Katy Hays on the Inspiration Behind The Cloisters

Posted on 1st February 2024 by Anna Orhanen

Perfect for fans of dark academia, our mesmeric Thriller of the Month for February The Cloisters revolves around a quirky gothic museum, a small band of enigmatic researchers and a once-thought lost deck of 15th-century Italian tarot cards; the discovery of which sets in train a dark and merciless race for power and glory. In this exclusive piece, Katy Hays talks about how her expertise as an art history professor informed the creation of this unputdownable tale.  

Pasta Tarot, Astrology Meme Accounts and the Fifteenth-century Preoccupations That Informed The Cloisters

Any academic will tell you that it’s the delicious tidbits that keep us going. The library or archive can be an incredibly monotonous, occasionally, defeating place, but then an unexpected sliver of information pops up. Perhaps it’s an affair, an odd job, an unusual drawing, a letter rarely excerpted in the literature. Often, it’s something that humanizes our subject. If we’re lucky, it feels a lot like gossip – an urgent whisper from the past. Whatever it is, these are the small surprises that make research rewarding, fun even. And of course, they don’t always happen. There are days when you spend hours tediously combing through files and reading barely decipherable handwriting you can barely decipher only to come away with nothing more than the same, regurgitated facts you already know. But every now and then, you come across the strange, the wonderful, the weird. 

This is how I felt when I encountered the Mantegna Tarocchi. I hadn’t set out, that day, to research tarot (and, as it turned out, the Mantegna Tarocchi were mnemonic tools, not cards as I initially thought), but my curiosity was piqued. The graphic, nearly abstract quality of Prima Causa felt modern, even contemporary in its design. But even more striking was the fact that the image shared the same visual layout of a contemporary tarot deck.   

If you are like me – a Californian who enjoys a bit of light witchcraft in your social media feed – tarot is everywhere. Tarot readers. Tarot creative prompts. Tarot for meditation. Pasta tarot. And yet, the origins of this nearly ubiquitous – at least in certain corners of the internet – practice are obscured. For many tarot users, the history of the practice dates back to the 18th century, when the cards were first used as a divinatory tool. French aristocrats of the 18th century claimed that tarot found its roots in ancient Egypt and the mysterious Book of Toth. (Egyptomania was, naturally, having a moment.) They were wrong. On both counts. Tarot’s origins were older (although only from the 15th century) and they came from the world of playing cards, not divination. 

Decks of cards arrived in Europe in the 14th century. Northern Italy, in particular, where Venice was a vibrant port city and trading center, emerged as an epicenter. I use the word epicenter, and it’s hard to imagine today that a deck of cards might be earth shatter. But the new card games were fun. And the cards themselves – elaborately decorated as luxury items for the rich – show a delightful and idiosyncratic approach to play. How the tarot deck emerged is still a source of academic speculation. Cards are, by their nature, fragile. And we are lucky that two, nearly complete, decks in the collections of the Morgan Library and Yale’s Beinecke survive. But what we do know is that the tarot deck emerged in tandem with trump-taking games that might have resembled something like bridge.

None of this was known to me when I encountered the Mantegna Tarot. What was known to me was that I had been considering writing a novel focused on the question of play and how games of chance – games in which a character might bet their life – contained both an element of luck and fate. Tarot, with all of its attendant contemporary divination uses and its historic function as a mode of play encompassed all those themes. However, the academic research on tarot cards was complicated. Their ephemeral nature meant study was limited (to be clear: limited but not nonexistent). And because study was limited, much of the existing scholarship still focused on establishing the historical and visual lineage of the cards. For my purposes, I was interested in questions of card play, of games, and contemporary, philosophical approaches to chance and fate. So, in the absence of access to Italian archives in Milan and Ferrara (I wrote The Cloisters over the fall of 2020), I turned to another, well-established case study of Renaissance approaches fate, prognostication, and mysticism: astrology. 

If early Renaissance Italians did not have a fully articulated approach to tarot as a divinatory practice or card play as thematization of chance, they absolutely did have a philosophy of the heavens. Today, popular Instagram memes overflow with jokes about your sun, moon, and rising sign, but they have nothing on the wealthy Italians of the Renaissance who kept astrologers on staff and decorated the ceilings of their homes to celebrate their horoscopes. Through looking at the extraordinarily robust and well-researched discourses around astrology, I was able to piece together early Renaissance approaches to questions of fate, chance, and destiny. And as I did this work, it became clear to me that even if the earliest tarot cards were not originally used for divination, an argument might be made that card play thematized major questions of fate and chance, and thus, were ineluctably tied to questions of knowing one’s future or predicting a destiny. After all, the fifteenth century palaces of Milan and Ferrara were infected by a sense of wonder and trepidation at the caprices of fate and the random, often violent nature of the universe. So much so that I often find myself wondering: would they find these memes as funny as I do?  

Regardless of what 15th century Italians might have thought about contemporary tarot card use or astrology meme accounts, the one thing we can be sure of is that they would have recognized both things immediately. (Well, perhaps not the memes, but certainly the themes!) In this sense, both tarot and astrology, which came to prominence together at the birth of the Renaissance, are illustrative of how enduring our preoccupation with our fate is. Wanting to know one’s self, one’s future, wanting answers, is a primal impulse. And in many ways, this is the work of an academic, too. We study the contours of the past to illuminate outcomes, to ultimately, enrich our present. From frescoed ceilings and trump-taking games to imaginative pasta tarots and meme accounts, it’s easy to see the way in which these are fundamentally universal interests and preoccupations, interests and preoccupations I wanted to place at the heart of The Cloisters. 

In the novel, every character finds themself coming up against question: is it fate or is it chance? The fact that Ann, after being summarily dismissed from her position, lingers—lingers until Patrick arrives. The fact that Rachel refuses to see fortune tellers. The fact that Patrick’s fascination with tarot pushes him closer and closer to the edge of what is safe and reasonable. In the end, all these things show the way in which we can be haunted by the question of predestiny. For academics, obsession is easy. Many of us spend our lives preoccupied with ancient, occasionally universal questions. As an academic and writer, the question that keeps me up at night is:  what we are capable of believing? It is the same question that vexes the characters who inhabit the world of The Cloisters. 


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