I Tarocchi: Il Caso e la fortuna
Bonifacio Bembo e la cultura cortese tardogotica - Article by Sarah Ovenall

In the fall of 1999, the Pinacoteca di Brera museum in Milan held an exhibit of early Tarot art. The exhibit included three decks: the Pierpoint Morgan-Bergamo Visconti-Sforza, the Cary-Yale Visconti-Sforza, and the Brera-Brambilla Visconti-Sforza.

I was extremely fortunate to be sent the catalog by a friend who attended the exhibit. Unfortunately I cannot read a word of Italian, so my review will not be as comprehensive as I'd like. But I will do my best and rely on the Encyclopedia of Tarot, Volume I and Volume II for background information.

The catalog is 125 pages and lavishly illustrated. The 12 page introduction by Sandrina Bandera is titled "I tarocchi come testimonianza di un'epoca," which I assume means "the tarot as a testament to an era." The subheads are as follows (with my poor attempts at translation in parentheses):

q Il periodo storico (the historical period)

q Lo stile tardogotico (the ? art style)

q I duchi di Milano come committenti (The dukes of Milan as consumers)

q La costituzione dei tarocchi e i loro simboli (The structure of the tarot and its symbols)

q I tarocchi Visconti Sforza e la loro distinzione (The Visconti Sforza tarots and distinctions among them)

q Caratteristiche tecniche (technical characteristics)

q Fortuna critica (critical fortune)

q L'uso dei modelli e la prassi della bottega lombarda (Use of the styles and procedures of the Lombardy workshop)

q Le carte da gioco nelle corti del Quattrocento (Card games in the courts of the fourteenth century)

q Tradizione e aspetti iconologici di origine petrarchesca (Tradition and iconological aspects of the petrarchal origins)

q Il problema dell'attribuzione (The problem of attribution)

q La cronologia (Chronology)

q Differenze stilistiche (Stylistic differences)

Most of the illustrations are good-sized images of the tarocchi cards featured in the exhibit. As you would expect from a museum catalog, the reproductions are exquisite. They must have used metallic inks, as the metals on some of the cards, gold especially, practically glow. For anyone who has sighed over the Encyclopedia, wishing the reproductions were in color rather than grainy black and white, this book is a joy. I wish that every enthusiast of historical Tarot could have a copy, but I hope that the scans provided here will offer some consolation.

The illustrations are grouped by deck, each accompanied by a couple pages of explanatory text which, alas, I cannot read. First is "il mazzo Brambilla," (which I assume means "the Brambilla deck") from the Pinacoteca di Brera's own collection. This pack is identified in the Encyclopedia as the Brera-Brambilla Visconti-Sforza. I believe the text says that the deck is named after Giovanni Brambilla who acquired the cards in Venice in the year 1900. Then it seems to say that Bonifacio Bembo was commissioned by Francesco Sforza in 1463 to create the cards. The rest of the text seems to describe the individual images and compare them to other artworks of the time.

On to the images of il mazzo Brambilla. In my opinion these are the most impressive images in the catalog. But maybe this is because this deck was totally new to me (there are commercial reproductions of the other two). 48 cards in all, which according to the Encyclopedia is the entire extant pack. Only two trumps: The Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune. The rest are suit cards. The cards feature the three dimensional patterns and gold leaf that we've seen on US Games reproductions of early decks, but these shine with a vibrancy, almost a glow, I've not seen before. The trumps and court cards are covered with gold leaf; the pip cards with a silvery metal, not as shiny. I would guess that the pip cards are either covered with tarnished silver, or another metal.

Each card is perforated with a largish pinhole at the top and bottom. All the cards have a simple border of a green, white and red stripe around the edge. However the border color is badly faded on some of the cards.

The Emperor sits on a throne, holding an orb in one hand and a thin red staff in the other. He wears a long robe and hat trimmed with fur. The hat is also decorated with an eagle. The card appears to be creased; a large crack runs down the middle from top to bottom. The Wheel of Fortune shows a blindfolded angel in the middle of the wheel, wearing a dark blue gown with gold symbols which I took to be flowers, but the Encyclopedia identifies as sunbursts. An old man in worn, white clothes crouches under the wheel. A man in green ascends on the left, a man in pink descends on the right, and a man in light blue sits above. The man on top is wearing longer robes and holding a staff. The men on the left and top have objects on their heads identified by the Encyclopedia as asses' ears.

There are only a few court cards in the Brambilla deck:  page and knight of cups; pageknight and queen of staves; and page and knight of coins. On the staves court cards, the figures carry very long arrows rather than batons. On the cups court cards, there appear to be huge bunches of peacock feathers either decorating their hats, or coming out of the cups. Some of the details, like the suit symbols and some of the hats, are a little difficult to see because they blend into the gold leafing of the backgrounds.

The clothing and headgear is similar within each suit. The figures on the coins cards seem to wear the most lavish clothes: elaborate hats, and gold-leafed robes with a blue pattern. The Pages of Cups and Coins are standing, while the Page of Staves is sitting down and wearing a hat that looks like a flattened turban with a crown on top. I would have assumed he was the King of Staves if it had not been labeled as the Page. The Knight of Staves is bare-headed and seems to be galloping: his hair is windblown and the horse is rearing.

Most of the Brambilla cards are pips, almost a complete set of staves, cups, swords, and  coins. Only the Four of Coins is missing. They are mainly leafed with a silvery metal, accented with gold and deep blue. The staves are staffs (unlike the court cards which showed arrows). The Ace of Staves displays the phrase "a bon droyt" twice, the Visconti motto according to the Encyclopedia. The phrase is also shown on the Four of Cups.

Swords are curved, excepting the Ace, which displays the phrase "a bon droyt" again, and above it what looks like "phote mante." (This card isn't shown in the Encyclopedia unfortunately.) The coins all seem to be the two sides of the same coin. There's a knight on horseback on one side, and an emblem on the other. It's a little hard to make out, but the Encyclopedia says it's probably the fiorino of Filippo Maria Visconti, and also appears in the Cary-Yale deck.

Speaking of which, next we have "il mazzo Visconti di Modrone," identified by the Encyclopedia as the Cary-Yale Visconti-Sforza. I believe a reproduction of this deck is commercially available from US Games, and if I recall correctly, I own a copy. But I can't find it (the pitfalls of a cluttered life), so I am relying again on the Encyclopedia.

(Here I have to interject that I have been handling the catalog gingerly, trying not to break the spine or otherwise damage the book. But I just propped it open in my lap to type out the Italian name of the Cary-Yale pack, and the spine completely broke. It's making a depressing crunchy noise as I turn the pages. But on the bright side, now that it's already broken I can open the book flat and scan all the art for you.)

There are only twenty cards reproduced here. First we see the court cards: King, male Knight, and male Page of Cups; male Knight and female Page (called principessa in the caption here) of Coins; Queen and female Page of Swords; and female Knight of Staves. Then only two trumps: the World and Hope (la Speranza). Finally the suit cards: Two, Three and Ten of Staves; Two and Eight of Cups; Four and Six of Swords; and Two, Four and Nine of Coins.

I'm not going to describe these cards in much detail, since most people who would be interested already own the Cary-Yale reproduction by US Games. Just a few comments: the trump and court cards are much less vibrant, don't appear to glow like the ones in the Brambilla deck. On the other hand, the pip cards are leafed with a silvery metal, brighter than the pips in the Brambilla deck. The card borders are more detailed, with little floral emblems, not just stripes like the Brambilla cards. The staves suit is also different from the Brambilla deck: here the pip cards show arrows, and the court cards show staffs. The Two and Three of Staves have banners which must have once said something, but the paint is worn off and it's impossible to read now.

Our third deck is "il mazzo Colleoni-Baglioni," or the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo deck. This is probably the most well-known deck featured in this exhibit, due to the reproduction by US Games. The introductory text is a bit longer, and seems to describe the history of the deck as it passed from collector to collector. It was written by William Voelkle rather than Sandrina Bandera (who wrote most of the text in the book).

55 cards from the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo deck are illustrated. First the trumps: the Fool, the Mountebank (il Bagatto), the Empress, the Emperor, the Pope, the Chariot, the Lovers, Justice, the Wheel of Fortune, Strength, the Hanged Man -- here called "L'Appeso (o Impiccato)," Death, Temperance, the Star, the Moon, Judgement, the World. Next the court cards: Page and King of Cups; Page, Knight, Queen and King of Staves; Page, Knight and Queen of Swords; and Page, Queen and King of Coins. Finally the pip cards: Ace, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven and Eight of Staves; Ace, Two, Three, Five, Six, Nine and Ten of Cups; Ace, Four, Five, Six, Eight, and Ten of Swords; and Ace, Five, Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten of Coins.

Again, I won't go into much detail about these cards, since anyone who is interested has probably already got the US Games reproduction. I have out my copy, and comparing the two I note that the cards in the catalog tend to be a bit lighter and brighter in color than the commercial deck. It's a bit easier to see details in the metallic backgrounds, but doesn't make much difference in the painted areas like faces and clothing. A couple of the cards -  Temperance and Strength - are strikingly different in the catalog. It looks like those two cards were preserved much better than the rest. They're almost as gleaming bright as the Brambilla cards. I guess they were darkened to even out the colors in the commercial deck. The World, the Star and the Moon are also noticeably brighter (though not practically glowing like Temperance and Strength). It looks like the World, the Star and the Moon are in the Bergamo collection. The explanatory text might explain why some of the cards are better preserved than others.

The staves in the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo deck are like barbells or curtain rods - staffs with metal shapes on the ends. No arrows to be seen here. The swords are straight, and the Visconti motto "a bon droyt" is again repeated several times. All the figures in the swords court cards wear armor, even the queen. The pip cards in this deck are quite a change from the other two decks. These are mostly painted, with gold leaf used only as an accent (mainly on the suit symbols). They have white backgrounds which makes them much lighter in overall color.

The final section of the book features related artwork of the time. First is Guiron le Courtois, an illustrated manuscript from the fourteenth century. The novel was an Arthurian story, but the catalog seems to be saying that the "hidden" subject was Bernabo Visconti, who reigned from 1354 to 1385. Two panels from the manuscript are reproduced here. One shows men playing chess; the other shows a battle scene. This chapter was written by Aurélie Lauby, whose thesis on Guiron le Courtois is available online  if you read French.

Next is De practica seu arte tripudii, by Guglielmo da Pesaro. This seems to be an instructional book about dancing. One panel is shown: a lovely painting of a knight and two ladies dancing, accompanied by a harpist.

The next featured artwork is Historia de Lancillotto del lago, or the History of Lancelot of the Lake. (Finally, one that I can translate on my own.) This is a beautiful illustrated manuscript. Three panels are reproduced, two of which take up an entire spread of the catalog. There is also a detail of a knight on horseback.

Interestingly, the illustrations seem to be pen and ink, not painted in color like the other works in this chapter. I think the text says that Seymour de Ricci first attributed this manuscript to Bonifacio Bembo, and goes on call it an important reference point in the attribution of the Brambilla and Cary-Yale decks (if I correctly understand the phrase "un importante punto di riferimento anche per l'attribuzione dei tarocchi").

La Tavola ritonda, an Italian version of Arthurian legend, is very similar in appearance to the Historia de Lancillotto del lago, so I assume it was also Bembo's work. There are three pages of text but only one illustration.

De remedijs utriusque fortunae is the next work in the catalog. A treatise by Petrarch, two pages are reproduced: the frontispiece, and one labeled "Incipit del capitolo I." The brief text says, I think, that it has been attributed to a follower or student of Giovannino de' Grassi, and that it has been dated to the end of the fifteenth century but is probably older.

Libellus de moribus hominum et de officiis nobilium super Ludo scaccorum seems to be a fourteenth century book by a Dominican monk, James of Cessole (Jacobus de Cessolis). Two pages are reproduced here, including an illustration of a king on a throne, holding a sceptre and orb. The figure is very similar to the Emperor in early Tarot decks.

Next is Trittico dell'Incoronazione della Vergine by Bonifacio Bembo, or the Triptych of the Coronation of the Virgin. (again, a title I didn't need to look up. I guess a Catholic education was good for something!) The three paintings are Saints Anne and Joachim at the Golden Gate, the Coronation of Mary and Christ, and the adoration of the Magi.

Anne and Joachim are accompanied by the prophet Elisha* and San Giovanni da Tolentino. I'm sure that means "Saint John of Tolentino," except that as far as I can tell there is no such saint. There's a St Nicholas of Tolentino, and there are dozens of Saint Johns. But I have no idea which John is referred to here. Maybe St John of Tolentino was decanonized; that would explain why he's not on the official list. In any case, Elisha is an old man with a long beard, carrying a staff with writing on it. John of Tolentino has a sunburst on his robe, and holds open a book.

The surprising thing about the Coronation of the Virgin and Christ is that Mary and Jesus are about the same size, and sitting on an equal level. Size and relative position is highly meaningful in religious art of this time; I would expect Christ to be larger and/or higher than other figures. Even their crowns are of similar size and appearance. Mary does have a submissive pose - head down, arms crossed - while Jesus looks up with his hands open.

There's a lot going on in the Adoration of the Magi, but I think the most interesting element is the cups held by two of the Magi, which are extremely similar to the cups suit symbol in early Tarot decks.

Last we have il gioco dei tarocchi, or "the game of tarot." This is a fresco at the Palazzo Borromeo in Milan, which depicts a group of five noblemen and ladies playing tarocchi. It's a lovely painting with soft orange tones. Unfortunately there is a lot of fading, especially around the table. It seems to be very similar, but not identical, to the painting depicted in the Encyclopedia vol. 2 (p. 4). The fresco in the Encyclopedia has less fading, and there are cards out on the table. In the fresco in the catalog, there are no cards on the table; it looks like the players have just begun a hand.

Except for the extensive bibliography, that is the complete contents of the exhibit catalog. I would welcome the assistance of someone who can read Italian and would be willing to translate any portion of the text. The few phrases I was able to pick out provided frustratingly small glimpses into what must be a fascinating work of research.

Availability: An online search turned up the German publisher Buchhandlung

Walther König, who offered this book for sale in their 2000 catalog. I have no idea if it is still available, but if you can write German it would be worth an inquiry.

Another German site, the Heidelberg University Library, has an online order form for the book. However, I'm not sure if they are actually selling it, or just charging to make copies. It's hard to tell since I don't read German. Also, it looks like they might prefer to deal with people within the EU. Go to the page, and then scroll down to "I Tarocchi."

The Pinacoteca di Brera site does not include information about their bookstore. However, they might be able to tell you if the book is still available and if so, where. Their web site is in English, so they might be able to answer an English language letter. There is no e-mail address on the museum's web site, so it would have to be a postal letter.

A source for the catalogue was provided by Martha Tilson. Cost, including basic postage to the USA, was $26.86.

*Elisha, the successor to Elijah, is known for cursing a group of children who mocked his baldness, which resulted in God sending wild bears to maul the children to death. 2 Kings 2:23-24

Sarah Ovenall is the designer of Victoria Regina Tarot, a collage Tarot deck published in March 2002 by Llewellyn. Sarah has also participated in many collaborative Tarot projects including Manninni II and III, the Dollie Universal Tarot, and the Artists Inner Vision Tarot (published 1999). When not immersed in Tarot, Sarah drives an art car and works as a web developer.

Images © Pinoteca di Brera catalogue
Article © 2002 Sarah Ovenall
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes