Golden Decks of the Fifteenth Century: The Visconti di Modrone and Brera-Brambilla Tarocchi
Nearly two decades ago, Il Meneghello of Milan gave us the best facsimile available of the 1450 Visconti-Sforza deck. Now they’ve outdone themselves by producing facsimiles of the two earliest trionfi/tarocchi decks we know of — luxurious gold-covered cards created for the Duke of Milan in the early 1440s. Il Meneghello printed the Visconti di Modrone deck in 2015 and 2017, and released a book in 2018. The Brera-Brambilla deck was published in the summer of 2018 with its accompanying book available in September.
The names of these decks can be a bit confusing. Italians refer to the decks by their last Italian owner, while Americans name them after the museum or collection where they are housed. For consistency, I’m going to refer to these decks by their Italian names with the American designation in parentheses.
Dating the decks
Both decks were created during the reign of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti (1412 to 1447) probably about 1442 or 1443. No documentary evidence such as account books exist because the Visconti records were destroyed in a fire during the political turmoil of the late 1440s. But the heraldic devices and the coins depicted on the decks tell us who was in power when they were commissioned.
Visconti di Modrone (Visconti Cary Yale) Deck
This deck was formerly in the Visconti di Modrone collection. In 1947, an American collector, Melbert B. Cary, acquired the deck and brought it to the US. He subsequently donated his collection to the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
This deck has several features that distinguish it from the other two decks commissioned for the Visconti and Sforza dukes. Eleven trump cards still exist, including the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. We can’t say if the three virtues were added on, as in the Minchiate deck, or if they were substituting for traditional Trionfi playing cards.
All the royal characters in this deck are accompanied by one to four attendants. The Emperor and Empress have four attendants each, while a servant manages the chariot driver’s horses. All the Kings and Queens in the four suits have attendants.
There are six court cards in each suit, with the addition of female knights and pages. Putting all the ranks in male-female pairs is a romantic touch that suggests this deck was a wedding present. At left is the female Knight of Swords with the Sforza quince flower device on her gown. None of the suits retains a complete set of court cards but only one pip card is missing – the Three of Coins.
All the pip cards have an embossed silver background which has tarnished to dark gray. Gold and blue are the only pigments used on the pip symbols. The baton pips are the same arrows held by the court figures in the Brambilla deck; while the court figures in the Modrone deck hold long ceremonial staffs with elaborately carved finials.
All cards have pink borders with little blue flowers, rather than the plain borders of the other two decks made for the Visconti and Sforza families.
When was the Modrone deck created?
The betrothal or marriage scene on the Lovers card contains the best clues. On the canopy, the Visconti viper alternates with a white cross on red, which is the insignia of Pavia, the Visconti’s main residence. But it’s also a symbol of Savoy, which has led researchers to speculate that the scene is either the marriage of Filippo to his second wife Maria of Savoy in 1428, or of Francesco and Bianca Sforza’s son Galeazzo Maria to Bona of Savoy in 1468. On stylistic grounds, we can be certain the deck was created in the 1440s before Galeazzo was born. The marriage of Filippo and Bona was loveless and unconsummated, so it’s doubtful anyone commissioned a deck to commemorate it twenty years after the fact.
It’s more likely the deck was commissioned for the marriage of Filippo’s daughter Bianca to Francesco Sforza in October 1441. The man on the Lover’s card wears the Sforza heraldic fountain on his clothes. The Batons and Swords court cards wear Sforza emblems of quince flowers and fountains, while the Cups and Coins court figures wear the Visconti devices of a dove and sunrays and the ducal crown with fronds. This suggests the joining of the two families.
Who created the deck?
Three prominent Italian International Gothic artists have their champions as the creators of one or more of the decks made for the Visconti and the Sforza. The current consensus is that all three decks were created by Bonifacio Bembo and his workshop. In 1928, Roberto Longhi, one of the foremost art historians of the 20th century, wrote an article which revived Bembo’s reputation and attributed all three decks to him. Art historians have fallen in line with this ever since. Before then, the Zavattari family were the favorites. There are compelling reasons to believe that at least one of the decks could have been created by Michelino da Besozzo. All three artists worked for the Visconti; and there are obvious connections between the cards and details in their frescoes.
Cristina Dorsini introduces us to Filippo Maria’s life and character, then dates the deck from the evidence of heraldry and coins depicted on the cards. Michelino da Besozzo is put forward as the artist, and ten examples of his work are reproduced. All the existing trump cards and four court cards are given full-page color illustrations with a discussion of the card on the facing page.
Like all recent publications coming from the Il Meneghello workshop, the English translation is very poorly done and there are numerous typos. The results range from humorous to clumsy to incomprehensible. If you can read Italian, you may want to get that version and spare yourself some agony.
Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone XV Secolo was published by Il Meneghello in two editions: 400 copies in 2015 and 1,000 copies in 2017. The cards in the two printings are identical: 3.5 x 7 inches, rounded corners and printed on sturdy matte card stock with speckled brown backs. The boxes for the two editions have different paper coverings and lids. Both editions are housed in boxes with marbled paper and a card pasted on the cover with a red wax seal. The 2015 deck comes with a booklet containing an abbreviated version of the material in the 2018 book. A numbered title card is included with both decks.
The Brera-Brambilla Deck
Giovanni Brambilla of Venice owned this deck in the early 20th century; but it has been in the Pinacoteca di Brera since 1971.
Art historians argue about which deck came first, the Brambilla or Modrone. The current consensus says this is the earlier deck, which could make it one of the first commissions from the Bembo workshop after Bonifacio took over from his father around 1440.
The deck has the fairy tale quality of International Gothic art. The six remaining court figures are suspended in a golden glow and seem barely anchored in this world. They all have the curly blond hair, pale skin and vacant, childlike face that was the ideal for both men and women at the time. Compare this to the more detailed costumes, animated horses, and lively faces and figures in the Modrone deck. The gold is embossed like the Modrone with a diamond and sunburst pattern above a green bottom section.
The two Queens of Batons shown here illustrate the artistic styles of the two decks. The Brambilla Queen holds an arrow upright and wears a blue gown decorated with a flower motif. Her elegant posture and porcelain skin are typical of the International Gothic, as is her tightly curled blond hair and fashionably high forehead created by shaving or plucking the hairline. In contrast, the Modrone Queen seems more natural and lively as she leans to hear what the maid in pink is saying. Her gown is decorated with the Sforza fountain, and she holds a long ceremonial baton instead of an arrow.
Like the Modrone deck, the pips have an embossed silver background with symbols in gold and blue. Only one pip is missing, the Four of Coins. The coins in both decks are rendered as Filippo Maria Visconti’s gold florin.
In the suit of batons, a shortened odd baton lies horizontally behind the crossed batons. There are no straight swords, except for the ace. The odd-numbered cards are asymmetrical with an extra curved sword on one side (see the Three of Batons and Swords at left).
Only two trump cards remain, the Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune, which is nearly identical to the later Colleoni-Baglioni (Visconti-Sforza) card.
The book begins with a short introduction to International Gothic culture, then devotes a large section to ten castles in northern Italy that house frescoes of card players. They are referred to as tarocchi players throughout the discussion, but every card that can be identified is a pip. Since no trump cards are shown, it’s impossible to say what game is being illustrated on the castle walls.
The Zavattari dynasty, four generations of artists working in Lombardy throughout the 15th century, receive a few pages of text and several pages of color photos. Several details in their frescoes resemble figures in the Brambilla deck, so Dorsini proposes the Zavattari as the creators of this deck.
This book cries out for a native English-speaking editor. The English translation is awkward but fairly easy to understand until you get to the technical details of the deck. This section evidently exceeded the translator’s abilities so some phrases are incomprehensible.
Tarocchi Visconti Brambilla XV Secolo. Edition of 200 printed in 2018. The deck is housed in a sturdy box covered in dark brown marbled paper. The cards are the same size as the Modrone deck, 3.5 x 7 inches with a dark reddish-brown back that’s streaked and distressed to look aged. A Wheel of Fortune card is pasted on the box with a red wax seal, and a numbered title card is included.
Both books and both decks, as well as a newly released Colleoni-Baglioni (Visconti-Sforza) deck by Il Meneghello, are available in North America from www.collectarot.com.
Dorsini, Cristina. Visconti di Modrone Tarot: Art in Milan in 1400. Il Meneghello Edizioni, March 2018.
Dorsini, Cristina. Visconti Brambilla Tarot: The Zavattari at the Visconti Court. Il Meneghello Edizioni, September 2018.
Bandera, Sandrina. Brera: I tarocchi il caso e la fortuna – Bonifacio Bembo e la cultura cortese tardogotica. Milano, 1999. Large color reproductions of all three of Bembo’s decks.
Kaplan, Stuart. Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume I, pp 87-98 and Volume II pp. 26-35 and 48-52. US Games Inc.
Cards used in illustrations
Visconti di Modrone: Ace of Cups, Female Knight of Swords, Lovers, Queen of Batons
Brera-Brambilla: Queen of Batons, Three of Batons, Three of Swords, Emperor, Wheel of Fortune