I Tarocchi di Valentina Visconti per il Palio d’Asti
Acquiring this hard-to-find deck inspired me to get acquainted with Valentina Visconti and learn about the chapter of her life depicted in these cards.
In 1389, Valentina set out in a magnificent procession from Milan to France to meet her husband Louis, Duke of Orléans, brother of the mad king of France, Charles VI. They had been married in a proxy ceremony two years before, but meeting in person was delayed while Valentina’s father, the Duke of Milan, scraped together her extremely expensive dowry. The procession stopped in the town of Asti to spend five days enjoying the Palio (horse races).
First, a description of the deck before getting back to Valentina’s life.
The deck has the traditional 78-card structure, with ten additional cards. Five cards represent the prizes given to the winners of the Palio: Speroni/Spurs, Monete/Money, Gallo/Rooster, Palio/Banner and Acciuga/Sardines. The other five cards represent personal qualities one needs to win: Courage, Intrigue, Freedom, Knowledge and Shrewdness. The artists suggest using these cards to predict who will win the Palio this year. (It’s still happening on the third Sunday of every September.)
The Emperor and Empress cards depict the artists themselves, while Valentina’s portrait appears on all the coins. The batons are rendered as leafy branches, and where the batons usually interlace, this deck has concentric circles with flames.
The court cards are Re, Domina, Cavaliere and Valletto. Except for the King of Swords, who has a beard, the other kings appear very feminine. Instead of Regina, the usual word for Queen, this rank is called Domina, which accentuates her independent rulership..
The cards are 2.25 by 4.25 inches, printed on uncoated, light cream card stock, with square corners. The images are graceful, romantic line drawings rendered in dark brown ink.
The deck, created by artists Maria Teresa Perosino and Sergio Panza, was published in 1982 in an edition of 1,000 numbered copies by Edizioni Del Solleone, owned by Vito Arienti of Milano, Italy.
The Fable of the Visconti Tarocchi
The artists and publisher seem to have sincerely believed that every mention of playing cards in the 14th century actually refers to Tarocchi. They also state that there is so much contradictory data about the deck’s origins that one story is as good as another. With this in mind, here’s a charming fable that’s included with the deck, spoken by the spirit of Valentina herself.
She tells us that when she left Italy in 1389 to take up married life with the French king’s brother, her luggage contained her favorite books, her harp and a Tarocchi deck, along with a fabulous trousseau of gowns and jewels. The procession stopped in the town of Asti for several days to enjoy the horse racing. It was there that a young French page, with the bluest eyes she had ever seen, caught her attention. The two exchanged love-sick gazes from a distance, and managed once to brush hands briefly. When the procession arrived at its destination outside Paris, the Page disappeared, his duties having been discharged.
When Valentina was conducted to the palace to meet her husband for the first time, she advanced toward Duke Louis slowly, her eyes lowered. When Louis held out his hand to her, it held the only token of affection she had been able to give the Page—a card from her Tarocchi deck. When she looked up at the Duke and saw his piercing blue eyes, she realized that he was the Page she had fallen in love with. He had disguised himself as a servant in order to get a sneak preview of his wife.
The marriage was truly a love match. Louis was eager to learn about the secrets of Tarocchi, so they spent many evenings discussing the cards. Louis shared his enthusiasm for the cards with his brother, King Charles VI, who, in 1392, ordered three luxury decks to be painted by the artist Jacquemin Gringonneur. Louis’ own painted deck was listed in the inventory of his belongings at his death in 1407.
The hatred of the queen and the intrigues at court prematurely ended the lives of both Valentina and Louis. Valentina’s spirit wandered between the worlds, remembering a prediction made by one of her grandmother’s servants, that the Visconti Tarocchi would be passed down through time to keep alive of the story of Valentina and Louis. After many generations had passed, Valentina’s spirit heard voices calling to her, the voices of Maria Teresa Perosino and Sergio Panza, residents of Asti and partners in art and in life. Inspired by Valentina’s spirit, they revived her life and times through the medium of a new Tarocchi.
The Truth About the Decks
It’s true that in 1392 King Charles VI paid a substantial amount of money to the artist Jacquemin Gringonneur for three decks of painted and gilt playing cards. For many years people assumed that one of these decks was the partial tarot deck in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. On stylistic grounds it’s obvious that this deck was created in the mid fifteenth century, most likely in Ferrara. This deck has been filled out with replacement cards and published by Lo Scarabeo as the Golden Tarot of the Renaissance.
When Louis d’Orléans was murdered in 1407, the inventory of his possessions listed un jeu de quartes serrasine – Unes Quartes de Lombardie showing that cards were still associated with the Arab world, and that one deck may have come from Valentina’s home territory.
Why can’t these be referring to tarot decks? Because we know from other listings in account books that tarocchi or trionfi was specified for that type of deck. If the document just said “a deck of cards”, that assumed a regular deck with four suits. In addition, there is no documentary evidence for the game of tarocchi/trionfi before 1440. It’s very unlikely there were trionfi decks in the 14th century but no documentary evidence for over forty years.
Who was the real Valentina? Her story encompasses murder, madness, incest, exile, and accusations of witchcraft. (Someone really should make a miniseries.)