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The opinion of Michael Dummett

in The Game of Tarot(London, Duckworth, 1980):


[Dummett’s comments concerning the cards in the text, notes and bibliography]

“A great many playing-cards have come down to us from fifteenth-century Italy. Of these, many are sumptuous hand-painted cards made for the nobility. The surviving cards of this kind come from about twenty different packs: it is difficult to give a précised figure, since some cards in different collections may originally have belonged to the same pack. There are nine such packs of which more than ten cards survive: the surviving cards of eight of these nine packs include, in each case, at least one triumph card and at least one suit card, so that these eight packs were certainly Tarot packs. The three most complete of these packs are attributed, in the unanimous opinion of present-day art historians, to the Cremonese painter Bonifacio Bembo, who was born about 1420 or a little earlier and died in about 1480. Bembo is known to have executed several important commissions for Francesco Sforza, who became Duke of Milan in 1450 and died in 1466, and for his successor Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who died in 1476. On the strength of the heraldic emblems and mottoes appearing on many of the cards of these packs, it is evident that they were made for Francesco Sforza or, in the case of the first two, for his predecessor Filippo Maria Visconti, who died in 1447. They are as follows:

(1) The earliest is that usually known as the Visconti di Modrone pack, from the name of its former owner; it is now in the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Sixty-seven cards survive, of which eleven are triumph cards and fifty-six are suit cards. In the Batons suit, the numeral cards show arrows instead of the usual staves, although the court cards show staves, in the usual form of polished staffs. On the numeral cards, both the Batons and the Swords intersect, but the Swords are straight. Because the composition both of the court cards and of the triumphs show certain unusual features, they discussed in detail below.(p.68)"

[bibliography from footnote 24, pp. 70-71; entries separated for ease of consultation]

24. The Visconti-Sforza pack is the subject of a book by Miss Gertrude Moakley, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family, New York, 1966: all the cards are illustrated and discussed in detail.< br>
It is also the subject of Tarocchi: il mazzo visconteo di Bergamo e New York, with text by Italo Calvino and notes by S. Samek-Ludovici, Parma, 1969, which also gives illustrations of all the cards.

There is also a reproduction pack issued by the Grafica Gutenberg, Bergamo, in the United States this distributed by U.S. Games Systems, Inc., New York.

The Visconti-Sforza, Visconti di Modrone and Brambilla packs are illustrated in Emiliano di Parravicino, Three packs of Italian taroccho cards, Burlington Magazine, vol. III, 1903, pp. 237-52.

All three of these packs painted by Bonifacio Bembo are discussed from an art-historical standpoint in Pietro Toesca, La pittura e la miniatura nella Lombardia, Milan, 1912 (see pp. 626-7), reprinted Turin, 1966 (see p. 218);

in R. Longhi, La restituzione di un trittico d’arte cremonese circa il 1460, Pinacoteca, vol. I, 1928, pp. 55-87, reprinted in R. Longhi Me Pinxit, Florence, 1968;

Fernanda Wittgens, Note e aggiunta a Bonifacio Bembo, Revista d’Arte, vol. XVIII, 1936;

and C. Baroni and S. Samek Ludovici, La pittura lombarda del Quattrocento, Messina and Florence, 1952 (see pp. 91-116).

The Visconti di Modrone pack is discussed by Robert Steele, A notice of the Ludus Triumphorum and some early Italian card games, Archaeologia, vol. 57, 1900, pp. 185-200,

and by Ron and Charlotte Decker, The Visconti-Sforza cards in the Cary Collection, The Journal of the Playing-Card Society, vol. IV, no. 2, November, 1975, pp. 27-32.

Eight cards from it are illustrated in Catherine Perry Hargrave, A History of Playing Cards, Boston and New York, 1930, reprinted New York, 1966, p. 226.

The Brambilla pack was completely illustrated in a booklet called 48 tarocchi di Bonifacio Bembo, published by the Istituto Finanziario per l’Arte, Milan, 1971; some of the captions are incorrect.

These and several other of the hand-painted Tarot packs discussed in the text are discussed, with several illustrations, in an excellent article by Robert Klein, Les tarots enluminés du XVe siècle, L’Oeil, no. 145, 1967, pp. 11-17, 51-2. [pp. 70-71]

“The Visconti di Modrone pack is the only Tarot pack, of any kind, in which the suits include court cards other than the usual King, Queen, Cavalier and either Jack or Maid. There must have been sixty-four suit cards in all: how many triumphs there were originally, and whether a Fool was included, it is impossible to say. Ronald Decker has suggested that there may originally have been only fourteen triumphs, and no Fool, so as to make up the usual total of 78 cards;(34), but the total number of cards in the pack is unlikely to have been seen as a significant feature.

[footnote 34 to the text above:

34 Letter to the Journal of the Playing-Card Society, vol. III, no. 1, August, 1974, pp. 23-4, 48; see also letter by M. Dummett, ibid., vol III, no. 2, November, 1974, pp. 27-31, and Ronald Decker, Two Tarot studies related, part III, ibid., vol. IV, no. 1, August, 1975, pp. 46-52 (esp. p. 50). Mr. Decker presumes that the Visconti di Modrone pack had only 78 cards, like other Tarot packs, since it must have had 64 suit cards, that leaves only 14 triumph cards and no Fool. There can, on this reasoning, have been no Fool, since Mr. Decker accepts my view that the three missing Virtues must originally have been present, and, if we add these to the eleven surviving triumphs, we already obtain 14, and there is no room for the Fool. Mr. Decker then takes the very illogical step of arguing that, since there are only 13 (surviving) triumph cards in the Visconti-Sforza pack that were painted by Bembo, perhaps these, together with the Fool, were all that the pack originally contained. This is illogical because in this pack there are only the usual 56 suit cards, so that he is suggesting an original pack of only 70 cards, whereas the original premises was that all Tarot packs had 78 cards. He attempts to rescue his hypothesis by conjecturing that the Visconti-Sforza pack had originally six court cards in each suit; but this is obviously special pleading. On his hypothesis, there would, besides the suit cards, have been seven cards in common between the two packs: the Empress, the Emperor, Love, Justice, the Chariot, Death and the Judgment. Seven of the triumphs present in the Visconti di Modrone pack would then have been removed, namely the World and the six Virtues other than Justice, when the Visconti-Sforza pack was painted, to make room for the Fool, the Bagatto, the Popess, the Pope, the Wheel of Fortune, the Hermit (which originally represented Time) and the Hanged Man. Later, when the number of triumphs was increased by eight, this was done by restoring from the original set of subjects, the World and two of the Virtues, Temperance and Fortitude, but not the other four, and adding the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon and the Sun. All this makes so little sense, and is so grossly implausible, that the hypothesis that demands it is not to be entertained. What is impressive about the fifteenth-century Tarot packs that have come down to us is not the variation in subjects, but, on the contrary, their invariance, given the fact that no pack has survived complete. Certainly we must allow that, after the Visconti di Modrone pack was made, four of the seven Virtues were removed; the advantage of the hypothesis that that pack contained twenty-four triumph cards (not including the Fool as a triumph) is that it gives a reason for the removal of at least three of them when the number was reduced to twenty-one. ( pp. 77-78)]

[main body of text continues:]

Since four of the stock set of seven Virtues were included among the triumphs, it seems probable that the other three were there also: Temperance and Justice, which belong to the standard list of triumph subjects, and Prudence, which does not. It is just possible, on the other hand, that what was held constant was the ratio between the number of triumphs and the number of cards in each suit, which, in the 78-card Tarot pack, is 3:2; if this was also so in the Visconti di Modrone pack, it would have had twenty-four triumph cards, in which case it could have contained all save one of the usual subjects, making, if the Fool was included, a pack of 89 cards altogether; indeed, if we do not suppose that it included Prudence, it could have had all of the usual subjects.

However this may be, the divergence of the Visconti di Modrone pack from the norm, both as to the number of suit cards and as to the subjects, if not the number, of the triumph cards, strongly suggests that it dates from an early period when the Tarot pack had not yet assumed its definitive form. In fact, it is probably the earliest example of that pack that have survived to us. It has usually been thought to have been made for Filippo Maria Visconti, which would date it to 1447, the year of his death, at the latest. All three of the Bembo packs bear emblems and mottoes of the Visconti familyl, but that does not prove that they were made for Filippo Maria, since Francesco Sforza, his successor, had in 1441 married his illegitimate daughter by Agnese del Maino, Bianca Maria Visconti, and had assumed the name Visconti-Sforza and, with it, many of the Visconti devices. It is indeed virtually certain that the Visconti-Sforza pack was made for Francesco Sforza. One reason given by Robert Steele for taking the Visconti di Modrone pack to have been made for Filippo Maria is admittedly flimsy. He thought that the Love card, which shows a man and a woman joining hands before a tent above which flies a winged and blindfold Cupid, carried a reference to Filippo Maria’s second marriage. Filippo Maria divorced his first wife, Beatrice di Tenda, in Italian style, having her executed for adultery in 1418; in 1428, he married Maria of Savoy, although the marriage was probably never consummated. The tent on the Love card is hung with shields, alternately showing the Visconti and a white cross on a red ground, which Steele took to be the arms of Savoy. But, if the cards were painted by Bembo, an attribution questioned by no one, they cannot have been made as early as 1428, and it is unlikely that there should have been any allusion to this unfortunate marriage at any later date: Ronald and Charlotte Decker identify the shield with the cross as the arms of the Principality of Pavia, a title held by all the Visconti and Sforza Dukes. The principle reason for thinking that the cards were painted for Filippo Maria is, however, that the numeral cards of the Coins suit, other than the Ace and 2, show actual coins, the gold florin of Filippo Maria, bearing the letters ‘FI MA’ and made by the imprint of an actual die; the same is true of all the eleven surviving cards of the Coins suit in the Brambilla pack, but not of the Visconti-Sforza pack. The Deckers surmise, instead, that they were made by means of ‘seals, of the sort used to attach wax imprints to official documents’; this strikes me as rather unlikely, in view of the fact that both sides of the coin are shown: it does not seem probable that there were two distinct seals, corresponding exactly to the two sides of the coin. The figures on the court cards of Swords in Visconti di Modrone pack bear a gold fruit on their costumes, which the Deckers identify as a quince, a Sforza emblem; but this need not imply that the cards were painted after Filippo Maria’s death, since Francesco Sforza was in his service, as well as being married to his daughter. The probability seems therefore to be that both the Visconti di Modrone and the Brambilla packs were painted for Filippo Maria Visconti, the former being the earlier of the two and dating from the earliest stage of existence of the Tarot pack.

The Deckers believe that all three Bembo packs were painted after the death of Filippo Maria. Stuart Kaplan, on the other hand, takes the more usual view that the Visconti di Modrone and the Brambilla packs were both painted or him, but regards the Brambilla pack as the earlier (Encyclopedia of the Tarot, I, p.107). So far as we can tell, the composition of the suits in the Brambilla pack was standard (or what came to be standard); since only two of the triumphs survive, we cannot be certain about them. If the composition of the Brambilla pack was in fact standard, it seems more likely that it was the later of the two. Hankering still for an identification of the Visconti di Modrone pack as a wedding present, which has only tradition, not evidence, to speak for it (and not, of course, an ancient tradition), Kaplan makes the novel suggestion that it was painted for the wedding of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in 1441. Taken together with his view that the Brambilla pack is earlier still, this yields a date rather too soon for such a commission to have been given to Bembo, whose earliest dateable work is from 1442. As Ronald Decker has observed, the style of the Visconti di Modrone cards resembles Bembo’s illustrations for a History of Lancelot dated 1446. If we assume that the Brambilla pack was the later, we must leave time for Bembo’s receiving from Filippo Maria a second commission to execute a set of Tarot cards; we shall therefore probably not be far wrong if we date the Visconti di Modrone pack to about 1445. We know from the Ferrara account-books that the Tarot pack (carte da trionfi) was already in existence by 1442, and was sufficiently familiar to that court to bear a generic name. On the other hand, I have argued that the Visconti di Modrone cards are not likely to have been painted many years after the first invention of the Tarot pack. That event may therefore be reasonably placed at somewhere around 1440 – the approximate date, incidentally, assigned to the painting in the Casa Borromeo. (pp.78-79)

Extract from Ross Gregory Caldwell