Tarot cards are often used as a means of divination, but do you know what their meaning and history is? It all started in Milan.
For those devoted to the art of tarot cards, there is a trip to Milan, where its history of more than 600 years emerges.
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Who was the creator of the tarot cards?
In his small studio in Milan, 89-year-old Osvaldo Menegazzi creates his own versions of classic tarot decks from the 1970s.
These are made of thick paper and are hand-stained; the faces seem to look at you through the centuries. Of the countless tarot decks that flood the market each year, those by Menegazzi, formally trained in the fine arts, are unique, mostly because they feel so personal.
«Le carte parlano », he usually says. «The letters speak ». He is one of the reasons why tarot lovers, like me, come to Milan.
In the mid-15th century, the Visconti and Sforza families, rulers of Milan for more than two centuries, commissioned a local artist named Bonifacio Bembo to illustrate a custom deck for them.
Tempered and then adorned with gold and silver leaf, the Visconti-Sforza mallet attests not only to Bembo’s talent, but also to families’ refined taste for pocket art.
Travelers can view 26 of the surviving letters at the Accademia Carrara, an academy of fine arts and gallery in Bergamo.
In the splendid Sforzesco Castle, with its brick walls, at the beginning of the 20th century letters were discovered at the bottom of a well dating from around 1500.
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The tarot cards that inspired the Rider-Waite-Smith deck
Closer to the center of Milan, the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery houses the Sola Busca deck, completed in 1491.
Considered the inspiration for the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, a gold standard for today’s tarot users, Sola Busca was the first known deck to put detailed illustrations on all 78 cards.
These original letters recall an era of knights, squires, and family crest. Arnell Ando, an expert who leads tarot-themed tours of northern Italy, revels in these parallels.
On your itinerary is Palazzo Schifanoia, near the city of Ferrara, in the Emilia-Romagna region, and its walls abound with astrological symbols.
In Tuscany, Siena Cathedral features a mosaic-covered floor with what appears to be the symbol of the Ferris wheel.
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Who were the first to do tarot reading?
Think tarot today and you may conjure up images of fraudulent psychics, but in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, before divination came on the scene, tarocchi were an ideal new medium for artists and poets.
Playing cards had just come into vogue and tarocchi were distinctive: each 78-card deck had four suits: clubs, golds, spades, and cups, plus 22 special cards or trionfi (trumps), with evocative names like the Devil, the Emperor. and Justice.
With their rich illustrations, they ignite the imagination as they distill universal truths about life. The cards were full of emotion and magic.
For those who knew the references, the tarot spoke a secret language that the Catholic Church wanted to suppress. In code, the artists were able to include references to alchemy, astrology, and even the Kabbalah, a mystical branch of Judaism.
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It doesn’t surprise me that the tarot, with its eloquent beauty and effortless fusion of the religious with the secular, is a wholehearted Italian invention.
There is an urgency in the way the letters are communicated (consider the ominous figures rising from their graves in the Judgment card, for example), as if they couldn’t get their message across soon enough. More Italian impossible.
I started studying tarot at age 20, when I was part of a radical school in New York called Brooklyn Fools. The reason why I fell in love with tarot then is the same reason why people did it 600 years ago: it identifies us.
We share many of the same concerns as in Renaissance times: we worry about money, our hearts break, we wonder how to make changes to improve our lives.
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