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Playing Cards from Spain

SPAIN has played a pivotal role in the history of playing cards in Europe and Latin America. One view is that the early history of playing cards in Europe was related to the invasion of North Africa, Spain and Sicily by Islamic forces during the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt which ended in 1517. This coincided with the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada (13th - 15th century), the last Islamic stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula, which was linked to North Africa via the Strait of Gibraltar. Spain has had a complex colonial history and Spanish playing cards have travelled to the ‘New World’ where the legacy of Spanish-suited playing cards still prevails today from Mexico to Patagonia, as well as other remote parts of the globe.

Spanish Cup suit sign
Spanish suit symbols are cups, swords, coins and clubs (termed copas, espadas, oros and bastos) but the form and arrangement differs from Italian cards.

An abundance of early literary references are in the Spanish language. Playing cards have been popular in Spain since their very first introduction there. Early sources refer to playing cards and card games in dictionaries and merchants’ inventories, to various card-makers and to prohibitions of card games, mostly around Barcelona and Valencia, in the late 1300s and early 1400s. 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). The types of cards mentioned include “large cards, painted and gilded” as well as “Moorish” cards and “small” cards.

Maciá pattern

With the marriage in 1468 of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, the Spanish nationality came into existence in its definitive form. The catholic monarchs inherited the trading routes linking the Cantabrian ports with Flemish and French production centres. To this they soon added trade routes to England, North Africa and Italy. Catalonia experienced a revival of its importance in the Mediterranean reaching as far as Egypt. And, of course, Columbus discovered the 'New Indies' in 1492… thus Spain became a sort of emporium for the exchange of goods and artefacts from a very broad compass reaching almost literally to all four quarters of the globe.

Some of the earliest-known tarot cards, hand painted and illuminated in the 15th century, were supposed to have been discovered in Seville although the game of tarocchi has never been played in Spain. At the same time many Spanish-suited packs were engraved in Germany during the second half of the fifteenth century. Other 15th and 16th century evidence of Spanish playing cards have turned up in Latin American museums and archives. An interesting example are the archaic Spanish-suited cards unearthed in the Lower Rimac valley, Peru during archaeological excavations which are very similar to cards by Francisco Flores preserved in the Archivo de Indias (Seville).

Above: detail from “La Sala de Las Batallas” mural painting in El Escorial palace (Madrid) produced by a team of Italian artists, late 16th century.

The Spanish state playing card monopoly was first established during the reign of Felipe II, in the 16th century. It was divided into several regions, including Mexico and ‘New Spain’, Toledo, Castile and Seville. Leases for these respective monopolies were awarded on a competitive basis to the highest bidder and subject to strict controls. Lease holders also enjoyed the protection of laws governing the playing card monopolies, which included the outlawing of contraband playing cards   read more →.

Spanish playing cards are today divided into several distinctive types or patterns, some more ancient than others, which are often associated with different regions, as well as a wide range of non-standard cards which testify to the creative genius of Spanish artists. The suits are usually numbered through 1 - 12. A peculiarity to be observed in Spanish cards is that the suits of cups, swords and clubs have respectively one, two and three gaps or intervals in the upper and lower marginal lines of every card, called pintas.


  • Agudo Ruiz, Juan de Dios: Los Naipes en España, Diputación Foral de Álava, 2000
  • Denning, Trevor: The Playing-Cards of Spain, Cygnus Arts, London, 1996
  • Pratesi, Franco: Cinco Siglos de Naipes en España, in La Sota nº 16, Asescoin, Madrid, March 1997, pp.27-51

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‘El Cid’ by Simeon Durá, Valencia, Spain 1880

‘El Cid’ by Simeon Durá, Valencia, Spain

‘El Cid’ playing cards manufactured by Simeon Durá, Valencia, Spain.

‘El Cid’ designed by E. Pastor, Valencia, Spain, c.1875 1875

‘El Cid’ designed by E. Pastor, Valencia, Spain, c.1875

‘El Cid’ fantasy playing cards designed by E. Pastor, Valencia, Spain, c.1875

101 Dalmatas 1995

101 Dalmatas

101 Dalmatas by Naipes Fournier, 1995,

16th century cards discovered in Peru

16th century cards discovered in Peru

Fragments of playing cards and 2 dice were unearthed in a 16th century rubbish tip adjacent to a Spanish house in the lower Rimac Valley in Peru, providing evidence of games played by early Spanish settlers.

4 Elementos designed by Marcos Neila Muro 2014

4 Elementos designed by Marcos Neila Muro

“4 Elementos” playing cards designed by Marcos Neila Muro promoting ecology and environmental sustainability.

A Goofy Movie 1996

A Goofy Movie

A Goofy Movie card game published by Heraclio Fournier, 1996.

A Moorish Sheet of Playing Cards 1987

A Moorish Sheet of Playing Cards

This article was originally published in “The Playing-Card”, the Journal of the International Playing-Card Society (London), Volume XV, No.4, May 1987.

About Heraclio Díaz

About Heraclio Díaz

Heraclio Díaz lives in the Canary Islands (Spain).

Alejo Gabarró Catalan pattern 1904

Alejo Gabarró Catalan pattern

Alejo Gabarró “El Cuervo” Catalan pattern playing cards, Igualada, Spain, c.1904.

Alice in Wonderland 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland collector’s edition with illustrations of characters from the film, published by Fournier, Spain, 2010.

Aluette by Dieudonné Jeune, Orléans, c.1850 1850

Aluette by Dieudonné Jeune, Orléans, c.1850

Aluette game by Fabrique Dieudonné Jeune, Orléans, for Spanish market, c.1850.

America 1960


“America” playing cards designed by Teodoro N Miciano, 1960.

American Civil War playing cards 1961

American Civil War playing cards

American Civil War centennial playing cards designed by Teodoro N. Miciano and published by Fournier, Spain, 1961.

Amorcillos 1790


‘Amorcillos’ (Cupids), a masterpiece from the golden age of Spanish playing cards by Clemente Roxas, Madrid, 1790.

Ancient Civilisations 1973

Ancient Civilisations

Ancient Civilisations playing cards designed by Celedonio Perellón, produced by Heraclio Fournier, 1973.

Anonymous Spanish Suited pack, c.1760 1760

Anonymous Spanish Suited pack, c.1760

Anonymous archaic Spanish suited pack, c.1760.

Artistas del Cine 1926

Artistas del Cine

Advertising pack designed by J. Passos and first printed by Cromografía Irández, Barcelona, c.1926. Re-printed in 1995.

Ases de la pintura / Masters of painting 1990

Ases de la pintura / Masters of painting

Ases de la pintura / Masters of painting playing cards made by Naipes Comas, Spain, c.1990.

Aventuras de Sport-Billy 1981

Aventuras de Sport-Billy

The Adventures of Sport-Billy by H. Fournier, 1981.

B. Braun-Dexon<sup>®</sup> 1986

B. Braun-Dexon®

Publicity pack promoting B. Braun-Dexon’s atraumatic needles, with non-standard courts and pips.