History of Playing Cards - 9

The Renaissance

With the onset of the Renaissance in Italy, the new spirit of Humanism was spreading through Europe bringing a change of form and direction. The Middle Ages had given birth to the dawn of the modern era. The style and thematic content of playing cards reflected the new world view. This new influence did not reach certain parts of Europe until the high and late Renaissance in the 16th century. Following in the wake of Italian art, the German Renaissance developed a new form of medieval knightly culture. Imaginative decks of playing cards were produced by Jost Amman, Schäufelein, Schön and Peter Flötner.

Artists were commissioned to paint anything from wall frescoes through Books of Hours to illuminated playing cards, thereby exhibiting the taste and cultivation of the patron. In some cases the imagery had a moral, Christian, instructional or philosophical content, whilst in other cases it was based upon popular culture, often satirical or else merely conventional or adorned with the owner's heraldic devices.

Above: Visconti tarocchi playing card, Milan, Italy, c.1445. Click here to see more.

See also: Mantegna Tarocchi - Peter Flötner - Guildhall Library Tarot cards.   Download article about Origins of Imagery in the Tarot.

Talia from the Tarocchi di Mantegna, c.1465 Jost Amman, Book of Trades, 1588

Suit Systems and National Types

By around 1500 three main suit systems had evolved: Latin (including Italian, Spanish and Portuguese); Germanic (German and Swiss) and French (which has become the International or 'Anglo-American' suit system). At the same time the court hierarchies were becoming standardised, although distinctive for different regions. Some of the suit symbols may have had a semi-symbolic significance (e.g. cups, coins, hearts, batons, pomegranates) or were adapted from a different language, others a reflection of popular culture at the time; but some students like to see a religious, social or political meaning in the symbols.

These suit systems and court hierarchies became the basis for various Standard National patterns, or National Types, which were associated with specific regions or tax jurisdictions.

Many of these have remained unchanged for centuries, being handed down through the generations, preserving their archaic, medieval characteristics. Others have evolved into modern types, perhaps as a self-affirmation of national identity in countries which have recently regained independence from foreign rule  (see example). Indeed, as a result of globalisation, use of computers and international competition, standard playing card designs are becoming more uniform on the one hand, but with greater opportunities for customisation or originality on the other hand (i.e. non-standard).

Above: the Swiss national suit system of shields, acorns, hawkbells and flowers originated sometime during the fifteenth century   more →


back to top