Seems there is a small flurry of interest lately in the lovely 16th century German deck of cards by Jost Amman. This is the deck featured in the intriguing novel The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann (and in a recent blog post). Most people interested in this deck will turn to the very affordable reproduction by Historic Games. But the (out of print) 1967 reproduction by Edition Leipzig comes with an extensive introduction to the cards by one Erwin Kohlmann. He’s got some fascinating tidbits for those eager to know more:
Jost Amman was a hugely prolific and very popular illustrator. “There is hardly a subject, dear to the century, which Amman did not illustrate,” writes Kohlmann. Amman’s woodcuts, such as the ones in the deck, are so finely wrought they are described as etching-like. While the woodcuts were printed in black and white, it was apparently common practice to hand-color the prints, and the riotously-colored Leipzig deck reproduces “the only known authentic deck from the Kupferstichkabinett in Dresden.” (Since there’s no comma after the word “deck,” it’s not entirely clear whether it’s the only authentic deck in existence, or just the only one in Dresden. You see why some of us feel the need to be grammar police.)
Although sometimes the deck is called The Book of Trades, that’s actually the title of a different book, illustrated by Amman in 1568. The cards, on the other hand, were illustrations published 20 years later in a book cleverly titled The Book of Playing Cards. So this was a somewhat do-it-yourself deck–you’d have to cut out the illustrations, then color and mount them yourself. (No wonder my quick Amazon.com search for Amman turned up a bunch of adult coloring books in the “You May Also Like” feed–those Amazon guys know what we’re thinking before we do!)
It’s understandable that the books of trades and playing cards would get us confused. Amman was able to keep up his prodigious output by recycling his compositions, and many from the Book of Trades find their way into the deck. Luckily for us, though, the deck came 20 years after The Book of Trades. The mature Amman wisely selected some of his best scenes, and even improved on them.
Why did Amman choose the suits he did for these cards? During this period, playing card suits were pretty fluid–Kohlmann mentions a deck with suits of acorns, leaves, roses and pomegranates, and another with lions, monkeys, parrots, and peacocks. He claims two of Amman’s suits stand for cultural achievements: Printer’s Inking-pads (for the printing process itself) and Books (for “the diffusion of learning through books”). These seem pretty similar at first glance, but they are as different-yet-intertwined as the invention of the computer and the rise of the internet. Revolutionary technology leading to societal sea change. Fair enough.
The other pair of suits also seems a bit redundant–two different types of drinking vessels. These two suits, per Kohlmann, “represent the gaiety of the age.” They are different, though. One of them, with silver-colored cups, is termed the Drinking-cup suit and seems to showcase the lighter face of good times. The other, featuring glass cups with a distinctive bubbled surface, is fancifully yet aptly termed the Cabbage-stalk suit. Kohlmann describes these glass vessels as having a granulated surface that creates a “play of light and shade.” This suit seems to feature the darker side of revelry, or maybe a moral injunction against it, with some brawling, vomiting (!), a cat as a symbol of falsity, and a couple of Bacchus figures.
Each suit also has its own plant, rooted in the ground. These are reeds for Ink-pads, roses for Books, lilies for Drinking-cups, and vines for Cabbage-stalks.
It might have been the Renaissance, but 16th century Nuremberg was still a pretty macho culture. The court cards are all male: under- and over-Knights and a King. However, Amman makes a concession, perhaps, to other cultures or playing card traditions. The 10’s all feature a regal-looking woman who could pass for a Queen.
Kohlmann’s treatise includes many historical and cultural details on individual cards, such as their allusions to fables, popular sayings, and other references. It’s nice to have context, to get a sense of what unspoken vocabulary the cards contained for their original users. But it’s always up to you to decide how much those built-in, historical, cultural associations carry over to a reading right now, today. A subject for another post…
The Cards: Jost Amman deck, 1588 (Edition Leipzig, 1967)
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