Agata Fijalkowski


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Object 1: Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards. #11 Traitor.
 Milan, Italy ca. 1450-1480.
 The Morgan Library & Museum. MS M.630.11. Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1911. Photographic credit: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

Object 2: Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards. #2 Empress. Milan, Italy, ca. 1450-1480. The Morgan Library & Museum. MS M.630.1-35. Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1911. Photographic credit: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

Location: The Morgan Library and Museum

Tarot cards have been used for divination throughout the centuries, especially in Italy and France. A deck usually consists of 78 cards divided into four suits each with 14 cards, plus 22 picture cards of symbolic importance.

During a tarot ‘reading’ cards are laid out in a sequence and historical events are reconstructed and interpreted. These readings can be understood as narratives co-constructed by the cards, the reader and the audience. They offer limitless possibilities for the interpretation of an individual’s most important experiences lived and milestones reached. Like biographies, tarot readings are social constructions of a person’s conceivable experiences in her lifetime in which all interpretations are valid, but not all may reveal the true meaning. As such tarot cards are an appropriate and alluring means to relay a biography.

The two cards chosen for submission to the pop-up museum of legal objects show examples of the 15th-century Italian Sforza Visconti pack. These two commanding images—The Hanged Man and The Empress—have been selected to evoke the capricious nature of a regime, its perversion of the law, and the long-term consequences for society. In this contribution to the pop-up museum of legal objects I use two tarot cards to set out the remarkable life account of the relatively unknown Albanian writer and political dissident, Musine Kokalari (1917-1983).

Musine 1937-1939
Musine Kokalari, c.1937-1939 @Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute

Musine Kokalari was born in 1917 in Adana, Turkey. Her family returned to their southern Albanian roots in 1920 and settled in Gjirokastra. Musine was born into a family of intellectuals; at least two of her brothers were active in politics and participated in literary life. Musine completed her studies in Literature at La Sapienza, University of Rome in 1941. She was anti-fascist and anti-nationalist. At twenty-four she published As My Grandmother Tells Me(Sic¸ me thotë nënua plakë), signalling her entry into society as a writer. In that book she celebrates the local Gjirokastran dialect and sets out a critique of the patriarchal society to which the Albanian woman is confined. Other works include How Life Swayed(Sa u-tunt jeta) and Around the Hearth(Rreth Vatrës), both published in 1944. These literary achievements earned her an invitation to join the prestigious group of the Albanian League of Writers and Artists. These publications were unique because of the use of the local vernacular and reference to the prevailing customs of the region. The year 1944 also saw Musine arrested and released after the execution of her two brothers, Muntas and Vesim. The terrible fate of her siblings forced her to set aside her first love, writing, for politics. And, in 1945, Musine was arrested once again, this time as the alleged leader of a political opposition group (Bashkimi Demokrat, or the Social Democrat party).

During the trial, her uncompromising attitude towards freedom of expression and association was made known. While Musine was defending her view of the development of democracy in Albania, someone hysterically shouted from the trial venue: ‘‘String her up!’’ To this the presiding judge asked ‘‘Did you hear what people say for you, the accused?!’’ Musine responded immediately ‘‘One day they will say the same for you, your honour!” (Pepa 2003, p. 117; Fijalkowski 2015, pp. 588-589)

Musine before the military court at her 1946 trial @Albanian Telegraphic Agency

Musine was given the floor after the prosecution had rested its case. She read out her defence but was interrupted by the court because it was felt that what she was saying did not relate to the charges. As what she was saying was beside the point she was ordered to be silent; her written defence would be attached to the file. Her final words at the trial made reference to Sami Fräsheri, an Ottoman Albanian, a prominent figure within the National Renaissance Movement and the subject of Musine’s thesis at La Sapienza: ‘I am a disciple of the renowned Sami Fräsheri and with me you want to condemn renaissance’ (Pepa 2003, p. 118). Her image is not a mere studium; the veil that she wore in defiance and as a show of mourning for her dead brothers renders it a punctum. It would have pierced even her judges to the heart. The audience who saw Musine’s stubborn and resolute opposition to the despotic court must have recognised in her defiance the stance of some of their own family members or acquaintances.

The court sentenced Musine to 20 years imprisonment in one of the most brutal labour camps, located in northern Albania. The authorities banned and destroyed all her works. The experience must have been unbearable. Musine asked for pardon in 1957, but her request was turned down by the Ministry of the Interior, which instructed the Supreme Court to not grant pardon, on the grounds that Musine was not fit to re-enter society [this was after eleven years behind bars]. After 16 years of incarceration, Musine was released and exiled, where she was forced to work as a manual labourer, and forbidden to write. Musine joked that she was a ‘mortar specialist’ (Kokalari 2013). She was kept under surveillance for the rest of her life. Musine died in August 1983. In 1993, the then Albanian president, Sali Berisha, declared several Albanians, including Musine Kokalari, to be ‘Martyrs for Democracy’.

Returning to the tarot cards, we can think of Musine as represented by the Hanged Man. Hanging upside down was the punishment for traitors in Italy during the Renaissance, when this deck was created. The image is apt –Musine was, after all, a criminal and the state sentenced her accordingly.

Hanged Man

On the other hand, we can also see Musine as represented by the Empress, who symbolises feminine power, practicality, decisiveness. She was, after all, a heroine, albeit a reluctant one.

The Empress

In Saimir Kumbaro’s 2012 documentary, ‘The Martyrs’, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare remarks that

‘[she] was a distinguished martyr of freedom. She is the first to have formulated in a lapidary manner the idea of pluralism in Albania. She defended herself at the trial, where among other things she said: ‘It is not necessary to be a communist to love Albania.’

I have explored life and influence of Musine Kolalari in greater detail in an article (Fijalkowski 2015) which in turn inspired the exhibition ‘An Unsung Hero: Musine Kokalari (1917-1983) and a short film of the same name. But very little is available in English about Musine Kokalari’s formation and background. While Musine’s pioneering efforts offer an important lens through which to analyse the Albanian dictatorship, the full extent of her personal narrative, influence and legacy, have yet to be revealed.

In taking this opportunity to think about her life through the lens of tarot cards, I hope to provide possible insights into why Musine Kokalari features so prominently in contemporary discourses about the past: like a tarot card and its particular image, Musine’s image ‘flashes up’ in specific settings and discourses; and just as tarot cards tend to be used by groups, so Musine is a shared memory for a certain generation of Albanians, a fact that lends poignancy and legitimacy to the various possible readings and interpretations.


Agata Fijalkowski (2015) ‘Musine Kokalari and the Power of Images: law, aesthetics and memory regimes in the Albanian Experience’, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law, 28 (3), pp. 577-602.

Linda Kokalari, Musine Kokalari’s great-niece (21 July 2013), correspondence with author.

Pjeter Pepa (2003) The Criminal File of Albania’s Communist Dictator,trans. V. Morcka. Tirana: Shtepia Botuese Uegen.