A Personal Visit with the Visconti-Sforza Deck
Like most amateur tarot historians, I’ve often fantasized about entering the inner sanctum of a museum to see, and perhaps even handle, those magnificent gold-embossed cards from the 15th century. So you can imagine how magical and mind-blowing it was to find myself quite unexpectedly face-to-face with the Morgan Library’s portion of the Visconti-Sforza deck.
It happened in 2006 during a trip to New York City where I hoped to immerse myself in abstract art at the Guggenheim, the Whitney and MOMA. A musty old institution like the Morgan Library wasn’t even on my radar until a friend of my traveling companion offered to get us in for free. Off the main lobby, in a large, very dim room, I discovered a special exhibit of illuminated manuscripts. Quite by accident, I stumbled over two very long glass cases running the width of the room where the Visconti-Sforza cards from the Library’s collection emitted a heavenly glow in the room’s dim light.
I was immediately struck by the uneven condition of the cards. The suit of Cups and the Fool were pristine; while others, like the Lovers, were in tatters. Most cards were somewhere in between. It makes me wonder how the deck’s owners used and stored the cards. I have my own theory that some cards, like the Lovers, may have been used as talismans, which could explain the excessive wear.
The suit of cups was breathtaking. I can only describe them with the cliché gold-drenched. The court figures are almost impossible to distinguish from the background because the cards are completely covered in gold leaf and embossed with a delicate diamond pattern that shimmers in the dim light. The cards must have been dazzling under the torchlight of a medieval reception hall. There’s an obvious difference in the gold used in Bembo’s 1450 cards and the replacement cards created a quarter-century later. The gold on the replacement cards is much brighter and shinier, while Bembo’s gold was a bit darker, with a more antique appearance.
Since historians can’t say with complete confidence who painted this deck, I was curious to see how the Morgan Library would label it. The sign for the exhibit said:
@1450, painted by B. Bembo or family. Probably for Bianca and Francesco Sforza. Replacement cards — Antonio Cicognara.
The Morgan Library needs to get up-to-date on its research. Scholars have known for over 100 years that the designation of Cicognara as the painter of Sforza’s cards is based on a literary forgery. In 1966, Gertrude Moakley spelled it out in her book The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family. Stuart Kaplan summarized her findings in his 1986 publication The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume II, page 139. But the Italian art historian Sandrina Bandera has recently attributed these cards to Cicognara. Either she knows something the rest of us don’t, or she’s repeating an urban legend.
Stumbling across these cards so unexpectedly was a peak experience. Even though I was separated from the cards by a glass case, the experience was much more magical than if I had made an appointment and had been ushered into a vault where I could only spend a limited amount of time with the cards while a curator hovered over me. Instead, I was able to spend the entire day visiting and revisiting these cards, feeling like I had discovered my own special treasure.
So how did a portion of a luxury tarot deck from 15th-century Italy find its way to New York City in the early 20th century? Click here for the story.