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Knight (female) of Swords, from The Visconti Tarot

Workshop of Bonifacio Bembo Italian

Not on view

The Visconti Tarot

The earliest references to tarot all date to the 1440s and 1450s, and are centered around Venice, Milan, Florence, and Urbino. Tarot cards employed the standard Italian suits—Cups, Swords, Batons, and Coins—with values from 10 to 1 and with a king, queen, knight, and knave, for a total of fifty-six cards. To these were added a fool (matto), which was a wild card, and twenty-one trump cards, or tarocchi, with the fool at the bottom leading up to the emperor and pope at the top. Because the trump cards in these decks are not numbered, the hierarchy varies according to their geographic origin. Tarot is a game of trick taking and the rules of the game likely have not changed significantly since the fifteenth century. The present-day association of tarot with fortune-telling and the occult gained currency only in the nineteenth century and has nothing to do with medieval tarot cards.

Three luxury tarot decks have survived from the mid-fifteenth century. One of the decks, known as The Visconti Tarot, was probably made for Filippo Maria Visconti, the last duke of Milan of that name, prior to his death in 1447. The other deck, known as The Visconti-Sforza Tarot, was more than likely made for Francesco Sforza, a mercenary commander who married the only child of Filippo Maria Visconti. A third luxury deck (not on view), known as The Brambilla Deck (after a former owner), is in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. All three decks are attributed to the workshop of the Milan court painter Bonifacio Bembo.

Suits: Cups, Swords, Batons, and Coins
14 cards in each suit: King, Queen, Knight, Knave, 10 through 1, plus 21 trump cards and 1 Fool
78 cards, of which 67 survive
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (ITA 109)

Knight (female) of Swords, from The Visconti Tarot, Workshop of Bonifacio Bembo (Italian, Cremonese, active ca. 1442–died before 1482), Paper (pasteboard) with opaque paint on tooled gold ground, Italian

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