Italian Cartomancy

Cartomanzia1

Oh, people, I am just having THE MOST fun time with my few days of “freedom” as my kids are with their dad and their grandma at the beach. I’m actually leaving tomorrow to join them for a week, and then I’ll be back in Rome for another week before they come back. You know, in August Rome basically shuts down completely. So I’ve been indulging some of my hobbies and passions that I never have enough time for when the kids are screaming at me. Primary of those being my own personal tarot study, which has led me to a few books here in Italy.

Now, I thought I’d entertain you all with a little gem I found in the library today. I was actually there for a specific book on tarot history but this other book caught my eye so I just checked it out to further investigate it later. The fact of the matter is that I’m a former graphic designer (not graphic artist, just more of a marketing stint) and the typeface of this book, as well as the really old-fashioned Italian writing and spelling, intrigued me. I love vintage anything, but especially vintage writing and advertising.

I started to flip through it on the subway home, and I was just amused to no end. It’s absolutely beyond fabulous. It’s a complete “how to” manual for becoming a cartomancer, in the old-style tarot parlor tradition.

Unfortunately I have no idea whatsoever who the original author was, or when it was originally published, because it is a reproduction that came from a publishing company called Rebis. I discovered that the man behind Rebis is quite a character in and of himself. You know my curiosity is totally insatiable and I have to figure things out. So I looked this guy up, and I found this interview in Italian. (My advice is to ignore the photo. I’m sure that in real life he is completely sane and not stoned, and that those teeth are far less intimidating than they appear at first glance.) Basically he’s got this totally ginormous collection of esoteric texts on everything from magic to alchemy to divination in all its forms. He says he started his collection at AGE TWELVE because he was attracted to occult mysteries. Now he says it comprises over 35,000 books and manuscripts and over SIX THOUSAND decks of cards. In fact he says he used to have a museum in via Venezia in Viareggio (this town is famous throughout Italy and Europe for its Carnevale celebration) but it couldn’t hold his growing collection so he reports in this interview that he “has to find a new set up” to house the collection. Of course I’ll have to do further research on that because it would be fun to visit. Anyone want to join me?

But for now I just want to entertain you with something I don’t think you’ll find translated into English. Sorry I don’t have more details about who wrote this because frankly I’d love to know.

This is one of the introductory pages of the book, under a subheading titled simply “How to Be a Good Cartomancer.” The sentence preceding the page below says, “It’s necessary to employ certain formalities which, while being simple, influence the subject and his spirit.” (They call the querent the “subject.” It’s kind of creepy, right? It makes me feel like the person coming for the reading is under examination. And, upon further reflection, perhaps they are.)

Cartomanzia

Here’s what it says. Enjoy. Believe me, I sure did. So much so that I want to go out and buy my new cartomancer kit, like, RIGHT NOW. (inserting tongue in cheek. I am simply very intrigued as I’ve never run across anything like this before.)

The first thing to choose when one has to “pull the cards” is the location. It’s necessary to make sure that the subject believes in the truth of your reading. So therefore, in choosing the location, avoid places that are too well-lit. Darkness better prepares souls to the majesty of the mystery, and it renders them more sensitive. It won’t be that easy for you to obtain darkness by closing the windows: the best rooms are those that have dark wallpaper. A small lamp with a lampshade that’s reddish or purple will give a sort of dreamy and mystical light. If you’d like, in a little tin box or something similar, put some hot coals and throw in a pinch of incense, so that you can scent the air, you’ll get a double effect; a few large books placed on the table; a few shiny objects that give off spooky glimmers, like a blade, a crystal ball, etc. If you can get yourself a skull and crossbones, an owl, an embalmed lizard, or some bats, then you’ll have completed your kit, and, bringing your subject into the room, you’ll be preparing his spirit for the discovery of occult power.

One other thing to observe is the following: make sure that the lamplight, whatever it is, never reflects on your face. It always has to hit the subject’s face. This is for the simple reason that this way you’ll be able to easily observe his expression and catch the eloquence of his glances and if he wrinkles his forehead or wipes his forehead as you’re giving your reading.

Too much fun. The book goes on to give very elaborate procedures for telling fortunes with an ordinary Italian 40 or 52-card Milanese deck as well as the traditional Italian tarot deck called tarocchi, which in this book they call the “Roman cards,” or carte romane. The world of Italian playing cards is ENDLESS. Honestly. Every region seems to have its own variation. If you don’t believe me, lookie here. Or here. Nowadays you can buy these playing cards in a tobacconist or in a five-and-dime housewares shop. Modiano is pretty ubiquitous.

If I had time I’d try some of the methods in this book. It looks like good fun. And, completely unrelated to spooky lighting and various embalmed creatures, if you are curious to learn more about divination with “regular” playing cards, might I suggest you pay a visit to the lovely and erudite Camelia at Taroflexions? And if you don’t believe me on this either (perhaps it’s because I didn’t assure you of the veracity of my readings ahead of time by preparing a location that was far too well-lit?), I told you so. Do mention to her that I said hello if you stop by.

Now, go get your “kit” together already, will you? And don’t forget the black wallpaper while you’re at it.

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26 comments

  1. That’s a great post , I’d love to read more of your translation of this fantastic book. Regarding Italian Tarot I am the proud possessor of il meneghello tarot, an excellent card maker, I’m sure you know of him?

  2. Thanks Mike! I’m being a bit of a Roman-style renegade here because I just scanned the page and translated it. Would be cool if I had all the time in the world to translate the book just for the fun of it. But I’d really need to contact the publisher though to get permission. And like, a nanny and a cook and a housekeeper. -!!-
    Meneghello… hmmm, nope can’t say that I’ve ever heard of him/them/it. Found this: http://www.tarot-as-tarocchi.com/il_meneghello-1.html What time period is your deck from? Apparently there are lots of different versions.

    • http://www.arnellart.com/osvaldo/frm-tarot.htm the deck I have is a handcrafted limited edition of the 1893 I naibi Di Giavanni Vachetta but he also makes reproductions of most of the historical decks. I highly recommend them. Giovanni Vacchetta was a “Master of Design” at the Albertina Academy in Turin. Lo Scarebo also reproduced an excellent version in 2002 under the production name of ‘Tarot of the Master’.

  3. Hi Camelia! Thanks much for the link. It’s something I was totally ignorant of so I want to learn more about it now.
    I read your blog regularly. I haven’t left any comments because I don’t know anything about the way you read cards so I can’t really contribute, but I always enjoy your posts and admire your breadth of knowledge on everything about cartomancy. It’s really something amazing.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Shelley. About my method of reading with playing cards you’re welcome to check my method page on Taroflexions. I don’t use either French or Italian cartomancy as such, as I’m more fond of reading with the full deck. I follow the cunning folk approach to the cards, which means that my readings are based on making logical inferences about the cards. This also means that I prefer my head cold rather than hot, and that I completely rely on the system I apply. I never invent anything beyond that system. I don’t make claims to psychic powers and I don’t drag my Jewish grandma into it. In this sense I can say that I subscribe to cold readings too. This answers partly your next question below. I’ll go over to the relevant comment box to make a clearer statement there. Thanks, again.

  4. After reading that article that describes cold reading as an intentional fake, it makes me wonder though, do you think that “setting the stage” as the author describes here lessens the fact that there is an entire text that follows with very specific and elaborate rules that describe how to perform various readings with various card decks? In this particular book the author clearly seeks to describe specific methods of divination with various decks of cards, with specific meanings, positions, and spreads. It is so specific that there are very precise instructions regarding which cards to read, how to pick them out and read them once they’re spread on the table (for example, only read every third, sixth, ninth card, etc.) It’s really quite fascinating and certainly not designed for someone to give an arbitrary reading but rather a regimented reading based on these instructions. If it were a cold reading why would the author bother to give such precise instructions about how to read the actual cards and spreads themselves?

    • No, setting the stage is part of the method, so it neither adds to it nor lessens the process of reading. Any good cartomancer with respect for herself will go to a ‘cold’ place before any reading. Even if we’re talking about reading at parties. There are two senses of ‘cold readings’ that put people off. One is associated with ‘fake’ and other is associated with ‘logic’. But insofar as all readings rest on method, they are all cold. You read the cards according to the system and not according to what you ‘receive’ from a place you cannot account for. So in this sense, the fact that in a reading only the third or the ninth card is invested with meaning is as much a part of the set up anything to begin with. For who decided? All serious cartomantic methods rest on a premise of setting up the stage. The story that emerges out of it is quite another matter. And the reader can also impose a magical application of cards, such as, for instance, the situation when we see the 7 of spades as related to occult knowledge, rather than tears from having to see another doctor because the first one can’t figure out what the problem is with you. In my own writings about reading with playing cards I sometimes talk about being ‘seized’ by the cards, which may seem contradictory to what I’m saying about being cautious with ‘receiving’ messages, but the truth of the matter is that if I didn’t have the alternative magical reading with the cards AS a method, I would never refer to what else we can say that might bridge between the world of logos and the world of mythos. So all divination rests on method. And method is always cold. People often forget the distinction between a method and an approach to the method. The method never has any agency. We do. What we can do is go to the method thinking that the method is part of our enthusiasm invested with feelings and emotions, or we can see the method as a tool. We can, or course, develop a very strong relation to our method, and we can raise it to the status of magical, but the method will always remain impartial to our own desire and perspective as to what we want from it or with it. I hope this answers some of your concern, which is a well founded concern. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say this.

      • Wow, Camelia, you’re more than welcome! This was a powerful lesson and I am grateful for your generosity. Thank you for your contributions here! Inspiring and eye-opening. The distinction and highlighting of “fake” and “logic” are important. These are concepts and a practice that I was completely unaware of and have thus expanded my view. I am very much looking forward to meeting you at TarotCon, and would love to bring you some pages to share and have a look at if you’re interested. 😉

  5. What a great article and a great translation! Well done! Next time I come to Italy I would love to go and see that museum in Viareggio. Your article in fact made “voglia” to search for antique Italian Tarot books… Enjoy the summer!

    • Irene, I honestly had no idea of the world that remains to be explored by those of us who speak Italian. I’m coming to see that there are certain things translated but other rich information available that isn’t accessible outside of the Italian-speaking public, which could bring new insights. I look forward to incorporating that in my writing as it evolves.

  6. I’m glad you found what I had to say useful. That’s the idea. I believe that we are all here to serve. I’ve just forwarded your post here to a group on Facebook called Magiculum. It is admined by Todd Landman, a professor of government and professional magician. He has just started a thread making a reference to something Lynne said about props and staging in a reading, and gender bias. You’re welcome to send a request to Todd to be added to his group. You’ll find it inspiring.

    • Grazie mille, Camelia! I would be very interested. My learning is expanding in tarot right now as I’m curious, in fact, in going beyond “cookbook” methods and referring to “hunches” or “intuitive impulses” which are impossible to define in any sort of concrete way that satisfies me. Frankly, having been self-taught in the pre-Facebook age and always having read solely for myself prior to the launch of this site just six months ago, and despite being told that my readings are “spot on,” I wasn’t even aware that logic could play a legitimate role, although naturally it probably does even without specifically naming it. Personally I’ve always had a bit of a queasy feeling about how to pin down and justify or define “intuitive hunches” and it’s fascinating to me that there are ways to view reading that go beyond commonly viewed or pop culture images of “hocus pocus” or scamming that can demean what I am coming to learn and respect as the blend of perhaps both art and science in the practice of cartomancy.

  7. Prego. About logic, of course there’s logic in cards. Any other claim is preposterous. Just think about what made us stylize the concepts behind the suits. You’re welcome to visit my post, Fortunetelling in Three Steps, if you haven’t seen it already, for a 101 lesson in the use of logic in reading with playing cards – and any other cards, not that i think of. Here’s the link, and enjoy! http://taroflexions.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/fortuntelling-in-three-steps/

    • I think what happens is that we don’t stop to analyze exactly what it is we’re doing with the cards, even if we see the system to be “working” based on client-provided feedback or personal “feeling” or intuition. Or I should speak for myself. I came to the cards from a range of popular texts, many of which don’t really take time to break these things down into background components, and rather tend to serve up lists of keywords. I suppose in my case, while it provides a good jumping off point for working with the cards, and is valuable in its own right because it does provide meaning through interaction, on another hand, just stopping there does leave one to either ponder the missing links on their own and then push them aside if they don’t dig deeper for answers, or simply perhaps to perform readings without recognizing the structure or logic behind the system that one uses. Thanks for the link! I will definitely check it out.

    • And yes, it appears you hit the nail on the head about the book referenced in my post. It specifically also names “the surprise” (la sorpresa) in the directions for various types of readings, which I found so intriguing because I had never been introduced to this concept in the tarot books I had come across in the US mass market.

  8. Wow, how amazing is your finding this book? I think you were “guided” to it Shelley and thank you for sharing it with us. Loved the bit about the embalmed reptile, ha, ha. I could picture the scene in my mind and felt I was there. Love your site so keep up the good work.

    Cathi xx

    • Aw, Cathi, thanks, that’s kind of you. Yes, I loved the very detailed descriptions and imagining exactly how it might look. I wanted to be there to experience it firsthand! No one had checked out the book for years. Also, as far as being “guided” to it… funny thing is that I only went to that specific library because it was the only one in the city with the other book I was looking for on tarot history, which is only available in Italian and currently out of print even here in Italy. So I trucked on public transport over an hour from my home to get it. It felt like a mini quest for the holy grail. 😉

  9. The picture at the top seems mysterious, creepy, yet old-fashioned at the same time. When I read the content of the book, it really does give off that mystic Italian cartomancy parlour feeling. The delivery of Tarot readings change with the preference of the clients, readers, as well as with the progress of the digital Western society. If this is how they provide traditional Italian Tarot reading services during the olden days, I might opt out of the reading since it’s giving off an uncomfortable environment. Do readers of that time provide cartomancy, Tarot reading, psychic reading, and palm reading according to what customers want to hear; do they also ask for feedback about their services? This also reminds me of gypsies since they’re associated with cartomancy. In comparison, today’s modernized Tarot readers may have had academic Tarot certifications, paranormal-psychological education, and like you, professional counselling experience. Including yours, I’ve read only a few of their profiles on their Tarot-business websites but also learned that their services are authentic that customers keep coming back.)

    • Yes, there are so many options out there in terms of readers, style, etc. It’s nice to have such a wide variety of readers to choose from, but at the same time it definitely is a field where “sitter discretion is advised” because our field doesn’t have any sort of standard accrediting body. Not that that would necessarily make unethical or shady readers honest, but, at least it would be a sort of filter to weed out a few of those who are in the game with dishonest intentions.

    • No, I’m sorry, I didn’t write it down. I think it was something like “La Vera Cartomanzia” .. the problem is that there was no author listed. It was published by the “Il Gatto Nero” editrice, edizioni Rebis.

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