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Posted | Last Updated November 28, 2014 at 11:56am

The Earliest Playing Cards

What did the earliest European cards look like?

The first European references to playing cards date from the 1370s and come from Catalonia (Spain), Florence, France, Sienna, Viterbo (Italy), southern Germany, Switzerland and Brabant. Most of these refer to ‘a recent introduction’. No cards from this early survive, but the sources indicate that cards were being painted ‘in gold and various colours’ or ‘painted and gilded’ which suggests luxury packs.

The suits and denominations of the earliest known Spanish, Italian and Mamluk cards are believed to be derived from a common Mamluk, or perhaps pre-Mamluk, archetype.

Historical archives from Barcelona, 1380, mention a certain Rodrigo Borges, from Perpignan, and describe him as “pintor y naipero” (painter and playing card maker). He is the earliest named card-maker. Other card makers named in guild records include Jaime Estalós (1420), Antonio Borges (1438), Bernardo Soler (1443) and Juan Brunet (1443). Cards were being produced by craftsmen or artists, printed from woodcuts, engraved or ‘painted and gilded’.

The earliest surviving cards are from the fifteenth century, and most of these were made on pasteboard manufactured from 3, 4 or up to 6 sheets of paper glued together. Cards were often much larger sizes than today, and the images were either hand drawn or printed from woodblocks or printed from copper engravings. The colouring was often done using stencils. Suit systems varied greatly and a wide range of everyday objects were depicted as suit symbols... boars, bears, flowers, falcons, hounds, lions, clubs, cups, ciboria, hares...

The Medieval mind delighted in the ornate and colourful, and the art of the miniature was much admired and practised. Occasionally the playing card becomes the focus of excellent miniature design and artistry.

Click on the images to see more

The Stuttgart Painted Cards Spanish-suited tarot card, XV c.
Princely Hunting Pack, c.1440 XV Century Catalan Playing Cards, Barcelona Archaic Italian Cards, 1462

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