Portraits of First Tarot Players
Have you ever wanted to meet the folks who created the first Tarocchi decks and played Trionfi back in the 1400s? You can come face-to-face with many of them in an exhibit now up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini. This exhibit focuses entirely on Italian portraits of the 15th century and includes many names that will be familiar to tarot history fans.
There’s Filippo Maria Visconti, who commissioned the first gilded and painted decks, and his daughter and son-in-law Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza who commissioned the Visconti-Sforza deck from Bonifacio Bembo, the artist who most likely did the matching portraits of the couple in the exhibit. Also on display are their descendents Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Ludovico Maria (Il Morro) Sforza who raised Milan to its pinnacle of splendor.
Numerous Dukes of Ferrara make an appearance: Leonello (pictured above), who liked to dress in the planetary colors of the day (lunar silver for Monday, martian red on Tuesdays, etc.), his brothers Ercole and Borso who both succeeded him as Duke, and granddaughter Beatrice who was one of the great art patrons of the time. When she married Ludovico Sforza in 1491, Leonardo da Vinci was the wedding planner.
We can check out other rulers who undoubtedly enjoyed a rousing game of trionfi after dinner: Federigo da Montefeltro, Lorenzo de Medici and Francesco Gonzaga. There’s a portrait by the Ferrarese artist Cosme Tura who worked on the frescoes at the Schifanoia Palace in Ferrara, and whose unique style influenced the look of late 15th century tarot decks from that city.
If you can’t see the show in person, click on the little Artworks (147) link on the home page of the exhibit, or buy the catalog at the Met store. The March 8 issue of the New York Review of Books has a lengthy discussion of the exhibit with some social background.
The exhibit is divided into three sections (Florence, Princely States and Venice) according to the social and political conditions that influenced portrait style. The goal of all portraits was to present one’s public persona in the best light possible while giving a realistic depiction of a unique individual rather than an idealized stereotype. The life-like faces were designed to impress the viewer with the sitter’s intelligence, business acumen, and wisdom, as well as his or her wealth and status reflected in sumptuous clothing and jewelry.
Hand painted tarot decks were also status objects designed to impress. We know a fair amount about tarot in the princely states of Milan and Ferrara. As we learn more about tarot in Florence and Venice, we may find that their political climates influenced the artistic style of their decks as well as the portraiture of their leading citizens.