Andrea Vitali's Essays

Symbolic Suits

The meaning of the suits in Renaissance playing cards


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

Coming in part from the East and taken over by the Arab world (1), the so-called Minor Arcana are composed of ten numeral cards (from ace to ten) and four court cards (king, queen, knight, page) for each suit (swords [spade], staves [bastoni], cups [coppe], coins [denari]). They came to Europe thanks to commercial relations starting in the XIV century. As a genuinely independent game, these 56 cards were then combined with a certain number of cards of a special allegorical character, called Triumphs. With the passage of time, the latter became 22; the entirety, starting in the XVI century, got the name of “Ludus Tarochorum" (Game of Tarot).


One of the first testimonies not of ecclesiastical origin  concerning the meaning of the suits can be found in the booklet Regulae Artificialis Memoriae by Jacopo Rangone, written in 1434. The work belongs to the wide production on the art of memory that was born in the XV century. We may recall, for example, those by Lodovico da Pirano, Matteo da Verona  and  Pietro da Ravenna, in which game cards were used as “imagines agentes” (images able to act) for the construction of a personal artificial apparatus.

The booklets were used by noblemen and intellectuals of the time, but also by merchants and the common people for various situations where it was necessary to remember things.  In Venice during the XV century, every patrician, noble, or simple city-dweller did not go outside without having copied and kept at hand the essential rules of artificial memory to be sure to get the necessary fluidity to speak publicly and the clarity of exposition to perform commercially.


These booklets were usually structured in three salient points: 1) A short introduction which  recalled the most preeminent sources, such as Cicero, Saint Thomas and Aristotle. 2) The modality of choosing places. 3) A list of the hundred images to use and specific rules about their placement (2).


Vittorino da Feltre had already used the cards as a didactic instrument, when he taught his pupils a figured alphabet “literarum formas variis coloribus pictas ad lusum chartarum”, but the game became a common subject for the reflections of pedagogists and jurists in the XVI century. We recall Thomas Murner, who used a particular deck to help his students to memorize the numerous laws of the Justinian Code (3), and Ludovico Vives who, in his Conversations, based upon the daily occupations of children, also considered the game of cards, describing a game of Spanish Triumphs as a suitable pastime for spending time on dreary days (4).

Here follows a part of dialogue concerning the Spanish Triumphs:

: Ecce vobis fasciculos duos foliorum integros, alter est Hispaniensis, Gallicus alter.
Valdaura: Hispaniensis hic non videtur justus.
Lupanius: Quid ita?
Valdaura: Quoniam desunt decades.
Lupanius: Non solent illi habere, ut Gallici; chartae enim Hispanae, quemadmodum et Gallicae in quatuor sunt genera, seu familial divisae. llispanae habent aureos nummos, carchesia, baculos, enses. Gallicae corda, rhombulos, trifolia, vormerculos, seu palas, seu ascicula. Est in quaqua familia Rex, Regina, eques, monas, dyas, trias, quaternio, pentas, senio, heptas, ogdoas, enneas. Gallicae habent etiam decades et Hispani aurei et carchesia potiora sunt pauciora, contra enses et baculi. Gallis autem plura sunt semper meliora.
Castellus: Quo lusu ludemus?
Valdaura: Triumpho Hispanico. Distribue.
Castellus: Quomodo? A sinistra in dexteram more belgico, aut contra Hispano more a dextera in sinistram? (5).

(Lup. Here are two whole packs of cards, one Spanish and the other French.
Val. The Spanish does not seem to be quite right.
Lup. How so?
Val. Since the tens are missing.
Lup. They don't usually have them, as the French do. Cards, both the Spanish and the French, are divided into four suits, or families. The Spanish have gold coins, cups, sceptres, and swords. The French, hearts, diamonds, clubs, [little] ploughshares, otherwise called spades or arow-points. There are in each suit: king, queen, knight, ones, twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes, sevens, eights, nines. The French also have tens. In the Spanish game, golden pieces and cups are used, but less preferably swords and scepters. With the French, the higher numbers are always considered better.
Cast. What game shall we play?
Val. The game of Spanish Triumphs... Deal the cards!
Cast. How? From the left to the right, according to the Belgian custom? or, on the contrary, according to Spanish custom, from the right to the left?)

Coming back to the Regulae artificialis memoriae, we need to observe how the symbolic interpretation of the suits made by Ragone is very literal: coins correspond to money, swords to this type of weapon, cups to a drinking vessel, and staves to staves themselves. Here follows the passage concerning the images to associate with the cards so as to bring them to mind, in the vulgarization of Ragone's Laton text, written in 1466 by Francesco Lusìa, a notary in Feltre:

“Adesso vederai una altra regola zoè de recitar el zuogo de le carte el qual in molte cosse porà a la tua signoria esse utille a vedere. Primo fa mistier si como el ditto zuogo de le carte è partido in quatro par­te zoè denari coppe spade e bastoni. Cusí a ti troverai quatro persone le quale convegna egregiamente cum li ditti zuoggi zoè per lo zuogo dehi de­nari. Elezerai a ti uno el qual habia de molte richeze over alguno cambiadore el qual habunde de multi denari. Como seria exempli gratia per uno grande richo Cosma dehi Medici (6), over uno altro de si fata sorte se non cognosessi el ditto Cosma. Maximamente per lo zuogo de le spade toi uno famoso maestro de arte de scrimia de spada. Ma per lo zuogo de le coppe alguno famoso bevedore over inviziagone. Per lo zuogo dehi bastoni torai algun grande homo al qual tu metti un grande bastone in mano. Et cusi similemente meterai suso la schena del sopra ditto richo per lo zuogo dehi denari multi sachi pieni de denari. Ma quello el qual tu meterai per lo zuogo de spade mittige una grande spada in man. A quello veramente bevedore over inviziago mittige una coppa d'oro in man plena de vino sì fattamente che sopra el node” (7).

(Now I will explain to you another rule, the one of the card game, which will be very useful if you learn it well. First of all, learn how this game of cards is divided in four parts, which is to say coins, cups, swords and staves. So you’ll find four persons whom you could easily associate to these games: for the suit of coins you will choose a rich man or a merchant full of money. Cosimo De’ Medici would be perfect, or someone like him if you do not know Cosimo. In the same way, in the suit of swords you will imagine the art of fencing. But for the suit of cups you should imagine some famous hard drinker. For the suit of staves you will imagine a big man with a large club [bastone] in his hand. And so on: for the suit of coins you will put on the rich man’s shoulders a sack full of money. Put a sword in the hands of the one you have chosen for the suit of swords. Put a golden cup full of wine in the drinker’s hand so that his finger wrap all around the topo of the cup).


Practically, for the memorization of suits, it was suggested to resort to a famous and rich character for coins, a famous fencing teacher for swords, a famous drinker for cups and a brawny man for staves. The same symbolic valuation of the suits is present in an essay about the ars memoriae by Matteo da Verona, where he gives suggestions for images to match with cards: “Image for small cards. The image of the king of swords is a crown with a sword; the image of the knight is a sword with a horse, and the image of the infantryman is a sword with a foot. The image of the one of swords is a sword with the image of the number one…and so it proceeds to the end. The image of the king of staves [bastoni] is a crown with a club [bastone], the image of the king of coins is a sack full of money with a crown, and so on” (8).


On some occasions, the numeral and court cards also serve as a short list to send to the mind and then to remember situations and pesonnages in the history of Christianity. An example is given of composing in rhyme or the form of a narrative The Twelve Words of Truth as found in European folklore (9).

Proceeding in this analysis, it becomes difficult if not impossible to know the true meaning of the suits through the descriptions of men of the Renaissance, because of the different interpretations they have left. In the work Bizzarrie Accademiche (Academic Eccentricities) by Giovan Francesco Loredano, we find discourses and verses that had been read and acted in the Accademia degli Incogniti, founded by Loredano himself. Among them, there is the discourse Che moralità si può cavare dal giuoco delle carte (What morality can it be in a game of cards), in which the author dwells upon the viciousness and dangerousness of card games. At the end he makes a digression  on the suits so described: “We could say that in the card game there are the four seasons of the year. Swords indicate Spring, during which every Prince moves his weapons. Coins represent Summer, in which it is possible to gather the grain and the income. Cups full of wine symbolize Autumn. Staves are the symbol of Winter, since the trees in Winter are as naked as staves. Also because in winter sticks are necessary to keep us warm” (10)

But elsewhere we find that in the Giuoco del Re tratto dal Giuoco delle Carte (Game of the King derived from the game of cards) described by Innocenzo Righieri in an essay called Cento Giuochi liberali e d’Ingegno (One Hundred liberal and ingenious Games), the suits are associated with the four moral virtues, i.e. Cups to Temperance, Columns (Staves) to Fortitude, Swords to Justice and  Mirrors (Coins) to Prudence (11).

The same conception, in three different combinations, can be found in the work of Loredano, where it is explained that in the game of cards there are the four principal Virtues: “In coins there is Justice, suum unicuique tribui (which gives the right thing to everyone). In cups there is Temperance. In staves there is Prudence. But it was represented by the Egyptians as en eye on a stick; and in swords there is Fortitude”.

Pietro Aretino, in his work Le Carte Parlanti (The talking cards) of 1543 talks about the meanings of the cards' suits, which he makes derive from the nature of the game itself. The work, structured as a dialogue among the cards and the author’s friend, a certain Paduan [Padovano], famous in Florence as a card painter, is extremely interesting for understanding the mentality of gamers of that time. Here there is the passage in which the cards declare their meaning:

PADOVANO: Before going further, please tell me what the meaning of the King is.
CARDS: Loyalty, which gamers should have.
PADOVANO: The Knight?
CAR: The escape and the course of one who leaves instead of keeping to his post.
PAD: The Page?
CAR: Servitude, needed for the game.
PAD: Swords?
CAR: Death of those who despair of gaming.
PAD: Staves?
CAR: The punishment that deceivers deserve.
PAD: Coins?
CAR: The substance of gaming.
PAD: And Cups?
CAR: The drinks that  reconcile quarrels between gamers.
PAD: Since in Italy people are playing with French cards, please tell me what the Pikes [Piques, in French] are.
CAR: In salads they prick the appetites of those who love taverns. (In Italy, the word for pikes was similar to the word for capers.  n.d.r.)
PAD: What about Diamonds?
CAR: The hardness of one who plays.
PAD: And Hearts?
CAR: The will to fight for the hand. [in mano: in Italian, ambiguous between one's own hand and the hand of another].
PAD: And Clubs [Fiori, "flowers", but suggesting "fioretto," a group that socializes together]?
CAR: The pleasure of good talk. 

Later in the work, Aretino also talks about German suits:

CAR: In their cards, besides Clubs and Hearts, they have Bells and Acorns.
PAD: Why these and those?
CAR: Acorns mean small things, good enough to sustain nature’s hunger, nature that in the beginning was able to feed humanity with such food.
PAD: What about Bells?
CAR: Bells are used on fools' legs, and show the foolishness of those who toil to accumulate wealth, guarded by those who don’t know that wealth is a short-lived flower.

Saint Bernardino in his famous sermon entitled Contra alearum ludos, contained in the "Quadragesimale de christiana religione" (ca. 1430-1450), declared that gambling had been invented by the devil with the aim of opposing the divine power, sending the gamblers' souls to Hell. The Saint connects the suits and figures of the cards to vices and terrible wickedness: “… denarii avarizia, baculi stultitiam, seu caninam saevitiam, calices, seu cuppae ebrietatem & gulam, enses odium & bella, Reges atque Reginae praevalentes in nequitiis supradictis; Milites etiam inferiores & superiores luxuriam, & sodomiam aperta fronte proclament” (12), which means: "coins to avarice, staves to foolishness and canine ferocity (aggressive cruelty); cups to drunkenness and gluttony that generate hate and war; the powerful figures of Kings and Queens to the above mentioned wickedness; even the superior soldiers (knights) and inferior (pages) cry aloud their lust and sodomy" .


In the manuscript Sermo perutilis de ludo of the beginning of the XVI century, already quoted (please read the essay The Theatre of Brains), the author, an anonymous monk, explains the meanings of the four suits, interpreted on the basis of the conviction, very widespread in clerical environments after Saint Bernardino's declaration, of a demoniac origin to card games (following the original text is the translation):

De secundo ludorum genere scilicet cartularum dico quod si lusor cogitaret quod in cartulis significatum est, forte ab eis cavaret.
Nam in cartulis quadruplex differentia est.
Of  the second kind of games, I say that if the player thought about the meaning of the cards, he would realize that it would be better not to play. In fact in the cards there is a fourfold differentiation.

Ibi nam sunt denarii per manus lusorum discurrentes. Et hoc significat instabilitatem pecunie in lusore, quia debes cogitare, quando intras in ludum, quod denarii tui ibunt in malam horam eo quod perdes.
Here in fact is the money flowing from players’ hands. And this means the instability of the money in the game, because you must consider, when you enter in the game,  to whom in adversity the money of those who lose will go.

Sunt et Cuppe ad ostendendam paupertatem ad quam ita deveniet lusor,  quod carens cypho ad bibendum utetur cuppa.

The  Cups are also there, to show what poverty will come, because the poor player lacking food will use a cup for drinking.

Sunt et bastoni. Lignum est arridum ad insinuandam siccitatem divine gratie in lusore.
Sunt postremo et enses ad declarandum brevitatem vite lusoris quia plerumque occidunt. 
The Staves are also there. The wood is dry to suggest the drought of divine grace in the player. There are also the Swords that mean the brevity of the life of the player, since he will be killed by it etc... 

Nullum enim genus peccatorum est ita desperatum sicut lusorum. Quando perdit et non potest habere desideratum punctum, cartulam, vel triumphum, percutit crucem in denario, blasfemando Deum vel sanctos, cum rabie projicente taxillos dicendo suipsomet. 'Che me sia moza la mano,'. Facillime irascitur socio ridenti, et continuo in contumelias surgit et percutiunt...
In fact no kind of sinner is as desperate as that of a gambler. When he loses and cannot have the desired point, card or triumph, he strikes the cross on the money, cursing God or the saints, and he throws away the dice with anger, telling himself ‛Would that I had my hand cut off’ etc. He becomes very easily angry at his adversary, who derides him and continually insults him, and they beat each other, etc.

In 1720, Father Daniel, a French supporter of the birth of the Tarot prior to 1430 (a thesis with which we agree), as well as of the derivation of Aces from Roman coinage (13), wrote: "Coins express  'the sinews of war’  flowers or clover,  fodder that every good captain must procure in abundance; spades and diamonds,  offensive and defensive weapons; hearts,  courage. He also suggested the names of the heroes represented by each figure: the kings: David, Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne; the queens: Argene, Esther, Judith, Pallas; the pages: Hector, Orgier (and whoever else)" (14).


1 -
The Mameluks' deck consisted of about 52 cards divided into four suits: daràhim (coins), tùmàn (cups), suyùf (swords), jawkàn (polo sticks), each made up of 13 cards, of which ten were numerals and three were figures: the king, the viceroy and the under deputy. Since the Koran banned the painting of persons, the cards depicted just abstract drawings with a caption with the names of the Army officers. At the Topkapi Sarayi in Istanbul there is a Mameluk deck of 56 cards, discovered in 1939, called Muluk-wa-Nawwab, which origin is dated at the XV century. When they came in Occident, the Arabian cards were called with the archaic name ‘nàib, derived from Arab, to indicate the deputy or viceroy of the Mameluks' cards.
2 - By images should be understood those figures constructed mentally and associated to persons, things or situations to be remembered. The figures were put, always mentally, in specific places (loci), divided into subjects (for example a room used as library with many drawers each used for a specific subject). When there was the necessity to remember something, the mind went to the loci where it had put the information. For a careful study about  the history and principles of the art of memory, see: P. Rossi, Clavis universalis: arti della memoria e logica combinatoria da Lullo a Leibniz,  Bologna, 1988. 
3 - Chartiludium Institute Summariae, ca.1502.
4 - The Colloqui, composed by Vives for young Philip II of Spain, were published in Basle in his Opera Omnia (1555). About the Spanish Triumphs read the article Triumphs, Trionfini and Trionfetti.
5 - Colloqui di Gio. Lodovico Vives Latini e volgari, by Gio. Antonio Pezzana, Venice, 1779:  Ludus chartarum, seu foliorum, cc. 231-248.
6 - Cosma means Cosimo (de Medici).
7 - Lucia Nadin puts in evidence the gap existing between the Latin text by Ragone and its Vulgar version: the former says: "Num vide bis aliam regulam, id est recitandi ludum cartarum qui multis in rebus poterit tue damnationi, usui et utilitati esse." Lusia neglects the term "damnation" and affirms: “Now you will see another rule, which is to say to play the card games that will be very useful for you”: so keeping just that which relates to utility. Probably in the first case, by Ragone, a school teacher, there was a certain scruple in suggesting recourse to gard games, still at the peak of the time in which they were being demonized by clergymen, who taught the anathemas of  Bernardino of Siena; a scruple that disappears later in the Vulgar version by Lusia”. (Lucia Nadin, Game cards and Literature, Lucca, 1997, page 19).
8 - Matteo da Verona, Regulae artificialis memoriae, no date (anyway XV century), c.198v. 
9  - On this, read the article Le Dodici Parole della Verità (at the moment only in Italian). 
10 - Venice, 1638.
11 -
Venice, 1553. 
12 - Sermo XLII, Cap. II.  
13 - Father Daniel has been one of the first supporters of the derivation of the Aces from the Roman coinage. He brought his thesis in the article Source du jeu de pique, trouvé dans l'histoire de France, in "Journal de Trevoux", May 1720. About the hypothesis of the Latin origin of the suits, see the essay The origin of Aces
14 - Quote from Cesare Cantù, Storia Universale (Universal History), Volume X, XI Period, Turin, 1842, p. 221-222.  

Copyright by Andrea Vitali