Current evidence suggests that Tarot cards first appeared during the Renaissance (1430) in northern Italy. They were used to play a game of trumps. The trump suit depicted various allegories / archetypes that were well known during the Renaissance.
The very first Tarot cards were hand-painted, likely by Bonifacio Bembo, an artist in the employ of the ruling Visconti Sforza family, and were works of art in their own right.
Initially only available to the wealthy, the advent of printing techniques made Tarot cards available to common folk. Once available, the game of Tarocchi, and Tarot cards, spread like wildfire throughout Europe.
In the 18th Century, Tarot cards were co-opted for use by mystics for divination and spiritual development. A lot was written at that time about the origins of the Tarot that has since been disproven, but these stories added greatly to the mystique of the cards.
Although the Tarot is still known for fortune-telling, it is also commonly used as a tool for self exploration and problem solving. Tarot has also been used as an art form, and has a rich history in this regard.
In the last few years, in particular, the Tarot seems to have come out of the carnival tent and into the art gallery. There have been several recent exhibitions of Tarot images in Milan, Los Angeles, New York … and Elora!