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"From Palermo the Arabs, quibbles and subtleties, the ego and the non-ego, melancholy and mosaics came into Sicily. Subtleties and melancholy have ended up partly in Agrigento, into the head of Luigi Pirandello, and partly in Castelvetrano, into the head of Giovanni Gentile. From the eastern gate entered Phoenicians, Greeks, poetry, music, commerce, deceit, buffoonery and comedy: Stesychoros, Bellini, San Giuliano, De Felice, Rapisardi, Verga, Martoglio ...". Thus Vitaliano Brancati conducts a waltz of moods and characters, philosophies and essences. From Palermo also came the Tarot (to be fitted with subtleties, ego and non-ego, melancholy), a triumphal gaming machine landed with conquerors, merchants and travellers – no matter whether Spaniards, French, Austrians, Piedmontese – who left behind their "suits" and rules, images and tricks, but also the art of pleasing and deceiving, the latter two being the essence and damnation of a card game.
For a game of Sicilian Tarot is an act of love. It is certainly not like chess, a metaphor for war, life or a game with death, as in Bergman's film The Seventh Seal. In the Tarot, logics and imagination make a show of themselves and articulate the Sicilian style: there's no escaping from the arguments that will lead to Pirandello, the endless arabesques that will tangle the island's Baroque.
An act of love among the cards (not always among the players) who seek, find, fight one another. Tiny paper icons featuring secular saints, each with its own, often obscure, well of meanings; icons which, once lined up, narrate an immensely long odyssey taking place within the brief spell of a game.
This is what Italo Calvino taught us in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a brilliant book in which dumb characters speak through tarot cards (Bonifacio Bembo's 15th-century deck): they line them up and tell their lifestories through a deck that is: "... a catalogue of possibilities, a list of hypotheses, a cryptic dictionary of the world; in their symbols the fatal links of human destiny are shortened ... It is a didactic fable whose every sentence, every passage presupposes an iconic presence, and records and accompanies this presence, wisely mixing clarity and an inextricable tangle, gathering joy and the anguish of the infinite, exhausting versatility of meanings in the in the narrative comment" of the Tarot. Nothing esoteric, for heaven's sake! But a series of short stories, as Boccaccio, Cervantes, Hoffmann or Pirandello could have narrated – with the help of Vladimir Propp or Claude Lévi-Strauss, or Viktor Šklovskij, of course.
So, at the end of each game, as in a solitaire, try to tell stories, or your own story, by lining up your Trumps. How many stories can be created! And here comes back Italo Calvino. Stories about us, stories that are dreamed and stories that are experienced. This is why the Tarot, more than any other cards, can enter our life (also generating the rambling paths of magic).
And many stories are told by a number of the cards you see in the exhibition. Fantastic stories, as we have said, but above all true stories: of folly, of duels, of lost friendships, of assets lost through a bad move. Many of them are cards that have experienced the game, over the centuries, thanks to men who have held them in their hands, either in an aristocratic club or in a tavern, either inside a pocket or in a thief bag, in the hands of women and children ... bent, weathered cards, kept for good luck, for love, for poverty; in any case, cards held passionately in one's hands. In the end, it actually doesn't matter whether they were the hands of nobles or commoners.
The exhibition – small but with a great heart – wants to tell stories of games, maps, orange wrappers: all "carte", in the Italian language. This is the first bold step into the history of the Sicilian Tarot. The desire to offer visitors the body and soul of a wonderful game that comes with an immersion into the culture of Sicily. Visitors will discover the historical, cultural, social, imaginative sides of this game – and, above all, its rules. Like the written words in the proverb, the cards remain.
We mustn't be deceived by the distant kinship of the ancient Sicilian tarots with the Florentine deck called Minchiate, because minchiate (in the Sicilian sense of 'bullshit') the Tarot is certainly not. As usual, we could quote The Leopard: "For over twenty-five centuries we've been bearing the weight of superband heterogeneous civilisations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own". Not even the Tarot; yet, if with each hand of a new engraver and publisher the cards lost something original, they also acquired some Sicilian features. Obviously the original iconography is, however, a fault that the Sicilian Tarot cards have carried with them until today. Often, having closed the deck, I find myself imagining cards invented in Sicily: they would have characters and looks stolen from Antonello da Messina and Caravaggio, they would encapsulate the Triumph of Death from Palazzo Abatellis, the monsters of Bagheria, the loves of the paladins, and then the sea, Mount Etna, the baroque ... And the 19th-century editions would have dazzled players with the colors and images of Sicilian carts.
However the Tarots in Sicily have become gentler. For example, the aggressive monsters the Ladies of Swords and Clubs fought against have turned into a flower and an elegant bird carried in the women's left hands. I can see violence (even subliminal) has been droopped, although a certain Sicilian "desperation" has been exasperated. We are still tragedians: Poverty becomes Misery and then that "Fool" who, from a wild-eyed madman who is obviously been chased, has become a "Fujutu", i.e., a runaway (I am referring to the Modiano deck), who actually seems to run towards some people, bringing them the game (the ball) and the joy of sound (the trumpet), the only musical element in the whole Tarot deck. Likewise, it seems artificial to transform the hourglass (such until the Campione deck) of the Hermit into a lantern (Modiano deck), while the reflection on time passing remains pivotal in the Sicilian soul and its "crazy cord".
And then, how troublesome are the characters in the Sicilian Trumps! Their movement – circular, centripetal, blocked by the boundaries of the card - is lively in the early decks, those with the “Moorish” coloring, that is, applied by fingertips. A movement that makes these characters into actors, protagonists of a fleeting dramatic action.
In short, the Sicilian Triumphs are not beautiful Renaissance figurines, or halved figures seeking themselves: conversely, they acquire a theatricality that is ancient, still alive in the people's DNA, a theatricality that transforms the markets, squares, streets of the South into stages. A baroque South that offers passers-by churches and statues of saints who condemn, absolve, bless, gesticulate, throwing their arms about like fishmongers or fruit vendors. None of this could fail to be poured out into the Tarot. Look at the sixth Triumph, La Fortezza: a "seated woman, wearing a breastplate, holding a column" (and I quote my beloved Michael Dummett). Look at her carefully through the evolution (especially in the pose by Concetta Campione first and then in Modiano) of the different decks over the centuries: she gets increasingly theatrical, playing in a Greek tragedy, perhaps reciting lines by Alfieri or Manzoni, or maybe in a 1950s Hollywood movie. I return to the "Fujutu", formerly the Fool, then a cheerful buffoon, who in the Campione deck seems about to start a performance. For the sake of brevity, in order not to bore, I will only give a few examples.
Cards are shuffled on this island. Certainly the engravers, the Ciminos in the lead, did not live out of playing cards, but made sacred images. Then, the sacred and the profane coexisted on the same table. In the Catanese typography of Concetta Campione – active from the end of the 19th century to the 1970s – Tarot cards were printed along with tissue paper for wrapping oranges; by observing the latter, it is clear that some sort of iconographic exchange took place.
Tarot and blood oranges (same word in Sicily). In the same Campione typography in Catania, the deck of cards, before being boxed, was wrapped in a thin sheet for protecting the deck and keeping it together. Same with the oranges. In the tissue paper for Tarot cards the symbols of Catania were present with warrior-Minervas (and Concetta Campione was one of them!), the sea, the waves under the arches of the Catanese navy, and Mount Etna with its snowy cap: therewas everything, including what the playing cards lacked.
So we must think of the Tarot as an element linked to the culture and life of the Sicilians. It is a whole from which no element can be extricated. Culture and history are often lowered into objects, into stones, into the wrinkles of men and women, into the taste of wine and oil, into the color of the sea, into playing cards. Even the lightest steps leave a trace.
A pack of cards is carried in your pocket, you pull it out at times of waiting, at gatherings with friends, at society meetings, after a summer lunch, after a Christmas dinner ... the opportunities are endless. I like to think that the Thousand who landed in Sicily had in their pockets Piedmontese, Bolognese, Florentine tarot cards, and our picciotti had the Sicilian ones. Inside this melting-pot of cards, at the card table, what deck would they have used, for example, before and after the battle of Calatafimi? Rules and cards would be confused, intertwined and, most likely, would have left a legacy. In Calatafimi, one of the four Sicilian towns still resisting barricaded inside a Tarot castle, together with Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Tortorici and Mineo. In Calatafimi, when the local Tarot typography closed down, Piedmontese cards were used so as not to give up the game. In that town they didn't know about the existence of Concetta Campione, nor did she know about Calatafimi.
In some recent studies, conversation circles and Sicilian reading clubs are analysed, and almost everywhere the Tarot was regularly declared. As a consequence, police norms and inspections, prefects' recommendations, gambling control. The Tarot was played in every Sicilian club. All this until the post-unitary ruling class celebrated its victory by eventually imposing new cards, their own cards. Today the Tarot still resists in the above four Sicilian cities, and I believe that nobody can explain why. Pockets of resistance certainly, stubborn ties to the past, with a game that had also become the people's heritage. At Mineo Luigi Capuana mentions the Tarot in Il marchese di Roccaverdina, a novel that ends in despair and madness.
Meanwhile, the Tarot was also taking the esoteric way. This was predictable for the figures, but above all because the players, given the combination of memory and cunning, as well as guesswork of the opponent's mind, and the memorization of cards played and about to be played, carry with themselves a necromantic aura. With the Tarot the step towards magic, black or white, was all too easy.
The poet Giuseppe Meli's (Palermo 1740 - 1815) frequent mentions of the Tarot, suggest that the game was part of the culture of the upper and lower classes alike. A deck of cards is considered one of life's essentials, as shown in the sonnet Ricetta pri lu friddu (A Recipe against Cold Weather), where it appears alongside a brazier, rock cakes and sweet wine, and a bed warmed by a nice woman.
It is easy to find Tarot quotes in novels, poems, short stories, diaries. These are mostly mere mentions of the game. We could even start by focusing on Petrarch's Trionfi, whose illuminated edition alone is an iconographic source, never mind the perennial contrast of the "disagreement between the transience of human things, and the eternal steadfastness of the celestial ones; .... the abstract vision of history and the world ordered to certain virtues or ideal forces, such as Love and Fame, represented in three-dimensional, precise forms ”: here the melancholy, heroic Renato Serra seems to be talking about the Tarot. And it is also a game, certainly a more complex one, to find images, iconographic links in literature, which thrives on well-hidden metaphors and references. If Ludovico Ariosto in the Orlando Furioso, a masterpiece containing all and everything, never mentions the Tarot of Ferrara (the court where he lived and worked), yet his poem is a continuous game, and the tarot figures are present in many octaves. This was understood by Luca Ronconi in his refined theatrical and television versions inspired by the characters' gestures, deeds, and acting.
I do know – and, please, re-read that wonderful novel – even if it is not written anywhere, that the characters in Pirandello's The Old and the Young play the Tarot during their rendezvous. In this Pirandellian "Leopard", disappointment blends with solar images to the point of madness. I like to think of young prince Gerlando, a liberal forced into exile, saying, with a Tarot deck in his hands, while playing with words: "One thing only is sad, my friends: to have understood the game! I mean the game played by that frolicsome devil whom each of us has within, and who diverts himself by showing us, outside ourselves, as reality, what, a moment later, he will reveal to be our own illusion, laughing at us for the efforts we have made to secure it, and laughing at us also (as has been my case) for not having had the sense to delude ourselves, since outside these illusions there is no other reality....". No reality out of the game because four (or three) players around a table are a world of delusions. To play is, increasingly, to dream, a murmuring of signs, of cards, of good or bad tricks, murmuring of the past above all as a suspension of the present, of everyday life.
Quotations jostle in the memory. I think Francesco Lanza had the Triumphs before his eyes for some of his Sicilian Mimes: I refer for example to the "piazzese", a derided victim, a "fujutu", who is both first and last, condemned to not take and not be taken, just like the card. But above all the pages of Horcynus Orca by Stefano D'Arrigo are fanned out before my eyes, with a reshaped, triumphant Sicilian dialect containing images ranging from classical mythology to the monsters in the scrolls of ancient maps, with a sea (not just metaphorical) of symbols. Just as in the game, the continuous metamorphosis gives the story an unpredictable course. The Tarot drowns naturally in it. It is no coincidence that D’Arrigo was born in Alì Terme, less than 40 kilometers from Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto.
I must force myself to a conclusion. The exhibition is yours, the first organic path, after the writings of Michael Dummett, on the most beautiful Sicilian cards. The exhibition is yours in a retablo, a "set of figures representing the instalments of a story or event". The show is all yours, may the game begin.