The Reconstruction of the Tarot of Marseille
Having studied Tarot for over 40 years, I met in Paris Philippe Camoin, who is the direct heir of the Camoin family, the last of Tarot de Marseille printers in Marseilles. The origin of the factory goes back to 1760: it was created by Nicolas Conver, who at that time engraved the most celebrated Tarot of Marseilles, the Nicolas Conver Tarot de Marseille (reissued in 1965 by the Camoin House).
From the outset, we decided to work together to reconstruct the Tarot de Marseille to its original form. Knowing secret facts regarding its history, manufacturing, tradition, and symbolism, and being in possession of the original plates, we were the only ones who could reconstruct the original Tarot de Marseille. We studied and compared on computer innumerable versions of the Tarot de Marseille, among which were the Tarot of Nicolas Conver, the Dodal Tarot, the François Tourcaty Tarot, the Fautrier Tarot, the Jean-Pierre Payen Tarot, the Suzanne Bernardin Tarot, the Tarot of Besançon by Lequart, etc.
The difficulty inherent in such a work of restoration lies in the fact the Tarot de Marseille is made of symbols which are tightly intertwined and linked to each other; if one modifies one single feature, the whole structure collapses. One must therefore be fully aware of its creator’s plan and real intentions in order to achieve such a work without danger.
Back in the 17th century, there existed many printers of the Tarot de Marseille. 18th century Tarot decks were copied on those. Consequently one cannot assess that an 18th century Tarot is the original Tarot. It is thus easy to accept that even the 1760 Nicolas Conver Tarot contains errors and omissions. What happened to all those 17th century decks? If there are none left, it is simply because people back then recycled used cards to make business cards.
Tarot designs were originally hand-painted, but they were later produced in greater quantities using different techniques according to the times. Each new technique brought its own limitations as far as the richness of features and the number of colours used.
Thus, the stencil colouration technique did not allow great precision, and above all, it imposed a relatively limited number of colours. A deck that was made for a king was far richer in colours than one made for the general public. The number of colours was also reduced when industrial printing machines appeared in the 19th century.
The fact that many copies of the Tarot de Marseille were printed by different printers at different times with such similarity proves that existence of a single common original pattern with different printers, features and colours were reproduced with more or less fidelity. Printers who were not initiated at all to symbolism oversimplified the original pattern. Those who copied them added errors to errors. When studying Tarots that are still existent, it becomes clear that some of them are but copies of a more ancient Tarot. One can thus find obvious errors copied from one Tarot to a more recent one, proving that the latter is only a weakened clone of the former. It is therefore important not to imbue it with an esoteric value which it does not have.
Conversely, some Tarots show features which are absolutely identical and superimposable, and yet each one has authentic esoteric symbols in their right place which do not appear in others. In this case, they cannot be clones of each other: one can infer on the contrary that these similar Tarots were copied from a now missing, more ancient Tarot. It is this original Tarot which we wished to rebuild and return to lovers of the Tarot.
Until now, the deck which came closest to this ideal was the Tarot of Paul Marteau. However, feature-wise, it is the exact copy of the Tarot of Besançon issued in the late 19th century, which in turn reproduced another Tarot of Besançon issued by Lequart and signed "Arnoult 1748", as computer superimposition shows.
While the colours used in successive editions of the Tarot of Nicolas Conver respect quite closely the colours of the Tradition, one 1880 edition of Nicolas Conver’s 1760 Tarot used colours that had nothing to do with said Tradition. Now these are the colours of the edition used by Paul Marteau. Perhaps those colours were recommended to the Conver factory (now the Camoin factory) by someone who was more inclined toward psychology than toward symbolism. They are not the ones that were chosen by the Initiates who originally transmitted the Tarot de Marseille, and therefore interfere with the transmission of that knowledge. While the interpretation of those colours may present some interest for a beginner or a psychologist, it will cause conflicts in the disciple’s mind and will finally be rejected by the Initiate.
For these reasons, I had to face the obvious and make the huge effort to give up my over forty years of memorizing the Tarot of Paul Marteau and accept, painfully, the Truth of Tradition. New computer graphics and printing techniques have enabled us to give the features and colours of the Tarot de Marseille a precision never attained before.