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.
The most unique single reproduction card in my collection is the Devil card printed by Agnolo Hebreo (Angelo the Jew) shortly after 1500 and now residing in the British Museum. It was undoubtedly part of a complete tarot deck; but no other cards by this individual exist anywhere, and there is no trace of him in the records. This Devil card is the only clue we have that the printer Agnolo Hebreo may have existed. It’s possible the name is a pseudonym borrowed from popular culture by an anonymous deck designer.
One of the most exciting events in my twenty years of collecting historic decks occurred in 2017 when Sullivan Hismans (Tarot Sheet Revival.com) introduced the Budapest Tarot. He meticulously recreated a very important fifteenth-century deck that only exists in museum collections as partly damaged uncut sheets of cards. This limited edition of 250 decks sold out quickly and has become a favorite reading deck of the lucky few who own one. Hismans just released another edition of 450 Budapest decks with some changes that I’ll illustrate below. But first, I want to put the deck in its historic context. Read more
Sullivan Hismans, at Tarot Sheet Revival, has worked tarot magic again by creating an actual deck from sheets of tarot cards printed @1500 and housed in the Rosenwald collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Read more
Sigismondo Malatesta, bad boy of the Renaissance, gave us our first documented evidence for tarot. Researcher Franco Pratesi discovered a note in a Florentine account book dated September 16, 1440 saying a deck of naibi a trionfi had been sent to Malatesta that was beautiful, expensive and decorated with his arms. In 1452 he surfaced again in connection with tarot. Bianca, the Duchess of Milan, sent a note to her husband Francesco saying Malatesta was asking for the trionfi cards that were made in Cremona. Read more
Osvaldo Menegazzi, the artistic genius behind Il Meneghello, has once again created a beautiful facsimile of an historic tarot deck. This deck, commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, in the 1440s, is one of the oldest Italian tarocchi decks we know of. The cards were hand-painted on an embossed gold background, much like the Visconti-Sforza deck commissioned by Filippo’s son-in-law, Francesco Sforza, a decade later. Read more
This two-volume book considers tarot from every possible angle: popular culture, occult theory, academic history, literary analysis and artistic commentary. I hope my brief summary of the articles will inspire you to purchase this major contribution to tarot studies.
Volume I offers a good foundation in tarot history.
The late Sir Michael Dummett surveys tarot from its 15th-century beginnings as a card game, to its appropriation by French occultists in the late 18th century.
Robert Place delves deeply into the iconography of the earliest hand-painted decks and discusses the trump sequence as a neoplatonic ascent of the soul. He also describes the first set of trump cards we know of, by the Duke of Milan’s astrologer Marziano de Tortona, which Place is currently re-creating. (Examples can be seen on his facebook page.) Read more
Opening these evocative books of poetry based on the 15th-century Visconti Sforza and Sola Busca decks releases a gentle magic into the air. The tarot figures speak for themselves in these elegant, imagistic poems, opening up surprising revelations about each card. Energy hums between the poems and color photos of their cards on the facing page.
All Love Goes Before Me: Poems on the Sola Busca Tarot
Tarot historian Giordano Berti sets the mood in his preface by invoking the muses and a lineage of alchemist-poets, while telling us the poems are “access portals to another dimension.” In the introduction, Il Meneghello’s art director, Dr. Cristina Dorsini, conjures up the special magic of this deck. Read more
I was going to give this book a glowing review (Astrology, Magic, and Alchemy in Art by Matilde Battistini). It’s chock full of gorgeous art on glossy paper (mostly medieval and Renaissance, but ranging from the Greeks to Surrealists) covering dozens of topics from Athanor to Zodiac. But when I got to the tarot section, my spirits sank to my toenails. I was going to revile the Getty Research Center for sloppy scholarship, but on closer inspection I see that the J. Paul Getty Museum merely printed an English translation of an Italian book originally published in Milan in 2004. It’s even more disheartening to realize that this material, coming from tarot’s birthplace, completely ignores the deck’s Italian origins in favor of half-baked French occultism passed off as historical fact. Read more
Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan and the most successful condottiere of his time, gave the world the Visconti-Sforza deck, and contributed immensely to our knowledge of Tarot’s origins.
Francesco’s father-in-law, Duke Maria Filippo Visconti, commissioned two gold-leaf tarot decks in the 1440s, but so many cards are missing, we can only speculate on what the complete deck was like. Francesco’s deck, painted with precious mineral pigments on gold leaf, is nearly complete, showing us that the familiar 78-card deck existed in the mid-15th century.
Throughout the 1440s, tarot decks were mentioned in account books and correspondence from Ferrara, Bologna and Venice; but we have nothing from Milan because the castle and all the court’s records were destroyed during the political turmoil of 1447. Two letters Francesco wrote in 1450 are our earliest written clues about tarot’s place at the Milan court. Read more