History of Playing Cards - 5

What did the earliest European cards look like?

XV Century Catalan Playing Cards, Barcelona

Above: XV Century Catalan playing cards, Barcelona.

Master PW Circular Playing Cards

Above: Master PW Circular playing cards.

the Master of the Banderoles, c.1470

Above: playing cards by the Master of the Banderoles, c.1470.

Gothic Spanish-suited cards

Above: Gothic Spanish-suited cards.

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 hand-made packs in varying degrees of quality and excellence.

The playing card pack appears to have been known, from the time of the earliest mention of it, in a fully fledged form. The suits and denominations of the earliest 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, ‘painted or 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. In the early days, the attention of the makers was the design of the faces, while the backs were plain. 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 Archaic Italian Cards, 1462
Last Updated April 09, 2018 at 09:02pm


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Playing cards have enormous educational value, with a long history and many diverse types and graphical styles from around the world... View More →

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