Expensive, ornately designed tarocchi cards from the late Renaissance. Possibly used for dark astral magic rituals against rivals and enemies.
Italians sure know how to keep it saucy, amirite?
Maybe you’re convinced that the card design I covered last time could be some hidden astrological reference.
But dark magic? In Renaissance Italy?
Does that make sense?
Before I can go any further with Peter Mark Adams’ analysis and theory about the Sola-Busca cards, I feel it’s necessary to briefly summarize the long history of ceremonial magic in the Western world, especially the threads that found their way into Renaissance Italian thinking. From there, we can explore the various patterns found in the Sola-Busca cards, and better appreciate what they might mean to the noble families who possessed them.
Let’s begin with this acknowledgment:
In the centuries and millennia before Europe’s scientific revolution—before the eventual shift among scholars toward a philosophy of materialistic naturalism—all human pursuits of knowledge were intrinsically tied to spiritual and supernatural dimensions of experience.
We educated folk today tend to think of the great thinkers of classical antiquity as dry, lawyerly types, but philosophers like Plato and Pythagoras were regarded as mystics and holy men. The geometry of classical Athens was a body of sacred and mysterious truths. It granted divine powers to those who understood it.
Babylonian attempts to systemize and understand the motions of the stars were driven by rituals to manipulate those astral forces.
The techniques that metallurgists used to shape and craft their works were secrets that could transform human souls as well as metals.
Before human knowledge was thoroughly compiled, scrutinized, and tested, most human endeavors of the mind – even from the early proponents of rationalism and empiricism – were just as concerned with mystical experiences and magical effects as they were with more practical ones.
For our purposes, the Renaissance merely marked the era when the works of classical pagan philosophers found their way into the hands of European thinkers. The various esoteric traditions were gathered and studied for a sort of cache of sacred philosophical knowledge.
This did help people cultivate an understanding of reasoning and mathematics, and the seeds of the Enlightenment began to sprout and grow. But such efforts were largely pursued for spiritual and magical advancement, in the hope of becoming immortal, or ascending into the heavens, or at least gaining more power on earth. As it always had been.
Another important process or phenomenon to consider is syncretism:
A good example of syncretism is the perfect correspondence between Greek and Roman gods: Zeus/Jupiter, Ares/Mars, Kronos/Saturn, Hades/Pluto, Daffy/Donald, etc.
Syncretism often starts to occur due to the mingling of cultures, typically due to conquest, slavery, exile, or (later on) migration to an empire’s major cities for the sake of opportunity. It’s likely that the Romans merely adopted the Greek stories and gods for their own.
But it’s also possible that different cultures simply have similar stories with similar characters. Perhaps the Romans borrowed from Hermes for their own god of communication and magic, Mercury…
But what about the Egyptian god Thoth?
Or the Persian Zoroaster?
A scholar of comparative religions like Joseph Campbell might argue that the similarities reflect archetypes of the human mind. That all cultures tell variations of some more basic, universally human narratives of experience: the mono-myth.
But earlier scholars of syncretic traditions thought that the correspondences across cultures pointed to a sacred truth to be discovered.
More specifically, it was evidence for secret, ancient mystical knowledge that may have originated at the beginning of time, or at least among ancient civilizations, such as Egypt or Babylonia.
By the time of the 2nd century, there was the belief that a mysterious figure named Thrice-Great Hermes preserved all secret knowledge of the ancients in his written works (some scholars speculate that this legendary holy man was in fact a syncretic fusion of the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods of magic into one pseudo-historical figure). This is why the pursuits of astral magic, alchemy, sacred geometry, and various other bodies of esoteric knowledge are referred together as the “Hermetic” tradition.
By the time of the late Renaissance, scholars of philosophy had gathered together vast bodies of mystical ceremonial practice from all over the lands.
But wasn’t this pagan knowledge considered heresy in the Christian world? The short answer is:
Even so, certain pagan traditions were deemed acceptable at various times, and they were assimilated into Christian culture.
Plato’s Timeaus was one pagan text that was available to Latin-speaking Christian communities as early as the 4th century AD.
Not surprisingly, as the Gospel of John shows its influence in its opening passage, perhaps by way of the Jewish neo-Platonist Philo of Alexandria (my quasi-namesake!).
In 1438, the rest of Plato’s work came to Italy via the Greek Neo-pagan philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon.
Plethon had a sour view of Christianity, and was hoping to marshal support among the European nobility to preserve his cherished ancient scriptures and practices.
He was largely successful, and was responsible for Italians getting their hands on The Chaldean Oracles, the Hermetic writings, Porphyry, and countless other pagan mystical works.
Some of these were still considered heretical at the time, but they were traded on the down-low.
The notable philosophical scholars of the time were interested in the traditions of alchemy, astrology, theurgy (spiriting channeling and ascent), and kabbalah, which had recently been taken from Jewish mystics. In keeping with the syncretic approach, most of these scholars interpreted their endeavors through a thoroughly Christian lens. Taken together, the various knowledge traditions they collected would enable enlightened men to return to the nearly-divine state of Adam.
…However, our analysis of the Sola-Busca tarocchi doesn’t concern the likes of Marcilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, or other philosophers of the time. Those figures seemed totally unconcerned with the notion of tarocchi.
We are interested in the wealthiest, most powerful families in the city of Ferrara, Italy. Like, for instance, the ducal House of Este.
And next time, we will look into the Sola-Busca imagery, and see what it can tell us about the worldview and practices of those families.
…to be continued…
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