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Published July 03, 1996 Updated June 12, 2023

Hand-Painted Tarocchi Cards

Hand-painted Tarocchi cards sometimes known as ‘Charles VI tarot’, North Italy, 1475-1500.

1500 Italy Tarot Tarocchi Add to Collection

XV century hand-painted and gilded Tarocchi cards, so-called ‘Charles VI tarot’ or sometimes the Grigonneur deck.

Note: this set has been named "Tarots of Charles VI" or Grigonneur cards owing to a misinterpretation of an account book entry in 1392 describing a payment of 56 sols of Paris to the artist Jacquemin Gringonneur for “three packs of cards gilded, coloured, and ornamented with various designs, for the amusement of our lord the king,” intended for Charles VI (but which have not survived). This myth was perpetuated, and further elaborated, for some time, even by respected scholars.


These intelligently designed cards are reputed to have belonged to a royal tutor and their content appears to justify that legend. Each of the images is designed as a multi-faceted mnemonic figure, in which one of the major astronomical figures is represented according to both western and eastern literary allusions, and details in the image reference, particularly, the 'Arab' star-names which were introduced into the culture of Latin Europe from the twelfth-century onwards. Thus the figure of Orion is depicted as the Biblical 'fool' but the details include the asterism known (among other names) as the 'String of Pearls' in Arabic. In addition, each of these figures has a place on earth associated with it. The 'hermit' for example is an image of Canopus according to the traditional lore which sees him/it as a hesitant martial figure, while the landscape refers to Canopus as Egypt's port and its lighthouse (the Pharos was not the only lighthouse marking an Egyptian port).

“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France
“Charles VI” tarot - Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Not all tarocchi cards are of the same kind or intellectual quality, but these certainly justify the oldest description of the card pack as a 'chart-makers' game', and if we posit their use as a the sort of post-lesson exercise 'game' intended initially for the school-room, but cards of this kind later used as a pastime among the more highly educated, then content and the finer details make a good deal more sense of both the ordinary secular sort of game played by soldiers and the 'readings' which have been passed down by tradition and in some cases (e.g. the Tower as Gemini; the Star as Sirius; Perseus as Death and signifying a temporary victory), then the pack's history becomes a little clearer. On the verbal and memory games played for pleasure by the European aristocracy see Crane's book on 'Social Customs...' For the importance placed on memory in medieval Europe see Mary Carruthers' 'Book of Memory'. I'm afraid there's no single easy guide to the highly sophisticated level of astronomical reference in these few cards; it is not part of the western, but the eastern traditions. - D.N.O'Donovan.

Further References

Carruthers, M., The Book of Memory, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Crane, Thomas Frederick, Italian Social Customs of the Sixteenth Century and Their Influence on the Literatures of Europe, New York, Russell & Russell, 1971.

Above: seventeen XV century hand-painted and gilded tarocchi cards of Italian origin in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). These cards are heavily worked with burnished gold leaf and tooled ornamentation reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts and Books of Hours. This expensive and laborious process was, therefore, only affordable by the wealthy. However, there are no mottoes or heraldic motifs on the cards which makes it less likely they were from a courtly milieu.

Illustrations of cards in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie. Public domain, catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb403537867

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By Diane O'Donovan

Member since January 09, 2002

Retired university lecturer. Researcher into the origins of playing cards in Europe, the internal structure of the pack, court cards, the tarot symbols, etc.


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