The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards

The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards is a combination of commentary by Tarot academic Michael Dummett and full-size colour reproductions of the Tarot cards in the Pierpont-Morgan library, also known as the Visconti-Sforza Tarot.

By Michael Dummett · Book · Published by George Braziller, Inc.

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

"The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards" is a unique combination of commentary by Tarot luminary Michael Dummett and full size, color reproductions of Tarot cards from the Pierpont-Morgan Library in New York City, and the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy. In his introduction, Dummett refers to the cards as a masterpiece of mid-fifteenth-century Italian art in the International Gothic style. The Visconti-Sforza Tarot deck, named for the two great ducal families for whom they were made, is a fine example of the 78 card Tarot lineage (consisting of 56 suit cards and 22 picture cards). The suits of this deck are Swords, Batons, Cups and Coins. The four court cards are King, Queen, Knight and Jack.

Dummett presents an interesting discussion of the early Tarot cards, noting such things as the earliest reference to Tarot playing cards showing up in 1442, from Ferrarese account books. Dummett also notes that the ordinary suits of spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds were invented by French card makers around the 1470's. He also notes that the court cards in regular playing packs of Spanish or Italian origin consist of King, Knight and Jack, with no Queen.

Dummett also emphasizes that divination was never intended to be the sole use of the Tarot cards, and that it was far from their original purpose. The occult interpretation of the Tarot originated in France during the second half of the eighteenth century. The first printed rules of play date from the seventeenth century. Dummett also indicates that three different traditions of playing came from the three primary Tarot centers in Italy - Milan, Ferrara and Bologna. The difference was not in the composition of the pack, but in the manner of representing the trump subjects and in their order (especially that of the three virtues of Temperance, Fortitude and Justice). One of the reasons given for the disparate ordering of the trumps was that they were originally not numbered.

Each of the existing Visconti-Sforza Tarot cards is presented full size, in color, on the right hand pages of the book. On the left hand page we see the name of the card, followed by the current location of the card (in the Pierpont-Morgan Library or the Accademia Carrara). This is followed by Dummett's comments on the cards.

I cannot begin to tell you what a unique book this is! I am very blessed in that 2005 brought me an opportunity to offer a new home to several different decks and books, and that this book, and the U.S. Games reproduction of this deck, were part of this opportunity. I feel like a small child, holding this very colorful, exciting "picture book" in my lap, while I relate the words on one page to the picture across from it. There is not a better manner in which this book could have been presented.

What things do we learn? Many things! One could take this book out, at any time, turn at random to any page, and learn something new. It is amazing to think that we are looking at (quality reproductions) of the very cards used by the Visconti-Sforza Court. Ladies and Gentlemen playing the game of tarrocchi - how exciting is this!

For the Nine of Coins (from Accademia Carrara), Dummett notes the unusual formatting of the suit symbol, with the odd coin at the top, followed by two vertical lines of four cards each. He goes into a small discussion of the argument presented by Helmut Rosenfeld on the Italian "dinari", the coin customarily used, and the fact that it is most often shown in gold. If the term refers to the gold "dinar", rather than "dinari", which were copper coins of low value, it could provide strong corroboration for the hypothesis that playing cards with suit signs essentially like the Latin ones first reached Christian Europe from the Islamic world, or perhaps from Mamluk Egypt via Venice.

The Five of Coins (from Accademia Carrara) carries two scrolls, each bearing the phrase "a bon droyt". Dummett notes that this Visconti motto appears on a number of others cards in this deck, on some of the cards in the Brambilla deck and in some cards in other decks that were copied from the Visconti-Sforza deck, such as the Seven of Swords in the Tozzi deck.

One of the notations on the Queen of Coins (from the Pierpont Morgan Library) is that she holds her coin on her lap, making it easier to see than that held aloft by the Jack. Her robe is the same color as the Jack's tunic, and bears the same design, but in silver.

The Six of Swords (from the Accademia Carrara) notes that the Swords in this deck are straight (not curved), and arranged in equal numbers, placed in opposing diagonals, extending across the entire card to form a lattice pattern.

The Fool (from the Pierpont Morgan Library) is noted as having no place in the trump sequence. It functions something like a wild card that can be played at any time. It has no power to take a trick, but it is also not normally lost to the winner of the trick to which it is played, but placed among the cards its holder has won.

The Emperor is noted as holding an orb in one hand and a scepter in the other. He has the imperial eagle on his crown, and his dalmatic is decorated with the ducal crown and the three-ring device of Francesco Sforza.

The Popess (from the Pierpont Morgan Library) is most interesting. Rather than being an exact female replica of the Pope, in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot she wears a triple tiara, holds a cross and is dressed in the habit of a nun. The explanation for this, given by Gertrude Moakley, is that the card depicts Sister Manfreda, a relative of the Visconti, who had been elected Pope by the heretical sect of Guglielmites to which she belonged, and burned at the stake in 1300.

Every card has a history, and that history is composed of things that we would not normally perhaps even take into consideration - such as Fortitude being the first of six cards that are not part of the original Visconti-Sforza pack, but were painted by a later artist.

Whether you are interested in the history of Tarot per se, or in the Visconti-Sforza deck in particular, this is an excellent reference book, and a solid addition to any Tarot library.

© 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.

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