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The Soprafino Deck of Carlo Dellarocca

A new Tarot deck style was born in 1835 when the Milanese printer Ferdinand Gumppenberg commissioned a deck from the artist/engraver Carlo Dellarocca. As the most elegant and refined Italian deck of its time, it quickly became known as i tarocchi sopraffini, the super-fine tarot. Many of its unique design elements were adopted by 19th century card printers. In the 1990s it experienced a revival when two publishers reprinted Dellarocca-inspired decks.

Early 19th Century Italian Tarot

The game of Tarot experienced a revolutionary change in the late 1700s when players turned their backs on the traditional Tarot de Marseilles in favor of the Tarock deck, or Tarot Nouveau, as it’s called in France. In this deck, the four suits are ordinary playing card pips of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs; while the twenty-two trumps have decorative and fanciful images completely unrelated to traditional Italian tarot.

Northern Italy was dominated by France politically and economically for centuries; then in the early 19th century it was tossed back and forth between France and Austria like a political volleyball. Because of French cultural and political dominance, Italians were forced to play traditional Italian card games with the French Tarot de Marseilles (TdM). Card printers dealt with complex tax regulations that constantly changed with the political climate. Specific cards had to have a special tax stamp which was re-designed with every regime change. Card makers applied to the government for a license, and the lucky few were given monopolies as long as they kept up with the constantly changing regulations. At times, printers were told what style of tarot deck to print, and at one point cards had to be printed on specially watermarked paper supplied by the government.

By the 19th century, the tarot game’s popularity was diminishing in France, so the decks were no longer considered an important commodity. Regulations and design requirements became less burdensome, allowing Italian card makers to innovate or revert to more traditional designs such as the Italian suits of Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons.

The rising middle class created a market for reasonably priced prints, illustrated books and lavishly illustrated playing cards. Copper engraving was favored because it gave detailed, refined images that suited the tastes of the time. Wood block printing became associated with cheaper, lower-quality products. Southern Germany, especially Nuremberg and Augsburg, was the center of the printing industry. Most innovations originated there, and the region produced the highest quality engravings.

Gumppenberg and Dellarocca

Ferdinand Gumppenberg was trained in German print shops before immigrating to Milan in 1809. His attempts to convert conservative Italians to the new tarock deck fell flat; but he was able to introduce the German tradition of commissioning decks from well-known illustrators and engravers. In 1835 he commissioned a tarot deck from the engraver Carlo Dellarocca.

Dellarocca was a highly regarded Milanese engraver/illustrator who learned his craft from Giuseppe Longhi, a prominent engraver and professor of art. Dellarocca was not as famous as his teacher, so his life has not been well documented. We don’t know his birth date, and most references say he died some time after 1824, so it’s possible that the plates he engraved for his tarot cards were not used until after his death. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, CA owns Dellarocca’s engraving Christ Bound to the Cross after Ercole Procaccini. His book illustrations can be seen in auction catalogs when these books come up for sale.

Gumppenberg/Dellarocca Deck

Dellarocca created several unique tarot images that have no precedent in other decks. In his article Exploring the Alphabetical Tarot, Mark Filipas theorizes that objects appeared in Tarot de Marseilles trump cards because their name starts with the letter of the Hebrew alphabet associated with that card. He claims that the presence of most of the objects unique to Dellarocca’s cards can be explained with this theory.

Unique features of Dellarocca’s deck design:

  • The Bagatto is a cobbler standing in front of a work table strewn with the tools of his trade. There’s a jug on the table and the cobbler hoists a large glass of wine.
  • The Lover stands between his sweetheart and a king who rests his hand on his shoulder. The young man’s clothing announces his divided loyalties. He wears tights and pouffy pants, but also a helmet and armored corselet. He seems to be torn between love and duty – following Cupid’s call or the demands of his king, who may also be his father.
  • Justice’s body is tilted slightly, as is her sword and scales. She has an eye in the center of her collar.
  • The Hermit carries a little open flame in a holder instead of a lantern.
  • The Strength card is more dynamic than the traditional Tarot de Marseilles image. The woman straddles the lion with a fierce expression on her face. One of her bare feet presses down on the lion’s back. The lion’s front leg is raised and he is resisting her efforts to pry his jaws open.
  • The skeleton on the Death card is sweeping up symbols of human pride and vanity like jewelry, a bishop’s miter, books, artist’s palette, weapons, and medals. The card is labeled Il Tredici (Thirteen) to avoid using the word “Death”.
  • The Devil card has several symbols commonly associated with him: the trident, ass’s ears, snaky hair, a furry skirt, clawed feet, monsters and hell fire.
  • The Moon retains the towers and dogs from the TdM, but the scene is an estuary and one of the towers is a lighthouse. The dogs seem to be in a walled garden, and a boiled lobster rests on a large silver platter on the ground.
  • On the Sun card, a carefree young couple dances in a walled garden under a bright sun that is burning away the last of the clouds.
  • The pip cards are delicate and refined. The court cards conform to tradition, but they have more individuality and personality than most decks. The tax stamp and Gumppenberg’s and Dellarocca’s names are on the King of Rods card.

Contemporary Reproductions

Gumppenberg

The most authentic reproduction of the original Gumppenberg deck was produced by Il Meneghello in 1992 in an edition of 2,000 called Il Tarocco Soprafino of F. Gumppenberg. Lo Scarabeo produced a photo-reproduction in 1999 called the Classical Tarot which is still in print. The Lo Scarabeo cards are larger and brighter, making it easier to see the details. The background is lighter and the age marks and stains are cleaned up. But their appearance is marred by Lo Scarabeo’s typical wide left border with the card name repeated in several languages.

Bordoni reprinted Gumppenberg’s deck in 1889. Then in 1981, Il Solleone reproduced Bordoni’s deck in an edition of 2,500 called the Tarocchino Lombardo.

Dotti

In 1847, Gummppenberg turned his workshop over to his son-in-law, Lamperti, who ran it from 1848 to 1861. About this same time, Teodoro Dotti set up a competing print shop. He may have been a former employee of Gumppenberg who went out on his own. He printed knock-offs of Dellarocca’s design, as well as the traditional French TdM, and decks that blended design elements from Dellarocca and the TdM. We don’t know if Gumppenberg authorized Dotti to use Dellarocca’s designs, or if Dotti pirated design elements to incorporate into his own decks. The Dotti firm was operated by various family members until about 1883 when it was acquired by E. Colombo who continued to print the same decks for many years.

Il Meneghello has reproduced two Dotti decks that borrow design elements from Dellarocca.

In 1985, Il Meneghello reproduced an 1845 Dotti deck, the Tarocco Italiano. This deck is very similar to Dellarocca’s original engravings, but is even more delicate and refined and has cleaner, simpler lines. The Devil card is like the Tarot de Marseilles, and Temperance is called L’Intemperanza, a detail found on many Dotti decks. De Vecchi Editore produced a large version of this deck with a booklet by Laura Tuan.

The Gioco di Tarocchi is Il Meneghello’s reproduction of an 1850 deck. The accompanying booklet gives a history of the Dotti firm, implying that this is a Dotti deck. The booklet also says this deck was the standard Milanese Tarot until the end of 19th century. This is a fairly crude wood block deck that mostly conforms to the Tarot de Marseilles pattern with touches of Dellarocca’s design: a king on the Lover’s card, Strength wrestling with the lion, and a couple dancing on the Sun card. A unique feature is Death labeled Ugualianza (Equality).

In the mid-1800s, Dellarocca’s design innovations were adopted by numerous printers such as Dotti, Milese, Lamperti, and Negri. Some printers created a hybrid of the Tarot de Marseilles and Dellarocca, while others just used a few details from Dellarocca. The most popular design elements incorporated into these decks were Justice’s tilted body, the Bagatto’s wine cup, and the dancing couple on the Sun card. These hybrid decks have not been reproduced but can be seen in Stuart Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot Volume II, pages 360 to 368.

Avondo Brothers

A version of Dellarocca’s deck was produced in 1880 by the Avondo Brothers of Serravalle-Sesia, a small town known for its card production. It was reproduced in 2001 by Lo Scarabeo and is still in print as the Ancient Italian Tarot. This deck has enough unique features to put it in its own niche.

The Trumps are nearly identical to the Dellarocca/Gumppenberg deck except for having Arabic numbers in the corners as well as roman numerals top center. The Emperor and most kings have beards and longer hair than in Dellarocca’s designs, giving them a more mature appearance. The lines are less refined and the images are more robust.

The Avondo Brothers gave the pip cards some unique features. The Ace of Cups is unlike that of any other deck. A cherub sits in a window cut in the side of a large chalice that has dolphins at the base. The cups in the rest of the suit have blue jewels on their bowls. The suit of Batons is decorated with gold plaques, red hearts and filigrees instead of the usual flowers and leaves. The center enclosure in the even numbered swords cards has an oak or laurel branch instead of a flower as in most decks. The Ace of Coins has the tax stamp and Winged Mercury in the center of the coin. The vegetation throughout the pip cards is heavier and more lavish than in any other deck.

Here’s more information on the Avondo Brothers.

Game Decks

Dellarocca’s designs have infiltrated modern game decks. Modiano publishes a double-headed Tarocco Piemontese that has a few Dellarocca flourishes: The Bagatto hoists a wine cup and the king appears on the Lovers card.

The Tarocchino Milanese printed by Masenghini is a reprint of an inexpensive woodblock deck Masenghini published in the late 19th century. The deck follows Dellarocca closely except for the Moon which is in the Tarot de Marseilles style. The pip cards have minimal decoration.

The double-headed Tarot Genoves produced by Fratelli Armanini in 1887 is a unique blend of Dellarocca and the Avondo Brothers. The double-headed trump cards and two suits follow Dellarocca closely, while the suits of coins and swords are taken from the Avondo Brothers’ design.

Purchasing Information

Llewellyn is the American distributor of Lo Scarabeo decks. The Tarot Garden carries some Il Meneghello decks. The best source for Il Meneghello’s decks is Alida.

References

Depaulis, Thierry. Il Tarocco Piemontese, in Il Castello dei Tarocchi. Andrea Vitali, editor. Torino: Lo Scarabeo, 2010.

Kaplan, Stuart. Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volumes I, II, III and IV.

Links

For more information on the historical context of these decks see the Tarot de Marseilles page in the History section of this website.

For a comparison of three contemporary facsimiles of the soprafino by Lo Scarabeo, Il Meneghello and Il Solleone see this blog post.

A review of a black and white soprafino by Il  Meneghello.

More on the Avondo Brothers of Piedmont.

A complete Avondo Brothers deck (The Ancient Italian Tarot published by Lo Scarabeo) has been uploaded to the Tarot-Heritage Facebook page.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Sherryl– Thanks for subscribing to my blog. I”m so impressed by your work, this is an area of Tarot for which I have no energy but I”m so grateful that others do! It is fascinating and for an art history major, very compelling stuff. Thanks for your work and for connecting with me. I’ll be checking in with your blog often~~
    Jeanne Fiorini

    March 15, 2012
  2. Marcin Urban #

    Dear Sherryl,
    there’s a thing that puzzles me a bit. Are there really LAUREL branches in the Avondos’ swords? Laurel xylem isn’t red (as far as I know) — unlike the xylem of this Avondo plant (this is most clearly evident in the two of swords). I think it’s a COCA!
    Regards,
    Marcin Urban

    August 25, 2013
    • Hi Marcin, You undoubtedly know more botany than I do, so I’ll defer to your expertise. Coca leaves would certainly add some pizazz to the suit. Here’s my reasoning about the tree species: The 4 and 6 of swords have one kind of leaf; the 2, 3, and 8 another kind. I’m assuming that they are both the same as what’s on the Ace. And I assume the Ace has an oak and laurel branch, since they both symbolize victory. (The oak leaves look very much like the little wrinkly oak leaves here in southern California that are adapted to hot, dry summers.) The Avondo Brothers could have taken artistic license, so we may never be able to say for sure what’s being shown. This ambiguity is part of tarot’s magic.

      August 26, 2013
  3. Edward #

    Sherryl, is the Avondo deck still available on the Facebook page? I was over looking for it just now, but wasn’t sure even what I was looking for.

    Thank you.

    October 8, 2015
    • Hi Edward. Here’s how to find the cards: go to the Tarot-Heritage page on facebook. Right under the cover photo (cards fanned out) there’s a navigation bar that says Timeline About Photos. Click on photos and scroll down the page a bit. The complete deck was posted in 2011 and all the cards are right there. Click on any card to see it in full and larger. Let me know if you have any trouble with this.

      October 8, 2015

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