The Visconti Tarot, also known as Visconti-Sforza tarocchi is a famous set of Tarot cards created in Northern Italy in mid-15th century, Renaissance.
What is The Oldest Tarot Deck in The World?
The Visconti-Sforza tarocchi is the oldest known surviving Tarot deck in the world. Tarocchi is an old Italian word for Tarot, read more: History of Tarot cards.
History of The Visconti Tarot Cards
Actually, there is no single deck called the Visconti-Sforza. The Visconti is in fact an umbrella term for a collection of 15 different sets of cards, commissioned by the same families from the 1450s. Those families were the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, very wealthy aristocrats who inter-married.
Many of the family symbols appear on the cards. For example, laurel and palm leaves on the Emperor and Empress card, a Sforza symbol; and the Visconti motto “a bon droyt” which means “with good right” also appears on a few cards.
Generally Tarot decks at this time were used as cards rather than for purposes of divination, that came much later. On average, there were 22 Major Arcana Cards, 40 pip cards and 16 courts cards (Knave, Knight or Cavalier, Queen and King). Unfortunately, no complete Visconti-Sforza deck of 78 cards survives today.
The oldest complete deck of Tarot cards, is the Sola Bursa Tarot, which was created in 1491.
Visconti-Sforza: Miniature Artworks
As well as being the oldest Tarot decks in existence, these cards are also beautiful, detailed miniature artworks.
The cards were hand-painted, by the finest illuminators and miniaturist artists of the day. Some were decorated with gold and silver leaf, and would have been very expensive to commission at the time.
Indeed, these cards were not likely to have been used for everyday gaming, but rather kept as art objects and stored in wooden boxes. This likely accounts for their survival today, whereas examples of early printed Tarot cards are very rare.
The surviving cards are also of historical interest because of the detail of the design, often depicting members of the Visconti and Sforza families in period garments and settings. Consequently, the cards also offer a glimpse of noble life in Renaissance Milan, which the Visconti called home since the 13th century.
The 3 Most Famous Visconti-Sforza Tarot Decks
Of the 15 different sets of Visconti-Sforza cards that we know of today, here are the three most famous:
Pierpont Morgan Bergamo
This deck is also known as the Francesco Sforza and Colleoni-Baglioni Tarot. It was painted around 1451 by an unknown artist, likely connected to the school of Francesco Zavattari, and commissioned by the new Lord of Milan, Francesco Sforza, who had recently risen to power following his marriage to the Bianca Maria Visconti.
There are 20 trumps (Major Arcana), 15 face cards (Court Cards) and 39 pips (Minor Arcana). The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City houses 35 of the cards, 26 are located in the Accademia Carrara and the remaining 13 are in a private collection.
The trump and face cards have a gilt painted background and the pip cards are painted in cream with a vine and flower motif.
Fortunately for Tarot collectors, it is possible to buy a reproduction of this deck, where the missing cards have been reconstructed.
Also known as the Visconti di Modrone, the Cary-Yale set of cards is dated about 1466. This deck of tarocchi was commissioned for the wedding of Filippo Visconti and Maria of Savoy.
Only 67 of the cards survive today: 11 trumps, 17 face cards and 39 pips. The deck was created by the Italian painter and miniaturist Bonifacio Bembo. Worth noting is the childlike face of the King, which is a signature style of this particular painter.
The Cary-Yale is the only western historical deck with six ranks of face cards. In addition to the traditional King, Queen, Cavalier and Jack, there is also a female Cavalier (Damsel) and female Jack (lady on horse). The trumps also contain three theological virtues, only seen in this deck and in the Minchiate decks. The additional cards suggest that there might originally have been 86 cards in total in the Cary-Yale deck.
The trump cards are painted with a gilt background, and the pip cards have a silver background.
This set of cards is named after Giovanni Brambilla, who acquired the cards in Venice in 1900.
The deck was commissioned by Francesco Sforza in 1463 and also painted by Bonifacio Bembo.
Bembo painted six court cards for each suit in this particular deck. In addition to what we now regard as the four customary courts, he included a Fantesca and a female Knight in each suit.
How To Read The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards
The Visconti cards were intended for the purpose game playing, rather than cartomancy (the use of cards for divination and fortune telling). However, as the deck structure is similar to modern Tarot packs such as the Rider Waite, a reader can simply apply modern interpretations to the cards. See my list of tarot card meanings for further guidance. Also, how to read tarot cards, a beginners guide.
Next: Read about the Marseille Tarot from the 1700s France.
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Karina, author of Tarot in 5 Minutes.