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MikeH 
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"luxury decks" of 1400s-1500s exhibition now in New York


Anyone in the vicinity of New York City by April 17 of this year (2016) will have a rare opportunity to see in one place (the Cloisters) many of the oldest extant luxury playing card decks there are, including selected cards from two of the three oldest extant tarot decks, the "Visconti" aka "Cary-Yale" (CY) and "Visconti di Madrone", and the "Visconti-Sforza", aka Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo (PMB). For the masses (i.e. free), there is also an extensive website about the cards being exhibited, at http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions.../world-in-play . And for those not lucky enough to be in New York, for $25 plus postage, there is also a picture-filled catalog of the exhibition. There are exactly four paragraphs on the tarot cards. Well, that is better than the website, which has seven sentences (repeated) plus an amusing catalog description for the 2 decks.

For the "Visconti Tarot", the website description (called a "checklist" in the catalog) has:
Quote:
The Visconti Tarot
Workshop of Bonifacio Bembo (Italian, active ca. 1442–77; died before 1482)
Italian, Milan, ca. 1450
Paper (pasteboard) with opaque paint on tooled gold ground
Suits: Cups, Swords, Batons, and Coins
Fourteen cards in each suit: King, Queen, Knight, Knave, 10 through 1, plus twenty-one trump cards and one Fool
Seventy-eight cards, of which sixty-seven survive
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (ITA 109)
The "c. 1450" dating is supplemented in the blurb above this description, which says they were "probably made for Filippo Maria Visconti, the last duke of Milan of that name, prior to his death in 1447."

Among the cards shown on the website, we see a female knight. That detail had been omitted from the checklist, which calls into question the assertion about the "fourteen cards in each suit"..

After all this, plus the assurance that there were exactly 22 special cards, I had to get the catalog itself, to see what further revelations lay in store. In the back are the identical "checklist" entries as on the Website. But there is also an essay by the curator, Mr. Timothy Husband. There we find the "prior to 1447" reiterated, without the "c. 1450", but no statement of how many special cards there were. However we are told that
Quote:
The Visconti tarot, the older pack, diverges from the standard: it has as many as six court cards per suit, including a male and female of all ranks (fig. 94).
Fig. 94 is precisely that female knight of swords.

However there are indeed other revelations. One is that there are sixty-nine surviving cards in all, contradicting the "checklist" number of sixty-seven. The Beinecke Library website does indeed both show 67 and state that there are 67 in all.

About the tarot, Husband says (p. 76):
Quote:
The earliest references to tarot all date to the 1440s and 1450s, and all fall within the quadrilateral defined by the northern cities of Venice, Milan, Florence, and Urbino.(46: Dummett, The Visconti Sforza Tarot Cards, p. 5) Because of the complicated nature of the game by that point, it is likely that it had begun evolving earlier in the century.
I did not know that so much was known about the game at that point (i.e. the 1440s and 1450s). A reference would have been nice. I do know that the earliest reference so far is to "carte a trionfi" in Tuscany of 1440.

He goes on to describe the trick-taking game that was played with these cards, in which the special cards served as trump cards. But they were not the first of this sort:
Quote:
Trump cards were apparently invented in Europe, but perhaps not in Italy. The first trumpcard game appears to have originated in Germany in the 1420s with a game known as Karnoffel in which a suit of trump cards could beat only cards of a lower rank.(48: Michael Dummett, "Kartenspiel des 15. Jahrhunderts und das Hofamterspiel," in Dummet et al Hofamsterspiel, Berumte Kartenspiele, ed. commentary vol. (Vienna: Platnik, 1976), pp. 70-71,
To read what Dummett says about Karnoffel in a later book Il Mondo e l'Angelo, 1993, find "Karnoffel" at http://forum.tarothistory.com/viewto...rnoffel#p15162. The earliest documentation is Nordlingun, Bavaria, in an ordinance of 1426. The game did not have a special trump suit, however, but simply used one of the four suits as trumps, by the random turning over of a card.

Husband does not mention in this connection the Marziano deck (also called the Michelino, for the painter); extant is a detailed account by the designer Marziano, who verifiably died in 1425. It most assuredly had a special hierarchy, taking precedence over the suits in trick-taking, of its 16 highest cards, which were Greco-Roman "deified heroes". It was verifiably designed for Filippo Maria Visconti, too (http://trionfi.com/marcello-martiano-da-tortona).

Husband says that besides the "Visconti" deck, there was another early luxury tarot deck, called the "Brambilla", "almost certainly painted for Filippo Maria Visconti before his death in 1447." While no one disputes that it was done before 1447, who it was done for remains undocumented, as far as I know. It has Visconti heraldics in the suit cards, but there were many Visconti.

For the third deck, the "Visconti-Sforza", the website gives the same "c. 1450" dating as for the "Visconti" deck. But Husband tells us in his essay that it was done for Francesco Sforza "shortly after 1450" (p. 78). How he knows that he does not say. The only documentation of that time period, 1452, is for a deck with the Milanese ducal heraldics desired by Sigismondo Malatesta (http://trionfi.com/etx-sigismondo-pandolfo-malatesta), indeed by a highly praised workshop in Cremona. I am not aware of a consensus about when the "Visconti-Sforza" was done. Besides 1452, 1455-1460 has been proposed ("Quello carte de triumphi che se fanno a Cremona': tarocchi dei Bembo, ed. S. Bandera and M. Tanzi, Milano 2013, p. 50); and there is Dummett, who proposed "early 1460s" in one of his last essays (Artibus Historia 56 (2007), pp. 15-26; for relevant quote see http://forum.tarothistory.com/viewto...to+Bembo#p4912).

The "checklist" for the "Visconti-Sforza" reports that the deck had 21 trumps plus the Fool, but that two are missing. How they know that they are missing, as opposed to never being produced, is not said. Husband in his essay makes no statement about the total number of special cards in this deck.

The checklist states that there were "Seventy-eight cards, of which seventy-four survive (six by a different artist, ca. 1480)". A dating of ca. 1480, or more precisely, 1480-1490, is in fact upheld by a consensus of art historians (Bandera and Tanzi, pp. 50 and 52), who attribute the six cards in a different style to Antonio Cigognara. Among playing card researchers, this attribution is occasionally disputed, e.g. by Dummett in the Artibus article.

There is also the question of how many artists were involved in the "first artist" cards. Bandera and Tanzi posit two, of which the second, Ambrogio Bembo, may have only been involved with the pip cards.

Finally, about all three decksl:
Quote:
All three decks are attributed to the workshop of the Milan court painter Bonifacio Bembo.
Whether he was a "Milan court painter" at the time the decks were made is not discussed. Also, he would have been quite young at the time of the Visconti decks, too young to head a workshop. But at least Husband does not go so far as to say that the cards were painted by Bonifacio himself. With other decks in the exhibition, it is obvious that different painters were involved. So Husband knows to be cautious.

Perhaps it is a good thing that we are only given five paragraphs plus two "checklists" on these most ancient extant tarots. The real value of the book, and the exhibition, is that of putting the tarot decks into the context of other luxury decks of the time, especially those of Germany. We on tarot forums seldom do that (Huck excepted). Husband points out examples where similarity of poses on Italian and German cards suggest the use of model books of a common source. He also gives useful criteria for telling whether a deck was made only for show or perhaps also for play. Speaking of the Stuttgart Playing Cards of c. 1430, he observes:
Quote:
The largest of all the early playing cards, these are made of six layers of paper glued together to make pasteboard. Some of the paper has watermarks that have been identified with a paper mill in Ravensburg and can be dated between 1427 and 1431; this, along with the style, supports the generally accepted date of about 1430. The corners of these cards are rounded, and there is some wear, particularly on the gold ground. Because the wear is on the high relief areas of the cards’ uneven surfaces, it evidently resulted from
the abrasion caused by stacking one card on another over the centuries. There is no wear or accumulated grime concentrated along the lower edges, where cards are typically handled—a further indication that they were intended primarily for visual delectation.
I leave it to others whether these criteria sheds any light on the use to which the Italian cards in question were put. Husband appears to think that all of these decks were made purely for show.

Last edited by MikeH; 06-02-2016 at 12:06.
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Old 06-02-2016     Top   #1
Debra 
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Thanks for this summary.

67 vs. 69 likely a typo.
With a brief text, makes sense to approximate dates (circa, ca.) and forgo footnotes.

What I want to know is, How do the pictures look?!
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Old 06-02-2016     Top   #2
MikeH 
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In the essay, the number is spelled out, "sixty-nine". There is a separate section in the back for footnotes, four pages of them. The lines with the word "CA. 1450" in them leave plenty of blank space, more than enough for "probably before 1447" or "probably 1450-1460". Generally, "CA." means within a couple of years.

The pictures look great, better than the originals, I expect. Certainly just as good as the ones on the website, in a few cases better, because they devote a whole page to maybe half a card. For the Cary-Yale, the Queen of Swords gets this treatment; she never looked lovelier. Be forewarned that there are only 9 (nine) tarot cards shown in the book, plus 1 from the "tarot of Mantegna", as opposed to 15 that are on the website. If looking at pictures in books, as opposed to a computer screen, is your thing, then the catalog will not disappoint. And when it comes to German cards, the curator probably does know his stuff; I certainly don't.

Thanks for pointing out my omission. Oh, yeah, the pictures. In terms of page space, they take up vastly more of it than the text.

Added later: If you go to the exhibit, one bonus is that you get to see one of the "Rosenwald sheets", from the National Gallery in Washington. This sheet is not mentioned in Husband's essay at all, neither in the "tarot" nor in the "woodblock cards" section;nor is it pictured. Smart move, as the sheet being exhibited has some hard to categorize features. It is in the " checklist", however, and online, with a picture there of the sheet being exhibited, which is of aces, some courts, and some pips in cups.

Last edited by MikeH; 07-02-2016 at 21:42.
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Old 07-02-2016     Top   #3
Huck 
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Well, it is a description made of somebody, who failed to use the internet for his study.

Quote:
Description
By Timothy B. Husband
In the 15th and 16th centuries, card playing was widely enjoyed at all levels of society. The cards in this engaging volume are unique works of art that illuminate the transition from late medieval to early modern Europe, a period of tumultuous social, artistic, economic, and religious change. Included in this publication are still-surviving luxury decks of hand-painted European playing cards, hand-colored woodblock cards, engraved cards, and tarot packs, all which illustrate diverse characters ranging from royals to commoners.

This is the only study of its kind in English, and the only one in a generation in any language. The insightful narrative by Timothy B. Husband discusses the significance of playing cards in the secular art of the period and recounts the varied stories they tell. Colorful, often humorous, sometimes scatological, these cards provide a unique glimpse into the lives, attitudes, and customs of those who played with them.
http://store.metmuseum.org/exhibitio...+world+in+play

"This is the only study of its kind in English, and the only one in a generation in any language."

Hm. It's nice, that they got so much interesting decks together.

From the "Tarot" page:

"The earliest references to tarot all date to the 1440s and 1450s, and are centered around Venice, Milan, Florence, and Urbino. "

Ferrara (missing) has a lot to offer in this time "1440s and 1450s" and URBINO HAS NOTHING, as far I know. Venice has only the few notes of Jacopo Antonio Marcello.
The word "Tarot" even didn't exist.

"Tarot is a game of trick taking and the rules of the game likely have not changed significantly since the fifteenth century."

Good, that he says "likely". Actually we've not much about Tarot rules in 15th century, so there's no chance to claim that. Anyway, thanks to the work of Dummett an McLeod we know, that there are significant differences between the many different Tarot game rule versions, which are known today.



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Old 07-02-2016     Top   #4
Debra 
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Timothy Husband, the curator, is responsible for the Cloisters' collection of medieval art--among the world's best collections. He's worked hands-on with these pieces for forty years, and he works with people all around the world who know the art of that period intimately. Based on his commentaries elsewhere, I'm guessing he has some interesting ideas and observations about these cards--so I'm surprised at the comments here. What are you all saying? The exhibit catalog contains a few errors and generalities, and not as much on tarot as you'd like, so ... so ... what?
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Old 09-02-2016     Top   #5
MikeH 
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Well, this is a tarot forum, in a section on "history", that's why the big deal. And I don't know if Mr. Husband is responsible for the checklist and the website. As I was trying to say, his essay in the book, exclusive of the "checklist", is better than the website.

Husband's essay, however, does mention Urbino in connection with tarot references in the 1440s and 1450s. I graciously passed over that strange phenomenon, not having Husband's source ready to hand (i.e., misplaced) to check his source (he does give a reference, and to a rather formidable source). Now I do have it at the ready, and there is an interesting migration of misinformation to be traced.

The Website says (http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions...sconti-tarot):
Quote:
The earliest references to tarot all date to the 1440s and 1450s, and are centered around Venice, Milan, Florence, and Urbino.
What Husband says in the book (p. 76) is
Quote:
The earliest references to tarot all date to the 1440s and 1450s, and all fall within the quadrilateral defined by the northern cities of Venice, Milan, Florence, and Urbino.
That of course is a different thing. But it is not the end of the matter. Husband cites Dummett, The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, p. 5. What Dummett actually says on that page, at least in my copy of the book, now located, is
Quote:
Documentary sources and surviving cards indicate that by the end of the fifteenth century the game of tarot was known in most cities within the quadrilateral formed by Venice, Milan, Florence, and Urbino.
That is quite different from what Husband misremembered, somewhere from book to keyboard. That's the kind of error we get sharply criticized for on tarot forums. (Even when we quote correctly, we get sharply criticized, of course, but that is another story.) It has no business being in a book published by the Metropolitan Museum, even if tarot is not his field of expertise. That's the kind of thing that gets tarot history a bad name; so we who take it seriously are understandably miffed.

But I do not know that Mr. Husband can be accused of error in speaking of references to the game of tarot before the word existed. It was still the game of tarot, just called by another name. Even Dummett called it tarot, applied to a period when the name did not exist. In English if we mean references to "tarot"--i.e. the word--we put it in quotes.

Last edited by MikeH; 09-02-2016 at 21:25.
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Old 09-02-2016     Top   #6
Huck 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Debra View Post
Timothy Husband, the curator, is responsible for the Cloisters' collection of medieval art--among the world's best collections. He's worked hands-on with these pieces for forty years, and he works with people all around the world who know the art of that period intimately. Based on his commentaries elsewhere, I'm guessing he has some interesting ideas and observations about these cards--so I'm surprised at the comments here. What are you all saying? The exhibit catalog contains a few errors and generalities, and not as much on tarot as you'd like, so ... so ... what?
He's better in the texts about German playing cards ... likely thanks to the condition, that he had collected good information from German museums. And it's good, that the Metropolitan made something in this theme, as these treasures are in the English language texts overlooked.

Tarot got 2 decks and only a few pages (7 pages, and most of it is filled with pictures, which we all know). And a few things are wrong in this little text. If this article had been appeared in a little magazine or at a webpage, it wouldn't have big worth to write about it.
Just an opinion 2-3 decades back in relation to the actual state of research.

The Met has itself the Burgundian hunting deck in his own possession, and that's likely the reason for the exhibition. So their interests is in the Northern decks of 15th century. That's okay.



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Old 09-02-2016     Top   #7
MikeH 
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Yes, I thought Germany would be his speciality. He cites mostly German books even when talking about the tarot. However I must confess that I have been too charitable to him when it comes to tarot. In the first paragraph, introducing the subject, we read the following. He is contrasting Italian tarot with the German decks he has been discussing.

Quote:
In tarot cards, however, twenty-one trump cards, or tarocchi, were added, and these were figural, as in the Courtly Household deck, with the fool at the bottom leading up to the emperor and the pope at the top (fig. 90). In one set, the so-called [i]Mantenga Tarot,[/o the cards were similarly organized with the addition of a roman numeral identifying the value and a title identifying the figure (fig. 91).
Actually, from the early references it would seem that the deck as a whole, and the game played with them, was referred to as the tarocchi, not just the twenty-one "trump" cards (of course a term only used in England, at first and mostly in games played with ordinary cards). However according to Franco Pratesi in an article I posted a translation of on another thread, the term tarocchi was used for some unclear initial period to mean the trump cards. If so, it was used for the deck as a whole at the same time. The word "tarocchi" is not adequately translated as "trump cards". Whether the fool was at the bottom is unclear. The first list has it at the end, after number 21, but calls it "nulla", nothing. It is traditionally unnumbered and is not included among the twenty-one trumps. It is not a trump, as it cannot win a trick, not even against non-trumps; it is a wild card, as Husband later says. If it were a trump, there would be twenty-two of them. In the 1440s and 1450s it is not even known whether there was a standard list of subjects and a standard number of triumphal cards, or whether there was routinely a Fool. (Again, see the article by Pratesi.) And of course the Emperor is typically card number 3 or 4 (3rd or 4th from the bottom, not counting the Fool) and the Pope number 5. The "Mantegna" is not considered a tarot, although it has some tarot-like figures. There are no pip cards whatever, just 50 figured cards numbered in sequence, in five groups of ten. The Emperor and Pope are numbers 9 and 10, and so the top of the bottom group. There is enough real information that it is not necessary to repeat half-truths and confusions. Dummett's Visconti-Sforza Tarot cards is a good source, just a little out of date (1986). And even it he did not read very closely. Otherwise the material is in Italian or French (such as Depaulis's 2013 slim but well written volume), except what is translated online. Trionfi.com is a good supplemental source.

Last edited by MikeH; 09-02-2016 at 23:03.
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Old 09-02-2016     Top   #8
Debra 
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A member's report on the Met exhibit is here: http://www.tarotforum.net/showpost.p...9&postcount=38
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Old 08-03-2016     Top   #9
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