Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Dionysus and the Historical Tarot 1

15th - 18th Century Cultural Contexts


by Michael S. Howard

Introductory Note: This essay turned out to be so long that it has been divided into four web-pages, each of which can be accessed here. (I didn't intend it to be so long; but there was so much material to report!) To access a particular part, you click on one of the four (below) and then, when you are on the page you want, scroll down to the part you want to read, or type the desired section (A4, B20, etc.) into the "find" box on your computer and get to it quickly that way.

Dionysus and the Historical Tarot 1(A1: Diodorus Siculus's Tharopes; A2: From "Tharopes" to "tarochus"; A3: Dionysus and the cards; A4: Dionysus in Ferrara)

Dionysus and the Historical Tarot 2 (A5: Dionysus in Mantua; A6: Ficino, Bessarion, Pico, and Erasmus; A7: Dionysus and Osiris; A8: The d'Este Matto; A9: Other early Matto cards; A10: The other cards, and an objection)

Dionysus and the Historical Tarot 3 (B1: Bagatella; B2: Imperatrice; B3: Imperatore; B4: Papessa; B5: Papa; B6: Amore; B7: Carro Triomphale; B8: Ruota; B9: Vecchio; B10: Temperanza; B11: Fortezza; B12: Justizia)

Dionysus and the Historical Tarot 4 (B13: Impiccato; B14: Morte; B15: Diavolo; B16: Fuoco; B17: Stella; B19: Luna; B19: Sole; B20: Angelo; B21: Mondo; B22: Conclusion; B23: Appendix, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche)

On this page:

A1: Diodorus Siculus's Tharopes
A2: From "Tharopes" to "tarochus"
A3: Dionysus and the cards
A4: Dionysus in Ferrara

This essay would not have been written, at least not in its present form, except for Andrea Vitali, President of the Association, both for his encouragement and for the research and insights of his essays, many of which I have drawn on here. I also want to thank Lothar Teikemeier and Ross G. R. Caldwell for helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of some parts (especially A1-A4). I of course am responsible for whatever errors I have persisted in making.

For anyone who would prefer to read the essay in "blog" format, it can also be viewed at      

A1: Diodorus Siculus' s Tharopes
In his provocative essay Tharochus Bacchus est ( Andrea Vitali advances a new hypothesis for the origin of the word "tarocchi": that it comes from a classical source available in 15th century Italy about Bacchus; specifically, it refers to a person whom Diodorus Siculus called "Tharopes" or possibly even "Tharocus". In Diodorus, he was the one to whom Bacchus first gave his rites. In this supplement to his essay I do not intend to repeat what Andrea says; I want to defend his hypothesis with additional data, in Part A sticking  closely to what was extant in 15th-16th century Italy and mostly - except for a few suit cards in one deck - to one card, the Matto, as it was called. (It is the Fool card in English; but the Italian word "Matto" meant "Madman"). I am not concerned only with the derivation of the word, but also with how natural it would be to associate tarot with Bacchus, i.e. Dionysus, at the time and place the word "Tarochi" (with that spelling then) first appeared as a designation for a deck ad game of cards. 

Moreover, I think there are other reasons for supposing the cards were associated with Dionysus, In Part B I will be ranging further, from the late 15th century in Italy to the early or mid 18th century in France (a practice I will start in the second part of my discussion of the Fool card), and through the rest of the 22 tarot trumps, to show again the naturalness of an association between Dionysus and the cards, one not written of by those promoting it for fear of consequences emanating from hostile quarters in church and state, and not written about by its detractors either from ignorance - because it is far from obvious - or for fear of giving the association undeserved  publicity. I explain the reasons for such fear at the end of part A.

I am using the names "Bacchus" and "Dionysus" interchangeably. Both are Greek terms, "Dionysus" the main name, but also "Bacchus" from "the frenzy he induces", according to Wikipedia's entry for "Dionysus,", which also says that "Bacchus" was the Romans' name for the god.

I will start where Andrea started, with Diodorus, a first century b.c.e. Greek historian
( Here is the relevant passage, from Vol. 3, p. 65 of his Library of History (*.html). I put the name in bold: 

§ «Among those who were punished by him, the most renowned, they say, were Pentheus among the Greeks, Myrrhanus the king of the Indians, and Lycurgus among the Thracians. For the myth relates that when Dionysus was on the point of leading his force over from Asia into Europe, he concluded a treaty of friendship with Lycurgus, who was king of that part of Thrace which lies upon the Hellespont. Now when he had led the first of the Bacchantes over into a friendly land, as he thought, Lycurgus issued orders to his soldiers to fall upon them by night and to slay both Dionysus and all the Maenads, and Dionysus, learning of the plot from a man of the country who was called Charops, was struck with dismay, because his army was on the other side of the Hellespont and only a mere handful of his friends had crossed over with him. Consequently he sailed across secretly to his army, and then Lycurgus, they say, falling upon the Maenads in the city known as Nysium, slew them all, but Dionysus, bringing his forces over, conquered the Thracians in a battle, and taking Lycurgus alive put out his eyes and inflicted upon him every kind of outrage, and then crucified him. Thereupon, out of gratitude to Charops for the aid the man had rendered him, Dionysus made over to him the kingdom of the Thracians and instructed him in the secret rites connected with the initiations; and Oeagrus, p301 the son of Charops, then took over both the kingdom and the initiatory rites which were handed down in the mysteries, the rites which afterwards Orpheus, the son of Oeagrus, who was the superior of all men in natural gifts and education, learned from his father; Orpheus also made many changes in the practices and for that reason the rites which had been established by Dionysus were also called "Orphic"» §

In modern editions of the Greek, "Charops" is spelled "Charopos": chi alpha rho omicron pi omicron sigma; also "Charopi" in a different case. But toward the end of the 1400s, what was most widely available was Poggio's 1449 translation into Latin; there the spelling was "Tharopes". This translation circulated widely in manuscript before being printed, first in Bologna 1472, then Venice and Paris 1476. That Bologna was first is already auspicious, as that city was already probably a major producer of the deck with the special cards, and the Diodorus must have been one of the first books printed in that city.

I have not been anywhere I could see one of these early Italian Poggios, but I was able to secure a scan of the relevant pages of the Paris 1531 edition, which probably is the same as the Paris 1476 and Venice 1476. Moreover, I have in front of me a 1476-1478 English translation by a certain John Skelton, based on a manuscript copy of Poggio's translation (The Bibliotheca historica of Diodorus Siculus translated by John Skelton[, edited by  F. M. Salter and H. L. R. Edwards, vol. I text, London 1956; and vol. 2, Introduction, Notes, and Glossary, London 1957). 

Both the Skelton translation and the 1531 Paris edition of Poggio's Latin, the spelling is "Tharopes".  Here, shared by the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas for research and personal use only, is the relevant page in the Paris 1531,


As we can see, the word "Tharopes" is highlighted in the margin. It also appears in the index of names at the beginning of the book. That's how I found the right page, using that index.

Here are the first two instances, from the bottom of the left-hand side above and the top of the right-and side:

                                Tarope 1

                                           Howard 2

And in Skelton's rather loose translation (p. 173), here is the first mention of this individual:

§ «Albe-it, this conspiracye, by aduenture, as it fortuned, was disclosed by an estaungiere that dwelled in the contrey, whos name was Tharopes, in-so-moche that of enward abashment for thise tydinges Dionisius, sore affrayed by encheson that his hoste of people were not as yet commen over the watre vnto hym, by meanes of such frendes as he had there, prively he was conveyed and so brought over vnto the strenghe of his owne men of warre.

(Albeit, this conspiracy, by adventure, as it fortuned, was disclosed by a stranger that dwelled in the country,whose name was Tharopes; in as much as he was inwardly abashed by these tidings, Dionysus, sorely afraid by    reason that his host of people were not as yet come over the water to him, by means of such friends as he had there, secretly he was conveyed and so brought to the strength of his own men of war)» §

And later (I include only the sentence with his name):

§  «Callyng vnto his pryncely remembraunce the grete kyndenes and benefight of his frynde Tharopes, which vnto hym had discovered this treason falsely contrived, by occasion whereof he advoided the daungeour and ieopardie of his owne life, determyned with hym-self by good aduertisement his feithfull and trew mynde nobly to rewarde, intrononysed hym with kyngly honour, crownyng hym with the roiall diademe of all / the londe of Trace, as prynce and gouernour that roialme to haue vndre his domynyon at his commaundement and pleasure.

(Calling to his princely remembrance the great kindness and benefit of his friend Tharopes, who to him had discovered this treason falsely contrived, by occasion whereof he avoided the danger and jeopardy of his own life, determined with himself it good advice nobly to reward his faithful and true mind, enthroned him with kingly honor, crowning him with the royal diadem of all the land of Thrace, as prince and governor, that kingdom to have under his dominion at his commandment and pleasure)» §

This "Tharopes" is not quite "tarocco." Andrea bridges the gap by citing the 18th century German scholar Ernesti, who, in a footnote to his edition of Cicero's
De Natura Deorum, spells the name "Tharocus", which Andrea assumes comes from an old manuscript of Diodorus. However I am not convinced that the Italian Renaissance knew such a manuscript. No such variant spelling is listed in the footnotes of modern editions of the Greek text. I prefer to go another route, although very much building on things Andrea has said in  other essays.

A2: From "Tharopes" to "tarochus"

One objection to a derivation from "Tharopes" might simply be the obscurity of the name. It is exactly such obscurity that is implied by the inability of those who speculated about its derivation in the 16th-17th centuries to come up with anything that made sense. There were only two, and both proposed Greek origins; other learned individuals confessed themselves baffled. The humanist Flavio Alberto Lollio, a translator of Latin, exclaimed in his famous
Invettiva contra il gioco dei Tarocchi (Invective against the game of   Tarot) (from

                           Dove lasso quel numerar noioso
                           D’ogni Trionfo, ch’esca fuori?
                           (Where could that annoying enumeration of Triumphs have been permitted to be made?)

If Lollio didn't know the answer, it couldn't have been too obvious. Even today most etymyological dictionaries do not give a derivation for tarot or tarocchi, and those that do (I have only seen the one in the Grand Robert Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise) make attempts at derivation at least as dubious as the one I am defending. (In the Robert's case, from an Arabic word tarah, meaning "discard";  the only evidence for this I've found is that there was a "discard" rule introduced at around that time, the beginning of the 16th century, and the Italian term had already been taken by another game, Scartino) In any case, I am not saying that the argument I am presenting should convince anyone. Sufficient confirming evidence is simply not to be had, for this or any other theory. All I wish to do is put out what evidence there is.

So I will begin.

Modern standard Italian doesn't have a "th" sound. Since it is derived from Tuscan, it seems to me that "Tharocus" would easily reduce to "Tarocus" for Poggio's readers. In Skelton I notice that the spelling of one name does alternate between "Th" and "T": it is "Tamyris" on p. 321 of Skelton, but "Thamyris" on p. 322. I am not sure why that is, since Poggio himself has "Thamyris" throughout.

How would this "taropos" have become "tarocco"? I have two explanations.

We know that Greek was in fashion during the second half of the 15th century. And people going to Greece then, to get out manuscripts or relatives or to study, had also to contend with Turkish.  We also know of this period in history, when vernacular languages were supplanting Latin among the literati, that a great many new words either were invented or at least appeared for the first time. This John Skelton, for example, was as of 1957 credited by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with at least 640 words (or particular senses of words, that had never appeared before in writing (vol 2 p. xxxii). In addition, the editors say that there are 816 more that the OED missed (p. xxxiii). The total, even allowing for inaccuracies, is impressive. We know that the literati didn't just use words that already existed but invented them. Shakespeare invented constantly; my favorite is "superflux" in King Lear, which is simply "overflow" in Latin.

New words most commonly came from Latin, because that's what the literati knew, but Greek was also much used. In late 15th century Italy, Greek was fashionable. In tracing the sources of possible allusions on the cards, I found that some of the best known authors made up Latinized words, i.e. words that would grammatically fit their Latin text, from Greek roots. The Venice 1499 illustrated book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is filled with such words, making it notoriously difficult to translate. Even the word hypnerotomachia itself is made up from three Greek words not so combined before: sleep, love, and strife, thus "strife of love in a dream". "Poliphili" similarly is made up from the words for "many" and "love"; and so on. Erasmus also made up words for a made-up genealogy for Folly in his Praise of Folly, 1514 Venice; see p. 16-17 of the 1993 translation, notes 15 and 19: his name for Folly's mother, "Freshness", is made up from Greek, as are those of Folly's nurses "Drunkenness" and "Ignorance" (The translator does not say what the Erasmus's words were or their relationship to Greek). A lesser known Ferrara humanist in the 1520s also made up words from exceedingly obscure Greek ones for a Latin poem that we will see later, in the section on Ferrara. I assume the practice was engaged in by many at that time, and the more obscure the Greek, sometimes, the better. These words, however, were never used again. Somehow, "tarocco" was different.

At least two 16th century authors cited in Andrea's "Etymology of Tarot" essay
( thought that the word "tarocco", meaning the game, was of Greek origin. Alciati's derivation, 1544, was fanciful, a supposed "hetarochoi," meaning "companions". The author of the Anonymous Discourse used a word that indeed had been adopted from Greek into Italian dialect, meaning "things made in compost"; but this meaning has nothing to do with the various meanings of "taroch-" in the late 15th and early 16th century. Andrea points out that there is a Greek verb tarichèuo, which means "to put something into salt to get it dried". This etymology of "salted" is also used by Cecci, who would be a third author, except he doesn't say it comes from Greek. Again, these proposed derivations don't have any relation to the word as used in any known contexts. They didn't know the origin, but they may have heard it was supposedly Greek.

Others thought it was of "barbarian" origin, i.e. not Latin. Andrea writes ( about how Vigilio (either the father or the son), sometime between 1532 and 1434, put on a play in Mantua called Italia and Mantua. It describes how first Italy was first ruined by the Sack of Rome, and then its people degenerated further by taking up foreign fashions. Even games are affected

§ «But now with the barbarian rite, without relationship to the Latin, they call it taroch: "Barbaro ritu, taroch nunc dicunt nulla latina ratione". But then why is that game is not called no less improperly bachiach? "Sed cur non minus improprie bachiach?"» §

This word "bachiach" is of interest, since it is rather similar to "bacchic". I will get to it later. But for now I am merely emphasizing how many people thought the "taroch-" words came from a foreign source, i.e. not Latin.

How foreign words got Italianized is described in another of Andrea's essays ( He cites the linguist Massimo Zaggia in a study of the macaronic verse of Folengo. (Folengo is important to the history of tarot for his five "tarocchi" sonnets  in his 1527 Caos of Tiperuno;

(See Here is what Zaggia says about the the bizarre new words that appear in Folengo's writing, as Andrea quotes him:

§ «According to the norm of Tuscan-based Italian handwriting, the h serves indicate the velar [using the soft palate] sound of c and g before a palatal vocal: and this use is also recognizable regularly in the macaronic language of Folengo, particularly for entries [voci] of Tuscan literary diffusion such as nocchia, nocchierus, pecchia, etc. (notice the geminated c, always from Tuscan literary use); again for the velar value of ch, we can recall trincher (from the German), or, finally, taroch (at Zan T 182, Zan. C 224) or tach tich toch..."» §

"Tach tich toch" is presumably another game. The point, I think, is that a word entered Folengo's "vulgar Latin", i.e. Tuscan, poetry by giving it a "c" or "ch" at the end. So that is one way we might have got "taroch": as a "vulgar Latinization" of a Greek word with a different ending, and a different spelling of the beginning, namely the name "Tharopes".

Along with this explanation there is another, separate but along the same lines. In Etymology of Tarot, footnote 12, Andrea cites, for "Taroccare" (I highlight the most important part):  

§ «..the Vocabolario Universale Italiano, compilato a cura della Società Tipografica Tramater e C., Napoli, 1840: "(in modo basso) gridare, adirarsi [inquietarsi gridando forte, schiamazzare]. Lat. ira, excandescere. Dal greco Tarachos tumulto. In turco Taraka, tumulto, strepito, rumore. In persiano Tyrak vale per il medesimo".

(the Vocabolario Universale Italiano, compiled by Tramater & C. Typographical Company, Naples, 1840: "(in low manner) shout, become angry, [Troubled or angry loud shouting, clamour]. Latin: anger, excandescere. From Greek Tarachos, tumult. Taraka in Turkish, tumult, clamour, din. Tyrak in Persian, with the same signification")» §

So we have an 1840 dictionary listing "tarachos" as Greek for "tumult". That was 1840. But what about the 1490s? Was the word even known then? In 1497 Aldus in Venice published a Greek-Latin Lexicon by. The Ransom Center of the University of Texas sent me a scan of the page that had all the Greek words beginning "tau alpha rho", i.e. "tar-" (I also got the pages for "thar-", but found nothing relevant.) Here are all the words of that sort,
Figure A4 (be sure to click on the image, to make it bigger)


You will notice that there are a couple of words beginning "tarach-", words which have as their Latin equivalents
perturbatio, turba, and turbatio. The primary meaning seems to be perturbatio, in English "perturbed". According to Wiktionary, perturbatio means "confusion, disturbance, disorder, commotion, revolution, perturbation, passion"; these meanings are in line both with Bacchanals, as seen by someone unsympathetic to the god, and with 16th century Italian meanings of "taroch-" as "irritated". "Turbatio" means "confusion, disturbance"; that fits the image of a group of riotous Bacchantes. "Turba" means "crowd", again of relevance; it is also the first word of a popular alchemical compendium of the time, although I can't think of how that fact would be relevant here.

In English, there are a few obscure words that derive from another form of this "tarachos", namely "ataraxia", also spelled "ataraxy", both meaning calmness of mind,  and its cohort "ataraxic," also spelled "ataractic," meaning "tranquilizing drug." According to Wiktionary (, it comes from the Greek ἀταραξία , ataraxia, itself deriving from the prefix a, meaning "not", plus ταράσσω  tarasso, meaning "trouble, disturb."  In Italian, the word corresponding to "ataraxia" is spelled "atarassia." The Greek letter after "tara-" is in one case a Xi (corresponding to the "x" of the English word), and in the other a double Sigma (corresponding to the "ss" of the Italian.). "Xi" is usually transliterated as "x", and Sigma as an "s"; only "Chi" (written like the Roman X) is tranliterated "ch". But it is precisely that letter Chi that the 1497 lexicon has, hence tarachos, or tarachus with a Latin ending.

According to Wikipedia, ataraxia wasa term in Epicurean and Skeptical philosophy for the goal of their philosophical endeavor, tranquility of mind no matter what the circumstances. As such it would have simply been incorporated into Roman philosophy as ataraxia, and into Italian as atarassia. But the line is not so straight to  tarochus, tarochi, and tarocchi.

So we have this word "tarachos", corresponding both to non-tarot uses of "taroch-" words and also to the unsympathetic conception of the rites of Bacchus.

One possibility: our word-inventing literati, being piously misogynist Christian monks, take the Greek word and use it in a way based on their view of the so-called "rites" of Bacchus and Orpheus, with their flesh-eating, murderous women It now gets the same meaning as "mania": not only tumult but craziness, mass delusions, etc. In Euripides' The Bacchae, Dionysus creates illusions: to Pentheus, he creates the illusion that his palace burns and falls from lightning and earthquake (as in the "Fuoco ("Fire") card (later called the "Maison Dieu" or the "Tower) (for the text, find "totter" at; or lines 585-793 at Later Pentheus' mother thinks she is eating a wild animal when in fact she is eating her son's flesh (find "thy own son" at first site and read on through Agave's own version of the event; at the second site, it's lines 1397-1505; but the essence is at lines 1493-1502).

How did "tarachos" become "tarochos"? Here are three possibilities, not mutually exclusive: (1) Our monk-poets combined it with "Tharopes" and kept the "ch" favored by Tuscan. (2) They needed rhymes with "och" rather than "ach. (3) It had already mutated to "och" in the local dialect, which had previously borrowed the word from Greek and incorporated it into the local speech.

Now let us look at the first known instances of words that actually start "taroch-". One is from the Maccheronea (dedicated to Gaspare Visconti, d. 1499), by the poet Bassano Mantovano. Here it is, with Ross S. Caldwell's translation:

                       Erat mecum mea socrus unde putana
                           Quod foret una sibi pensebat ille tarochus
                           Et cito ni solvam mihi menazare comenzat.

(My mother-in-law was with me, and this idiot thought he could get some money out of her, so he started threatening me)

I don't know the lines before and after, so I don't know if tarochus is meant to rhyme with anything. I am told that this work was fairly definitely composed around September of 1495, because the poem elsewhere refers to the peace negotiations then going on between the Italian and the French. It is from the area around Asti, in the Piedmont region.

The second instance is in a type of song known as Frotula, discussed in another of Andrea's articles, Taroch - 1494 ( It, too, is from around Asti, but its date of composition is less certain.  Written by Giorgi Alione, it was published together with other "farces" and other works in 1521. But according to one critic, the farces "were written at the time of Charles VIII's descent into Italy, that is, toward 1494". Charles VIII seems to have been in Asti from Sept. 9 to Oct. 6 of 1494, after which he entered Lombard territory and descended toward Naples after concluding a treaty with Milan the same month (See Ross G. R. Caldwell's timeline for Charles at But that it was written then is admittedly just one person's opinion. There are many considerations.

Here is the relevant stanza.

       Marì ne san dè au recioch
       Secundum el Melchisedech
       Lour fan hic. Preve hic et hec
       Ma i frà, hic et hec et hoc
       Ancôr gli è - d'i taroch
       Chi dan zù da Ferragù.

Here "taroch" rhymes with "hoc" and "recioch". "Tarach" wouldn't have worked. No one knows precisely what the stanza means. But here is Andrea's commentary, first on the poem as a whole and then on the use of "taroch" (Andrea's original is in Italian, but he approved the translation below):

§ «The author's misogyny manifests itself through accusations pointed at women and the clergy, above all the monks: the women of Asti adorn themselves to let men know that they are of easy virtue; the whores have increased their rates; all women betray their husbands, who have little sexual imagination, while the priests and above all the monks know its every variation and do the 'hic, hec hoc', where "hic" is to intend in a onomatopoeic sense to refer to the typical hiccup of the drunk, while "hec" and "hoc" allude to other scurrilous distractions to which the monks of the time dedicated themselves.
To understand the word taroch in this work we have made use of the translation that Enzo Bottazzo made of many words of the Frotula in the work edited by him, Giovan Giorgio Alione, L'Opera Piacevole (Giovanni Giorgio Alione, The Pleasant Work) (9), where for taroch he gave "sciocchi" (foolish) (10). So the verse with the word taroch, "Ancôr gli è - d'i taroch", must be translated as "there are still some fools" (probably in reference to betrayed husbands)» §

Ross translates "tarochus" as "idiot", and Andrea translates "taroch" as "foolish".  "Idiot" and "fool" mean pretty much the same thing in conversational English. But other English words, with a different meaning, would fit both, notably "deluded".  "Disturbed", which I get from Wiktionary's list for "perturbatio" might work, too. But the person in the frottola is not disturbed in the sense of "agitated"; but rather in the sense of not being agitated, due to his simplicity.

In the 16th century, tarocco and its variants had a variety of meanings. Here is Florio's 1611 English translation of da tarocco: "gullish, wayward, peevish"
( A gull is a dupe; that is close to the modern English "fool" (for which another term in the US, from the late 19th century on, is the term "patsy", which may derive from "pazzi"). "Wayward" is to say willful, perverse, unpredictable. "Peevish" means ill-tempered, contrary.

So it has a variety of meanings. "Dupe" fits an unsympathetic view of the rites of Dionysus, and also the Frotula. The last two wouldn't fit the Frotula, but would fit Ross's example. Later uses of "tarocco" fit "ill-tempered" - as in "perturbed" - and even "angry"," For example there is Garzoni's Hospital of Incurable Madmen, where the "tarocco" madmen are not only irritable but angry, and not just deluded but crazy, i.e. "pazzi" and "matto". I quote from Vitali's essay, Italian and English versions, leaving the "tarocco" words untranslated:

§ «Alcuni hanno nel cervello inserto un spirito sí fatto che, quando qualche volta avviene che si tengano offesi o ingiuriati da qualcuno, con una pazza volontà cominciano a un tratto a contender con quello; e secondo che dalla banda dell'offensore vanno multiplicando I'ingiurie e l'offese, cosí dalla banda sua crescono insieme con l'odio i dispetti continui; onde la cosa si riduce a tale, che taroccando col cervello bestialmente seco, acquista il nome di pazzo dispettoso e da tarocco.

(Some people have such a spirit inserted in their brain that when they think they are offended by someone, they start to contend with him with a mad willfulness; and if the offender multiplies the offenses, so on his part grow hatred and continual spiteful acts; whence the thing reduces him to such that, getting his brain taroccando in a bestial manner, he gets the name of Spiteful & da tarocco Madman)» §

The published English translation of this book (by Daniela Pastina and John W. Crayton, Tempe Arizona 2009, p. 105) has "enraged" for taroccando and  "full of wrath" for da tarocco. It is not clear to me that any actual reference to tarot cards is asserted here, although of course by then the word tarocchi, as applying to the game, was well known.

In the writings about Bacchus there is also the word "furore", fury or frenzy, which seems to me easily interpretable as "anger."

It is in the context of "foolish" that linguists have understood the term "bacchiach". Here is the quote from Vigilio again, cited by Andrea at

§ «But now with the barbarian rite, without relationship to the Latin, they call it taroch: "Barbaro ritu, taroch nunc dicunt nulla latina ratione". But then why is that game is not called no less improperly bachiach? "Sed cur non minus improprie bachiach?"» §

Andrea goes on to observe

§ «If according to Dionisotti, bachiach is for bachioch, that is, bachiocco, foolish, Cherubini also suggests the Milanese baciaccol, marking off tarocch for tarlucch, a term that in the Milan dialect means sloppiness, a bad way, justifying in such a way the joking proposal to change the name of the game, bachiach in substitution for taroch» §

In other words, it is like the use of "taroch" to mean "foolish". But where did bachiocco come from? The linguists don't say. Andrea adds:

§ «In our opinion the term bachiach could derive from Bacchus, the God of folly, as we have emphasized in the essay Tharocus Bacchus Est. In such a sense the term Taroch, with the meaning of folly, should be connected with the Fool card, from which the name of this card game would derive» §

Tarocchi, in other words, is the game with the Fool card, the card of taroch, folly, but in a Dionysian context, where "folly" doesn't just mean stupidity. That is why the word starts "bachio-".

If we look at the early tarot cards, the range of meanings that Florio lists for non-tarot contexts exactly fits what we see--not just folly in the sense of stupidity, but fury as well. Every early list of the titles of the trumps calls the unnumbered card (which in English we call "the Fool") "Il Matto". That word is usually translated, for example in the book by Garzoni, as "Madman". Garzoni's examples are of people who are agitated and irritated. Yet the Matto as depicted in the early tarocchi is, in the d'Este tarocchi of 1473 (below left) and the Charles VI tarocchi (below center), probably of around the same time, is a simpleton, someone who doesn't realize the implications of what is happening, letting small boys either put their hands on or near his penis or ignoring them as they throw stones at him. In Florence at that time it was a common practice for children to kill wandering madmen or simpletons by stoning, at least judging from Florentine stories of the time (see Michel Plaisance, Florence in the Time of the Medici, pp. 176-181, quoted at

                                          leber  Carlo Vi

On the other hand, the Leber tarot (above right) shows an angry Matto. As Ross G .R. Caldwell and M. J. Hurst have explained, he has all kinds of weapons with him, but nothing for combating the insects buzzing around him (see The motto, Ross says, is "I wish that a net would be given to me". He is a clear example of the angry but ridiculous madman. And not only are his genitals exposed, but he is urinating uncontrollably, as Hurst points out.

To summarize: It is possible that the word tarocco already existed in the Milanese and Piedmontese dialects with a variety of meanings. (The title of the Alione collection suggests as much: Commedia e Farse Carnovalesche nei dialetti Astigiano, Milanese e Francese misti con Latino Barbaro composte sul fine del sec. XV da Gio. Giorgio Alione (Comedy and Carnival Farces in Asti, Milanese and French dialects mixed with Barbaric Latin written at the end of the XV century by Gio. Giorgio Alione). "Barbaric Latin" suggests words of non-Latin origin but Latin endings. The word probably didn't come from Latin. If it had, many humanists would have known its derivation. So it is likely that its derivation is from a word not known even by many humanists, and if known, different enough in spelling so that it is not easy to make the connection. So we have two possible Greek derivations, both of them sufficiently obscure. Sometimes, for some reason, such Greek gets into a dialect. Or, as was happening frequently then, it is an invention, combining a Greek word with a context from Diodorus Siculus. Or, as Andrea's source Ernesto declared, there was a Diodorus text that actually had "Tharocus".

A3: Dionysus and  the cards

So how does this word for senselessness get applied to the game, and deck, of cards? Well, of course there is the Church, wishing to deride it. But they derided every gambling game: why give the label to this one in particular, especially one which was often exempted from the Church's prohibitions? Also, in the places where the word first appears, 1505 Ferrara and Avignon, the people most involved, ie. the d'Este and the French cardmakers, like the game. They aren't particularly interested in deriding it.

But there were two types of madness and foolishness, the worldly and the divine, or the foolish and the wise. To an extent, this is already on the authority of St. Paul in I Corinthians 1:18

§ «verbum enim crucis pereuntibus quidem stultitia est his autem qui salvi fiunt id est nobis virtus Dei est  (For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness: but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God)» §

But here the word is "stultitia", which means the stupid sort of foolishness, not the angry and manic type.

However, divine madness as such was already a theme in medieval literature. There is the poem by the 13th century Umbrian friar Jacopone da Todi.
Marco Ponzi translated it at I need to translate it a little differently, because "foolishness" in English is the stupid, simple kind, not the same as "follia" in Italian, which I think includes craziness. Here are the stanzas I want to pick out. It starts out:

§ «Udite nuova pazzia / Che mi viene in fantasia. (Listen to the new craziness [not only Marco's "foolishness"] / that came to me in fantasy)» §

Then we have:

§ «Se io 'no nomo il vo mostrare; / Vo me stesso rinagare / E la croce vo portare / Per far un gran pazzia. (I want to prove that I'm a man / I want to renegade myself / I want to carry the cross / So as to make a great craziness [not only foolishness].

La pazzia e cosi fatta / Metteromme a gran sbaratta / Tra gente grossalana e matta / Matta di santa soltizia. (This craziness [not only foolishness] is such / That I put myself in great confusion [not "risk": see] / among gross and crazy people / Crazy [not only foolish] with a holy foolishness).
Or odi, che m'ho pensato,/ D'essere matto riputato, / Ignorante e smemoranto / E uom pen di bizzarria. (Now listen to what I have thought / I want to be considered crazy [not only a fool], Ignorant and without memory, / A very strange man) ...

"Semplice e puro intelletto / Se ne va su tutto schietto; / Sale al divinal cospetto / Sensor lo filosofia." (A simple and pure intellect / Goes up all clean; / He rises to the presence of God / Without their philosophy)  ..
Io ho un mia capitale / Che mi son uso de male: / Intelleto he ben reale, / Chi intenda mia frenesia. (I have capital / That I have used badly / Whoever understands my raving [or frenzy] / Has a keen intellect)

Mettemi alla tua pedeta / Pur cosi alla scapistrata /  La mia mente furiata / Altro che disia.":(Let me be at your feet, / even in a reckless way; / my frenzied [or crazy] mind / desires only you)» §

This poem combines, in the divine madness, the simplicity of the "natural fool" with the frenzy of the maniac, which is yet different from the restlessness of the ordinary person.

Besides lower and upper foolishness, there was lower and upper ignorance. In the Renaissance this idea was the end result of Nicholas of Cusa's famous 1440 De Docta Ignorantia, On Learned Ignorance, a phrase taken from Augustine ( It was a matter of transcending the paradoxes of philosophy to arrive at an apprehension of truth beyond concepts, a philosophical version of the "mystical staircase." I will say more when discussing Ficino.

Another aspect of the divine frenzy - not to be sure, in the poet just cited - is the access to prophecy in that state. This is of relevance to the cards' possible use in sortilege, i.e. simple divination. Cicero's De Divinatione gave examples, for example in 1.18, of "persons who prophesy while in a frenzy" - even without aids like cards - and "unaided by reason or deduction or by signs which have been observed and recorded, forecast the future while under the influence of mental excitement, or of some free and unrestrained emotion"


Cornelius Agrippa in 1533 (Three Books on Occult Philosophy 3, 47) quotes one of Cicero's examples, the Erythrean Sibyl, as an example of "Dionysian frenzy", probably reflecting a common view that this type of frenzy was Dionysian in character. The Sibyls, in that they were considered to have prophesied the coming of Christianity, were taken quite seriously for the validity of their trance-states.

So those who first applied the word to the game are hypothesized as taking advantage of the double meaning, the higher and lower craziness/foolishness. They needed a word to distinguish the game and the deck from the one that used regular cards, which had appropriated the name "Ludus Triumphorum".  So they call it tarocchi, not only the game of the Madman, but the path of the Madman, from his mad state of frantic gambler and unwitting dupe to divine Dionysian ecstasy. In this way a word for "fool" and “crazy person” becomes a word of praise as well as disapproval.

In fact the word "triumph", which is what tarot wa s called before it was called tarocchi (and, in France, taraux), is a Dionysian word. Here is Diodorus again, in the same section in which he mentions Tharopes:(*.html):

§ «The myth also relates that he gathered a great mass of booty, such as would result from such a campaign, and that he was the first of all men to make his return to his native country in a triumph» §

At such processions they would sing a particular type of song called a Thriambos. According to my 1967
Webster's New World Dictionary, the word "triumph" in fact comes from this word thriambos, meaning "hymn to Bacchus sung in festal processions."  (Notice here also the shift from "th" to "t".) So in adopting the word "tarochi", they were simply applying another Dionysian word to the same game.

Another word from the same section 65 of Book III of Diodorus as Tharopes and Triumphos, appearing in relation to the tarot of this time, is one even more obscure than Tharopes: the word Thamyris. Here is the first mention of Thamyris in the 1531 Poggio, sec. 67 of Book III:


In English:

§ «Linus also, who was admired because of his poetry and singing, had many pupils and three of greatest renown, Heracles, Thamyras, and Orpheus. Of these three Heracles, who was learning to play the lyre, was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul, and once when he had been punished with rods by Linus he became violently angry and killed his teacher with a blow of the lyre. Thamyras, however, who possessed unusual natural ability, perfected the art of music and claimed that in the excellence of song his voice was more beautiful than the voices of the Muses» §

Names similar to Thamyras occur in another source available in c. 1500, Boccaccio's Of Famous Women (De mulieribus claris). In Chapter LVI (pp. 230ff of Brown's Latin and English facing pages), a "Thamaris" is named as a famous female artist in Athens, famous for a painting of Diana preserved at Ephesis. Then in chapter XLIX (p. 198ff), there is a "Thamiris" who is Queen of Scythia. Boccaccio says that she was famous for defeating Cyrus of Persia's invasion of her country; not only that, but Cyrus was killed. Having his severed head put in a leather bag filled with her soldiers' blood, she said, "Take your fill of the blood for which you have thirsted".

The only other place I have seen a similar name is in the so-called Leber Tarot, an Italian deck of c. 1500-1520. The card is below right, with some other interesting cards of the same deck. There, she is, "Thamiris Regina Mastagitarum", with exactly the same spelling of "Thamiris" as Boccaccio. This Queen of Swords is undoubtedly the same fierce queen. "Mastagitarum is simply a corruption of "Massagetae"
Herodotus's word for a tribe resembling the Scythians (Herodotus,, who indeed, according to him, defeated Cyrus under the command of its Queen, whom he calls "Tomyris", and did with the head as Boccaccio relates.

So the deck designer need not have known the "Tharopes" section of Diodorus in order to find the name "Thamiris" as a title. For one thing, the "Thamyras" in Diodorus is male. But how did he happen to pick the particular personnage he did? The name in Boccaccio was at least as obscure as any in Diodorus.  Let us look at the other named figures in the Leber deck.


The King of Swords (center) is Alexander the Great, another son of Zeus, who consciously followed Dionysus after his own conquest of India, wearing the ivy wreath, and other ways, as Cartari relates (p. 359 of 1581 edition): "Onde Allesandro Magno volendolo imitare, quando ritorno vincitore delle India face,.." (Whence Alexander the Great wanted to imitate him, when he had returned from India...").

The King of Batons (at right above) is called "Ninus". This might be the biblical king of Nineveh, but it is also the name of the King of India in the "Tharopes" section of Poggio. Where modern editions have "Myrrhanus" Poggio has "Ninus", as may be seen in the last line of the passage reproduced below . Like Lycurgus and Pentheus, he was slain by Dionysus:



Below are three more suit cards from the same deck. (All of these images, the previous three as well as the following ones, are at However for the 2 of Batons I give the better reproduction in Dummett's Game of Tarot, plate 17).


For the Ace of Cups, what we have is a card copied by Cicognara, the early 19th century playing card historian, one of several which are thought to be of the same deck. It depicts satyrs, associated with Dionysus by Diodorus and many others. And the Two of Batons, with a fox reaching for grapes, is the Song of Songs' equivalent of Virgil's goat, which we will see below in the section on the Fool card. The King of Coins is Mydas, for whom, in Ovid's Metamorphoses (, Dionysus granted his wish that whatever he touch would turn to gold.

So if someone was designing a deck with cards suggestive of Dionysus and looked in Diodorus, seeing the name "Thamyras" there (as well as Ninnus) might have reminded such a designer of the similar name in Boccaccio's On Famous Women.

For a Dionysian theme, moreover, there are other reasons for picking Boccaccio's Thamiris, even without the suggestion from Diodorus. One reason has to do with wine. As Boccaccio tells it, Cyrus first lured troops commanded by Thamiris's son into capturing an empty Persian camp with wine and rich food lying about, which Cyrus knew was unfamiliar to these people. Then, when the wine rendered them defenseless, Cyrus came and massaced them, including Thamiris's  son. (For Herodotus's slightly different version see sections 211-212 at 

Another reason for including this Thamiris in the deck is the fierceness of her revenge, which by killing Cyrus accomplished something no one else had been able to do.Such fierce vengeance is characteristic of Dionysus, as exemplified by Dionysus's revenge against Lycurgus and against Pentheus later. Such a consideration would also explain another choice of names in the deck, Achilles as Page of Swords. "The wrath of Achilles" was a well known subtitle for the Iliad; its first line, in fact is "Wrath—Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles"


The only other named personnage in the Leber deck is Marcus Curtius, the Knight of Swords, on whom I have no information.

But who, influential enough to have established a trend, would have understood the connection between the already existing word "tarocco" and the "Tharopes" of Diodorus, thus connecting the deck with the god? That will be the topic of the next section.

A4: Dionysus in Ferrara

The first recorded use of the word "tarochi" applied to the game is in 1505 Ferrara, June and December. The accounts records, from "Quando se Inizia a parlare di "tarocco": Ferrara 1505, by Adriono Franceschini, are posted by at

§ «Archivio di Stato di Modena, Camera ducale Estense, Guardaroba, 126, Conto di debiti e crediti, II semestre 1505
c. 93r, 30 giugno:
"Conto de merzaria de Guardaroba de' havere... E de' havere adì ultimo dito [giugno] per pare dexedoto de carte videlicet pare oto de tarochi e pare dexe fra schartini e carte de ronfa, quali fono portati a Viguenza, vene di Guradaroba al 3+, a c. 65 ... pare 18"

c. 96r, 26 dicembre: "E de' havere adì ditto per quindexe para de schartini e tarochi fo mandati a Viguenza per el Signore; vene di Guardaroba a 3+, a c. 68....[para] n. 15"» §

Francescini also remarks that the word is mentioned in Avignon in 1505 as well, but does not provide the documentation.

The most obvious person to have started using the word, at least in Italy, would be Alfonso d'Este, who had just returned from travels in Piedmont, Avignon, Burgundy, and many other places, to see his father Ercole I before he died, an event that most likely happened in January 1505 (A few accounts, such as Wikipedia, say June; but many others disagree; e.g. the 2004 Lucrezia Borgia, by Sara Bradford, which gives the date as 25 January 1505. Also, as we shall see, Alfonso was trying to buy a Leonardo da Vinci in April, something he would not likely have been in a position to do unless he was already Duke). 

Since Alfonso had recently been in Avignon; it is possible that he got the term "tarochi" from there, or that he started using the new term, and they followed suit, so to speak  However this Avignon dating remains uncertain.

Alfonso and his whole family were avid card players. One of the early painted decks, of which there are still extant cards, was done for Ercole in about 1473; and before that, court account records show several purchases of painted tarot decks. Moreover, Alfonso and his court are at the nexus of other theories about the origin of the words tarocchi and tarot. Scartino, the game with the new discard rule (allowing the dealer to discard a few of his cards at the beginning of play and take the undealt remainder in exchange), was also played there and, you will notice, mentioned in the same sentence with tarochi. Also, the game with rules similar to tarocchi but with an ordinary deck, Triumphs, may have been introduced from Spain (as Andrea hypothesizes) via Naples and Alfonso's sister Beatrice, who grew up there.

What does Alfonso have to do with Dionysus? One indication is in William F. Prizer's "Music in Ferrara and Mantua at the Time of Dosso Dossi", (in Dosso's Fate, ed. Ciammitti et al,  pp. 295f), He says that Alfonso was in Savoy in 1502, where he hired his principal music copyist. He adds that 1502 is when he married Lucrezia Borgia. Lucrezia enjoyed frattole, hiring from Mantua at least three composers in that genre; Alfonso preferred French music. I mention frottole because that's what Alione's poem was, the one with the word "taroch" in it.

That Lucrezia was familiar with the game with the 22 special cards is almost a given. There is also the fact of the death of the messenger between her and her secret would-be lover Francesco Gonzaga, her brother-in-law: the messenger, Ercole Strozzi was killed on June 6, 1508, with 22 stab wounds (Bellonci, Life and Times of Lucrezia Borgia, p. 271, repeated by Sarah Badford in Lucrezia Borgia, p. 282). The murderer was never found; the biographers interpret the murder as a warning from the Estensi, either Duke Alfonso or Cardinal Ippolito, about the fate of adulterers. After that, Francesco appears to have broken off the correspondence.

The biographers do not comment on the significance of 22. However Gianfrancesco Pico, the more famous Pico's nephew, writing in 1507, says "sortium multa sunt genera"--there are many kinds of lots-- including "in figuris chartaceo ludo pictis," which I think means "games with figures pictured on paper"


I think that this reference was found by Ross Caldwell). "Lots" here has the sense in which one draws lots out of an urn,  to decide who will do what (e.g. Esther 14:26, Sortilege, as it was called, was a well-established practice with dice, dominoes, etc. There were books to look up what fortunes corresponded to what number; 21 was the number of combinations of two dice. Pico is saying that cards with figures on them were used in a similar way. There are in fact extant cards with dominoes on them, i.e. two dice; a Sun-Moon card is at This is not a  tarot card; but Christie's auction house shows one tarot Sun card with the same style of sun; their expert estimates the card (with a Star and a Knight of Cups) to be Lombard, 15th century (for discussion see The Sun-Moon with the domino is one of five cards from the German Liber Chronicarum of 1493 reproduced on pp. 38-39 of Il Castello dei Tarocchi (ed. Andrea Vitali, in his essay "La Scala Mistica dei Tarocchi"); the others do not resemble tarot cards. I'd guess, since they all have dominoes that combine two dice faces, there were probably 21 in that set. For 22, there might have been a "null" card as well, the Fool, called "null" in the late 15th century "Steele Sermon"; there was also a "null" roll in dice games. The correspondence between tarot and dice has been discussed thoroughly by Ross Caldwell at

That the Estensi used cards for sortilege is indicated in vol. 2 of Julia Cartwright's 1923 Isabella d'Este by (at On p. 205 she cites a description by Paolo Giovio, Bishop of Nocera (Impresa p. 59f), of Isabella's rooms in Mantua, completed 1522 (quoted by "Huck" at; on the same web-page he documents from Cartwright's books the Estensi love for cards). I highlight the words most important for us:

§  «These four little rooms which Isabella kept for her private use still retain much of their original decoration —...the finely carved wood-work, the azure and gilding of the ceiling, the delicately inlaid panelling of the walls, and the doors of richly coloured marbles. Here, between intarsiatura views of cities and palaces, we recognise her favourite devices and mottoes, the musical notes and rests, and the words Nev spe nec metu which supplied Equicola with a subject for his treatise, the altar supporting a lyre, the candelabra with the letters U.T.S., which Paolo Giovio interprets as Unum sufficit in tenehris, and the Lotto cards with the mystic number XXVII, vinti sette, signifying that she had vanquished all her foes, which motto, adds the Bishop of Nocera, "seems allowable in so great a princess"» §

We will meet Equicola later on in this section. "Lotto" is Italian for "fate," like the English "lot." In this connection there is an Allegory of Fortune by the Ferrara court painter Dosso Dossi showing Fortune grasping after some papers held by a youth who is about to put them in an urn; it is described and shown at:

The description interprets the papers as lottery tickets, adding that a similar bundle was a favorite device of Isabella's, indicating the vicissitudes of fortune. Such papers were used in a game of chance, according to Humfrey and Lucca  (p. 215). Also, lots were drawn in some places to determine who would serve in civic office, at a time when elections were viewed as corrupt ( In any case, the papers are much like Isabella's "cards of fate." It appears likely that the 22 stab wounds had something to do with the fate of someone besides the victim, and I think suggest that a set of 22 figures on paper were used to tell fortunes.

But frottole, murders, and "cards of fate" do not yet imply Dionysus. For that we have to look at the art that Alfonso sponsored. In 1511 or so he had his sister Isabella's art programmer, Mario Equicola, write descriptions for six paintings, all on the themes of Bacchus and Venus. Then Alfonso slowly commissioned the paintings that Equicola had imagined, four on Bacchus and two on Venus. Eventually all hung in one room of Alfonso's camerino, a long room in his private suite overlooking the market in Ferrara.

Admittedly 1511 is later than the 1505 of the court records about "tarochi." But he had to consolidate his rule, accumulate his famous cannons (reputed the best in Europe, of his own design) and fight some expensive wars. With the death of  his nemesis Pope Julius II in 1512, he finally had time and money.

Alfonso had begun work on expanding his private rooms as early as 1507, perhaps with such a project in mind ("From Ercole I to Alfonso I: New Discoveries about the Camerini in the Castello Estense of Ferrara," by Jadranka Bentini, in Dosso's Fate, p. 361). As we will see, the themes were from texts studied by the humanists, including Alfonso's own teacher, Batista Guarini, in the 15th century. Even the artistic style began earlier, with Mantegna, as I shall show. But first Alfonso. My information comes primarily from art history books and my own digging.

 Joseph Manca, in "What is Ferrarese about  Bellini's Feast of the Gods?" in Joseph Manca, ed., Titian 500, p. 303) writes:

§ «As early as 1494 Alfonso showed interest in the work of painters in Ferrara. A ferrarese courtier reported to Isabella in Mantua in May of that year that Alfonso had diverted the court painter Roberti from making a portrait of his father, Duke Ercole I, b occupying the artist on another project and that Alfonso "sempre li sta sopra," that is, stood over Roberti's shoulder watching him as he worked (Footnote 12: The important passages of the document are cited in Giuseppe Campori, Artisti degli Estensi: I pittori [Modena, 1875], 49). Alfonso himself was an amateur paitner, as is recorded by several early biographers and documents.[Footnote 13 has numerous documents]» §

Alfonso had a reputation, before becoming Duke, of being "pocho savio," hardly wise ("Dosso's Public: The Este Court at Ferrara," by Andrea Bayer, in Dosso Dossi: Court Painter in Renaissance Ferrara, ed. Humfrey and Lucco, p. 27):

§ «In 1494 he and painter Ercole de'Roberti angered Alfonso's father by some unacceptable unacceptable nighttime behavior, while in 1497 rumors of his wandering nude through the city streets traveled as far as Venice. On that occasion Marin Sanudo noted that the Ferrarese found him "poco savio," hardly wise. In a letter written in 1501, when Alfonso was twenty-five, his sister Isabella d'Este, the marchesa of Mantua, was still lamenting his crude behavior (footnote . Many people thought that he spent too much time with artisans, whom he invited to share his table. He was characerized as coarse and cantakerous... » §

The source for the story about his wandering nude is I diarii di Marino Sanuto [Sanudo], ed. Rinaldo Fulin et al, 58 vols. [Venice, 1879-1903], vol. 1 (1879), col. 706, notice for 6 August 1497, as quoted by Manca, n. 23, p. 312:

§ «Item, che pochi zorni fa, che don Alfonso fece in Ferara cossa assa' liziera, che andoe nudo per nudo per Ferara, con alcuni zoveni in compagnia, di mezo zorno, adeo per Ferara era reputa pocho savio» §

The incident is also mentioned. Manca says, by Bertoni in L'Orlando furioso e la renascenza a Ferrara, 1919, p. 254, and Felisatti in Storia di Ferrara, 1986, p. 157. The letter by Isabella is on p. 470 in Michele Catalano, Vita di Ludovico Ariosto: Riconstruita su nuovi documenti, vol. 1, Biblioteca dell "Archivum Romanicum." Series 1, Storia, letteraturea, paleografia, vol. 15, Geneva, 1930. On p. 301 Catalano also gives "an almost slapstick anecdote describing how Alfonso embarrassed some women during a ball at the palace," according to Bayer.

All of this makes Alfonso out, whether he knew it or not, as a devotee of Dionysus, god of wine and rowdiness, who invited everyone to his feasts. But he certainly did know. For one thing, he was a musician, and a carnival song by Lorenzo de' Medici  extolling Dionysus and "living for today" was well known.  Here is the first stanza (I get it from :

Quest’è Bacco ed Arïanna,                     Here are Bacchus and Ariadne,
belli, e l’un de l’altro ardenti:                Handsome, and burning for each other:
perché ’l tempo fugge e inganna,          Because time flees and fools,
sempre insieme stan contenti.              They stay together always content.
Queste ninfe ed altre genti                     These nymphs and those others
sono allegre tuttavia.                               Are ever full of joy.
Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:                          Let those who wish to be happy, be:
di doman non c’è certezza.                     Of tomorrow, we have no certainty.

Alfonso's understanding may have originally been on that level, not very deep. For his series of Dionysian paintings, he would have gone deeper, with the help of his humanist friend Equicola, his former teacher Guarino, and others.

Alfonso would have known of Diodorus Siculus, if not through personal reading then through others at the court. According to Michaela Marek, Alfonso's father Ercole had three copies of Diodorus in his library (Ekphrasis und Herrscherallegorie Antike Bildbeschreibung bei Tizian und Leonardo, cited by Wendy Sheard, "Antonio Lombardo's relief for Alfonso'Este's Studio di Marmi," in Titian 500, p. 355 n. 111).

Alfonso's desire for Dionysian paintings may even have started, on a superficial level, six years earlier, in April of 1505, only a couple of months before the first instance of "tarochi." Sheard writes (p. 333):

§ «Apparently as the first act of independent art-related activity after his father's death a few weeks earlier, on 1 April 1505, Alfonso wrote to his ambassador in Milan, Gerolamo Seregni, directing him to acquire the Bacchus by Leonardo da Vinci» § 

Sheard (p.356, note 114) cites Carlo Pedretti Documenti e memorie riguardanti Leonardo da Vinci a Bologna e in Emilia (Bologna 1953, p. 153) and his Leonardo da Vinci inedito. Tre saggi (Florence 1968, 14-15). Pedretti in turn cites documents in the Archivio di Stato, Modena, first published by Giuseppe Campori in 1865. The wording in Pedretti 1953, from Campori is as follows: 

1505 1 aprile - Il Duca di Ferrara esprime al suo ambasciatore a Milano il desiderio di avere Bacco dipinto da Leonardo.

Here is Ambassador Seregni's reply, saying that is was impossible to have the Bacchus, because the work had been promised to the Cardinal of Rohan: 

1505, 17 aprile - Girolamo Seregni, ambasciatore estense a Milano, risponde al duca Alfonso I che gli è impossibile avere il Bacco dipinto da Leonardo perché il proprietario, Antonio Maria Pallavicino lo ha già promesso al Cardinale di Rohan.

This "Cardinal di Rohan" was French and an erstwhile friend of the Sforza for many years (Lubkin, A Renaissance Court, p. 224, in Google Books). Pallavicino was at that time governor of Bergamo  for the French occupiers. Sheard says.

The main problem with this information is that according to most authorities, the painting known today as
Bacchus--the only painting of Leonardo's known by that title--would then have been called St. John the Baptist, as the title Bacchus wasn't given until the late 17th century after some overpainting of ivy and and a panther skin ( 
One possibility is that Alfonso thought there was a painting of Bacchus based on a drawing that Leonardo made, now called
Young Bacchus and in the Academia Gallery in Venice. (Carles Lewis Hind, The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci,
Alfonso might have known about it from his sister Isabella. Hind notes that this Bacchus is "clothed in a costume, just peeping from the sketch, of a similar material to the dress of Isabella d’Este." But since this drawing is in Venice rather than the Louvre, it probably didn't go to Cardinal Rohan. Either there was some confusion, there is a lost painting that no one ever mentioned again, or even, the painting described in early 17th century France  as of St. John the Baptist really was Bacchus in 1505.

                                            Leonardo Isabella

The result of Alfonso's desire for paintings on Bacchic themes is summed up by Charles Hope ("Titians and his Patrons", in Titian, Prince of Painters, ed. Susanna Biadene, p. 80):

§ «Alfonso was one of those rare patrons with a real taste for painting and a shrewd judgment of artistic quality. The pictures he commissioned - re-creations of the kind of masterpieces admired in antiquity - had no close precedents in Venice; he acquired them purely for his own pleasure and sought the services of the best painters in Italy, first Giovannni Bellini, then Raphael and Fra' Bartolomeo, and finally Titian» §

But the first painter Alfonso asked, in 1512, was Michelangelo, allegedly climbing up to the sceiling of the Sistine Chape to d sol (Bayer p. 34). Michelangelo agreed but in the end gave him a
Leda and the Swan (which survives only in copies, e.g.,
and perhaps a drawing,

Next Alfonso asked Giovanni Bellini, who rarely painted mythological scenes, to do a Feast of the Gods ( It was completed in 1514, although with later reworking of the background by Titian (Bayer p. 34 and Wikipedia).


In the center of Bellini's painting, you will notice one of the gods (Neptune, identifiable by his trident) putting his hand on the thigh of the nymph next to him (Amphitrite, identified by Wind and endorsed by David Alan Brown, "The Pentimenti in the Feast of the Gods, in Titian 500, p. 293). Behind and to the left is Jupiter, identifiable by his Eagle, and in front to his left is Mercury, identifiable by his Caduceus on his left shoulder.

Bacchus is to the left of Mercury (see also detail below, left) as an infant wearing an ivy wreath. That this infant is Bacchus was probably gleaned from Macrobius's Saturnalia (1.18.7-10,quoted on p. 245 of "Dies Alcyoninae: the Invetnion of Bellini's Feast of the Gods" by Anthony Colantuono, Art Bulletin 73 (1993), pp. 237-256). Macrobius says that Bacchus is reborn an infant every Winter Solstice; then in the spring he is a youth, in summer a man, and an old man in the autumn. Cartari, 1556, cited this passage; and the 1571 has an illustration with three of them together, reproduced below, from Colantuono p. 245).


I am going to go into considerable detail on these camerino paintings because I will be applying similar methods of analysis to the tarot cards later. As courtiers well knew, interpretations depended on details.

On the right side, we see Ceres holding up Apollo's shoulder as he drinks.


Who the people are on the far right is subject  to debate. Most scholars today (Brayer p. 35) say it is Priapus, Bacchus's son by Venus in the myth, recognizable by the fold in his crotch, planning to take advantage of the nymph Lotis when she's asleep. In Ovid's Fasti (1:391-440), Priapus at a festival of Dionysus is prevented by the braying of Silenus's ass (seen in the right-hand detail but here quite docile), which awakens the nymph and frustrates Priapus, whose member is already swollen in anticipation. As if to confirm the identification, the sickle usually associated with Priapus hangs from the tree.

But some things don't fit this interpretation. These are gods, where Ovid has citizens of Thebes, in the woods for their festival of Bacchus, and joined there by nymphs and satyrs, but no gods. Also, Priapus was typically presented as coarse, bearded, and older, as in the engraving at left that clearly is of Priapus and Lotis, by "Master I.B. with the bird," c. 1510-1515 (Titian 500 p. 292); on the right is Priapus, according to the caption, in Cartari 1647:


Another example is at Bellini's beautiful young man doesn't fit the usual portrayal or his vile intention. Jaynie Anderson ("The Provenance of Bellini's Feast of the Gods and a New/Old Interpretation," in Titian 500, ed. Joseph Manca, p. 276) proposes that he is Dionysus's Roman equivalent Liber, as described by Augustine in his City of God. On this reading, this side of the painting illustrates a saying in Terence, well known in Ferrara, "Sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus, "Without Ceres and Liber, Venus is cold.". The young woman lying against the tree is then Venus.

I tend to agree with this interpretation. Bellini mostly painted religious subjects. He would have known The City of God, and moreover, found Priapus and Lotis an unacceptable subject. He would have wanted to paint Priapus as bestial and ugly, and this does not fit the tone of the rest of the painting. Also, Ovid  in the fasti and  Macrobius in the Saturnalia actually did not use the terms "Bacchus" or "Dionysus" they called him by his Latin name of Liber.. Liber in Latin mythology was paired with Libera. his wife.

On this subject, here is Augustine's City of God 6:9 (

§ «...They would have Liber to have been named from liberation, because through him males at the time of copulation are liberated by the emission of the seed. They also say that Libera (the same in their opinion as Venus) exercises the same function in the case of women, because they say that they also emit seed; and they also say that on this account the same part of the male and of the female is placed in the temple, that of the male to Liber, and that of the female to Libera. To these things they add the women assigned to Liber, and the wine for exciting lust. Thus the Bacchanalia are celebrated with the utmost insanity... » §

In 7:21 he has more (, about how the people of Lativum placed the "virile member" at crossroads and during festivals took it to the forum,

§ «and brought to rest in its own place; on which unseemly member it was necessary that the most honorable matron should place a wreath in the presence of all the people» §

Such was required to further "the growth of seeds",and for "enchantment to be driven from fields." Augustine  is of course trying to show how ridiculous these people are. But the Renaissance is in a different age, further removed in time. These things are quaint, titillating, and may even have a spiritual interpretation., of the union between Christ and his Church; for this same Augustine had said, in Sermo Suppositus 120:8, "He [Christ] came to the marriage bed of the cross and there, in mounting it, he consummated his marriage" (quoted in The Theology of Priesthood, ed. Daniel Goergen et al, at:

If, as usually agreed, the time of the year of the painting is the Winter Solstice, then this is the time for Liber and Libera, agricultural  fertility gods, to copulate, that their child--an abundant crop--may be born in the autumn harvest. Liber. just as much as Priapus. is a phallic god, and would have the sickle as an attribute. They, moreover, are married. Their Greek equivalents, as Augustine plainly says, are Bacchus and Venus. As goddess of  love, Venus, like Libera, was a fertility goddess. And the Greek Dionysus/Bacchus had his own phallic festivals, as any reader of Herodotus or Clement of Alexandria would know. Here is Herodotus (, comparing the Egyptian festivals to "Bacchus" with the Greek ones:

§ «In other respects the festival is celebrated almost exactly as Bacchic festivals are in Greece, excepting that the Egyptians have no choral dances. They also use instead of phalli another invention, consisting of images a cubit high, pulled by strings, which the women carry round to the vill» §

A Latin translation of this text had been published in both Rome and Venice in 1474, according to WorldCat. I will give the Clement passage in Section A7 of this essay.

This identification of the young man in the painting as Liber does not deny that Ovid's Fasti was a major source. It is rather that, just as Bellini has replaced people with gods, he has changed Priapus and Lotis (assuming Equicola actually names Priapus; I have found no source saying so in so many words) to Liber and Libera. Alfonso could hardly object.

The vessel being held by the satyr on the left is also of interest, for its phallic appearance, a suitable correlate of the scene on the other side. I will say more, in relation to the early Bagatella/Bateleur cards, in section B1 of my essay.

About Silenus, the man with the donkey, there is a stanza in Lorenzo's Carnival song that might serve as an introduction (This translation is by Translated by Alan D. Corré June 3, 2005, posted by "Huck" at

Questa soma, che vien drieto,               Upon a donkey, corpulent,
sopra l’asino, è Sileno:                            Silenus wends his weighty way.
cosi vecchio è ebbro e lieto,                   Heavy, drunk and senescent,
già di carne e d'anni pieno;                    Years and blubber on him lay.
se non può star ritto, almeno                He can't stand straight, he is quite bent –
ride e gode tuttavia.                                 Yet still he smiles the livelong day!
Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:                          If you'd be happy – don't delay!
di doman non c’è certezza.                     Tomorrow's ills we've yet to meet.

We will see more of Silenus as we go, and in a more serious context.

Alfonso also included Raphael in his plans; he received an advance payment from Alfonso in 1514 (Bayer p. 35). From Rome, in  1517 Raphael sent a cartoon of an Indian Triumph of Bacchus, with elephants. Then he delayed doing the painting. Alfonso had it done by a Friulian painter named Pellegrino de San Danielle, the painter who did the sets for Ariosto's La Casseria, certainly in its 1508 version and probably again in 1528 (Bayer p. 42f). There survives an engraving of it by Conrad Martin Metz ( With its huge elephants in the background and reveling nymphs and satyrs in the foreground,. it is a burlesque of Mantegna's pompous but famous Triumphs of Caesar. At the same time it is inspired by a Dionysian sarcophagus, Campbell says (p. 262 of Cabinet of Eros, citing Sheard's essay in Titian 500, p. 319).

The date of 1514, for the first of the Bacchanals, and for the payment to Raphael, may explain a fact about tarocchi  in Ferrara rhwn, if there is a connection between this painting project and the cards. In 1515 tarocchi production there suddenly spikes. Trionfi ("Autorbis") writes, after giving the notations for 1505 (

§ «
Second to this
, we've a strong Tarocchi production in the years 1515/1516 in Ferrara (more than one entry in the account books - although there should have been opportunity to leave some notes in the account books between 1505 and 1515, there is nothing)» §

In fact Autorbis goes to list 7 notations, on different dates in 1515, from one source, and  5 more, 1515-1516, from another.

Other paintings were in the works., although I don't know exactly when the agreements were made. Alfonso wanted Fra Bartolomeo to paint a Bacchanal for him, according to Humfrey and Lucco p. 147, but nothing came of it. Bayer (p. 37) says that the Fra Bartolemeo was for a Worship of Venus; it was partially completed before the painter's death in 1517 and later satisfied by Titian ( The source was a description in Philostratus' Imagini (1:6), in manuscript translation on loan from Alfonso's sister Isabella in Mantua, as interpreted by Equicola.

And finally Alfonso enlisted Titian, whose Bacchus and Ariadne was completed in 1520; it shows Dionysus viewing Ariadne for the first time, leaping toward her, while she both recoils, fearful of the cheetahs, and fixes her gaze on his ( Its principal source (Bayer p. 37) is Ovid's Ars Amatoria I:529. Another source is an edition and commentary of Catullus (LXIV: 50-75, 251-64) published in 1521 by Battista Guarino, whom Alfonso had studied under (Bayer p. 37). Also. the best-known poem of the Florentine scholar (and friend of Lorenzo) Angelo Poliziano, written in the 1470s, had a similar description (Le Stanzi, cited in Shearman, Only Connect, pp. 255f). A more commonly recognized source is an ekphrasis (description) by Ariosto, the major poet in Ferrara at that time, who also gives us an early reference to tarocco as a game in the 1528 version of the play La Cassaria (for which see Andrea's essay at Both ekphrases are referenced in Orlando Furioso, published in 1516 (Bayer p. 37).

Titian also did another painting for thecamerino, a Bacchanal of the Andreans, about an island where streams flowed with wine. ( The source was another description in Philostratus (Campbell Cabinet of Eros p. 253). I will return to these paintings by Titian, for their philosophical content, in section A6 of this essay.

There was also, according to Vasari, an all-male Bacchanal by Alfonso's own court painter Dosso Dossi, a work apparently now lost, and possibly one of Vulcan at his forge, unless that was somehow incorporated in the Bacchanal. One painting attributed to Dosso that at one time was considered to be the one in question: is a Bacchanal in London (

Another, a "Bathers", is probably not Dosso, according to Humfrey and Lucco. Two other similar paintings are at
Despite Internet attribution to Dosso, who did them is quite unknown. (I thank "Huck" at THF for the last three links). 

At least one of Dosso's paintings hasdepictions similar to those on d'Este tarot cards. One, part of a series probably illustrating the seven liberal arts, shows an astronomer or astrologer looking up with a globe next to him and holding compasses, according to Humfrey and Lucco (p. 139). Compare with the d'Este Moon card of c. 1473, and also the Charles VI of uncertain date but within 10 years of the other, and the Rothschild a little later.



Another painting, done by his brother Batista c. 1527-1530 (Humfrey and Lucco p. 230f), shows the same scene from Orlando Furioso as the Star card of one incomplete 16th century deck now in the Museo delle Arti e delle Traditioni Populari in Rome: Orlando and Rodomonte fighting above a stream. The card is on p. 288 of Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. 2. i give it below along with the comparable part of  the painting (for it all, see It is part of the story that Orlando took off his armor and clothes. I cannot find other Renaissance paintings on this subject.


Besides his fondness for Bacchanals, Alfonso shared in the vogue for "Priapus Poems," many of which attributed to Virgil and published in his collected works in 1469. They were clever variations on a theme: the often frustrated (for him) but threatening (for intruders) desire of the garden-statue god. An example is this one by Horace, quoted by Cartari. I give the English translation
(Satire 1.8, at

      Not long ago I was a useless piece
      Of wood, a fig tree's trunk. A carpenter
      Debated what to make of me. I might
      Have been a stool; instead he fashioned me
      A god, Priapus. Awesome now, a god,
      I panic thieves and birds. No thief gets past
      My raised right hand. My crotch is armed with this
      Obscenely long and red protrusion. Birds
      Don't bother me. A reed stuck in my head
      Spooks the pests and keep them off this new
      And lovely park...

The "raised right hand" probably refers to a sickle: another such poem cited by Cartari, by Tibullus, describes "the rustic child of Bacchus"--i.e. Priapus--as "the god who's armed with the curving hook." Since the statues were made of wood, all that would have survived in the Renaissance would have been poems like this one. The fig was sacred to Dionysus because its fruit at one time looked like male genitals and at another time female genitals. There were also stone ones. Cartari tells about a famous one in Rome called "Mutinus Tutinus". Before marriage, a bride-to-be would be expected to sit on its horizontally protruding member (mentioned also by Richard W. Hooper in his Introduction to The Priapus Poems: Erotic Epigrams from Ancient Rome, p. 3).

It was said that Barnabo Bembo and his son Pietro Bembo, when they lived in Ferrara, actually had an ancient stone Priapus statue in their curiously named estate, the Nonianum (Fiorenza p. 88). The poet and humanist Cielo Calcacigni, at Alfonso's court, wrote a Priapus poem for the Bembo statue, inscribed at its base. Its content is relevant to our investigation (quoted in Giancarlo Fiorenza, "Dosso Dossi and Celio Calcagnini at the Court of Ferrara," in S. J. Campbell, ed., Artists at Court, p. 184):

Tu quicunque meum supplex venerare sacellum,
      Disce prius liceat qua sibi voce loqui.
      Nanque ea quae crebro nobis versantur in usu
      Digna priapea duximus esse nota.
      Esto pepon culus, mihi sit colocyntha cinedus,
      Cunnus erit malacae, mentula crinos erit.
      Haec sint assuetis signata vocabula rebus
      Sed tum hortensi non minus apta Deo.

(You, whoever you are who comes as a suppliant to worship at my shrine, must first learn what words are permitted to be spoken. For those which are habitually employed in common usage among us, we have deemed to be worthy of a Pripaic stamp. Where I say melon, I mean the buttocks; the gourd is the sodomite; the vagina will be the mallow; and the penis will be the red lily. Let these be the words marked by familiar objects, but also no less fitting for the god of the garden).

What is interesting for us is an observation by Fiorenza:

§ «The symbolic and sexually allusive metaphors of this epigram, which employ Latin translations of rare Greek words, are Calcagnini's own fresh inventions» §

In other words, Calcagnini is anothe humanists of that time that reveled in inventing new words in grammatically correct Latin from Greek originals, just as I have been hypothesizing happened with the Greek words
tarachos and Tharopes. Fiorenza does not say which of the words in the epigram are Calcagnini's inventions.

The garden plants in Calcagnini's epigram help to elucidate another Dosso painting of commissioned by Alfonso, probably on a Dionysian theme, the so-called Myth of Pan, by Dosso:


You will notice the red lily in the foreground near the sleeping maiden's genitalia, which is to be interpreted according to Calcagnini's epigram (the lily is clearer in the detail I have put below). Called "crinos" in the poem, it symbolizes the penis. This word would not seem to be a word of the poet's invention, as it appears in Pliny the Elder (Fiorenza, n. 37 p. 246). All the poet has done is to give a masculine ending to a word that is neuter in Pliny.

The armored woman on the left, scholars today agree, is an addition by unfortunate 19th century "restoration", which mistook a figure that Dosso had removed for an element of his finished painting. X-ray analysis reveals this fact; it also shows that originally she was playing a viola da gamba. Originally there were simply the three women. But for the final version Dosso  replaced the armored lady with more landscape and added Pan and the upturned vessel on the ground.

There is much controversy about what is represented. Art historian Luisa Ciammitti provides the only analysis that accounts for all the details in the picture (p. 86f of Dosso's Fate,
. She says that it is Pan looking enviously at a maiden recently violated in her sleep by Dionysus. A devotee of Artemis, Nicea had rebuffed Dionysus while awake, so he took other measures. Dionysus is represented by the upturned vessel in the right foreground, in this interpretation. Since that detail isn't clear in my image of the whole painting, I reproduce that detail and the sleeper below:



To make sure she slept after drinking the wine (magically created by Dionysus) from the spring that usually provided water, he created a bed of flowers for her to rest on. And afterwards an old woman comes out of the tree and predicts that instead becoming his bride, as Dionysus wishes, she will die. When she wakes up and realizes what happened, she kills herself. To commemorate her, Dionysus founds the city of Nicea, seen in the background. (That is the city for which the Nicean Creed was named). The book is not explained, but that is not a major element.

The episode occurs in the 5th century Dionysica by Nonnus. The manuscript of that very long epic poem in Greek had been brought to Italy by Filelfo and then deposited in the Medici library, where Poliziano identified it as by Nonnus. It was supposed to be printed in Venice in 1508, but a war interrupted the plan. In Bologna in 1507, Piero Candido was still working on the text, as a letter to Aldus explains (Ciammitti p. 89). In the meantime the manuscript would have been available to humanists looking for programs for paintings.

Other scholars think it illustrates Pan's own attempt to violate another maiden, Echo or Syrinx. These interpretations do not fit all the major elements. But since Pan is a companion of Dionysus, in either interpretation the painting is Dionysian. On the other hand, the theme could have been non-Dionysian, an allegory based on one of Equicola's treatises without reference to mythology: e.g. the satyr is Vice, the nude is Innocence, the armored lady is Self-Control, the old lady is Philosophy (Humfrey and Lucco p. 204). Such an interpretation is not excluded; but in most of his paintings, in keeping with the times, Dosso was a story-teller, whatever else he or his patron had in mind.

So far I have mostly been focusing on how Greco-Roman literary sources are useful for understanding art done for the Duke of Ferrara, roughly from the time of the first use of "tarochi" in 1505 until the spike in tarocchi deck production in 1515-16. For another layer of meaning, the relationship of this art to Greco-Roman Dionysian visual art as then known, we will have to turn to Mantua. After that, we will look at this art again from the perspective of Dionysis in philosophy, as understood in Ferrara. Then we will almost be ready to look at the tarot sequences.

This essay continues at: Dionysus and the Historical Tarot 2