The oldest method of reading the Tarot

In 1989, italian researcher Franco Pratesi made public his discovery at the University Library of Bologna of a manuscript dedicated to divination with the Tarocchino of Bologna. It is a single sheet, folded in two parts, lengthways. The text, divided into two columns, shows the divining meanings of 35 cards. (1)

Reading hall of the University Library of Bologna

The sheet was undoubtedly written in Bologna, as indicated by a typically Bolognese term “Tempra”, instead of Temperance. Furthermore, the presence of female names attributed to the Pages of Cups and Coins, which in the list are referred to with the term “Fantesca” (maidservant), allow, according to Pratesi, a very precise dating: around 1750-60. Thus, these rules was written some years before the first “revelations” of Etteilla. (2)

In that list, only the meanings of 35 cards are mentioned, in quite an unclear and disorderly fashion, rather than the entire deck (see the complete list here below). This is a tradition typical of Bologna. However, this tradition was quite varied; it is a known fact that some “Strolghe” (dialectical name derivated from “astrologers”) as fortune-tellers were called in Bologna, used to pull out some cards from the deck, reducing it to 45, or 50 or even 55 cards. (3)

The repetition of the number five is undoubtedly related to the magical meaning, traditionally attributed to this number: the pentacle, the five-pointed star, the Quintessence of matter, the Hand of Glory, the five senses, and so on.
At the bottom of the page one can read a brief statement on the reading method: «You must make up Five decks by placing the cards in each, ensuring there are seven for each deck». (4)

Spread with Tarot bolognese

This specification is completely useless if no precise instructions on the value attributed to the five decks are received. This means that these notes were written by someone who had previously been instructed about how to spread the cards and interpret them. So, it can be assumed that cartomancy has been practiced in Bologna from a decade at least.
It would also be interesting to dwell on the Tarocchini tradition of play.


Some cards form Tarocchino bolognese engraved around 1660 by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli and  reprinted in 2016 by Rinascimento Italian Style Art (see the complete description page).

This game has been commonly played in Bologna for over five hundred years and then it fell into almost complete oblivion, until the recent attempts by the Academy of Tarocchino Bolognese to keep the memory alive. But the instructions on the rules of play would require an extensive manual.

Regarding the traditional cartomantic rules in Bologna some useful texts have been recently published. (5)

© Giordano Berti



(1) The sheet found by Pratesi at University Library of Bologna (Cat. 4029. Chap. 119) is contained within a box, along with other documents on various subjects including a Masonic document, dating to the late eighteenth century. See. F. Pratesi, Tarot bolonais et cartomancie, in L’As de Trèfle”, nr.37, 1989, pp.10-11.
(2) Pratesi based his conviction on the analogy with a card game like Tarot, the Minchiate, of which there was Bologna was an important producer. The custom with Bolognese Tarot players, to refer to the Pages of Cups and Coins, with feminine term “Fantesca”, lasted until around 1750. See M. Dummett, The Game of Tarot, Duckwort, London 1980, p. 316.
(3) See. “Significato delle Carte” (Meanings of the cards), cat. nr.12 in Antichi Giochi e Tarocchi a Bologna, Biblioteca universitaria di Bologna, 2014, pp.76-77.
(4) See. “La cartomanzia a Bologna”, in Il Tarocchino di Bologna, by A. Vitali and T. Zanetti, Bologna, 2005, pp.78-80.
(5) See. Greta Boni Dori, who illustrate the divinatory meanings of the 62 cards and the techniques of reading in Giuseppe Maria Mitelli and the Tarocchino bolognese, by Giordano Berti, Bologna, 2018, pp.86-117.


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