Museum in Greenwich Connecticut recently concluded its autumn 2000 exhibition
of “Symbolism and Prophecy: The World of Tarot from the Renaissance
to the Present.” The extraordinary exhibit, culled from one of the world’s
most comprehensive collections of tarot cards, featured the only original
tarot deck that included the zodiac, the rare and highly-prized Minchiate
of Renaissance Florence.
tarot deck has 97 cards rather than the traditional 78. Its design reflects
the Renaissance values and view of the world by including a card for
each astrological sign, one for each of the elements (fire, water,
air and earth), three for theological virtues (faith, hope and charity)
and one for a cardinal virtue (prudence).
was very popular during the time when the Minchiate was
created. Numerous popes had astrologers as advisors between 1468 and
1644, as did Scandinavian kings and Queen Elizabeth I. However, astrology
was not kept just for the elite. With the publication of Kalendar and
Compost of Shepherd in 1493, everyone could read advice about love,
health and the future based on the zodiac. Peasants studied the sky
for timing their daily activities of farm and hearth, while the papacy
and royalty looked to their court astrologers to guide them through
intrigues and acquisition of power.
same time, the first family of Florence, the Medicis, were creating
the Neo Platonic academy, where astrology with its connective quality
of micro and macrocosm or “as above so below,” was revered. It was into
this pro-astrology place and time that the Minchiate was
and Prophecy Exhibition offered the opportunity to actually see the
original Minchiate. A rare grouping of three partial sets
of later surviving renditions of the cards in stencil, colored wood
and copper engravings from 1725, 1806 and 1830 were on display. Resplendent
with warm reds, yellows, blues and greens, these images silently beckoned
like a looking glass through time into a bygone era.
Moon card actually depicts an astrologer-astronomer measuring the Moon
with an upraised compass. Historically speaking, astrology and astronomy
were the same for many centuries. The astrologer holds a disc with the
Roman numerals from one to twelve written on it, representing the houses
of the zodiac. Another version of the Minchiate Moon card
has a similar scene with a cloaked spiritual elder, drawing an astrological
chart with a measuring compass. An astrolabe is in the background.
elemental cards of fire, water, air and earth were particularly delightful.
The fire card, associated with the Sun and signs of Aries, Leo and Sagittarius,
featured a huge red bonfire with a lamb standing within it. I was reminded
of the ancient augury technique of pyromancy, where the mystic sees
visions in the flames. The card’s meaning is sacrifice and transformation.
large sailing ship is pictured on the water element card, associated
with the Moon and signs of Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces. The ship on the
water signals a voyage into the emotional aspect of life. The element
of water in astrology is often associated with feelings.
of my favorites was the air element’s dog and stars motif. The card
had three sets of clouds in a star and bird-filled sky; a smiling dog
looked on. Associated with logos and the signs Gemini, Libra and Aquarius,
the image is reminiscent of aeromancy, forecasting the future through
the flights of doves.
single tree in a pastoral landscape with bridge, flowing water, castle,
town and animals graces the earth element card. This is the element
of material creation belonging to Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn. In astrology,
earth signs are associated with building and manifestation.
unknown reason, the astrological sign sequence of the Minchiate
is different from the standard one. The usual animals, symbols and characters
grace the cards with some notable differences; the Libra card features
the traditional balance scale, but adds a fox and porcupine! Aquarius
has a man watering his crops while wearing Eastern clothes and sporting
a jeweled turban.
became immensely popular in seventeenth and eighteenth century Florence
as a game. Speculation suggests the actual word may come from an Old
Italian word, menchia, meaning game or sport.
A new version
of the cards is now available with an accompanying book. Destiny
Books has published Brian Williams’ The Minchiate Tarot,
the first attempt in a few centuries to bring the Florentine deck to
the public. His drawings for the new version remain true to the originals
because he felt great respect for the ancient cards.
belief in signs and seasons, elements and virtues is captured forever,
like snapshots from the past, in the enchanting Florentine Minchiate
The cards in this article are reproduced from The Minchiate Tarot
Deck by Brian Williams, published by Destiny Books, an imprint
Traditions. Copyright 1999 by Brian Williams.