Thierry Depaulis, in Tarot, Jeu et Magie, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1984, p. 37. The text is the catalogue of an exhibition of Tarot Cards held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris 17 October 1984 – 6 January 1985.

The Court of Milan

It is not astonishing to learn that the cards painted for the Visconti and Sforza families, which ruled then in Milan, have been the object of numerous and detailed studies. It is true that the collection is impressive: three decks of exceptional quality have been preserved, of which one is nearly complete (74 cards out of 78). The similarity of the representations with those of tarots printed more recently has not escaped the attention of specialists. Numerous isolated cards, dispersed in many public and private collections around the world, complete the collection.

These cards are characterized by the presence, nearly constant, of arms, symbols, emblems and devices of the Visconti and Sforza families, which pepper most of the cards. A common style, easily compared, has permitted them to be brought together and studied.

The question of the author of these wonders quickly arises. For a long time attributed to the painter Antonio Cicognara (second half of the 15th century), his paternity has been contested since the beginning of our century: it rests, it is true, on a false document and on the analysis of the Count Leopoldo Cicognara, a distant relative of the painter. It must be noted, besides, that we know nothing of the works of the artist. A little after the First World War, Italian art historians advanced the hypothesis of Bonifacio Bembo, presumed author of the majority of “first hand” cards. This attribution, which has had some success among specialists, has been recently disputed by Giuliana Algeri (Gli Zavaratti: Una famiglia di pittori e la cultura tardogotica in Lombardia, Rome, 1981): not only do the dates not harmonize well, but there is no other certain work (“documented”) of Bembo. The name of Francesco Zavattari, author, with his brothers, of a signed fresco in the Chapel of Monza, appears more convincing.

The antiquity of these exceptional cards – which owe their preservation, it should be recalled, to their luxurious character, were for a long time responsible for the belief that the tarot was the ancestor of ordinary cards thus obtained by “simplification”. The Tractatus of John of Rheinfelden, as well as other documentary sources, seems to prove that there is nothing to it.

1. Four cards from a tarot of the Visconti family (N.B. the cards in the exhibition are: Queen of Swords, 10 of Swords, Cavalier of Cups, the World)

Milanese school (Francesco Zavattari?)
Milan, Italy, second quarter of the 15th century.
67 cards (out of 89?), Italian signs
painting on stamped surface of gold or silver (points)
parchement and paper with rabats

The cards represented here constitute perhaps the original model, the archetype of tarot. They form part of a collection of 67 cards, currently conserved in the Beinecke Library of Yale University. Hand painted by an artist of the Renaissance, they figure among the jewels of gothic illumination and, with numerous other cards of the same style, made like them for the Visconti and Sforza families who ruled in Milan in the 15th century, they have not failed to attract the attention of art historians.

As witnessed by the profusion of blazon, devices (“a bon droyt”) and emblems with which the cards are seeded, these were painted for Filippo Maria Visconti (+ 1447). On the atout “The Lovers” can be distinguished also the arms of Savoy which allows the consideration that this deck was made for the occasion of the marriage, in 1428, of Filippo Maria Visconti with Maria of Savoy.

This tarot nevertheless poses a certain number of enigmas: found there, indeed, are cavaliers and valets of the female sex in addition to their masculine equivalents (examples: the Coins have a male and a female cavalier, the Cups have two valets, the one male the other female), such that it allows the proposition that there are 6 face cards in each suit. In addition, the three Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity, usually absent from tarots of 78 cards, are found among the 11 atouts preserved. Certainly, the Florentine minchiate, with its 41 atouts, includes these three Virtues, but here it is more a case of a rationalized addition than of a resurgence.

We are thus here in the presence of an important deck which totaled perhaps 89 cards (64 normal cards and 25 atouts at least). Art historians, following Roberto Longhi, had finally attributed these cards, as well as those made for the same family (the deck “Visconti-Sforza”, see cat. Nos. 2 and 3; the deck “Brambilla”, etc.), to Bonifacio Bembo. In a recent work, Giuliana Algeri shows that this attribution is doubtful: Bembo appears to have worked rather in the second half of the XVe century. In addition, she distinguishes, interestingly, the manufacture of the pip cards from those of the face cards and the atouts, dating the first to before 1440 and preferring to see in the two others later works, in relation to the marriage of Galeazo Maria Visconti and Bona of Savoy, in 1468. These cards may be, rather, a work of the youth of Francesco Zavattari, as much as they are near to the other cards “Viscontian.”

New Haven (Conn.), Yale University Library, Cary Collection, ITA 109.

Bibl.: D’Allemagne, I, 180 and 183-184; W.L. Schreiber, 99; Klein, 51-52; Kaplan, 87-95; Dummett, 68 (no. 1) and 77-79; Keller, ITA 109; Algeri, 59-94.