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The Rosenwald Deck

Il Bagatto from the Rosenwald Deck

Sullivan Hismans, at Tarot Sheet Revival, has worked tarot magic again by creating an actual deck from sheets of tarot cards printed @1500 and housed in the Rosenwald collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

We have no tarot decks from the 15th and early16th centuries, since they were used up and thrown away. Instead we have printed sheets of cards with flaws that made them unusable. They were never cut into individual cards, but were recycled and often used by book binders. Occasionally a researcher will take a book apart and find random sheets of playing cards and discarded book pages in the binding.  The age of the book tells us the last date the cards could have been printed.

Sheet of tarocchi cards from the Rosenwald collectionI’ve been fascinated by these remnants of tarot’s earliest history since first seeing them in Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot. I never dreamed I would actually hold a deck of these ancient cards in my hands. But Sullivan Hismans has made that miracle happen twice, with the Budapest deck released earlier this year, and now the Rosenwald deck.

The Rosenwald collection has three block printed tarocchi sheets. One sheet has all the trumps except the Fool, plus three queens. The other two sheets, with most of the suit cards, are from a different deck that was probably printed the same time as the trump sheet. A German playing card museum has an identical sheet of trumps printed in mirror image from a different but nearly identical wood block.

Hismans had to recreate the nearly obliterated Wheel of Fortune, a non-existent Fool and the missing Queen of Batons and tens of each suit. These are done so skillfully it’s impossible to tell they are not part of the original sheet of prints.

Fool from Rosenwald deckThe deck has two sets of queens: the three queens on the trump sheet along with a re-created Queen of Batons, and a set of queens created by Hismans to replace the missing queens on the suit card sheets. These queens hold suit symbols that look like the pips on the sheets, and are the cards you will probably want to use if you read with the deck.

The original sheet has only twenty-one trump cards since the Fool and Bagatto are combined as a street magician with ass’s ears (illustration at the top). Hismans made this a twenty-two-card deck by creating a Fool with imagery from several fifteenth-century cards.

The cards are the original size, 2 x 3.5 inches, printed on sturdy card stock with a silky, smooth finish. The backs and the background of the face of each card are a photo of the paper as it exists now. If you were to discover a 500-year-old deck in a trunk, it would probably look like this deck.

Rosenwald deck envelopeThe envelopes are one of the delights of Hismans’ decks. In previous centuries cards came wrapped in envelopes with the printer’s name and address and a logo that made them mini art works. Hismans taught himself block carving so he could print an envelope using authentic techniques on heavy textured paper.

Only 400 decks were printed. If you already have the set of trumps he published earlier this year, you can purchase just the suit cards. But if you get the entire deck, you get a newly-designed envelope. If you value tarot history, this deck is an indispensable addition to your collection.

When and where was this deck created?

The trump sheet that resides in a German playing card museum is accompanied by two identical book pages. The printer was evidently not satisfied with the quality of these two pages so they were recycled. If we know the date the book was printed, then we know the approximate date of the sheet of cards.

Playing card historian Franco Pratesi did an enormous amount of meticulous research to discover the title of the book and its publishing history. His original Italian article was translated by Michael Howard and posted to the Tarot History Forum (links at bottom).

The pages are from a legal book written in Latin by a member of a prominent Perugian family, and printed in many editions throughout the 16th century. Pratesi ascertained that the loose pages came from an edition printed in 1501 in Perugia. The Rosenwald cards were undoubtedly printed at the same time and place, since scrap paper would not have been kept for long and would not have traveled very far. Both the book pages and the uncut tarot sheets somehow ended up being kept together over the centuries.

There’s one problem with a Perugian origin for the cards: In 1486, the city forbade the manufacture of dice and cards and confiscated everything needed for their manufacture, including wood blocks for card printing. Did they rescind this decision, were there clandestine card printers, or did a discarded sheet of cards somehow make its way from elsewhere (possibly Florence) to Perugia?

Was the deck designed in 1501, or is the imagery a holdover from a previous era? An unusual feature of this deck is how the Fool and the Juggler are conflated (see image at the top). The late Michael J. Hurst found a nearly identical image dating from 1465. This is hardly solid proof that the deck was designed around that year; but the simple, graceful lines of the figures go back to the earliest days of block printing on paper.

First Phase of Block Printing

Christ Before Herod Block Print, France 1400Art historians divide fifteenth-century block printing into three phases. Tarot was invented during the first phase when printers produced both playing cards and religious images on single sheets of paper. The first, International Gothic, phase of block printing is characterized by graceful, heavy black lines, hairpin curves rather than sharp hooks to denote drapery, no shading or cross-hatching, and almost no background or context for the main image. Here is a typical example, Christ Before Herod, a French print from @1400, and the Rosenwald Hermit card for comparison. The Rosenwald cards seem to be a throw-back to the earlier era. Could the block carver have copied old, worn-out blocks, preserving a style that was archaic in 1501?

Florentine Connection

Perugia is an important cultural center half-way between Rome and Florence. Throughout the middle ages and Renaissance, the city managed to keep its political independence, but Hermit card from Rosenwald Deckmost likely had strong cultural connections with Florence. Several details on the Rosenwald cards connect them to Florentine cards: The Virtues’ scalloped halos, centaurs for knights, maids instead of pages in the suits of coins and cups, and Judgment placed after the World.

There’s an intriguing stylistic similarity between the first phase of block printing discussed above, Justice and Knight of Coins from Rosenwald deckthe Rosenwald cards, and a book printed in Florence in 1491, Fior di Virtu. This book of moral instruction for children, written before 1325, was reprinted numerous times in several languages, often with wood cuts. Nearly every school child read it; and it was one of the blockbuster best-sellers of the late middle ages. Arthur Hind lists the book as missing, but a copy was discovered in Barcelona in 1950 with Florence 1491 inscribed on the title page.

Florence got into block printed books rather late. Engraving dominated the book trade, possibly because engravers belonged to the influential goldsmiths’ guild and monopolized the market. According to Lessing Rosenwald, between 1490 and 1510 the city enjoyed a very brief flowering of block printed books in a distinct style — mostly fiction and religious texts printed on cheap paper that rarely survives for long. Few books remain as they were meant for the mass market, not for aristocrats, who still disdained vulgar printed books. Fior di Virtu was one of the first books of its type in Florence and probably a prototype for subsequent books. It was written in the Tuscan dialect and was never intended for export. The block prints in these books shared such a distinct, minimalist style that art historians speculate one artist designed them all, or they were all engraved by one or two workshops.

Virtue of Constancy from Fior di VirtuShown here is the Virtue of Constancy from I Fior de Virtu. The thick, graceful black lines, minimal background, and almost no hatching in the folds of the clothing take us back to block printing in the first quarter of the 15th century. When this version of Fior was printed, Botticelli had already engraved Dante’s Divine Comedy and Albrecht Durer was to do his Apocalypse wood cuts in the late 1490s. Taste and technology had changed radically over the century. These illustrations seem to hark back to an earlier, simpler era.

I think it’s quite likely the Rosenwald deck was created under the influence of Florentine block printing. Could it have been printed in Florence, perhaps by a book printer who also produced cards? If so, how did a discarded sheet of cards printed in Florence get together with discarded book pages printed in Perugia? Was the deck designed and printed in Perugia by someone familiar with the popular books coming out of Florence; or even by a Florentine printer who set up shop in Perugia? We need to know more about the book and paper trade at this time to be able to speculate intelligently.

This deck is extremely significant. Various card images link it to Minchiate and to Bolognese decks, as well as the Florentine connection already mentioned. The pips are precursors to the French Tarot de Marseille. We owe Sullivan Hismans a huge debt of gratitude for making it possible to hold this deck in our hands and experience it as those tarocchi players did a half-millennium ago.

References and Links:

  • Tarot Sheet Revival Sullivan Hismans web page where you can see all his work, read background information and purchase his deck. Links to the pages mentioned below are on his Rosenwald page.
  • Tarot History Forum, Michael Howard’s translation of Pratesi’s article with some followup discussion
  • Pratesi’s original Italian article
  • Michael Howard’s website with his English translations of many Pratesi articles
  • Hind, Arthur M. An Introduction to Woodcut. Dover replication, 1963. Originally published by Houghton Mifflin, 1935. Christ before Herod, Vol I, p. 115. On printing in Florence, Vol II, p. 527-532.
  • I Fior di Virtu. Translated by Nicolas Fersin. Library of Congress, 1953 with facsimiles of the original woodcuts and an introduction by Lessing Rosenwald.
4 Comments Post a comment
  1. BC #

    Great to see this kind of difficult task being taken on and the deck reproduced. And a great article too!

    The English edition of the Fior diVirtu is available to read online:

    Another source:

    October 31, 2017
    • Thanks so much for those links. I have a hard copy (signed by Rosenwald, no less) so I’ve never looked for it online.

      October 31, 2017
  2. BC #

    Ooh! Signed copy, no less.

    Rub it in, why don’t you! 😛

    October 31, 2017
  3. Thanks Sherryl for this great summary about the Rosenwald deck and early woodblock printing.

    November 1, 2017

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