The year 1709 is best known for its record-breaking winter. At the beginning of January, the thermometer dropped, ushering in the Great Winter, three months of the coldest weather Europe has experienced in 500 years. 1709 also happens to be the year in which Pierre Madenié, master cardmaker to the Duke of Burgundy, created a Tarot deck that would one day be called the Tarot de Marseille, a deck considered by many to be one of the finest examples of its kind.
Although there is evidence that Tarot cards were used for divination at a very early age, Pierre Madenié’s Tarot deck was created primarily for gambling. The deck was then, and has been for some time, one of the most popular pastimes in the south of France. Centuries before the advent of radio and television, aristocrats used to gather in salons and spend hours discussing the important issues of the day. On cold winter nights, they often gathered at the card table to play tarot in front of a campfire.
Card games were popular not only with the nobility, but also with people of all ages and levels of society. Due to the high demand, card manufacturing companies developed all over Europe, especially in the south of France. It was at this time that Pierre Madenié carried out his business in his printing works in Dijon. Known throughout the city for the quality of his work, Madenié was finally distinguished by Lord Duke, governor of the province of Burgundy, who entrusted him with the exclusive production of cards for his family.
A 17th century drawing for a fan of ladies shows how playing cards were made in Paris around 1680.
Pierre Madenié used a method known as block printing to create his playing cards, a method that required the intervention of no less than four master craftsmen: a papermaker, a draughtsman, a shape-cutter and a printer. To begin, the designer draws the images in black lines on a block of fine-grained wood (pear, apple or pine). For tarot cards, the blocks are fairly large, with many rows of cards carved from a single piece of wood.
Then, the shape-cutter erased the background, leaving raised images that were then covered with ink. Paper was then placed over these raised images and rubbed with a wooden tool to transfer the ink. When the ink was dry, the images were coloured by hand or using stencils. When the stencils were used, the colour was applied with a spot brush. Once dry, the cards were cut and glued on thick paper.
It is interesting to note that although the Madenié Tarot cards were made in Dijon, they were eventually called Tarot de Marseille. Indeed, decades later, European occultists concentrated their efforts on studying the Tarot decks that had been produced in Marseilles. Over time, the term Tarot de Marseille was applied to all decks of cards that shared the same structure, style and imagery rather than to a single deck of cards.