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From Milan to New York: The Adventures of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Deck

How did a luxurious tarot deck rendered in gold leaf and paint made of crushed malachite and lapis lazuli find is way from its birth place in Milan to New York City? The Visconti-Sforza Tarot was commission by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, about 1450 and created in the workshop of Bonifacio Bembo. Precious, gold-leaf decks were all the rage among the aristocracy of mid-15th century northern Italy, and were given as gifts, or brought out to amuse and impress dinner guests.

We know the deck left the Sforza family by the late 15th century; and that the complete deck (minus the four missing cards: Devil, Tower, Knight of Coins, and 3 of Swords) was in the hands of the Colleoni family in the late 19th century. The deck’s travels in the intervening centuries are shadowy, although there’s evidence the deck had been owned by both the Ambivero and Donalli families, who may have been relatives of the Colleoni.

The connection between the Sforza and Colleoni families goes back to the early 15th century when Franceso Sforza and Bartolomeo Colleoni served together as mercenary soldiers in the war between Venice and Milan. The two men originally fought for Venice, but after the peace treaty of 1441, Sforza allied with Milan, married the Duke’s daughter, and became Duke in 1450. Colleoni wavered in his loyalties and eventually ended up as the Captain-General of the Venetian Republic. The Colleoni of Bergamo were neighbors of the Sforza in Milan. The separate military loyalties didn’t disrupt the friendship between the two families, so it’s possible the deck was a gift from Francesco Sforza to his old friend Bartolomeo Colleoni.

In the late 19th century, the deck was in the possession of Count Alessandro Colleoni. According to a relative, the Count guarded his deck jealously and rarely displayed it. He made an exception for his good friend Count Francesco Baglioni, who talked him into trading 26 cards for a portrait of a Colleoni ancestor that was hanging in Baglioni’s castle. Later, Colleoni regretted breaking up the deck, but Baglioni, who doesn’t seem like a very good friend, wouldn’t let him buy the cards back. Baglioni died in 1900 and left his portion of the deck to the Accademia Carrara of Bergamo.

Count Colleoni, or one of his heirs, sold his portion of the deck in 1911. The American financier J. P. Morgan purchased the partial deck the same year from a Parisian art dealer named Hamburger who specialized in uniting wealthy Americans with European art sold by cash-strapped aristocrats. The Colleoni family withheld 13 cards from the sale, which are still in the family’s possession.

John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) spent much of his youth in Europe, especially at his family’s second home in London. After acquiring a degree in art history, he joined his father’s bank and ended up dominating finance and industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the economic crises of 1895 and 1907, he personally intervened to support failing banks and prevent the American economy from colllapsing, becoming a virtual one-man federal reserve.

Morgan libraryAfter his father’s death in 1890, Morgan spent his inheritance acquiring an art collection worth 900 million dollars in today’s money. His collections of gems and medieval illuminated manuscripts were the best in the world at that time. In 1902, he built a library extension onto his family’s home at the corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street in New York City, which became the nucleus of today’s Morgan Library. He kept most of his European acquisitions in his London home to avoid American import duties until 1912, when the February issue of Art News magazine announced that Morgan was bringing his London collection to the U.S. After his death, his collection was distributed between his own library, the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Boston, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he helped establish.

Morgan kept his tarot deck on his desk so he could look at it often; but he only got to enjoy it for a little over a year before he died. His son, John Jr., was also very attached to the deck and spent a lot of time searching for just the right container. In 1919, he purchased a box in Paris dating from the late 1300s decorated with scenes of romance and chivalry. The deck is currently resting in this box in the Morgan Library’s vaults, waiting for the next occasion to be put on display and to delight any tarot lovers who happen to wander into the exhibit.

Click here to read about my surprise encounter with the Visconti-Sforza deck in the Morgan Library.

Reference: Brera: I tarocchi, il caso e la fortuna, pages 64-66. Catalog by Sandrina Bandera for an exhibit at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, 1999.

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