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Budapest Bounty: Three Recreations of an Ancient Tarot

I’ve always been intrigued by the few remnants of fifteenth-century block-printed decks that still exist. They hold tantalizing clues to the early days of tarot, so I’m thrilled that there are three versions of the block-printed Budapest deck on the market. Shown here from left to right are the Fool and Judgment cards by Robert Place, Sullivan Hismans and Marco Benedetti.

This deck is the only example (aside from the Rosenwald deck) of what tarot for the masses looked like in fifteenth-century Italy. Some of the clothing, like the men’s short tunic, tells us the deck is no earlier than 1475. The numbering system, with Temperance as VI and Justice as XX, is a clue that the deck originated in the vicinity of Ferrara. (One of the museums housing examples of this deck is in Budapest, otherwise the deck has no connection to that city).

Playing cards were printed in sheets, then color was applied by laying a stencil on top of the sheet and brushing on paint. If there were production flaws, the sheet was not cut up into individual cards; it was recycled and often used as padding in book binding.

The block-printed sheet shown here is an example of what contemporary card restorers work from. The wood blocks were rather worn, so some lines are indistinct with missing or faint sections. The two-color stenciling is crude—odd patches of color that don’t conform to the lines. Images along the left edge and bottom row were sliced off, probably to fit a book cover, and have to be partially re-created.

Here’s an introduction to three contemporary recreations of the Budapest sheets in the order they were first printed. All three decks are the same size as the original cards, approximately 2.25 x 3.75 inches. They are all printed as a full 78-card deck.

Robert Place Budapest deck Chariot card
Robert Place Budapest deck Empress card

I first encountered the Budapest deck in the Los Angeles Folk Art Museum where Robert Place curated a tarot exhibit in 2010. Place’s cards are drawn with smooth heavy lines, then filled in with luminous color. Place took some minor liberties with the original cards, but the clarity of the images is superb. The Chariot was partly sliced off on the original sheet and had to be recreated. Place’s Chariot is unique in having the horses face the same direction with a servant holding the bridle.

Place has a trumps-only deck or a full 78-card deck available on his website printed on cotton paper and hand cut into cards. Read about his restoration and historical background at his website

This meticulous recreation of the original sheets by Sullivan Hismans is the closest I’ve ever come to time-traveling back to the 15th century. The lines and stenciling are extremely faithful to the original cards, allowing one to experience the deck as 15th century card players would have seen it. Hismans did two versions in 2017 and 2020. The later edition uses different coins and cups suits and a few cards are slightly redrawn. His recreation of the Lovers card (at bottom) is witty and unique.

Here’s a review that compares Hismans’ first and second editions and gives historic background.

His TarotSheetRevival website where you can purchase his decks.

Marco Benedetti’s recreation of the deck is very faithful to the original woodblocks. His jewel-toned colors and strong lines clarify the shapes and make the deck very readable. You can work with him for a custom printed deck on your choice of paper.

The cardstock of his custom cards is thin and flexible, but sturdy and easy to shuffle. The cards shown here are on smooth, white cardstock. An alternate choice is cotton paper that gives the colors depth and intensity. It’s thicker than the cardstock, with more texture, but still easy to shuffle. This beautiful printing has its own special magic and has become my go-to reading deck.

Marco Benedetti Tarot Facebook page where you can see all his historic recreations as well as decks printed in gold and silver foil.

The Lovers card had to be partially recreated since only the top half of the card remains on the sheet. Sullivan Hismans created a different scenario than the other two cards. The male lover kneels while the seated woman grabs the arrow instead of being pierced by it. Robert Place’s card is on the left and Marco Benedetti’s on the right.

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