Dating the Visconti-Sforza deck

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Many pages have been written about the dating of the Visconti-Sforza deck. Personally, I believe it has been created in 1454 as explained in another threat on this forum (viewtopic.php?f=14&t=1621&start=10) and illustrated on my own website (https://tarotwheel.net/structure/the%20 ... night.html). However, this is not the subject here.
It is very well known that six of the cards in this deck are made at a later date (Temperance, Strength, the Star, the Moon, the Sun and the World). The difference is easy to see if we look at the golden background of these cards. An example of the oldest cards is Time (the Hermit in modern decks):
https://www.themorgan.org/sites/default ... 630_10.jpg
The court cards have the same golden background, as we can see on for instance the Page of Cups:
https://www.themorgan.org/sites/default ... 630_18.jpg
An example of the newer cards is the Sun:
https://www.themorgan.org/sites/default ... 630_13.jpg
According to many people, these are replacement cards for cards that were lost. According to some other people (to whom I belong), these cards were not replacement cards, but added cards, to transform the structure of the deck from five suits of fourteen cards to four suits of fourteen cards plus twenty-two trump cards. However, also this is not the subject here.
The subject of this post is dating the numbered cards. It is generally assumed that they were made at the same time as the first trump and court cards. My question is now, is this the truth? There are two reasons why I doubt:
My first reason to doubt is the background of the numbered cards. On the cards commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti, the background of the cards is silver hammered. On the Visconti-Sforza deck, the background is left white. Why opting for this cheap solution? There might be two reasons. The first one is a budgetary reason. I think it is hard to believe that one of the most powerful people in that time in Italy did not have the resources available to fund this, so for me this cannot be the reason. The second reason might be that Francesco Sforza did not order the numbered cards. This is quite plausible, in view that some other Trionfi decks also don't have numbered cards (like the Este deck commissioned by Ercole I of Este for his marriage in 1473 and the so-called Charles VI deck). The Trionfi decks were not made for card playing, but they were made for a special occasion, and they were made to be exhibited. The court cards were a great opportunity to exhibit the coat of arms and other symbols related to the family that commissioned the cards. The pip cards were less important for exhibiting these details. So for me, it is logical that the numbered cards were originally not realized. Many years later, when the deck was extended from a fourteen trump cards structure to a twenty-two cards structure, the commissioner probably wanted to extend not only the trump structure, but to complete the entire deck. Silver-hammering is expensive and time-consuming, so this might have been the reason to keep the numbered cards as simple as possible. However, gold-hammering is still used for the suit symbols.
My second reason to doubt is just this gold-hammering. The gold on the suit symbols is very different from the gold on the trump and court cards. The gold is much brighter. Look for instance at the Ace of Cups:
https://www.themorgan.org/sites/default ... 630_24.jpg
When we compare this gold with the gold on the added trump cards, we have to conclude that they are very similar. For me, it seems very plausible that these cards were made at the same time. I might be entirely wrong, I never ever saw this theory elsewhere. However, I think this theory is interesting enough to have it discussed on this Forum, where some of the most knowledgeable Tarot history experts are present. I'm not at all an Art expert, so I'm curious, to hear your reaction.

Re: Dating the Visconti-Sforza deck

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Iolon wrote: 09 Jan 2022, 13:47 The subject of this post is dating the numbered cards. It is generally assumed that they were made at the same time as the first trump and court cards. My question is now, is this the truth?
I've considered all your points, and I've looked again at the various images of the cards available to me, and I've come to the conclusion that this idea is not plausible, for the following reasons:
My first reason to doubt is the background of the numbered cards. On the cards commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti, the background of the cards is silver hammered. On the Visconti-Sforza deck, the background is left white.
As far as I'm aware, all the surviving hand-painted numeral cards from this era have painted backgrounds, like the Visconti-Sforza deck, except for those in the two decks from the court of Filippo Maria (the Visconti di Modrone and the Brera-Brambilla). So the latter two decks could be seen as the exceptional ones that require explanation, not the numeral cards of the Visconti-Sforza. If we look at it from this perspective, we could say that the only reason why those two decks have silver backgrounds is because Filippo Maria was such a keen enthusiast of playing-cards and therefore favored exceptionally lavish decks. In other words, it was normal for the numeral cards to always have painted backgrounds and never silver or gold, unless you were Filippo Maria Visconti.

The fact that the court cards and trumps had gold backgrounds even though the numeral cards did not is easily explained by the fact that those cards were seen as being more significant and more worthy of such special treatment. In the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin, there is a set of fire-damaged cards (not a tarot deck) in which the court cards all have gold backgrounds but the numeral cards have painted backgrounds. So this does not seem to have been particularly unusual.
The second reason might be that Francesco Sforza did not order the numbered cards. This is quite plausible, in view that some other Trionfi decks also don't have numbered cards (like the Este deck commissioned by Ercole I of Este for his marriage in 1473 and the so-called Charles VI deck). The Trionfi decks were not made for card playing, but they were made for a special occasion, and they were made to be exhibited. The court cards were a great opportunity to exhibit the coat of arms and other symbols related to the family that commissioned the cards. The pip cards were less important for exhibiting these details. So for me, it is logical that the numbered cards were originally not realized.
Two points need to be made here:

1. There is no good reason to think that these cards were made for display only and were never used for play. On the contrary, it is quite likely that they were used for play on rare, special occasions, especially on the occasion when they were first presented to the person they were made for. The trumps of the Charles VI deck and the "Alessandro Sforza" deck in Catania have numbers written on them by hand, apparently added within a century or so of the cards' creation; it is hard to imagine why this would have been done if the cards were not used for play at a time when the players no longer knew the trump order by heart, having become reliant on having the trump numbering printed on the cards themselves.

2. Even if the cards were created only for display, it would still be extremely surprising if a wealthy patron were to commission an incomplete deck. This would be like carving one third of a statue, or painting one third of a portrait. There is no evidence that incomplete decks were ever commissioned. There is some evidence of cards being created as additions to an existing deck (either as replacement cards or as supplementary cards) but no examples of someone deliberately creating an incomplete deck. The absence of numeral cards among the surviving cards of the Charles VI and Este decks is very easily explained by the regrettable tendency of card collectors to favor "picture" cards (courts and trumps) far more than numeral cards, a tendency which persists to this day. This caused many decks to be split up over the centuries, when collectors purchased mainly picture cards, leaving most or all of the numeral cards in the hands of the previous owner. As a result, we have surviving sets of 15th century cards which are all or mostly picture cards, like the Charles VI and Este sets, but also others which are all or mostly numeral cards, like those in the Louvre (23 numeral cards, no picture cards) and the Brera-Brambilla (39 numeral cards but only 9 picture cards). There is no more reason to think that the Charles VI and Este were originally made without numeral cards than there is to think that the cards in the Louvre were originally made without courts.
My second reason to doubt is just this gold-hammering. The gold on the suit symbols is very different from the gold on the trump and court cards. The gold is much brighter. Look for instance at the Ace of Cups:
https://www.themorgan.org/sites/default ... 630_24.jpg
When we compare this gold with the gold on the added trump cards, we have to conclude that they are very similar.
Looking at the images I have, I cannot "conclude that they are very similar". The gold in the added cards looks very red, much more so than any of the other cards—the gold on those six looks almost orange because of that strong red tone. The red on the gold parts of the other cards is much less strong and does not give them that striking orange quality.
I also do not see any significant difference between the gold of the numeral cards and the gold of the courts and older trumps. The brightness of the gold varies from card to card: on some it is relatively bright and on others it is much darker, depending on the state of preservation of the individual card. I see nothing in the gold to support the idea that the numeral cards represent a separate set. On the contrary, looking at them altogether, the gold of the numeral cards looks overall very similar to the gold on the courts. Perhaps the white background on the numeral cards is creating an optical illusion (by contrasting) which makes you think their gold is brighter than it actually is.

I also notice that the batons and coins on the numeral cards are essentially identical to those which appear on the court cards of those suits, and that the artistic style is also very similar (even if probably done by a less skilled member of the workshop than the picture cards). They also feature many Visconti-Sforza heraldic devices, just like the court cards. In fact, the only significant difference between the numeral cards and the picture cards is the different color of the borders: red on the numeral cards, blue on the picture cards. This does seem unusual; perhaps the red borders were chosen to contrast with the blue used extensively on the numeral cards. But this feature, although unusual, is not really enough in itself to support the hypothesis that the numeral cards were created separately, at a different time.

Re: Dating the Visconti-Sforza deck

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Thanks a lot for your reaction. What do you call an incomplete deck? Many decks exist that are trumps only. Are they incomplete? No, they are trumps only, not incomplete. There are card decks with only 32 cards. Are they incomplete? No, the game played with them require only 32 cards. You really think that the Visconti-Sforza cards and other hand-painted decks were ever used for playing? They were too costly and too thick. The VS cards are approximately 1.5 mm thick. This gives a whopping 105 mm for a deck of 70 cards, impossible to shuffle. Some scholars say that the Charles VI deck was trumps only. It was not made for a special occasion, probably it was only made to display the new 22 trump structure. The Page card that exists was according the same source, maybe only a model, indicating how the court cards should be made. Even the numeral cards of other hand-painted decks that still exist are so beautiful, nobody would deliberately throw them away. The Brera-Brambilla deck has 39 pip-cards surviving time and only 2 trumps. Personally, I think the other trump cards were never made because Filippo Maria Visconti died during the creation process. The fact is that the pip cards survived. So do not condemn a hypothesis because it differs from what is accepted. The bright gold on the pip cards and on the additional trump cards is clearly different from the gold on the older trump cards and the court cards, as you can see on the card images that I added to my previous post. The images I added to my post are the photos made by the Morgan library themselves, do not compare reproductions of the deck with inferior coloring. The Este deck has no numeral cards and never had. Try to explain this. My hypothesis is an explication, if you have other explications, I'm glad to hear them. It's too simple just to say that all surviving hand-painted cards have painted backgrounds. Please indicate of which cards you are talking and when they were made.

Re: Dating the Visconti-Sforza deck

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I think we are going to have to "agree to disagree". I still do not think your idea is plausible, for the reasons which I have stated, which you do not think are plausible.

Yes, there are decks with 32 or 40 or 48 cards because that is the number needed for the game, but it would be extremely unusual to have a deck composed only of the tarot trumps without any other cards, because the entire purpose of the trumps was to triumph over the cards that were not trumps. So you need to have at least some cards that are not trumps. If you have only trumps, then you have an incomplete deck. The only exception to this that I know of is the "Tarocchi di Mantegna", but that was obviously something very different from a normal tarot deck (and scholars dispute whether it was actually intended for a game at all). There is no proven instance of a historical tarot deck that consisted only of trumps, and it is extremely unlikely that such a thing would ever have existed.

I am not suggesting that anyone simply "threw away" the numeral cards of these hand-painted decks. There are a million ways those cards could have become lost to us. They may also simply be in some private collection that has not yet come to light (we can always hope). Rather, what I was saying was the explanation—the simple, obvious explanation, which I am not the first to point out—of why we have some sets of cards that are only trumps and/or courts and other sets that are only or mostly numeral cards. (The very history of the ownership of the Visconti-Sforza deck itself provides us with an example of that process by which such historical decks became split over time, of course.)

I still disagree with you about the gold. What you are saying just isn't what I see when I look at the cards. I see a very orange-looking tone on the gold areas of the six replacement cards which is strikingly different from what I see on all the other cards. And I see nothing in the brightness and color tone of the numeral cards which looks like a consistent (and therefore significant) difference from the brightness and color tone of the courts and older trumps. So for me, the gold areas can be used to divide the cards into two distinct groups: the six replacement cards in one group, and all the other cards in the other group. The gold cannot be used to justify any other division, in my opinion.

You say "It's too simple just to say that all surviving hand-painted cards have painted backgrounds." What I said, to be exact, was that all the surviving 15th century hand-painted numeral cards which I am aware of have painted backgrounds except those that survive from the court of Filippo Maria Visconti. This is a simple statement, yes, but I don't think it requires any further explanation. If you find any such cards which do not have painted backgrounds, I would be very interested to hear about them.

And yes, I think they could have used these cards for play, on very rare occasions. It wouldn't have been easy, and of course they wouldn't have done it often, but it would have been possible, despite the size and thickness of the cards. And the numbers written on the trumps of the Charles VI deck and the Este deck are very strong evidence that someone did so.
The Este deck has no numeral cards and never had.
This statement is an indication of why we are going to have to agree to disagree: you keep saying things which are simply hypotheses without any proof, but you present them as solid facts which cannot even be discussed. There is absolutely no good reason to think that the Este deck never had numeral cards. The sensible assumption in that case—as in the case of all the other incomplete decks which survive from this period—is that they became split up during their long history, in the way which I described before: a collector bought most or all of the picture cards and was not interested in the numeral cards, which then remained with the previous owner. Some or all of the cards bought by that collector have now survived to us and have become well-known, while the numeral cards have either been lost (forgotten in an old box in someone's cellar, or destroyed by fire, flood, rising damp, eaten by vermin, deliberately burned by someone in an act of petty revenge, etc. etc.) or are still in some private collection, unknown to the world.

This is vastly more likely than the quite fantastical notion that someone would deliberately create a deck of playing cards consisting only of trumps and court cards.

I know you will probably not agree, however, and that is why I don't think we will be able to discuss this any further.

Re: Dating the Visconti-Sforza deck

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Hello Nathaniel,
I think we agree about some subjects. The history of Tarot is extremely fascinating, and it would be fantastic if other renaissance cards were discovered that could help us in our research. If there are new evidences, I will be one of the first to embrace them. I do not state that I have the only truth, in contrary. I opened this discussion because of the doubts I have, and I will be more than happy if someone comes with convincing arguments for one or the other statements. For the moment, I keep my suspicion that the numeral cards were made at the same time as the 6 added cards, but I accept any convincing argument against this theory. Thanks a lot for your contribution to this discussion.

Re: Dating the Visconti-Sforza deck

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Well, it turns out you were right about the gold...

Yesterday I attended the conference day at the Tarots Enluminés exhibition. One of the presentations was by Marie-France Lemay from the Beinecke Library at Yale University, regarding a fascinating project being undertaken by the Beinecke in conjunction with the Morgan Library in New York. They are comprehensively studying the physical features of the Visconti di Modrone and Visconti-Sforza decks. The full report of the study will be published in the coming months, and there will also be an online conference day in the second half of June, which will be announced on the Morgan Library website at some point (www.themorgan.org). The talks at the conference day yesterday are apparently going to be put online soon too, presumably via the museum website: https://www.museecarteajouer.com/les-expositions/

In her talk, Marie-France said that the gold on the original trumps and court cards of the Visconti-Sforza deck is indeed different from the gold on the numeral cards. The difference is because the gold on the trumps and courts is a considerably thinner layer than on the numeral cards, and a layer of silver was applied underneath it to compensate for the reduced amount of gold. This is the cause of the difference in appearance.

However, there is no reason to believe that the numeral cards were made at a different time from when the trumps and courts were made. The difference in the gold is simply because a different technique was used for the latter.

Why was it used? To save money. It's theoretically possible that someone might do this for aesthetic reasons, but the pure gold looks brighter, so it seems very hard to believe that someone would actually prefer the duller gold-and-silver combination. Also, if someone found the result aesthetically pleasing, you would expect it to have been done on all the cards, not just the trumps and courts. But they only did it on the cards which required a lot of gold. So it seems to have been a cost-cutting measure. It was much cheaper, because it required so much less gold.

This is consistent with the cards being given as a gift to a member of the Bon family, which is the position taken in the Tarots Enluminés catalog regarding the intended recipient of the deck. The Bon family were a wealthy family from Venice. They were given authority over the city of Bergamo, but they were certainly not of princely rank. So it's not surprising if there was a limit on how much Francesco Sforza was prepared to spend on a gift for them.

Re: Dating the Visconti-Sforza deck

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This is consistent with the cards being given as a gift to a member of the Bon family, which is the position taken in the Tarots Enluminés catalog regarding the intended recipient of the deck.
"Bon family" ... I never heard of the connection to Visconti-Sforza cards.

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartolomeo_Bon ... has the most text
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartolomeo_Bon
https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartolomeo_Bono
https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartolomeo_Bon

I found this contact between Bono and Sforza ....
Canon Pietro Casola's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Year 1494
Pietro Casola · 1907
https://books.google.de/books?id=WOHmAA ... rza&f=true

Image
Image



This theme is probably also developed in this text ...
https://www.academia.edu/163996/Bartolo ... _a_Venezia

What precisely do they mean with "member of the Bon family"?
Huck
http://trionfi.com

Re: Dating the Visconti-Sforza deck

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Huck wrote: 12 Mar 2022, 14:37 What precisely do they mean with "member of the Bon family"?
It's based on the red-and-silver coat of arms shown on some cards (e.g. the Ace of Coins). This is the arms of the Bon family. This was the view that Michael Dummett took in his book The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards (New York: George Braziller, 1986) so it's not a new idea. It was accepted by Thierry Depaulis and the others who worked on this exhibition.
cron