The Visconti Tarot Deck

Beautifully painted by Italian artist Bonifacio Bembo in the 15th century, the Visconti deck is one of the earliest surviving tarot card sets.

 

Wheel of Fortune from the "Visconti" deck by Bonifacio Bembo / Private Collection

 

The Visconti Tarot Deck

One of the earliest surviving tarot decks was painted in the mid-15th century by Italian artist Bonifacio Bembo. Sometimes referred to as the Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi, it was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti and his successor, Francesco I Sforza who married Visconti's daughter and only heir, Bianca Maria Visconti.

The tarot deck reflects the artist's interest in Neoplatonism through its symbolism. Neoplatonism was a Renaissance revival of Plato's cosmological theories with a touch of Christian spirituality. Re-introduced to Western Europe at the Council of Florence in the mid-15th century, after which Cosimo de Medicicomissioned Marsilio Ficino to translate Plato's works from Greek and Arabic into Latin.

Of particular note is The Popess card, as this is the earliest known representation of this particular card and may represent "Pope Joan" a legendary character popularized in Medieval and Renaissance folklore. It is also thought that many of the faces in the deck were portraits of the Viscontis and Sforzas, both living and dead. Another notable card is The Wheel of Fortune (left). An important aspect of Medieval and Renaissance iconography, the wheel of fortune represents the mercurial nature of fate. On the Visconti card, the artwork (although indistinguishable today) featured four commonly rendered sayings in Italian - from the top, clockwise: "Regno" (I reign), "Regnavi" (I reigned), "Sum Sine Regno" (I am without a kingdom), and "Regnabo" (I shall reign).

The deck is not only beautiful, but it also influenced the iconography, composition and interpretation of modern tarot decks. Bridgeman represents fascimilies of all the surviving cards from the deck.

 
 

A Brief History of Tarot

The history of playing cards goes back to the 14th century, when Africa, Spain and Italy were invaded by Islamic forces from Egypt under the Mamluk Sultanate. In the late 14th century, Charles VI commissioned a deck of cards, several of which are still in existence. These card decks were more closely related to current day playing cards than the kind we've come to know as tarot. The tarot card first appeared in Northern Italy in the early 15th century, but it wasn't until the later in the century that we hear of the first mention of the use of playing cards for divination. These early decks were expensive as each card was painstakingly painted by hand and decorated with gold leaf. The invention of the printing press in the early 16th century allowed for mass production and made the decks more affordable for a range of social classes, an example of a widely used set is known as the Marseilles Tarot. In the late 16th century, records from a trial in Venice suggest that the cards have been associated with witchcraft, but after this there are no references connecting tarot with magic or divination until the 18th century, when it was mentioned in "Le Monde Primitif" (The Primitive World), with the author referring to tarot in occult terms.

 

The Traitor from the "Visconti" deck by Bonifacio Bembo/ Private Collection

 

The Ace of Cups from the "Visconti" deck by Bonifacio Bembo/ Private Collection

 

 

 


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