Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Taroch: nulla latina ratione

With Barbarian rite, whitout relationship to the Latin, now they call it taroch


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

This essay returns to the theme investigated in the articles About the Etymology of Tarot , Tharocus Bacchus Est, Taroch: vulgar Latin and Rochi and Tarochi, to which we refer you for complete information.

Francesco Mantovano, commonly identified as Francesco Vigilio (1446-1534), was a playwright and writer, the most authoritative of the teachers who taught in Mantua after Vittorino di Feltre. Thanks to the favours of Isabella, wife of Francesco II Gonzaga, he became public preceptor of grammar, initiating with his pupils various performances of comedies, among them the Formigone "cavato da Apuleio" (drawn from Apuleius), which  had as spectators the same Isabella and the young Federico, of whom Vigilio became the preceptor. A performance crowned by extraordinary success.

Among other works he wrote the Lautrec, centred upon contemporary historical stories and particularly on facts concerning Milan around 1521, when its governor was the French captain Lautrec. The Dialogo de Italia (Dialogue of Italy), presented in Mantua in August of 1512, before Matthias Lang, Archbishop Gurgense (1), focuses on the miseries of Italy, according a letter sent from Vigilio to Federico Gonzaga (November 18, 1512): “Essendo qui lo Episcopo Gurgense li fece representare uno dialogo de la Italia in modo di actione comica, in lingua Latina" (When Bishop Gurgense was here, there was presented a Dialog of Italy in the comic manner, in the Latin language).

The personification of Italy in dramatic work is not an exceptional thing in the Renaissance (2), but without doubt the Dialogue was the most interesting, so much so as to have become the object of various interpolations. Sanudo hands down to us the Comoedia Veronae habita coram reverendissimo Gurzensi Cesareo oratore et gubernatore put on the stage in September 1512 (3), just a month after the Mantuan performance, and it is, with a few cuts and additions, an adaptation of the Dialog by Vigilio for presentation in Verona. In this Comoedia an old man (Senex) converses with Italia (Italy) about the miserable state of her condition, and near them two young girls appear, personifications of essential attributes of our country, Areta [feminine form of Arete, Excellence] and the felix [happy] Ubertas.

A similar work entitled Dialogue sur les malheurs de Italy (Dialog on the misfortunes of Italy), is in the National Library in Paris  (Delisle's inventories) (4). In this work, close to Italia and Areta, we find an Oeconumus, interpreting the role of Senex, (5), while Ubertas is replaced with Eucarpia. A comparison between the two texts reveals that both are descended from a single source, although the one by Sanudo should be considered closer to the original than the Parisian text. Thus Dionisotti comes to the following conclusions: " I – The text by Sanudo comes directly from a lost original by Vigilio. II - The text of the Parisian manuscript is an elaboration of the work by Vigilio, a text that in the meantime probably had already undergone adaptations and additions for other Mantuan parties. (6). Therefore, it is assumed that the common model should be traced back to a lost work by the same Vigilio to be dated some years prior to his presentation in Mantua of 1512.

Still on the same subject, a new text written by the same Vigilio, or his son Gerolamo or some other, probably entitled Italia e Mantua, was presented between 1532 and 1534 at the theater of Mantua,  a new text that is a notable document of Gonzaga Court literature, principally because of the numerous pieces of information about the education of Federico, Ercole and Ferrante Gonzaga that can be found in it.
The beginning is given to Italia, who delivers a complaint about the calamities that torment her, while Oeconumus tries to comfort her. At the moment she reveals her true identity, the man bursts out in emphatic praise of her greatness: "Vix hoc crediderim nisi et orazionis lepidatis et oris maiestas eam te esse mihi persuaderet. O salve tot regum, tot imperato rum, tot pontificum, tot quoque sapientum et parens et altrix et, quo ingenue fatear, ut supra humanum captum efferaris, verae et ortodoxae religionis columen". In these words is delineated what will be the leading motif of the dialogue, that is "the myth of Catholic and imperial Rome founded upon a solemn accord of the two podestà [leaders] as an unquestionable and perfect pact of universal political and social life", according to what  Dionisotti affirms (7).

Italia is reduced to poverty and this because of the Barbarians that have cruelly stripped her. But who are these Barbarians? The Germans, French and Spanish: "Nunc vero e tota Germania Gallia et Hispania barbari hostes in nostrum imperium ita conspirarunt ut nos nostraque omnia in predam verterent, virorum multa caede, mulierum ac virginum assiduis stupris, agrorum squalore, armentis ac gregibus partim caesim partim abactis...". Then we find the complaint of the sack of the capital of the empire (1527): "Sacrilegi hostes ausi etiam urbem, imperii caput, Romam irrumpere, omnia diripere: caesi multi, mulieres stupratae, plerique etiam sacri et summis honoribus perfugentes partim caesi, partim captivi sese grandi pecunia redemerunt, et, quod cor mihi confodit, Paranymphus meus, Clemens summus pontifex, in manus turpissimorum hominum traditus, in Mollem Adriani carcerem detrusus; Roma dirrepta, Roma desolata, Roma non amplius Roma, sed quae fuerit carnificum officina, latronum spelunca". Guicciardini (1483-1540) writes, in reference to this event: "All the sacred things, the sacraments and the relics of saints, of which all the churches had been full, despoiled of their ornaments, were thrown on the floor; the German barbarity added to this endless scorn. And what remained after having being sacked by the soldiers (the vilest things, of little worth) was taken away by the servants of the Colonnesi, who had entered as well. Yet Cardinal Colonna, who arrived (I believe) the following day, saved many women who had fled to his house. And it was famous that, among  the money, gold, silver and jewels, the sack amounted to more than a million ducats, but the ransoms  also extracted a great quantity" (8).

As the text progresses we approach our reason for interest, which begins when the corruption of customs caused by the barbaric influences is discussed. In customs and language anarchy is sovereign, and it has overpowered the ancient order, replacing it with corrupted and barbaric usages. It is sufficient to consider the garments introduced in recent fashion, such as cloaks or slippers. To the foreign style is joined that of names: for instance boots now are called borzacchini, "borozachinos, quod nomen non sine dentium stridore perfertur"; the corset "boric orrendo sono dicitur". Men have become effeminate, and they regularly are wearing "bracatas illas caligas, variis fascis circumdatas, tot laciniis, picturis, tot emblematis perforatas", while women show off their graces so much as to succeed in replacing even those beauties they don't possess with seductive frills, "quin et maiore et dedecore et impensa sese placere student, clitellis suffercinatae, ut scilicet latera obesa et polposa mentiantur".

The text Italy and Mantua goes on explaining that even in games the use of barbaric names has prevailed:  «Quid illud, quod in ludis quoque barbaris verbis utuntur?". Petrarch had designated with the name of game of Triumphs the painted cards, without doubt an excellent choice, since that term referred to warlike victory: "Franciscus enim ille meus Petrarcha picturatarum cartarum ludo Triumphorum nomen induxerat (9), optime quidem, quod in eo veluti bellica victoria spectatur". 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?» (10).

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 (11). 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.

Even the Latin of the ancients is corrupted, affirms Areta, who appears nevertheless hopeful for its rebirth since she has seen some men who "et ex graecis in latinum trasferendo et suo ipsorum ingenio nova componendo, leporem illum pristinum, ut Victorinum Feltrensis, Guerrinus Veronensis, Leonardus Aretinus et alii quam plurimi, excitaverunt, et qui postea eorum emulatione in hoc laborarunt, ut parum nostra aetate desit a Ciceronis" (Summarizing: thanks to some lettered men,  like Vittorino di Feltre, Guerrino di Verona and Leonardo Bruni, called Leonardo Aretino from his native town,  and their emulators, transferring to  the Latin language the Greek texts composing texts of great merit).

Among so much mourning and ruins Italy has been allowed to find a secure shelter: Mantua, which Oeconumus celebrates in a eulogy also extending to its Prince. Following this Areta intervenes, who says that she launched Federico in public government, Ferrante in the use of weapons, Ercole in the knowledge of letters and philosophy and all those disciplines "quibus sacerdotes maxime indigent". So Italia elects therefore Ercole as her own "suffragatorem et praecipuum patronum" wishing to see him rise to the pontificate.

At this point, focusing on the term Taroch, here considered of barbaric origin (12), it appears, mentioned with the meaning "fool", in a Frotula by Giorgio Alione (13), an Asti troubadour poet, already from the middle of the last decade of the XVI Century; while in its Tarochus version, meaning "idiot, imbecile, a man of little worth", in a Maccheronea by Bassano Mantovano, around about the same period, as identified by Ross. S. Caldwell. If we consider that the meaning of the word minchiata, the Tuscan tarot, is described as a "thing for fools" [cosa per sciocchi] in a poem dated to approximately 1510, the Moral Satire Farce by Venturini Venturino of Pesaro, at this point it seems clear that the meaning of the term Tarot is due to the attributes expressed here, even considering the fact that the dates of the documents cited in support of this attribution belong to that period in which the word tarot in its ancient forms of taroch and tarochus came to replace the word Triumphs in the definition of that particular card game.

I believe that this substitution has to be be imputed to the action of the Church, that to dissuade the players from approaching the game tables, they wanted to call tarot that game, denouncing in such a way the stupidity, foolishness and little worth of those men who had become a slave to it.


1 - The performance took place during the long sojourn of Matthias Lang in that town, coming to Mantua to participate in a Diet.
- Already in 1501 Marquis Francesco had asked Niccolò of Correggio a "capitulo de qualche inventione sì che il se possi recitare... nel quale fosse introduca Italia Mantua et noi in qualche comparazione o disputazione insieme" (a chapter of some invention to be which Italia, Mantua, and ourselves could be introduced in comparison or disputation together) Cfr: T. Basile, V. Pera, S. Villari (editors), Carlo Dionisotti. Scritti di Storia della Letteratura Italiana (Writings on the History of Italian Literature), I, 1935-1962, Rome, 2008, p. 11.
3 - In Verona the presentation happened between September 18th and 22nd 1512, a period in which Gurgense lived in that city. Concerning the Verona performance of the Dialogo, the text has been handed down by Marin Sanudo, Vita dei Dogi (Life of the Doges), in "RR. II. SS", XXII, Città di Castello, 1902, I, XV, p. 146-151.
4 - Latin Ms. 16578. (Bibl. de l'Ècole des Chartes; XXXI, 1870, page 151). At a later time,  the work was given the title of De calamitatibus Italiae (About the calamities of Italy).
5 -  Oeconomus, or rei familiaris administrator et custos, here a palace housekeeper to whom Italia and her companions introduce themselves.
6 - Carlo Dionisotti, Italia e Mantova (Italy and Mantua) in "Atti della R. Accademia delle Scienze di Torino - Parte Morale" (Acts of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Turin - Moral Part) v. 72, Turin, 1937, p. 11.
7 - Carlo Dionsotti, op. cit., p. 244. 
8 - Francesco Guicciardini, Storia d'Italia (History of Italy), 18, 8.
9 - The author here supposes that the name of Ludus Triumphorum, or Game of Triumphs, had been attributed to that kind of cards by Petrarch, as author of the famous Triumphs.
10 - The word Tarot  [Tarocco] was believed to be of  barbarian origin for a long time. Giuseppe Parini in his work Il Mattino, il Mezzogiorno e la Sera (The Morning, the Midday and the Evening) writes, “Sedete al Tavoliere e non stupitevi / se il barbaro nome straniero del gioco / risuona troppo duramente alle vostre orecchie" (Sit down at the game table and do not be surprised / If the barbaric foreign name of the game / Sounds too harsh for your ears". Edition of reference: Venice, Pietro Savioni, publisher, 1574, p. 101.
11 - T. Basile, V. Pera, S. Villari (edited by), op. cit., p. 14.
12 - On our part we have found a “Taroco Briscinius” (in which Taroco is the first name ) mentioned on a Roman funerary stele found at Aidussina (Slovenia), datable to the first half of the first century after Christ. The main indicator of the success of cultural mediation between the natives of those lands and the new Roman owners, is confirmed by the habit of leaving a gravestone inscribed in the usual forms of epigraphy of Aquileia, albeit with a strong ‘epicoria’, i.e. native, connotation. The stele was erected by Taroco at his own expense for himself and his son’s wife Fourth Freia Marci filia (daughter of Mark). The falx vinitoria, depicted in relief below the inscription, defines Taroco  as a “vignaiuolo” (Vine-dresser). See: Claudio Zeccaria, Forme e luoghi della “mediazione” nell’Italia nordorientale romana (Forms and places of "mediation" in  Italy northeast of Rome), p. 98 in Franco Crevatin (ed.) "I Luoghi delle Mediazioni. Confini, scambi, saperi” (The Places of Mediation. Borders, trade, knowledge), Sources and studies in the history of Venezia Giulia, Second Series: Studies, Vol. XVIII, Deputation of National History for Venezia Giulia, Trieste, 2009. The stele is preserved in the Museums of the Province of Gorizia: Ettore Pais, Suppl. It., 60; Inscriz. It., X, 4.342; See: Claudio Zaccaria, Tergeste et ager Tergesti adtributus, in "Supplementa Italica”, n. s., 10, Rome, Quasar, 1992, p. 236, at 342. On the onomastic formula see Fulvia Mainardis, Tracce di onomastica celtica nell’epigrafe preromana e romana delle regioni nord-orientali (Traces of Celtic onomastics in pre-Roman and Roman epigraphs of the north-eastern regions), in "I Celti nell’alto Adriatico” (The Celts in the northern Adriatic), Trieste, Editreg, 2001 (Antiquities Altoadriatiche, 48 ), p. 64. Taroco is considered an epicorio (indigenous) forename by Olli Salomies, Die romischen Vornamen. Studien zur romischen Namengebung, Helsinki, Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1987, (Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum, 82), p. 129.
13 - About the Frotula by Alione see the essay Taroch - 1494.