Document from the milanese orphanage archive with tarot card games attached to recognize children
Tarot stories and curiosities

The half of a tarot card in the orphanage

In Milan (Italy) from 1400 to early 1900, tarot cards went very strong as a card game. They were popular in every social class: from people with lots of money to poor families who had to give up their newborns because they couldn’t feed them.

Many tarot cards games were played everywhere, so many that the government had to regulate them with legislation and could take advantage of them by imposing taxes. They were used even for gambling.
But there’s a use for the cards you may have never imagined: tarot cards in orphanages – what was going on there?

An orphan and a tarot card: why?

It happened from 1790 to 1868, in the Santa Caterina alla Ruota church, which no longer exists, between Saint Barnaba street and Francesco Sforza street.

Imagine a family who couldn’t afford to have a child, but they had them. They loved them dearly, but for their sake, they had to find a nuns’ order that could take care of them.

So they cover their baby with a warm piece of cloth and leave them by the church. A heartbreaking but classic story.

In this Milanese church, though, something peculiar kept happening. Mothers left a sign, a symbol, with their children: the image of a saint, a letter, a ribbon, but mostly a tarot card. The tarot card was cut and parents kept one half of the card and the nuns archived the other one. If things got better for the family, they could show their half of the card to the nuns to get their baby back, even after many years.

What cards were left with the babies?

The tarot cards, of course, weren’t random: they always represented love, good luck, hope for a better future or a message from the parents to the child.
In fact, the most used were the ones from the Cup suit, especially the ace. The seven of Pentacles was also very used.

The Cup suit is related to emotions, friendship, love and spirituality. The ace of Cups is related to emotional fulfillment, happiness and a great situation family-wise. It also talks about healing.

The seven of Pentacles is about success, slow but constant progress and the great results of work. It suggests you to think about your future and think about yourself.

How were those tarot cards designed?

The orphanage archive is preserved by IPPAI (a historical association whose purpose was to protect children) and, sadly, it still contains a lot of the cards cut in half. This allowed us to study what kind of cards were used, as mentioned above.
What we can add is, that, even though they belonged to very poor people, the cards were rich in their illustrations. Their back was elaborate and complex and hand-printed from wood engravings and represented women with wonderful hairstyles, gentlemen with their dogs, masks or allegories.

How did I found all of this out?

Faust and I visited the atelier of an outstanding artisan in Milan: Osvaldo Menegazzi and his Il Meneghello editions (next week we’ll post an interview we’re going to do with him!). In his shop, there was an old and rare catalog about local tarot game cards. I was drawn to it and I bought it! Reading it, I found out this beautiful and moving story that I really wanted to share with you.

Go find the artisans in your city, you may be surprised by treasure hidden in the place you live.
If you find something interesting, don’t forget to tell us in the comments!


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