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Marseille and card games, a story dating back centuries

From the 18th century to today, the Tarot of Marseille and various card games have crossed the ages and communities of artists. Discover the must-dos of Marseille’s card game history.

You’re breaking my heart!

How Marcel Pagnol turned a card game into a myth

We simply couldn’t talk about Marseille and card games without evoking Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur’s most famous of them all: the one featured in “Marius“, the first movie in the trilogy by Marcel Pagnol. This mythical scene portrays César, Escartefigue, Panisse and Monsieur Brun playing Manille at the Bar de la Marine. While Escartefigue tries to work out if his opponent Panisse is trumping hearts, César, his partner, attempts to gesture to him that he indeed is. Panisse then accuses César of trying to cheat. Pretending to be hurt by the accusation, César turns to Panisse with the now famous comeback: “You’re breaking my heart!” After insisting heavily, César finally manages to get the message over to Escartefigue, but Panisse catches on and leaves the bar in a rage, swearing in Provencal dialect. A bit of cheating or a genius move? You decide! As for the Bar de la Marine, it was originally a fictional bar imagined by Marcel Pagnol. But today, you can find a bona fide Bar de la Marine inspired by the film on the Vieux-Port (Old Port) of Marseille, where a sunny terrace awaits you for your next card game. To cheat or not to cheat?

The Tarot of Marseille deck

A local creation

Although the origins of the Tarot of Marseille deck are multiple and still a subject of debate, it would seem that its history is closely tied to that of the Marseille-based publisher Camoin, then based on Rue d’Aubagne, which published the deck in the 18th and 19th centuries. The deck certainly owes its name to the fact that it was printed in the city at that time. Since 1930, the Grimaud publishing house has also offered its version of the ancient Tarot of Marseille comprising, as tradition would have it, 78 cards, including 56 minor arcanas and 22 major arcanas. Among the mainly religious, royalist or military characters featured on the cards, one can find the Juggler, the Popess, the Emperor and the Devil. It is these figures and the values associated with them that guide the Tarot of Marseille, now a benchmark of contemporary card reading. Would you dare ask the cards what life has in store for you?

The surrealist Jeu de Marseille

When André Breton and his friends reinvented tarot

In 1940, André Breton, his wife Jacqueline Lamba and their daughter Aube, fled the Nazi occupation in Paris. They travelled down to the South of France and set up home in Marseille, pending the arrival of their visa for the United States. The American journalist Varian Fry welcomed them at Villa Air-Bel, located at the time in the Pomme quarter, in Marseille’s 11th arrondissement. Nicknamed “Espervisa”, Villa Air-Bel was a place of refuge for numerous artists and intellectuals persecuted by the Nazi regime, all hoping to obtain an American visa. Luckily, André Breton wasn’t alone in Marseille; he rubbed shoulders with other artists from the Surrealist movement, such as Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Jacques Herold and Wilfredo Lam, and often met up with them at the “Brûleur de Loups”, a café located on the Old Port. Their love of cards led them to invent a new game inspired by the Tarot of Marseille but aligned with the values and symbols of the Surrealists. The King and Queen gave way to the Genie and the Mermaid, the sword became a flame and the coin a star… Even the four suits – spades, heart, diamonds and clubs – were replaced with love and revolution (red), and dreams and knowledge (black). Aube Breton donated the Jeu de Marseille to the Musée Cantini in the years 2000.

A modern interpretation of card games in Marseille

Carte blanche to local artists

Today, many years after the dark age of Nazism, card games and the Tarot of Marseille continue to be reinvented by the city’s artists. A few years back, the “L’Art Prend l’Air” art collective created a modern version of the Tarot of Marseille, inspired by the Jeu de Marseille and the surrealists. More recently, illustrator Jérémy Rueda, based in Salon-de-Provence, created his own Tarot of Marseille published by First Éditions. On a different note, Marseille-born Melissa from Bam Studio self-published a Tarot of Marseille redolent with sunny, pop art colours, printed in Aix-en-Provence. Her feminist ideals align with those of Axelle Gay, also from Marseille, founder of the young publishing house Edition L’Éclap and the “Moi C’est Madame” card game, which aims to challenge stereotypes. Power to the new generation!