Like most amateur tarot historians, I’ve often fantasized about entering the inner sanctum of a museum to see, and perhaps even handle, those magnificent gold-embossed cards from the 15th century. So you can imagine how magical and mind-blowing it was to find myself quite unexpectedly face-to-face with the Morgan Library’s portion of the Visconti-Sforza deck.
It happened in 2006 during a trip to New York City where I hoped to immerse myself in abstract art at the Guggenheim, the Whitney and MOMA. A musty old institution like the Morgan Library wasn’t even on my radar until a friend of my traveling companion offered to get us in for free. Off the main lobby, in a large, very dim room, I discovered a special exhibit of illuminated manuscripts. Quite by accident, I stumbled over two very long glass cases running the width of the room where the Visconti-Sforza cards from the Library’s collection emitted a heavenly glow in the room’s dim light. Read more
How did a luxurious tarot deck rendered in gold leaf and paint made of crushed malachite and lapis lazuli find is way from its birth place in Milan to New York City? The Visconti-Sforza Tarot was commission by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, about 1450 and created in the workshop of Bonifacio Bembo. Precious, gold-leaf decks were all the rage among the aristocracy of mid-15th century northern Italy, and were given as gifts, or brought out to amuse and impress dinner guests.
We know the deck left the Sforza family by the late 15th century; and that the complete deck (minus the four missing cards: Devil, Tower, Knight of Coins, and 3 of Swords) was in the hands of the Colleoni family in the late 19th century. The deck’s travels in the intervening centuries are shadowy, although there’s evidence the deck had been owned by both the Ambivero and Donalli families, who may have been relatives of the Colleoni. Read more
What does it take to put together a tarot deck collection that covers every important era in Tarot’s 600-year history? After making a list and distilling it to the essentials, I found you could cover all the bases quite nicely with fourteen decks. If you stick to just the main highway of tarot evolution and avoid going down interesting by-ways, you can create a basic collection with just seven decks.
Here are my guidelines for a well-rounded collection comprised of decks that are affordable and readily available. The collection falls into five broad categories: Fifteenth century, Tarot de Marseilles, Occult, Rider-Waite-Smith, and contemporary decks. The basic collection has the oldest examples of each category. I’ve given suggestions for filling out the basic collection with additional essential decks; then I provide a shopping list at the end of the article. Read more