The Visconti-Sforza deck is a hybrid mash-up of sixty-eight original cards painted by Bonifacio Bembo about 1450, six cards that were created by a different artist around 1475, and four cards that are still missing and have to be recreated by a contemporary artist whenever the deck is republished. Marco Benedetti has never been happy with the ten replacement cards, and dreamt for years of creating his own version of these cards that would enhance the deck rather than detract from it. This deck brings his personal vision into fruition. By drawing on other works by Bembo for most of the replacement cards, he has revived the deck’s original spirit.
Celebrating my website’s tenth anniversary: 174 blog articles and 42 website pages on tarot history, reading with non-scenic pips, and decks of historic significance. Throughout the summer, I’m going to group the most useful articles by topic and send out links in a series of blog posts.
If fifteenth-century aristocrats hadn’t tried to impress their friends with hand painted, golden tarot decks, and if those decks hadn’t been preserved in museums, our knowledge of tarot’s origins would be very limited. The most complete deck of this type, the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, is one of the most frequently published historic decks. We can’t overestimate its importance. Below are links to deck and book reviews as well as articles on historic background related to this deck.
I came across this deck on The Gamecrafter while looking for something else and was immediately taken by the graceful, clean lines and minimalist design. The deck designer, Marco Benedetti, is not an artist, although he’s had architectural training, and this is the only thing he’s ever created. The deck is based closely on the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Visconti-Sforza deck (V-S) with plenty of quirky personal touches, since it was never the creator’s intention to simply redraw the V-S deck.
Benedetti’s goal was to return to the roots of tarot and strip it of the extraneous occult symbols that had been laid on over the centuries. He believes that any symbolism should be implicit in the overall design, so he made his drawings simple and ambiguous to keep the viewer’s imagination from being imprisoned by specific images. Read more
Hop on a magic carpet and let Jean Huets fly you back to 1447, when a war between Milan and Venice had northern Italy in turmoil, the Sforzas were still a few years away from ruling Milan, and tarot was a novelty.
If you can only own one or two Visconti Sforza decks, before purchasing you need to familiarize yourself with the replacement cards – Tower, Devil and Knight of Coins. (The Three of Swords is also replaced, but it’s hard to mess that one up.)
There are at least eleven versions of the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Visconti Sforza Tarocchi (to use its official name) by six different publishers. It comes in two basic flavors: a photo-reproduction of the cards as they exist now with chipped paint, flaking gold and nail holes top center; or a restored version that’s been touched up to look like new. Some decks are the original size (3.5 x 7 inches), while some are smaller. The images in all decks are identical except the four lost cards. Every publisher hires an artist to create replacements, which vary greatly and can make or break a deck. Read more
I already have three full-sized facsimiles of the Visconti-Sforza deck. So when I came across yet another version, published by Il Meneghello in 1996, I wrestled with temptation for a couple of weeks before succumbing. I’m very glad temptation won out because this deck is the best of the lot.
I compared this deck with my other three: Dal Negro, USGames 1984 and USGames 2015 (with portraits of Francesco and Bianca Sforza on extra cards). Read more
U.S. Games Systems has just reissued their facsimile of the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Visconti Sforza Tarocchi, originally produced in 1975 and still in print. They’ve added bonus cards with portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Milan, probably by Bonifacio Bembo, who most likely created the original deck in the 1450s. Both editions are the same size as the original cards: 3.5 x 7.0 inches. Let’s compare the two decks. Read more
Luxurious playing cards from the 15th and early 16th centuries, including two tarocchi decks, are on exhibit at the Cloisters in New York City until April 17, 2016. This is a unique opportunity to see Visconti Sforza and Visconti (Carey Yale) cards side-by-side. If you can’t make it to New York, you have alternatives for seeing these cards. Read more
This book has everything a mystery-loving, tarot history nerd could desire: brisk pace, tight plot, illicit love, murder at the Sforza court, and those four missing cards from the Duke of Milan’s Visconti-Sforza deck.
Diane Stuckart has written three mysteries set at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza in the early 1490s, when Milan was at the height of its splendor and economic power. As artist in residence, Leonardo da Vinci tinkers with his ingenious military machines in between designing costumes and scenery for pageants and masked balls. Whenever a dead body inconveniently appears in the garden or under a tower, Leonardo uses his astute powers of observation to discreetly solve the crime and save the Duke from embarrassment.
Leonardo’s sidekick in these sleuthing adventures is his young apprentice Dino. What Leonardo doesn’t know (or does he?) is that Dino is actually Delphina, a 16-year-old girl who ran away from home disguised as a boy to avoid an arranged marriage with a repulsive old man. 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