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Ancient Tarots of Marseilles

  • printer: Nicolas Conver
  • modern publisher: Lo Scarabeo
  • first appeared: 1760

When I decided it was time to get an "old" deck, I posted to Tarot-L, asking for advice on Marseilles Tarot decks. Comments from Bob O'Neill were expecially helpful. I decided to purchase the Conver 1760 deck (sold by US Games as "Ancient Tarots of Marseilles"). Here are some impressions.

First, for the benefit of anyone who might be new to the collecting of older decks, there are two ways for a modern publisher to handle an old deck: reproduction and re-creation. A reproduction is essentially a photographic copy of actual surviving cards from an original deck. As such, it shows whatever wear, fading, and other deteriorations the cards may have sustained. A re-creation is an attempt to follow faithfully the design of the original cards, but creating a modern master copy, using modern technology and techniques. Modern coloring and printing methods are also used, and often titles on the cards are translated into English.

The Conver deck is a reproduction. You can see places where the ink has worn off, you can see the yellowing of the original paper stock, the smearing of some of the lines from the original printing process, and so on. Although I bought the deck sight unseen, this is the sort of thing I was looking for: I wanted to know what cards from the eighteenth century actually looked like, not simply what designs they used. (Some might protest that a brand new pack purchased in 1760 would look much sharper than this reproduction, but I suspect that only a few years of dedicated use would render it looking a lot like this reproduction; it appears to be an inexpensive deck intended for a real workout at the card table at the local tavern, not a piece of art to put on the shelf and admire.)

The designs on the deck are virtually identical to other Marseilles tarots, such as the Grimaud ones, down to the small details. (Something that was possible in the days before copyright laws.) However, the "craftsmanship" in the Conver deck is quite crude. The woodcuts are a bit rough compared with others, and the colors are applied quite poorly, without much reference to either logic or artistic taste.

Owning this deck, I understand the appeal of the Tarot of Marseilles, as contrasted with the decks that developed out of late nineteenth-century occultism. It is quite unburdened with any self-conscious symbolism; no attempt to make the cards conform to a particular individual's metaphysical or psychological theory. Although we don't know much about any divinatory use of the cards during the eighteenth century, we do know they were used as playing cards, and the Tarot of Marseilles certainly found a market among the common folk of the time, looking for a diversion from the toil of life, and perhaps a way to gamble away their wages! So we have a pack of cards where The Emperor appears to be just the emperor, not some fellow coated in glue and then forced to walk through a new age bookstore, to emerge with astrological signs affixed to his face and Hebrew letters hanging from his garments.

Don't get me wrong; I love my 20th century decks, too. In many ways they're much closer to my heart. But the Tarot of Marseilles (particularly a faithful reproduction of one of the "workhorse decks" of the period, like this one) opens a window onto an earlier time, and an earlier Tarot tradition. I find that rewarding. I wonder what I would have thought of a tarot pack if I had lived 200 years ago.

I have the image of the man of the house owning a deck, having friends over for a friendly penny-ante game, which goes on past nightfall, accompanied by tankards of beer and maybe a song or two. Then perhaps late some night (who knows?), his aged mother-in-law pulls out the cards by lamplight in the back room; her granddaughter is there, worried whether she will have a happy marriage, with lots of children and the means to look after them. Out come the empress and some nice cups and coins. They both sleep a bit easier that night.

I wonder what they would have thought of our decks.

Copyright © 1998-2008 Tom Waters