Tarot AC – A New Visconti-Sforza Deck
An exciting new Visconti-Sforza deck is on the scene — a faithful reproduction hand drawn by librarian and organic farmer Alice Cooper. Ms. Cooper created this deck out of pure love, as her own personal copy, with no thought of reproducing or selling it. The care and attention she lavished on this deck during the year-long creative process gives it a magical feel that photo-reproductions of historic decks don’t conjure up. Fortunately for us, her friends persuaded her to print the deck in a limited edition of 200 and sell it on Etsy.
Working from a scanned deck at FromOldBooks.org and black and white photos in books by Gertrude Moakley and Sylvie Simon, Ms. Cooper faithfully reproduced the deck in acrylic paint. The cards are a bit larger than a standard deck but smaller than the original. She kept the 2:1 proportion between height and width which is important, because the card images were designed with this ratio in mind.
I’ve always hesitated to read with the Visconti-Sforza deck because the vapid, round faces on the court cards are so uninspiring. This deck nicely resolves the problem by giving us court cards with lively faces and well-delineated eyes. The replacement Knight of Coins blends well with the other cards of the suit.
An important consideration with any Visconti-Sforza deck is the treatment of the Devil and Tower. Because the entire deck has been drawn by the same hand, these cards look like they belong with the rest of the trumps. I was disappointed to see the standard Tarot de Marseilles imagery, but the Devil has some whimsical touches, and the Tower’s flames and lightning give that card a sense of doom.
The trumps have a charming, folk art feel. While they are very faithful to the original, some have delicious little details that personalize the deck: the madness in the Fool’s eyes, the easy-to-read lettering on the Wheel of Fortune, the humanlike face on Strength’s lion, and the two mischievous boys holding up the World. The backs are sprinkled with tiny flowers similar to the decoration on the pip cards.
Only a few details bother me: the Papesse’s robe is silvery gray instead of tan; the lack of heraldic symbols on the Empress’s gown downplays her connection to the Visconti family; and the blue hill below the Hanged Man’s head is flattened to resemble a halo, implying martyrdom rather than criminality.
Imagine you’re a courtier lounging in the Duke of Milan’s audience chamber back in the 1450s. The sergeant-at-arms swings open the massive oak doors and the Duke’s favorite artist, Bonifacio Bembo, approaches the throne. With a flourish of his best velvet cloak, Master Bembo kneels and humbly offers the Duke a wooden box. The Duke’s eyes shine with delight and avarice as he lifts the lid and admires the gold-embossed cards gleaming in the torchlight. Flashes of glittering silver set off the rich blues and greens distilled from lapis lazuli and malachite. This new treasure will certainly impress his dinner guests; but unfortunately it’s useless for actually playing the popular new game of Trionfi. The Duke orders Bembo to go back to his workshop and produce a copy in durable paint that can withstand shuffling.
If this scenario had actually occurred, Bembo and his apprentices could have produced a deck just like Alice Cooper’s reproduction of the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Visconti-Sforza deck.
The deck is housed in a handsome cotton twill envelope handmade by Ms. Cooper in a choice of antique gold, or black with gold lining. The deck is accompanied by a card that’s signed and numbered, and a small booklet that tells how the deck came to be created, as well as giving card meanings derived from the Waite Smith tradition.
The complete deck can be seen in a photo album on Alice Cooper’s facebook page.
Photos and a discussion of a few of the cards are on her TarotAC Blog.
The deck can be purchased for $50 at this link on Etsy.
(The painting above is Flemish @1448 of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and contemporary of Francesco Sforza, receiving an illuminated book of hours from the artist.)