I frequently come across references to “Tarot’s origins in the Renaissance.” At least it’s not Ancient Egypt! It’s true, the Renaissance was getting underway in Florence at the time tarot was invented; but northern Italy lagged behind. Besides, Renaissance Humanism in the first half of the fifteenth century was basically a literary affair, with scholars collecting and translating Latin texts for aristocratic libraries.
Have you ever wanted to meet the folks who created the first Tarocchi decks and played Trionfi back in the 1400s? You can come face-to-face with many of them in an exhibit now up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini. This exhibit focuses entirely on Italian portraits of the 15th century and includes many names that will be familiar to tarot history fans.
There’s Filippo Maria Visconti, who commissioned the first gilded and painted decks, and his daughter and son-in-law Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza who commissioned the Visconti-Sforza deck from Bonifacio Bembo, the artist who most likely did the matching portraits of the couple in the exhibit. Also on display are their descendents Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Ludovico Maria (Il Morro) Sforza who raised Milan to its pinnacle of splendor. Read more
Whenever I go to a museum, I make a point of searching the medieval exhibits for International Gothic art that resonates with the Visconti-Sforza deck. A recent chilly (by Los Angeles standards) Sunday at the Getty Center yielded three finds in one room.
The artist Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), the epitome of Italian International Gothic, flourished at the time Tarot was invented and just before Italian aristocracy began commissioning their elaborate hand painted decks. Aristocrats wanted to see an idealized version of themselves and their elegant world reflected in their art. Rich colors, glittering surfaces and intricate patterns were hallmarks of the International Gothic period, when artists reproduced in paint the feel of velvet brocade and the look of clothing intricately embroidered with gold thread. Read more