10] I thank Patrizia Castelli for having drawn my attention to this correspondence.

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