Some Curiosities of Language and Detail on the Tarot of Giovanni Vacchetta (1883), PART I

All images are drawn from the superb Meneghello edition of this deck, which is also responsible for the coloration, as Vacchetta’s original 1893 deck consisted only of line drawings.

And caveat lector: some things that you read here are speculative, not definitive. But speculation is the mother of discovery.

The Tarot deck of Giovanni Vacchetta, or, as he called them, i Naibi, is a quiet enigma of a deck. It is one of the few pre-RWS Tarots whose pip cards are illustrated, for example. The scenes are sometimes dismissed as merely ornamental with no divinatory or esoteric meaning, but at the same time the deck bears some indications that Vacchetta was at least aware of the emerging occult traditions surrounding the deck.

Il Ierofante

Probably the most striking instance of this is the 5th Arcanum whose traditional name (IL PAPA) Vacchetta has replaced with IL IEROFANTE. His is the first deck to bear this title on the card,, anticipating the RWS deck by some 16 years, the HIEROPHANT.  However, the use of HIEROPHANT in reference to this card does appear in esoteric writing about Tarot as early as de Gelebin.

If Vacchetta had no esoteric intentions with his deck, it is odd that he would have bothered with changing the name of this card. The name change cannot be ascribed to deference to the Church by avoiding the names Pope and Popess (as the Besançon decks do), since Vacchetta does make use of the traditional name of the 2nd Arcanum, LA PAPESSA. The female Pope. We might have expected him to change the name to some feminine version of The Hierophant, as the RWS does. Why change one but not the other? In any event, the use of Ierofante at least establishes that Vacchetta had some familiarity with occult writing about the Tarot.

By the way, that column behind the Pope can only be Trajan’s Column in Rome.

Sweet Travail

Vacchetta calls the 6th Arcanum “AMORE.” This too is a departure, though not a jarring one, from the Marseille and Italian traditions (L’AMOUREUX, GLI AMANTI ).  Next to the title of the card Vacchetta appends the epithet “DOLCE TRAVAGLIO” (“Sweet travail”). It is the only Arcanum in this deck to bear a subtitle. Also, even though the card is named AMORE, Vacchetta added the Latin equivalent word, AMOR, on the pedestal the Cupid figure is standing on. Why add this?

The phrase “dolce travaglio” sounds commonplace, but when I tried searching for that phrase in Italian publications between 1600 and 1900, I’ve been able to find only two instances of it.  One of them is in a dual-language edition of Catullus, a translation from Latin to Italian by Raffaele Pastore published in 1805.  Here, Pastore writes“dolce travaglio”for the Latin “iucundo labore”  in poem 64. This might be taken to mean something like “pleasant work,” which doesn’t sound like love-language in itself, but the context is definitely amatory: the phrase occurs in the speech Ariadne gives while hopelessly pining for her lost lover Theseus. I find it striking that on the only card that bears both Latin and Italian (Amor/Amore), the phrase “dolce travaglio” almost uniquely occurs in a Latin-Italian dual language book, in a love poem. 

(The other instance of “dolce travaglio” is in another Latin-Italian dual language translation of Vergil’s “Culex” dating to 1784. The Italian translation in this book is actually based on a misprint in the Latin and I will deal with that elsewhere.)

Vacchetta was an educated man with serious archaeological interests, and we should expect him to be familiar with, or even intimately acquainted with, major Latin authors, like Catullus. And Vergil. That brings us to: 

A Detail Alluding to Vergil’s Aeneid?

The 16th Arcanum, often known as The Tower, is typically understood to be some sort of representation of divine vengeance. One of the novel details Vacchetta incorporates into his tower is the image of a nude male who has presumably fallen from the tower and impaled himself on a stalagmite. 

I can think of only one occurrence of an impalement like this in all of classical literature, and what is significant is that it occurs in a context specifically about divine vengeance.  As in the 16th Arcanum, this passage also contains imagery replete with lightning and flames.  It occurs in the Book I of Vergil’s Aeneid.  Juno, while rhapsodizing about her right to divine vengeance, describes how the goddess Minerva had used lightning and flames to punish Ajax and impale him on a jagged rock.

“She threw the flying bolt from the clouds… and then, when he was was breathing out flames from his pierced chest, she snatched him up and  impaled him on a sharp rock.” (My translation)

Ipsa, Iovis rapidum iaculata e nubibus ignem…
illum expirantem transfixo pectore flammas
turbine corripuit scopuloque infixit acuto.       (Aeneid, I.42-45)

The Aeneid was a central part of an Italian’s literary education in Vacchetta’s time, and every schoolchild would have been familiar with Book I of the Aeneid in particular. 

Another interesting detail is the shield device over the gate of the tower. Let’s have a closer look at it:

It is apparently a bull. There may be a multi-layered pun going on here. First of all, there’s the association of Vacchetta’s name, which suggests someone who tans cowhides.. Secondly, it may be a reference to Vacchetta’s hometown Torino (Turin), whose coat of arms displays a bull. Vacchetta mentions Torino by name several times throughout this deck.

I can’t help but wonder if there might also be pun on the name of this card as well: Torre/Torino. (I also mention, just by the by, that the top of the lightning-struck tower in Marseille tarot is often depicted as a crown, just as we have a crown on Torino’s coat-of-arms. But that’s just my own flight of fancy. You don’t mind me being fanciful, do you?)

Imaginative speculation about the Tarot is a very important part of experiencing Tarot, so long as we recognize it to be such.

Il Mondo

On Il Mondo, we see another idiosyncrasy.  The position of the bull and the lion have been reversed. This is not unprecedented, as this arrangement occurs on the 17th century French Viéville deck, but it’s rare.

Vacchetta assigns the following seasons to the figures of the tetramorphs:

Angel: Winter (INVERNO)

Eagle: Spring  (PRIMAVERA)

Lion: Summer (ESTATE)

Bull: Autumn (AVTVMNO)
This too represents a departure from tradition, as the Bull is traditionally associated with Spring and the Eagle with Fall, although I don’t know what the source of that tradition is, although it clearly corresponds to the zodiac. I’m not sure, but it appears that the garland surrounding the central figure has season-specific vegetation, by the way.

The Minors

The Minors
More subtle but curious peculiarities are on the cards identifying the artist.  On the so-called passive suits (Coins and Cups), he identifies himself as a painter (“pictore”), but on the active suits (Batons and Swords) he calls himself a sculptor (“scultore”). 
The language is more or less formulaic for such an inscription. On the Ace of Coins, for example, he writes:

Giovanni Vacchetta

Sculptor made [this]

in Turin in the Year 18-93 these Naibi.

 There’s a strange difference of tense between the Two of Cups and the other three suits.  On the other three, he says that he has made this deck, as in finished it (“FECE,” passive remote), but on the Two of Cups he says he “was making” this deck, as in still working on it  (“FACEVA,” imperfect tense). What are we to make of this distinction? Was he still in the midst of making the deck when he inscribed the Two of Cups, but more or less had finished when he inscribed the other three cards? 

Swords Pointed Downwards

Notice that in general the swords are mostly depicted with point downward. This extends even to the court cards, none of whom are actually holding their swords like weapons. They’re all holding them point downward. Not one is wielding it like a weapon. Why? It’s as if Vacchetta went out of his way to do this this, and I can only suppose that it must have been significant to him that an upright card meant a point-downward sword. And that suggests ulterior significance. 

I do not know what the source is of the motto on the Two of Swords, if any.  AMO GUERRA, PORTO PACE. “I love war, I bear peace.” Apparently that’s the sword talking. 

That’s what it says if you follow the ribbon, anyway. But do notice how it is arranged You might accidentally read the motto as:


which is to say “War I bring /I love peace.” I am sure that was not the intention, but it makes for an interesting ambiguity.

If you look closely at the Two of Swords, you’ll see that Vacchetta has included pictures of a Tarot deck.

And if you look even more closely at the designs, you will see that the tarot deck he is depicting is not his own. The only close match I see is the bottom-left card, which more or less resembles his Ace of Swords. So, no self-referentiality here.

If you look very closely at the Eight of Swords, you can see “Giustizia” (Justice) on one sword and “Valore” (Valor) on another. Notice that this corresponds to Giovanni Vacchetta’s initials.  As if to drive the point home, another sword actually bears the initials GV. Here’s a detail of the card inverted:

The Queen of Swords is carrying a bag in her left hand. It’s fairly obvious what must be in the bag, as there’s a headless body gushing out blood in the background. This is in all likelihood a reference to Judith in the story of Judith and Holofernes. There might be a subtle joke here: parallel with the head in a bag, the Queen of Cups is in the exact same pose and has a chicken with a butcher knife stuck in it. Just as there is human carnage to the left behind the Queen of Swords, there is chicken carnage to the left behind the Queen of Cups.

We might also add that the Queen of Batons is depicted as a shepherd, with her free hand resting on the neck of a sheep as she seems to contemplate it. You know what’s going to happen to that sheep eventually. So, you have references to killing in these three Queens. However, the Queen of Coins, in lieu of a living animal, is sitting on a chair with lion’s feet. She also has what might be an animal pelt hanging from her shoulder. If so, she is the only court card to be depicted with a pelt. It seems a little odd for her spinning wheel to be hovering in space like that, especially since Vacchetta has defined the space in front of her with the tiled floor.

The Six of Batons has another motto on it, in rather antique Italian:



“Born from a single stump/ they make [i.e., pursue] different fates.”

I am a little puzzled by this. “FER” is an archaic syncopated form of the Italian “fecero,” meaning “they made/did.” You can find it, for example, in Dante. Obviously the idea here is that these batons represent different walks of life–the bishop’s crook, the soldier’s mace, the king’s scepter, and so on–even though the wood for these instruments ultimately came from one and the same tree. However, it almost appears that some letters might precede FER in the second line. I can’t quite make them out, though.

The Nine of Batons has the image of an unusual bellows-driven organ on it, sans black keys, and a Latin inscription.

That instrument, which did not exist in Vacchetta’s time except in art, is called an organo portativo, or a portable organ. It was a medieval instrument which the player pumped with one hand while keying with the other, like a harmonium. I can find only one example of this instrument appearing on a card prior to Vacchetta, and that is on the 16th-century Mantanga deck as part of the iconography of the goddess Polyhymnia.

It is a little odd that the pipes seem backwards–that is to say, they get increasingly longer from left to right, meaning the notes would be getting deeper. However, he one other place Vacchetta would have seen this instrument is in the iconography of St. Cecilia, and the pipes on her organo portativo are frequently depicted in reverse order.

The Latin is DVLCE AVDITVM and means “Sweet to hear.” Once again, it sounds like a cliché while in actuality it is a very rare phrase in Latin–so rare that if you search for this phrase, you’ll find references to this card. “Dulce auditum” only occurs once in Latin literature. It’s in Livy’s History of Rome, and it’s in reference to the word liberty, or libertas. (There’s a grammar-school-Latin reason why this phrase is important to know.) In context, Livy is saying that the word Libertas was sweet to hear after the demise of a wicked king.

The only other example of this phrase I can find is in reference to an English piece of music for two bass viols called “Dulce Auditum,” composer and date unknown. Was Vacchetta actually thinking of this obscure piece of music to describe his drawing of a keyboard instrument?  

One Comment on the Suit of Coins

As far as I can tell, with one exception, they are all depictions of actual Roman coins, with accurate imagery and notation on them. That shouldn’t surprise us, given Vacchetta’s interest in antiquity.


[Go to Part II]