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Posted | Last Updated June 19, 2013 at 03:39pm | Share this page on Facebook

The Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi Cards, c.1445

Could the elite manipulate or control the middle and lower classes through playing cards?

f course people can play card games with any old pieces of paper, but the wealthier classes could afford to have luxury, illuminated cards - perhaps like owning a Porsche today. This pack of hand painted tarot cards appears to have have been made for Francesco Sforza about the time that he became Duke of Milan (1450). The production of these cards has long been attributed to the Milanese court painter Bonifacio Bembo but more recently some collaboration on the part of Francesco Zavattari has been suggested. The pack comprises an ordinary pack of playing cards augmented by a Fool (Matto) and twenty-one unsuited trump cards (trionfi).

Hand painted packs like this were being produced in Italy at around the same time as hand painted packs were being produced in Northern Europe, and they have survived because they were expensive and kept as valuable art treasures. More affordable versions of the same sort of thing were also available, produced using more rudimentary technology (woodblocks and stencils) and cheaper materials, so the question we ask is “Did the luxury hand-painted cards have any effect on the plainer cards enjoyed by ordinary folks?”   See also:   Ambraser Hofjagdspiel, Stuttgarter Kartenspiel, Hofämterspiel, Flemish Hunting Deck, c.1475.

Right: 8 cards from the replica pack "I Tarocchi dei Visconti" published by Dal Negro, Treviso, Italy. This is the most complete 15th Century Tarot deck. The original deck has 74 of the assumed original 78 cards, the missing cards are The Devil, The Tower, Three of Swords and Knight of Coins. These missing cards have been reconstructed in this edition.

Most people recognise that there are some things in life they cannot afford. But some artists were able to satisfy a demand for luxury playing cards by wealthy clients who could afford them. As soon as they arrived in Europe in the 1370s, playing cards were banned by the secular authorities or condemned by the Church. Card playing and gaming were regulated through legislation and taxation. Governments soon saw an opportunity to increase revenues for war efforts by setting up monopolies controlling playing card industries. The cheaper grades of cards, of course, were used in gambling dens whereas the expensive luxury cards were used by aristocracy who could afford to buy them. In some cases a pious moral lesson, flattering to the patron, might be imparted through the design of playing cards, perhaps reinforcing a view of social hierarchies or aspirational role models. In other cases satire or scurrility was depicted.

Other surviving fifteenth century Italian tarot packs include: the Visconti di Modrone pack (c.1441) and the Brambilla Tarocchi (c.1444-45), both adopting the names of former owners. Further examples include: the so-called Playing Cards of Charles VI (seventeen cards survive); thirty-one cards from the Rothschild Collection in the Musée du Louvre, Paris; sixteen surviving cards in the Cary Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University, believed to have been made in Ferrara; fifteen cards in the Museo Civico, Catania; fifteen cards are known from a pack that was badly damaged in a 1904 fire in the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria, Turin; as well as several other examples of a few remaining cards in other museums or private collections.


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