Early Tarot 1420-1475
Trick-taking card games, where one of the four suits is designated as a “trump” or “triumph” suit, were extremely popular throughout Europe in the late 14th century. In the early 15th century, someone got the bright idea of creating a fifth suit of illustrated cards to serve as a permanent trump suit for a game called “trionfi” (trumps). Card designers illlustrated this suit with animals, flowers, hunting scenes, or moral allegories.
The First Trionfi Decks
The first deck of cards we know of with an extra trump suit was commissioned by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan no later than 1425. He asked his secretary, the humanist scholar and astrologer Maurizio da Tortona, to devise an allegorical card game based on Virtues and Temptations. The deck had four suits, with four extra trump cards depicting classical gods in each suit. These trumps acted as a virtual fifth suit. The deck was painted by the artist Michelino da Besozzo, and was considered exceptionally beautiful. Da Tortona wrote a book describing the cards and their allegorical significance, making this the world’s first deck and book set! The book is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, but the deck has been lost. A courtier inventing a card game for an aristocratic patron is one possible model for how the first Tarot deck was invented.
Carte da Trionfi (trump cards) are first mentioned in writing in the Duke of Ferrara’s 1442 account book. We don’t know if it refers to cards with our familiar tarot images, or to a set of triumphs with flowers or hunting scenes. It’s quite possible it was the tarot deck we are familiar with, since a deck with the standard twenty-two tarot trumps was becoming a favorite at the courts of Milan and Ferrara during the 1440s and 1450s. We don’t know if the deck mentioned in the Duke’s account book was hand painted or block printed. The Duke owned a printing press at that time, but fifteenth century aristocrats also commissioned hand-painted, gold- and silver-leafed playing cards from their favorite artists. About 270 cards from at least 15 painted decks have survived to the present day.
The oldest tarot decks still in existence were all painted in the workshop of the Duke of Milan’s favorite artist, Bonifacio Bembo, and are known by the name of the museum or collection they are housed in. The two earliest, the Brera-Brambilla and the Carey-Yale decks, were probably commissioned by Duke Maria Filipppo Visconti in the 1440s. The pip cards have arrows instead of rods. Two decks (The Cary-Yale and Pierpont Morgan) have straight swords instead of curved scimitars. The suit of coins shows gold coins minted by the Duke. The Carey Yale deck has two extra court cards in each suit, as well as three extra trump cards depicting virtues. At this early date, there was no set standard for the number or type of cards in a tarot deck.
The most complete deck of 15th century painted tarot cards that survives today is the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo deck, commonly known as the Visconti-Sforza deck, commissioned in 1450 by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. The trump cards have no name or number on them, but they obviously depict the same tarot archetypes we have today. In Ferrara in the 1470s someone either replaced several missing trump cards from this deck, or created cards that were never in the deck to begin with, to bring it up to the standard twenty-two trumps. This deck does not have a Tower and Devil card, and two suit cards are missing as well. We have no way of knowing if the Devil and Tower were lost or deliberately left out of the deck.
Milan may get the credit for inventing Tarot, but the Duke of Ferrara and his family were huge consumers of playing cards throughout the 15th century. Starting in 1422, the Duke’s account books show numerous entries for luxurious hand painted decks as well as the repair of damaged cards. An entry in the account books for 1442 uses the term “Carte da Trionfi” for the first time. The Duke of Milan may have purchased just as many decks, but we’ll never know as his records were destroyed in a fire in 1447.
Two hand-painted decks from about 1475 and two uncut sheets of block printed decks from a little after 1500 show that Ferrara was developing a unique Tarot style. Strength is a woman standing next to a pillar, the Hanged Man holds two bags of money, Death is on horseback, and the World card shows a woman standing on a circle that encloses a miniature city. Some of these images turn up 200 years later in the Parisian Vieville deck, but this style didn’t influence the development of mainstream Tarot.
On the next page we’ll see the rich variety of decks in 15th century Italy.