HISTORICAL AND ICONOGRAPHIC NOTES
WESTERN PLAYING CARDS
It has been suggested that playing cards were born in China, sometime around the 10th century AD.
They were likely domino cards, i.e. the ones that represent a throw of two dice, very similar to the
ones still used today in the Far East, and just slightly different from common domino tiles
now used in many countries.
A few centuries later, playing cards were in use by the Arabs, and soon after they
spread also to the Western world.
10 of Coins
from the earliest
Arabic deck known
This was the result of the commercial and cultural relationship
between the Mediterranean countries and the Arabic world, in particular the Mamlûks, who
spread along the northern coast of Africa.
The archaic Italian word for "playing cards",
, and the Spanish equivalent,
, still used, both come from the Arabic word
, meaning "delegate" or "deputy".
"Deputies" were two court cards of the old Arabic deck: the "king's deputy" (or "king's delegate")
and the "second deputy" (or "religious minister"). Such cards did not feature the relevant
personages as human figures, according to the Islamic tradition, but only stated the names
of the three ranks at the base of the subject.
The oldest surviving set of cards of this kind is known as Mulûk wa-Nuwwâb
("Kings and Deputies"),
held by the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. It was composed of four suits, each of
which had fourteen cards (ten suit cards and four courts), for a total of 56 subjects.
The suits of the Arabic deck were:
On the surviving cards held in Istanbul, these names are spelled at the bottom of the court cards,
together with the rank; a sample is shown at the end of the third part
(relations between Western and
), where the the meaning of the names and the connections that seem to
relate these cards to an ancient Chinese origin are discussed more in depth.
NAIBI, TAROTS AND HUNTING DECKS
According to written records, Italy is the western country where tarot cards were
first made, in the first half of the 1400s, but Spain is the country where the common
non-tarot cards first appeared, some 50 years earlier.
The relation between these two kinds of decks may be explained by the present theory, according
to which the Mamlûk cards were taken into Spain and Italy sometime during the 14th century,
following the close relations between the Arabic and European civilizations, facing each others
across the Mediterranean.
trump from the
Tarot (15th century)
In Spain the composition of the local deck dropped one court card; a
further alteration that concerned the aforesaid cards was the introduction of actual personages instead
of their description in words, which made them more easily understandable. They were locally called naibes
or naipes, a word of Arabic etymology (as previosly explained),
and they were likely made of 52 subjects, i.e. four suits with thirteen cards each.
Similar cards were known in Italy, as well, often described as naibi
(alternative forms were naibbe, nahipi, etc.). But other chronicles from the
first half of the 15th century mention "saracen cards" - another indication
suggesting their origin - and in the second half of the same century "cards for playing".
A different deck was made in northern Italy, and called tarocco
("tarot"); this one had 78 cards. It was very likely obtained by merging the Arabic set of suit cards,
i.e. the naibi, with a group of 22 picture cards of local origin, replacing
one of the four courts, all male personages, with a female one, and sometimes even
more than one.
The enlarged pack was soon named trionfi ("trumps"),
probably after a composition by Petrarch, and this was also the name of the game played
with them. The word tarocco is only found in literature as of the early 16th century.
More than one source mentions the "triumph cards" (or "cards of Lombardy") and
the "cards for playing" (or "saracen cards") as separate items.
Therefore, the two varieties of decks, i.e. with and without trumps, were in use at the
same time. The diagram on the left summarizes their relation with the
original Arabic cards.
Curiously, the earliest surviving deck of Western playing cards is not a tarot, nor a
traditional Spanish deck, but a german creation.
courts from the suit of Deers
Dating back to 1430, the Stuttgarter Kartenspiel
("Stuttgart deck") was drawn and painted in south-western Germany. These cards belonged
to a particular kind of pattern now referred to as "hunting decks",
which had no trumps and adopted peculiar suits. They were used in central European areas of
German culture, since the first half of the 15th century.
3 of Hounds
This kind of cards, very few of which still survive, were beautifully illustrated with scenes of royal hunts, as the
suit signs adopted were animals such as deers, boars, falcons, etc. Some of these decks
were known to have a fifth suit showing shields. However, scholars tend to agree that these
decks appeared shortly after the tarot.
A 16th century French deck now partially extant, known as Tarot of Catelin Geofroy,
features the 22 usual trumps, but the four suits are pheasants, lions, parrots and
monkeys, almost in the fashion of the German cards: basically, a blend of
classic tarot and hunting cards.
penetration and spreading of playing cards in Europe
(second half of the 14th century - first half of the 15th century)
In fact, also the German cards probably originated from the Arabic pattern, considering the
structure of both kinds of decks (arranged in suits, with both courts and pip cards).
A much fewer number of German decks, only one of which has survived, known as the
, instead of pips featured personages of a royal household, such as the
chaplain, the lady-in-waiting, the master of the stables, etc., ordered according to
their social hierarchy. Roman numerals from I to X marked each card's value, though two
un-numbered subjects, a queen and a king, were the highest cards of each suit. Shields
featuring the national emblems of central European countries were the four signs (see also
the Hofämterspiel gallery
for further details and
subject from the
German cards such as the aforesaid ones and hunting decks were probably used up to the 17th century, when they became
extinct, while the popularity of the classic tarot kept growing. Nevertheless, their
peculiar suits are believed to be the ancestors of the ones still used today by most
From the 15th century onwards, playing cards spread through many
princely courts, into neighbour countries, soon reaching most parts of the
THE BIRTH OF REGIONAL PATTERNS
In all countries where the pastime had become popular, the cards of Arabic origin
were apparently preferred by the common people, because the tarot game was complex,
not for gambling, it required a good cultural level to understand the subjects, and because
the latter kind of deck was also more expensive.
Although the tarot deck remained alive especially among wealthier players, most European
areas started developing decks made of suited cards only, i.e. modelled on the Arabic type,
yet based on their own local composition by dropping some of the subjects not frequently
used; obviously, the new composition changed from country to country, according to
the favourite local games. This led to a rather large variety of combinations, which
gradually grew into the standard regional patterns used today.
- Northern Italy adopted the well-known 52-card scheme (values 1 through 10, and three courts), and the 40-card scheme (values 1 through 7, and three courts).
- Central and southern Italy use 40 cards (same as above).
- Spain uses both 40- and 48-card decks (the latter has values 1 through 9).
- Portugal too now uses a 40-card deck, though slightly different from the Spanish one:
1 to 8 (but without a 7), and three courts.
- Many central and northern European areas such as France, Germany (but not in the south),
the Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, tend to use 32 cards,
starting either from 1 (in French-suited packs) or from 2, i.e. deuce (in German suited ones),
then 7 through 10, and three courts.
- A 24-card pack is used in southern Germany and Austria for the game of Schnapsen.
- Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland use 36 cards (same as above, but with 6s,
|the map below refers to the composition
of regional patterns used for local games
trump from Mitelli's Tarot
Suit signs too were modified quite considerably:
- in Spain the shape of the original Arabic signs slightly changed to a
less stylized pattern: the look of Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons turned more "actual";
in particular, the original polo sticks, virtually unknown to the Spanish, were turned into
- Germany radically changed suit signs, probably inspired by the
early "hunting decks", adopting symbols which recalled everyday's country
life: Hearts, Leaves, Acorns and Bells.
- Switzerland too chose Acorns and Bells, but the other two signs became
Shields and Roses: the former was probably a reminiscence of the fifth
suit of some "hunting decks", mentioned above. The Roses, instead, may have been a graphic
corruption of the Coins used in northern Italy, due to the elaborate geometrical patterns featured
by the latter suit signs, sometimes resembling the petals of a flower.
- France changed suit signs to a rather stylized design: Diamonds, Hearts,
Clubs and Spades, likely sprung as a simplification of the German ones
(Leaves into Spades, Acorns into Clubs and Bells into Diamonds). Later on these signs were
adopted by other European countries where cards had not yet become popular,
thus becoming the international (or French) suit system.
- Portugal originally used the Spanish suits, but around the 19th century
the French system prevailed, and it is still the one presently used.
- In the north-east of Italy, symbols remained more or less identical to
the suit cards found in early tarots: this gives reason for the rather ancient look
of these cards.
- The center and the south of Italy developed local patterns sprung from the Spanish
cards, whence their suit system made of Coins, Cups, Swords and cudgel-shaped Batons.
Tracing the change of the suit signs, Coins maintained their early shape and meaning in the Latin systems (Italian, Spanish), while in Germany they were turned into Bells (still round, but no longer related to money), until in the French system this sign lost all its details and straightened its sides, giving birth to the suit of Diamonds. This last change may have developed because of the rough colouring technique used for early decks, which may have caused the circles to appear as irregular dots of tan-brownish ink.
evolution of suit signs in different systems (left to right): Mamlûk, Spanish, Italian, German and French
Also the suit of Cups substantially maintained its shape and meaning in the Latin systems, while in both the German and the French ones it turned into Hearts, whose shape, large in the upper part and tapered at the base, vaguely corresponds to that of a chalice.
In the Swiss system, though, where the aforesaid two suits are represented by Bells and Roses, the latter, round in shape, seem to have developed from Coins more likely than the Bells did.
The suit of Scimitars in the Mamlûk cards was clearly understood in Italy and Spain, where Swords faithfully preserved the suit's meaning; the Italian ones even maintained typical curved blades.
In Germany, instead, the sign developed as Leaves: the connection with the original shape may be understood by considering the leaf as a corruption of a sword's hilt and handle, while the stem may have sprung from the curved blade. A similar interpretation probably gave origin to Spades, very similar to Leaves.
In France and Germany the shape of Spades (called Piques
, respectively) was likened to another early weapon, the pike, i.e. the long shaft with a pointed end carried by foot-soldiers.
Furthermore, the Italian and Spanish names of the suit, i.e. Spade
, clearly recall its English name, probably not by coincidence.
The Swiss equivalent of this suit, instead, are Shields, whose shape is in fact consistent with the German Leaves.
Polo-sticks, familiar to the Mamlûks, were probably completely obscure to the Italian and to the Spanish; the former saw this long implement as a ceremonial staff, while the latter considered it a stick, thus explaining why the sign of this suit took the shape of a sceptre or a mace in northern Italy, and a rough cudgel in Spain.
ASIAN PLAYING CARDS
The German suit of Acorns, also adopted in Switzerland, was probably influenced by the latter interpretation, as the tip of the fruit recalls the cudgel's shaft, while the acorn's cup is consistent with the projecting branches. The French system developed a stylized, yet perfectly recognizable interpretation of this shape: Clubs; also in this case the allusive English name is a reminiscence of the early implement.
Despite these many varieties, the original tarot was never abandoned, and still today it is commonly manufactured, although only its regional varieties are used for playing games (see The Tarot and
Other Early Cards
for further details).
click on the map to see
more samples of suit systems
card from a modern
Chinese Domino deck
If the history of western cards is still partially obscure, we know even less
about the development of cards in the East.
The earliest findings in Chinese royal tombs provide enough evidence that
domino cards were locally played already by year 1000 AD
Similar decks still exist today, in almost identical patterns
(see the Chinese gallery page 4
suggesting their long-lasting popularity, more or less as the tarot in western countries.
card from a Chinese
money-suited patterns from
Malaysia and Vietnam
Other Chinese patterns belong to the so-called "money suited" system, whose earliest
faithful description is found in a mid 15th century source. Also in this case
few changes occurred, and most contemporary editions are fairly similar to the decks used
in the 1400s, or earlier. Full details about these cards and their evolution may be found in
the Chinese gallery page 1
Some cards in China borrowed characters from the national board game of XiangQi
(Chinese Chess). They are likely the most recent ones, but very little is known about when and
where they were created.
Another important group of early Asian playing cards are typical of northern India, the so-called
Ganjifa decks, a name whose origin is Persian:
these cards were originally taken to India many centuries ago.
Round in shape, early ones came in many sizes (they range in diameter
from 2-3 cm to 12 cm, 1 to 8 inches), and many styles and suit compositions,
since they were inspired by different themes, such as god Vishnu (Dashavatara style,
with ten suits featuring Fish, Tortoises, Vases, Axes, Sabres, and other symbols of the god's
reincarnations, often with additional suits, as well), the planets (Navagraha style, with nine suits), scenes from the
Ramayana text (Ramayana style), etc.
The suits have 12 cards each, so these decks contain either 96 cards, or 108, or 120, or more.
from a Chinese
Mah Jong deck
Even between decks of similar type considerable differences exist,
according to the area they come from, therefore no pattern can be said fully "standardized".
Unlike western cards, best Ganjifa decks were sometimes painted on tortoise shell,
mother-of-pearl, or even had precious inlayings.
Records concerning Ganjifa decks date back to the early 1500s, but apparently
they were already used in earlier times, as suggested by the pre-Mughal style of some
By the end of the 16th century, the deck was given a fixed composition of 96 cards, with
eight suits, a version known as Mughal Ganjifa . This made
the game particularly popular, and although larger luxury decks were still a classy item,
the game itself was being enjoyed with smaller ones also by common people. The 96-card
version is still the main one found today, although due to the low request, the traditional
hand-made decks have sadly become an endangered form of craft.
Each Ganjifa suit has two leading cards, which basically have the same meaning
of western courts: a king (or lord, or rajah, etc.) and a general (second in rank); the remaining cards have
decreasing values, shown by arrangements of suit signs, as in western cards.
From both geographic and historical reasons (the Mughals ruled India since the
16th century), a connection between the early Arabic cards and the Ganjifa sets
would have not been impossible, although no evidence at all seems to exist, neither in favour
nor against this theory.
Comparing the two early systems, the suit of Sabres found in Indian Dashavatara style
sets seems to match the Mamlûk Swords, and Vases are reminiscent of Cups.
Japanese painted shells
Instead, we know much more about the origin of Japanese cards.
For some peculiar reason, Japan was not affected by Chinese domino cards, despite the
cultural relations of the country with China surely dated back to an earlier time than
year 1000 AD
Around the 11th-12th centuries, the Japanese high class was already playing games with
sets of sea shells whose text or pictures were painted (further historical notes in
Uta Karuta and Iroha Karuta
card from a
Japanese Iroha deck
card from a Hanafuda deck (left)
and a Mekuri deck (right)
Only around 1550, when Portuguese sailors reached the Japanese islands, the 48-card
Spanish/Portoguese deck was brought on land, where it apparently stirred the local interest,
becoming the ancestor of most following varieties, up to the modern Hanafuda
(see the Japanese gallery
for a more detailed description).
Finally, during the first half of the 20th century, the aforesaid Hanafuda
cards were taken to Korea,
where they also became a regional pattern, changing their name into Hwatu
choose which other playing card section you would like to visit
THE FOOL &
ace of Spades from
a deck made in Thailand
...feel like changing subject?
give these websites a try