The following is a historical comparison of the symbols presented in The Fool tarot card of various tarot decks from the 1400's through the 1900's.The decks included are the Mantegna Tarocchi, Visconti-Sforza, "Charles VI," Tarot de Marseille, and the ubiquitous Smith-Waite Tarot deck.
The Misero card from the Mantegna Tarocchi (1465-1470). This was not originally an actual tarot deck, but rather a set of educational cards designed to teach children about the humanities. The Misero card depicts a poor beggar leaning on a walking stick, harassed by dogs. However, he also looks like a wandering monk, deep in thought. Is he poor and miserable? Or is he dedicated to the service of a higher power?
The Visconti-Sforza Tarot encompasses several incomplete tarot decks - the oldest surviving known tarot cards. Most are ornately gilded with gold leaf. We see the Fool, sparsely clothed, with feathers in his fair, and carrying a walking stick - or is it a bat or club? His eyes are unfocused, leaving the viewer to question what might be going on in his mind.
The "Charles VI" Tarot Cards are another incomplete tarot deck, availble from the National Library of France. ("Charles VI" deck is in quotes because this deck was originally thought o be from 1392 and commissioned by King Charles VI of France. However, additional research indicated that the deck was actually created in Italy about 100 years later.)
Here, the Fool retains his sparse clothing, but adds donkey ears, a string of jingle bells, and a big silly grin. Children gather at his feet and appear to be throwing rocks at him. He pays them no attention and continues with a joyful performance. Overall, the Fool here takes on more features of a classic court jester.
There are many versions of the Tarot de Marseille as it enjoyed great popularitiy in France in the 1700-1800's. The Tarot de Marseille was popularized by Éliphas Lévi, influencing A.E. Waite and Helena Blavatsky. We can see patterns from earlier cards: A harassing dog and walking stick echo the Mantegna Tarocchi. The jingle bells and jester clothing echo the "Charles VI" deck. There is the new addition of a bindle - a carrying stick for possessions, popular with those who wander.
The Fool that is by far the most popular and well-known today is the one created by Pamela Colman Smith in collaboration with A.E. Waite, both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Smith's Fool is much more elegant and sophisticated than earlier versions. The bindle and clothing show signs of refinement, style, and finesse. The same is true of the delicate facial features, hands, and feet. The dog appears to support rather than harass. The feather looks flowing and free, much like the Fool's open body language. New symbols include a bright sun, mountains in the background, an elegant white rose, and a cliff from which the Fool may very well soon fall from.