Visconti Tarot Book
The book, Visconti Tarots - Extraordinary examples of Renaissance art is the companion book to the Visconti Tarot deck, also published by Lo Scarabeo.
By Giordano Berti & Tiberio Gonard · Book · Published by Lo Scarabeo
Review by Bonnie Cehovet
Giordano Berti is a highly regarded Tarot historian. His contribution here is a very important one - he provides the historical background of the Visconti decks (specifically, the Visconti-Sforza Tarot") of the Milanese court, which is important, as they contain examples of some of the oldest surviving Tarot decks. Berti notes that there are sixteen packs of Tarot cards that are attributed to Visconti commissions that exist today, in private collections, museums, and libraries in Europe and America, but that none of them are complete. The original Visconti-Sforza Tarot is traditionally attributed to the artist Bonifacio Bembo. The most complete Visconto-Sforza deck that still exists consists of seventy-four cards, divided between the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the Carrara Academy in Bergamo, and the Colleoni family.
There are some very interesting tid bits of information in Berti's history section, one of which was the description of the method that was used to create the cards. Painted in tempura, with some areas covered with thin layers of gold leaf, the gold leaf impressed with designs - this takes us into a totally fascinating, and "other" world. Berti discusses why the less expensive decks in use in the court would not have made it through to our times, and why the more expensive decks were able to hold up to the wear and tear.
He also talks about the "Visconti di Modrone", a Visconti deck with sixty-five remaining cards, which are now residing in the Beinecke Library of Yale University. One unique feature of this deck is that it shows unconventional subjects, such as the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Berti notes that it has been suggested that this was a prototype deck that was later abandoned, or that it may merely have been a variant of an existing deck.
Berti also addresses the lack of representation for production of popular decks of that time. As mentioned above, part of this is due to their nature - they could not hold up to usage. He mentions one uncut sheet, the famous "Cary Sheet", now held at Yale University. The importance of this sheet, according to Berti, is that it provides a link between Milanese and French Tarot cards.
The remainder of the book is authored by esoterist Tiberio Gonard. He begins by discussing the Tarot and cartomancy, noting that the cards were not used for divining at the Visconti court. While Gonard states that there is no existing proof that the inventor of the Tarot had it in mind that the Tarot would act as an intellectual or spiritual journey, he goes on to say that from the beginning they were never a simple gambling game.
Gonard defines divination as more of an intellectual activity than either scientific inquiry or religious practice. One of the thesis that he sets forth regarding divination is that it is the desire to know an unknown fact by means of an ordinary instrument made of images, symbols, or signs of various types.
Diviners ethics are also presented - perhaps in a more rigid manner than is necessary. Among the principles that Gonard presents are: "the diviner must not aim at foreseeing the future, but at discovering those situations near at hand or far away but already in progress, which do not present themselves clearly, and yet they exist, acting on the present and conditioning the future", and "the diviner must not improve on any presumed magical powers of the images or symbols, but believe only in their evocative force and suggestive powers".
There is also a section on possible objections to Tarot reading, along with responses to the objections, which include: "How can the cards, or shells, or stones thrown down haphazardly suggest situations to the cartomancer that he is quite unaware of?", and "If divination is of no use in predicting the future, what use is it?" While this section is interesting, it would by its very nature reflect the thoughts of the author, which could make it confusing to students new to the Tarot.
A visualization technique is presented as a manner of getting to know the cards. I liked the completeness of this section, and felt that it was presented in such a manner that anyone could easily follow them. Several different spreads are presented, that open the cards to being applied in an introspective manner. A word to the wise - develop your own shuffling technique! The one presented here is quite rigid.
In his prelude to the section on the Major Arcana, Gonard claims that, according to historians, the Visconti Tarots contain a message that closely connected to a western medieval Christian man's culture. His own belief is that the images represent the stages of a path that each individual can interpret in their own way, according to their own sensitivity, culture and spiritual feelings.
Each of the Major Arcana cards are presented with a black and white image, traditional numbering (with the exception of Justice as VIII and Strength as XI), traditional English titles, a brief description of the figure(s) in the card, the background and meaning for the card, along with upright and reversed divinatory meanings.
The Pips (numbered cards) are presented with a black and white image, the number and suit both in text, a short discussion of the cards meaning, along with upright and reversed divinatory meanings. The suit titles are Wands, Chalices, Swords, and Pentacles.
The Court Cards are presented with a black and white image, the title and suit, a short discussion of the card, beginning with its number (Gonard number the Court Cards as follows: Knave = 11, Knight = 12, Queen = 13, and King = 14), along with both upright and reversed divinatory meanings, and hair color.
At the end of the book a short (what Gonard has entitled "Essential") bibliography has been included.
I would recommend this book for those who already have a good understanding of the Tarot, or for collectors. It is not a book for beginners. One of the reasons for this is that there are discrepancies within the book that make no sense, such as descriptions of the cards that in some ways do not match the card being shown (i.e. the Empress, who Gonard has holding a scepter in her right hand, but there is none in the photo).
I liked the deck, and found value in the book, even with its seeming discrepancies. My advice would be to take what works, and leave the rest behind. This book is well worth a visit.
© Bonnie Cehovet
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer.