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Talia from the Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465

Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465

The so-called “Tarocchi di Mantegna” is a set of 50 copper-engraved emblematical images (c.1465) which were probably a social pastime, or an instructional or educational series. It is not clear whether they were produced by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1503), however, the subjects of the set are mentioned by Giorgio Vasari who writes in his Lives about Mantegna that he created copper prints of trionfi - another name for the tarot Trumps.

Right: Talia, image no. XVI in this set. the muse who presides over comedy and idyllic poetry. She was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the eighth-born of the nine Muses.

There are no suits and the images are numbered consecutively from 1 to 50, divided into the following groups: Society; Apollo and the Nine Muses; the Arts and the Sciences; the Seven Virtues and Sun, Time and the World; the Planets and the Spheres. Thus we have a system of divine activities and functions reflecting an ideological structure. There are a number of versions and copies by different artists. Of the known examples none were made into a pack of playing cards, but were printed onto thin paper as black and white outlines. However, woodcut copies of these engraved images occur in later educational or didactic books.

Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465

Above: The Mantegna “Saturn” card (bottom left) allegorically shows an old man, maybe Chronos of Greek mythology, lifting a child to his mouth while other children await their fate at his feet. In his other hand, Saturn holds an Ouroboros, a small dragon or serpent biting its own tail, and a scythe. Time that devours its own offspring is a metaphor for “bringing to an end all things which have a beginning”.

In the debates and speculation regarding the origin, purpose and meaning of the “Mantegna Tarocchi” series, some misconceptions have been perpetuated from earlier literature. Possibly they represent a humanist world view or cosmology of the day; the outward design and hierarchical structure, beginning with the fool and leading up via craftsmen to the aristocracy, the king and the pope, through the muses, virtues and planets to the Cosmic Principles, reflects an androcratic ideology. Each figure has a name and a number. In some respects they remind us of the Hofämterspiel. A distinction is that the Tarocchi reflects a world order prompted by humanism, with the aristocracy and the church ranking lower than the arts, the sciences, the virtues, the planets and the spheres. The Hofämterspiel reflects feudal society.

Card games based around the Virtues and Vices, or Social Subjects, have of course been produced from time to time over the centuries. Possibly the tarot trumps were merely an alternative or condensed version of these images, which most educated people would recognise, added to a pack of cards for the purpose of making a new card game.


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