The Tarot de Marseille

The Hanged Man tarot cardThe Magician, the Hermit, the Hanged Man, the Wheel of Fortune and the controversial Papesse: these are some of the mysterious and metaphorical cards in the word-famous Tarot de Marseille.

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Card games have always been a cornerstone of provençal society and none more so than the tarot. This was the first region of France where playing cards appeared, probably introduced to Marseille via either Venetian merchants or Tartars from Central Asia.

A legal document dated 1381 makes mention of a game named nahibi, an ancestor of modern-day tarot (in it, a certain Jacques Jean pledges not to indulge in it during a trip from Marseille to Alexandria). But it seems likely that tarot proper arrived in Marseille after France conquered Milan in 1499 and soldiers came back with Italian tarot cards.

These early sets would have been hand-painted. "Professional" card makers appeared around 1631 after King Louis VIII authorised the printing of them in Marseille. With the development of new typographic processes which replaced wooden printing moulds with copper ones, production increased dramatically, reaching a rate of 180,000 packs a year in the area by the end of the 17th century.

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And, just as interest in the game was waning in its native Italy, tarot took off in France. Marseille established itself as the leading manufacturer of playing cards and provided the game with its definitive form, principally under the aegis of the master tarot maker Nicolas Conver.

La Papesse tarot cardIn 1760 Conver engraved the most famous of the early decks and founded a factory, which later became the Camoin House through the marriage of Jean-Baptiste Camoin with one of Conver's heirs. Exporting worldwide, the company would eventually produce over a million sets of cards a year.

The cards were elaborately conceived until around 1880, when new printing machines forced the manufacturer to simplify the design and reduce the number of colours, resulting in the modern Tarot de Marseille with its red, blue and yellow dominated palette.

At first the motifs were inspired by kings, noblewomen, valets. But that changed (like so much else) along with the French Revolution, which brought a new whole cast of characters - republicans, politicians - into play.

The dramatis personae varied from country to country and era to era. Particularly disputed was the Papesse, or female pope, pictured, a card based on the legendary Pope Joan, a charismatic and learned Englishwoman who was elected Pope in the ninth century.

"He" remained at the head of the Church until it was discovered that the Pope was pregnant! The legend - for which there is some documentary evidence, although most scholars today discount it - goes on to claim that Joan gave birth during a religious procession.

To prevent this happening again, the Vatican reputedly had made a chair with a hole in the seat. Prospective popes had to sit on it while a young deacon reached up through the hole to check all the male bits were present and correct.

Click here for more on the complex history of tarot.

Tarot started life as a simple card game but, in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Marseille deck in particular became associated with divination, mysticism and magic.

Marquis de Sade tarot card designed by Jacques HeroldIts subversive possibilities were famously explored in 1941 by a group of Surrealists led by André Breton and including Max Ernst and Jacques Hérold, while they were spending a tense winter in the city awaiting visas for the United States.

With their lives hanging in the balance, this game of fate and chance must have seemed the most appropriate way imaginable to pass the time. Meeting at the Air-Bel villa just outside town or at a café on the Old Port, they devised what became known as the Jeu de Marseille. Each member designed two cards which were later redesigned slightly to give the set a homogenous identity.

In their tarot deck the traditional suits were renamed Flames (red) for love and desire, Stars (black) for dreams, Wheels (red) for revolution, and Locks (black) for knowledge.

For them too, the old royal hierarchy of kings, queens and jacks was hors de jeu.

Instead, the 52 cards were peopled by magi, sirens, strange beasts and the Surrealists' literary idols - Baudelaire, De Sade (pictured by Hérold), Novalis, Hegel, and Freud.

After the war, with the loss of France's colonies and the prohibition of certain games in the Far East, tarot fell into decline and the Camoin factory finally closed its doors in 1971.

The Musée du Vieux Marseille, which received a donation of cards from the Camoin family for its permanent collection, is now closed indefinitely. But Philippe Camoin, a descendent of the dynasty, keeps the tradition alive and offers a wealth of information and tarot-reading courses on his website.

Find further reading on Amazon:

Universal Tarot of Marseille Boxed Set: Book & 78 card Tarot Pack by Lee Bursten and Claude Burdel.

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