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As we shall detail in the next section, the Sicilian Tarot deck is today the only survivor, in Europe, of the so-called "Portuguese" system. As it is widely known, traditional European cards conform to a few conventional design types, usually referred to as "standard patterns"; the various manufacturers tend to reproduce them in a faithful manner, in the interests of immediate recognizability. In Italy, this is the case with the different regional decks (Neapolitan, Trevisan, Piacentini, Sicilian, etc.). But the earliest distinction is that among suit systems. Globally the most widespread today is the one defined as "French" (or, more correctly, Anglo-French, as its court cards carry indices with English initials), featuring
Spades, Clubs, Hearts and Diamonds. This is actually a relatively recent invention, compared to the Latin, German and Swiss systems still in use (see Table 1).
The Latin suit system was born in Italy as the initial adaptation of the earliest playing cards come to Europe around 1370: Swords, Clubs, Cups and Coins. This is, in fact, a family of systems, since it has come in at least three variants throughout history, displaying distinctive details and being conveniently named after the area to which it was, or still is, mainly connected: Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. (Table 2).
These are practical labels that do not actually mark clear boundaries as to the simultaneous diffusion, or presence at different times of the above variants, in these three areas and elsewhere in Europe (e.g., France). Some instances of the Italian system still in use are the Piedmontese and Bolognese Tarots, as well as the standard decks from Treviso, Trentino, Bergamo, Brescia and Trieste; to the Spanish system belong the decks used in the central and southern Italian regions: Piacentini, Romagnole, Neapolitan, Trevisan, Sicilian and Sardinian.
Given the analogy of the four suits within the Latin system, the most obvious differences are about the shape of the pips, particularly Swords and Clubs, and the way in which they are arranged on the card (see Fig. 1).* The other features are described in Fig. 2.**
The Portuguese system coexisted with other systems in Spain until 1550, when its variants seem to have become the standard model used for both ordinary (see Fig. 4) and tarot cards (see Fig. 3) in Rome and in the Papal States, with the neighbouring Ronciglione as a production center for the most popular (ordinary) cards, in southern Italy, in the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, and in Malta. Subsequently, in Spain the Spanish system took over; the Portuguese system remained in Portugal only until 1825-1850, then definitively supplanted by the French one. Instead it achieved his greatest success in the Portuguese domains in Brazil but also in Asia, in India, Indonesia and Japan, where often the reference
system was applied to the subsequent variations and adaptations to local artistic forms.
Within this framework, the section opens with a series of 10 woodcut, hand-coloured cards, with a female portrait indicated as "Faustina" on the back, from the collection of the Museo Civico di Castello Ursino. The 8 numeral cards include an Ace in the form of a dragon, typical of the so-called "Portuguese" system; also the 2 court cards (Lady of Swords and King of Cups) follow the iconographic models for this type. However, the absence of indices (namely, the monograms indicating the number and initial of the suit, placed on the upper part of the card), the heraldic elements and a greater control of the drawing compared to the other "Portuguese" decks known so far, suggest that this one is, if not
the prototype, at least as the oldest known specimen. The Faustina cards may have been made in Naples or Palermo, at the end of the 15th century, and then reaching Catania (like the Tarocchi di Alessandro Sforza) through the antiquarian market. As in the case of the illuminated tarot series, two Faustina cards missing from the Catania deck were found in Palermo, although the brown rather than blue ink suggests a different impression from the same matrix.
Before the discovery of the Faustina deck (2014), the oldest known documentation of Portuguese-type cards in Italy were the uncut sheets by Pietro Ciliberto reported by S. Mann, dated 1597. The mention of dragons on the aces of the different suits, together with confirmation of the use of playing cards with this design in the Kingdom of Naples some fifty years earlier than the date of the same cards, is found in a literary work by Luigi Tansillo, who, in the "Chapter in Praise of the Game of Malcontento" of 1547, writes as follows: "When a man notices an ace he holds,/as if it were a snake, or burning coals,/he hurries to hand it to his companion./And I believe this to have been the reason/ why card painters,
who have some education,/gave the ace the shape and features of a dragon."
On the regional use of this typology there are two hypotheses: the first, that it was introduced in the Kingdom of Naples, or of Sicily, from Spain as a pattern reserved for export; the second, that its origin is, in one of the aforementioned cities, or in Rome. The introduction of the indices, instead, pre-dates 1585; according to Dummett, it might be a Sicilian invention later adopted by Rome and Ronciglione manufacturers.
In the exhibition, this section also features some playing cards from the “G. Pitrè” Ethnographic Museum of Palermo, the oldest of Sicilian production to date, as well as reproductions of some similar Roman, Maltese and Spanish decks, so as to allow a comparison of the different variants, as well as the subsequent contextualization of the Sicilian Tarot within the same suit system.
7 of Swords: Piedmontese tarot Swords - 7 of Sicilian Swords - 7 of Swords Infirrera BN
7 of Clubs: Piedmontese tarot - 7 of Sicilian Clubs - 7 of Clubs Infirrera BN
- Italian: curve, crescent-shaped, interwoven, occupying the entire card
- Spanish: straight, short and arranged separately, without interweaving
- ancient Portuguese: straight, more similar to the Spanish ones, but extended throughout the card and interwoven like the Italian ones
- Italians: straight, thin and smooth
- Spanish: clubs or cudgels with a massive swelling, sometimes with gnarled knobs or buds, short and separated
- ancient Portuguese: straight and elongated, interwoven like the Italian ones, but in the shape of rough cudgels swollen at one end, like the Spanish
Infirrera dragon Ace, Lady, King, Coins card, with indices
Other distinctive features of the Portuguese system:
- the presence of "dragons" or large snakes on the aces, so that this type of cards is often called "Dragons"
- the gender of the lowest-value court card: male in the Italian and Spanish systems, (with some exceptions, such as the "Women" of Sicilian cards), female in the Portuguese, formerly called "Fantesca" or "Fantina" and, in Sicily, "Donna" ("Sota" in Portugal);
- the position of the King: standing in the Italian and Spanish system, sitting in the Portuguese one
- the presence of alphanumeric indices to help identify the cards (from around 1585)