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The Bruce 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.

This unique 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).

Astrology 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.

At the 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 born.

The Symbolism 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.

The 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.

The 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.

A 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.

One 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.

A 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.

For some 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.

Minchiate 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.

The Renaissance belief in signs and seasons, elements and virtues is captured forever, like snapshots from the past, in the enchanting Florentine Minchiate tarot deck.

Editor's Note: The cards in this article are reproduced from The Minchiate Tarot Deck by Brian Williams, published by Destiny Books, an imprint of Inner Traditions. Copyright 1999 by Brian Williams.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marcia Masino has been a working astrologer for over thirty years. She is the author of the books Easy Tarot Guide and Best Tarot Practices, both modern classics on tarot interpretation.She has been awarded certification as a Grandmaster of Tarot by the American Tarot Association She is also a contributor to Llewellyn Publications' first Tarot Calendar and writer for Fate Magazine.

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For more information about Marcia Masino, click here.

Other StarIQ articles by Marcia Masino:

  • Beth Alpha Synagogue’s Zodiac Floor   5/31/2001
  • Washington's Astrological Secrets   1/15/2001
  • San Miniato al Monte: The Zodiac Church of Florence   10/15/2000
  • Gifts of Love   2/14/2000

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