Show & Tell: Visconti Tarot Cards

© Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven
© Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven / © Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven

These cards from the deck known as the Visconti Tarot were likely made for Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, sometime in the 15th century. The cards, created in the workshop of painter Bonifacio Bembo, are held at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Like the Visconti deck, other surviving examples of tarot and playing cards from the medieval and early Renaissance periods are all gorgeously illustrated, individually executed works of art made for wealthy families. Many examples are on display through April 2016 at The Cloisters in New York.

These cards were commissioned by a self-confined shut-in. Historian of the Renaissance Jacob Burckhardt wrote of the paranoid duke Visconti: “What a man of uncommon gifts and high position can be made by the passion of fear, is here shown with what may be called a mathematical completeness.” Visconti lived in the Citadel of Milan and rarely ventured off the grounds, nervous lest he be betrayed and killed. Orchestrating his affairs mostly from within this stronghold, Visconti managed to hold power impressively well; Burckhardt writes that he “conducted long and difficult wars … dealt habitually with political affairs of the first importance … and every day sent his plenipotentiaries to all parts of Italy.” 

These cards would have been used for entertainment, not mystical divination. “The present-day association of tarot with fortune-telling and the occult gained currency only in the 19th century and has nothing to do with medieval tarot cards,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes. Instead, the tarot card decks would have been used for a game somewhat like today’s bridge. “Tarot cards employed the standard Italian suits—Cups, Swords, Batons, and Coins—with values from 10 to 1 and with a king, queen, knight, and knave, for a total of 56 cards,” the Met adds. ”To these were added a fool (matto), which was a wild card, and 21 trump cards, or tarocchi, with the fool at the bottom leading up to the emperor and pope at the top. Because the trump cards in these [Visconti] decks are not numbered, the hierarchy varies according to their geographic origin.”

Were these cards used for games? Or were they purchased for display purposes only? It’s hard to say. Evidence remains that Visconti, as probably befits an isolated man, played cards and chess, and at one point issued official edicts that were lenient on the subject of card-playing. Because of the vagaries of preservation, this set of cards, along with another beautifully decorated golden deck that Visconti probably commissioned for his son-in-law Francesco Sforza, are the best surviving examples of tarot cards from this period. 

World, from The Visconti Tarot © Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven

Knave of Cups, from The Visconti Tarot, ©Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven