Visconti-Sforza tarot deck
The Visconti-Sforza tarot deck is a 15th-century Tarot deck and one of the oldest known to exist. It had a significant impact on the visual composition, card numbering and interpretation of modern decks.
The surviving cards are of particular historical interest because of the beauty and detail of the design, which was often executed in precious materials and often reproduce members of the Sforza and Visconti families in period garments and settings. Consequently, the cards also offer a glimpse of nobiliary life in Milan, which the two families called home since the 13th century. When commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and by his successor Francesco Sforza, the cards were still known as Trionfi ("triumphs", i.e. trump) cards, and used for everyday playing.
The name "Visconti-Sforza tarot" is used collectively to refer to incomplete sets of approximately 15 decks, now located in various museums, libraries, and private collections around the world. No complete deck has survived; rather, some collections boast a few face cards, while some consist of a single card. The three most famous collections are discussed more in detail below.
This deck, also known as Colleoni-Baglioni and Francesco Sforza, was produced around 1451. Originally composed of 78 cards, it now contains 74, i.e. 20 trumps, 15 face cards, and 39 "pip" cards. The Pierpont-Morgan library in New York has 35, the Accademia Carrara has 26 in its catalogue, while the remaining 13 are in the private collection of the Colleoni family in Bergamo. Trumps and face cards have a gilt background, while the "pip" cards are cream-coloured with a flower and vine motif. The two missing trumps are the Devil and the Tower in which an American version was created by U.S. Games, while another two variant designs also exist in Italian publishings.
The figures on the suit of bastoni wear silver pleated garments and carry a long staff; a large vessel tops either end except for the King, whose staff has a finial only at the top.
Those on the suit of cups wear gold garments, embellished by the heraldic device of sun and rays; each figure holds a large chalice, as it is often the case with the suit.
The suit of spades shows figures dressed in full armour, carrying a large sword.
Curiously, the characters represented on denari wear garments decorated with blue ribbons wound around circular suns. The Knight of this suit is the only one not wearing a ducal crown.
Named after the Cary family's collection of Card Games, absorbed into the Yale University Library in 1967, it is also known as the Visconti di Modrone set, and has been dated back to around 1466. Some scholars have, conversely, suggested this may be in fact the oldest of sets, perhaps commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti at the onset of the project. 67 cards (11 trumps, 17 face cards and 39 "pip" cards) have survived, which has led to the (disputed) suggestion that, given the distribution of the Pierpont-Morgan deck, the total number of cards when this set was produced should have amounted to 86.
In the 2007 book "The history of the tarot", scholar Giordano Berti proposes that the deck was produced between 1442 and 1447, because the denari cards (the suit in Italian playing cards corresponding to diamonds) bears the recto and verso of the golden florin coined by F. M. Visconti in 1442 and withdrawn from circulation at his death, in 1447.
The Cary-Yale is the only western deck with six face cards, as the "Damsel" and the "Lady on horse" supplement the traditional King, Queen, Knight and Jack. All trump cards have a gilt background, while the non-face cards have a silver one.
This set is named after Giovanni Brambilla, who acquired the cards in Venice in 1900. As of 1971, the deck has been in the catalogue of the Brera Gallery in Milan. Apparently commissioned to Bonifacio Bembo by Francesco Sforza in 1463, it now consists of 48 cards with only two trumps - the Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune. All face cards have a gilt background, while the non-face cards have a silver one.
The seven remaining face cards are: Knight and Jack of cups; Knight and Jack of denari; Knight, Jack and Queen of bastoni. Almost all "pip" cards have survived, as this set is only missing the four of denari.
In television and film
In a dramatic scene in the 1989 film Dangerous Liaisons, Madame du Rosemonde (Mildred Natwick), the aunt of Madame du Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) is shown playing Solitaire using the Tarot deck. It is also noteworthy that the facial make-up and posture of Madame du Merteuil (Glenn Close) in the film has a very similar resemblance to the card referred to as The Empress.
In the television show Charmed, a Salem antagonist midwife, Ruth Cobb (Judy Geeson) from the 17th century uses the Tarot deck to foretell the future of the Halliwell sisters during their time travel to witch-hunt times.
- Giordano Berti & Tiberio Gonard. Visconti-tarot. Buch und Karten.: Das älteste Tarot der Welt., Königsfurt Verlag, 1999, ISBN 3-933939-11-9, ISBN 978-3-933939-11-1, 120 pages.
- Sandra A. Thomson. Pictures from the Heart: A Tarot Dictionary, St. Martin's Griffin, 2003, ISBN 0-312-29128-0, ISBN 978-0-312-29128-0, 544 pages.
- Emily E. Auger. Tarot and Other Meditation Decks: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Typology, McFarland, 2003, ISBN 0-7864-1674-2, ISBN 978-0-7864-1674-5, pages 145, 164, 195, 212-3.
- Janina Renée. Tarot for a New Generation, Llewellyn Worldwide, 2001, ISBN 0-7387-0160-2, ISBN 978-0-7387-0160-8, page 6.
- Visconti-Sforza. Tarot Meditations
- Naomi Ozaniec. The Watkins Tarot Handbook: The Practical System of Self-Discovery, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2005, ISBN 1-84293-114-8, ISBN 978-1-84293-114-1, pages 5, 174, 179.
- Hajo Banzhaf. The Crowley Tarot: The Handbook of the Cards, U.S. Games Systems, Incorporated, 1995, ISBN 0-88079-715-0, ISBN 978-0-88079-715-3, page 10.
- Robert M. Place. The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005, ISBN 1-58542-349-1, ISBN 978-1-58542-349-1, pages 16 ff.
- Giordano Berti. Storia dei tarocchi: verità e leggende sulle carte più misteriose del mondo, Mondadori, 2007, ISBN 88-04-56596-9, ISBN 978-88-04-56596-3, 241 pages.
- Michael Dummett. The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, G. Braziller, 1986, ISBN 0-8076-1141-7, ISBN 978-0-8076-1141-8, 141 pages.
- Gertrude Moakley. The Tarot Cards. Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family. An Iconographic and Historical Study, New York P.L. publishing, 1966.
- S. R. Kaplan. The Encyclopedia of Tarot, 2 volumes, New York: U.S. Games Systems, 1979–1986.
- Giordano Berti & Tiberio Gonard. Visconti Tarot, Llewellin - Lo Scarabeo, Minneapolis - Torino, 2002.
- Visconti Tarot From the digital collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
- Visconti-Sforza deck at tarothistory.com