Pierpont Morgan Library’s Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi

visconti-sforza tarocchiThe history of the Tarot is more than a little murky. According to some scholars the cards as a system for divination had originated in India and came to Europe with the Romany by way of Eastern and Central Europe. The earliest decks still in evidence today date from the mid-15th Century, from northern Italy. (There is even dispute as to whether the original purpose of the Tarot was divination, some researchers maintaining that the cards were originally developed as a game.) The term “Tarot” itself is the French word derived from the Italian tarocco (pl. tarocchi) which was in use to describe the cards by the 16th Century.

The Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi is a facsimile edition compiled from decks now housed in the Pierpont-Morgan Library, the Accademia Carrara, and the Casa Colleoni. The cards themselves are beautiful, although somewhat strange to modern eyes – the decks from which this group has been assembled were in use nearly 600 years ago, during the High Middle Ages in Italy, and for those who enjoy medieval art, they are captivating. There is very little of the detail we have come to expect in more modern Tarot cards: backgrounds in the major Arcana are often highly abstract, offering few visual clues for interpretation. The Fool, for example, shows a man standing in front of a background painted to look like tooled leather, a common background for both the major Trumps and the Court cards; he is dressed in white undergarments and a thin coat, carrying a long club over his shoulder, and has seven feathers stuck in his hair. This differs substantially from more modern decks, which usually show the Fool dressed in motley, and perhaps walking along a road. The minor Arcana are almost completely abstract, showing only the number of symbols required by the card, often arranged in geometric patterns (for example, the ten of Swords shows ten swords in two groups of five, crossed diagonally across the face of the card to form a diamond lattice, surrounded by a floral border). The reproductions are excellent, including, since this is a facsimile deck, all the losses and damage of centuries.

The deck includes an instruction booklet by Stuart R. Kaplan that opens with a short section on the history of the Tarot and of the Visconti-Sforza family of Milan, including a section on the family’s heraldic devices, which were often included on the faces of the cards. He also discusses the provenance of the various decks that were used to create this deck. Since the major Arcana are not numbered, he uses the numbering first seen in a French deck, painted by Catalin Geoffroy in the mid-16th Century. The entries for the major Trumps are illustrated with black-and-white thumbnails and include a detailed description of the face of the card along with a wealth of divinatory meanings; the Court cards of the minor Arcana are treated similarly. The rest of the minor Arcana receive summary listings. Kaplan also gives an explanation of the Celtic Cross layout, along with a couple of variations. Although a slim little booklet, there is a wealth of information included.

Most people will probably find this deck a little hard to handle – at about 3 ¾ by 7 inches, the cards are nearly twice the size of a regular deck (even I, not noted for my dainty little hands, have a little trouble). For readings, this is a deck for the experienced practitioner, one who is willing to take the time to study these cards very thoroughly – it is not particularly user-friendly and doesn’t provide a lot of clues for interpretation. (One disappointment is that the backs are plain, flat Chinese red – there will be no subtle cues to affect layouts, but it would have been nice to see how card backs were treated 600 years ago.) As a historical document, it is wonderful: it really gives a sense of how different the world was when its models were created, and the illustrations are charming, in a medieval sort of way, even if not always up to the standard of the Limbourg Brothers.

(U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1975)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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