The Fifteenth-Century Charles VI Deck Recreated by Marco Benedetti
In fifteenth-century Italy, wealthy aristocrats indulged themselves with luxurious, hand painted, gold-embossed Trionfi decks. The decks came in two distinct families: those commissioned by the Visconti and Sforza Dukes of Milan in the International Gothic style; and Renaissance-style decks created most likely in either Ferrara or Florence. The so-called Charles VI deck, with 16 trump cards, is the most complete deck of the Florentine pattern. Other decks of this type have only a handful of trump cards. Benedetti compiled a complete 78-card deck by cobbling together all the existing cards in the Florentine style. A few absent cards had to be recreated, while several cards exist as duplicates. Benedetti includes the duplicate trump cards with his recreated deck, for a total of 90 cards.
It’s still an open question whether this deck was created in Ferrara or Florence; and if it was created in the1430s, the 1470s, or sometime in between. Benedetti believes all the decks discussed here were most likely created in Florence. I’m not totally convinced, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll call it the “Florentine style”.
The Visconti-Sforza deck has been published many times, but until now, no one has printed any of the Florentine style decks because they are so incomplete. Marco Benedetti has worked his tarot magic once again by creating a complete deck from fragments scattered among museums throughout Europe and North America. This deck style deserves to be better known. Let’s take a look at the decks that went into creating Benedetti’s composite.
The So-Called Charles VI Deck
The account books of King Charles VI of France record a payment dated 1392 to artist Jacquemin Gringonneur for three decks of painted and gilded playing cards. In the mid-nineteenth century, a playing card historian associated this entry with a deck of hand painted tarot cards in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF). On stylistic grounds, the BNF deck had to have been painted in Italy in the mid-fifteenth century; but the Charles VI (or Gringonneur) designation has stuck with the deck.
Only six trump cards are missing from this deck, making it the most complete deck of the Florentine style. Benedetti added cards from the decks discussed below to make a complete set of trumps and suit cards.
The Alessandro Sforza Deck
This deck was probably created in the same workshop and at the same time as the Charles VI deck. The cards in both decks are the same size and have the same borders. Only five trump cards survive, and two are identical to their corresponding Charles VI cards: The Hermit and The World. Except for two cards that were recently discovered elsewhere, this deck is located in the Castello Ursino in Catania, Sicily.
The deck’s name comes from the heraldic symbol on the King of Swords’ shield. The motif of a diamond ring enclosing a flower was used by Alessandro Sforza, the Lord of Pesaro, a renowned warrior, and half-brother of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. Alessandro was educated at the d’Este court in Ferrara, and members of that family also use the same heraldic device, so we can’t be sure the King of Swords is actually Alessandro. Like the “Charles VI” designation, “Alessandro Sforza” will undoubtedly stick to this deck whether it’s accurate or not.
Benedetti uses only the Empress for his recreation. The other four trump cards are included in the package as extras.
The Ercole d’Este Deck
The existing eight trumps and eight court cards of this deck are housed in the Beinecke Library, Yale University. It’s possible the deck commemorates the marriage of Ercole I d’Este and Eleanora of Aragon in 1473, as the arms of both families are in the deck. Benedetti uses only the Bagatto for his deck; but the other seven trump cards are included as extras.
The Rothschild Sheets
Two of the six trump cards missing from the Charles VI deck (Wheel of Fortune and Star) were recreated by extracting the figures from uncut sheets of block printed cards and superimposing them on Charles VI backgrounds. The Rothschild Sheets, from early sixteenth-century Italy, share imagery with the Florentine pattern and Bolognese decks. Two sheets with six trump cards each are divided between the Rothschild Collection at the Louvre and the Museum of the Beaux Arts School in Paris.
Since there was no Papessa card in any of the above-mentioned decks, Benedetti borrowed the figure from a Visconti-Sforza type card in the Fournier Playing Card Museum. The Devil in this deck is the only surviving card from a deck printed by Agnolo Hebreo about 1500, probably in Bologna.
The Court Cards of the Recreated Charles VI Deck
Benedetti assembled a complete set of sixteen court cards from all the decks mentioned above. The Charles VI deck has only one court card, the Page of Swords. The Rothschild Collection of the Louvre contributed the most—seven court cards in all, including the Queen of Swords shown here. Four missing court cards were recreated by giving the Ercole d’Este court figures suit symbols from other sources. The King of Cups shown here was originally the King of Coins. If you order a custom printed deck, three unused court cards, two Ercole d’Este and one Rothschild are included.
The Pip Cards of the Recreated Charles VI Deck
The pips in the recreated deck are based on a partial deck of 27 cards divided between the Louvre’s Rothschild Collection and the Correr Museum in Venice. Missing cards were digitally recreated and colors were adjusted so each suit has its own color scheme. The Ace of Cups and Two of Coins are from the Alessandro Sforza deck, while the Ace of Coins is a combination of a Bolognese ace and a Florentine coin.
One of my favorites is the Ace of Swords piercing a little heart. The background decoration of the suit cards is especially elegant.
The Recreated Deck
When you purchase the 78-card recreated Charles VI deck, you get twelve duplicate trumps for a total of ninety cards, allowing you to customize the deck to your own taste. (You also get three extra court cards with the custom printed version.) Being able to lay every trump card of this style out on a table makes a wonderful study aid. Handling historic decks as actual cards feels like time travelling – a feeling I don’t get from looking at pictures in books or online.
Get the deck two ways: Order from Make Playing Cards or contact Marco Benedetti to arrange for a custom printing.
The large original-size deck comes in a custom-made wooden box. The box is enclosed in a sturdy cardboard cover with a card illustrated on the top and a personalized inscription inside.
The 90-card Make Playing Cards deck is 88 x 140 mm (3.5 x 5.75 inches) including the border. Benedetti’s Make Playing Cards Page
The 93-card custom printed deck come in two sizes:
Original size: 90 x 180 mm (3.5 x 7 inches) a bit large than the original Visconti-Sforza cards. Optional wooden box.
Standard size: 68 x 131 mm (2.75 x 5.25 inches)
The 15th-century decks vary slightly in size, so they have all been scaled to the Charles VI deck.
You can request either single or double sheets of card stock. The single sheets are smooth 350 g/m cardstock. Double sheets are made from 250 and 180 g/m cardstock. I recommend the double for a little extra heft. The cards are still flexible and easy to shuffle.
To order, email: Tarot @ Marcobenedetti.it
Get more information and see the cards on the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MarcoBenedettiTarot
Here are my reviews of other Marco Benedetti decks:
Rosenwald Bordi Rivoltinati
Tarocco Bolognese Al Mondo
Nicolas Rolichon Tarot
I Tarocchi Rosenwald
I Tarocchi Benedetti: Visconti-Sforza Homage
Dummett, Michael. The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City. Duckworth, 1980. 67-75.
Kaplan, Stuart R., Encyclopedia of Tarot Vol. I. US Games Systems, Stamford CT, 1978. 109-122.
Maggio, Emilia. New Insights into the So-called Alessandro Sforza Deck. The Playing Card, Vol. 44, #4.
Various Authors. Il Mondo in Mano. Catalog of an exhibit at Il Museo Civico di Castello Ursino, Catania, 2019-2020. 16-31.
Many discussions over the years on Facebook, the Tarot History Forum, Aeclectic’s Tarot Forum and Yahoo’s Tarot_L group. I took copious notes but failed to credit the tarot historians who shared their research so generously.