The Visconti-Sforza deck is one of several hand-painted Italian decks that the Visconti family commissioned in the 15th Century. It may or may not be older than the Cary-Yale Visconti deck, we don't know for sure. The deck has 74 of the assumed original 78 cards, the missing cards are The Devil, The Tower, three of swords and knight of coins. Some cards seem to be later additions and may not have been part of the original deck. As with all the Visconti Tarots, the cards are unnumbered and unnamed.
The Visconti-Sforza deck, like all the 15th Century Italian cards in the Visconti group, are missing the Devil and Tower card. It is possible that those two cards were never in the Visconti decks, but I find that unlikely. It may be that the cards were considered distasteful or unlucky, so they were removed at some point, or they simply were lost to time.
It seems as well that six cards were replaced or added to the deck at some early point in it's existence. They are clearly of another hand than the original artist. The six cards are:
- The Star
- The Moon
- The Sun
- The World
Since Strength, Temperance and The World are in this group, it may be that the six were originally part of the deck and were simply replaced after damage or loss.
This is the oldest representation we have of The Popess card. She wears the three-tiered crown of the papacy, but her clothes are unusually plain and look more like a nun's. She holds a book in her right hand, a traditional symbol for this card.
There is a lot of debate surrounding this card. Gertrude Moakley, a noted Tarot Historian, suggested that she might represent Sister Manfreda, an ancestor of the Visconti's. It has also been suggested that she might represent "Pope Joan", a legendary female pope popular during the Renaissance.
A similarity has been noted between the Visconti-Sforza Papess and the allegory of Faith painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel (in Padua) in 1304-1306. Giotto's allegory is not wearing the three-tiered crown, but such crown was not yet in use in work of arts at the beginning of the XIV Century.
The Hermit as "Time"
It's pretty obvious that The Hermit card, to Italians during the 15th Century, was regarded as Time. He was referred to as "Time", "The Old Man", and "The Hunchback". Here, in our earliest depiction of The Hermit, he holds an hourglass, a clear representation of the personification of Time. Only a few decades later, the hourglass begins to turn into the lantern we are familiar with today.
The Wheel of Fortune
The Visconti-Sforza Wheel of Fortune shows the typical iconography of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. We find four figures encircling the wheel. On the Visconti-Sforza Wheel of Fortune, there are barely noticeable banners with four common sayings connected with the figures. The top figure says "Regno - I reign", the descending figure says "Regnavi - I reigned" , the figure at the bottom says "Sum Sine Regno - I am without reign", and the figure ascending the wheel says "Regnabo - I shall reign". This is a common warning about trusting in the instability Fortune rather than trusting solidness of God.
Notice the beginning of some of the iconography that develops in later decks like the Tarot of Marseilles. The figures have been given animal characteristics.. the top and left figure have donkey ears showing foolishness, the right figure has a tail. In later Tarot iconography, the figures turn completely into animal form with barely recognizable human features, and both Fortune and the figure at the bottom are removed from the card.
Date of Publication
Uncertain, probably between the 1440's and 1470's
U.S. Games Systems Visconti-Sforza Pierpont Morgan Tarocchi Deck
Deck creation and/or publication process
Hand painted cards
- Aeclectic Tarot Review by Lloyd R. Belthazar