Who created the first tarot deck? For what purpose? No one really knows for sure. It is clear that tarot cards (il trionfos) were used for games almost from the beginning. Whether there was any other purpose in the mind of the artist or the person who commissioned the deck will probably never been known. What has emerged, though, is an image of cards as a social pasttime that may have been part of the courting rituals of the period. It presented an opportunity for young men and women to interact and flirt in a chaperoned environment. In fact, two oldest decks we have, the Visconti-Sforza and the Cary-Yale Visconti, were probably commissioned as wedding presents. One of the earliest of card players and the intended recipient of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot deck, was Bianca Maria Visconti (1425-1468), shown above at her wedding with Francesco Sforza (1441). The deck may have been a gift from her father, Filippo Maria Visconti (died 1447). Filippo Maria Visconti’s golden ducato is shown on the suit of Coins of the Visconti-Sforza deck (first noticed by Ross Caldwell, I believe):

A German historian of women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and a recognized art expert, Maike Vogt-Luerssen, has written a book about Bianca Maria (unfortunately only in German) and has collected an astonishing array of paintings of members of the Visconti and Sforza families. Begin here and then continue your tour through this marvelous collection.

Maike Vogt-Luerssen has identified the woman on the left of this famous fresco from the Borromeo Palace in Milan as Bianca Maria Visconti, mentioning only the elaborate hair design as her reason.

Was the possibly later Cary-Yale Tarot cards, a deck with six court cards per suit and additional triumps, made for the marriage of

  • Filippo Maria Visconti and Marie of Savoy in 1428 (because it contains the Savoy device of a white cross on a red field), or for
  • Galeazzo Maria Sforza with Bona of Savoy in 1468 (because it contains the Sforza device of a fountain)?

Marie of Savoy was the daughter of Amadeus VIII, Count of Savoy, who was elected as the Antipope Felix V by the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence, from November 1439 to April 1449 (the picture of Felix V on the right should be familiar to tarot aficionados):

There is a possibility that the Cary-Yale cards were painted not by Bonifacio Bembo (who was the most likely artist of the Visconti-Sforza deck) but by someone from the workshop of the Zavattari family (and here) who painted the frescos of Teodolinda in the Cathedral at Monza, near Milan.* The Bavarian and Christian Teodolinda married the Lombard king Authari in 589 (who was either an early heretic or a pagan) and when he died a year later, she married the Duke of Turin, Agilulf, who became the King of Italy, making Milan his seat. In the 15th century, the Zavattari family painted the story of Teodolinda, as she had founded a chapel on that spot and established Monza as her home. These frescos bear a striking resemblance both to the Borromeo frescos and to the Cary-Yale Tarot. Note especially the braided hair, slit sleeves, and the young man/page with his hand grasping his belt in both the Monza fresco (first), followed by four cards from the Cary-Yale deck.

Added: Tero Tynynen has done more research on the subject with lots of links and a couple of videos featuring the frescos of Monza and period music, for those who are interested in the possible artists of these earliest decks – here.

* The frescos in the Cathedral of Monza were painted between 1440 and 1446 by Franceschino Zavattari and his sons Gregorio and Giovanni in a style known as the “International (or Late) Gothic.” Another son, Ambrogio, may have been involved. Franceschino’s father, Cristoforo, participated in work on the Milan Cathedral in the early fifteenth century. Slight differences in style are probably due to different painters within the family as well as the difference between large wall frescos and small cards. It should be noted that I am not the first to see these similarities, as they’ve been noted by many commentators, but the information is not generally known among tarot readers.

For a really wild surmise regarding the story of Teodolinda, I can’t help wondering if the story of the Christian bride converting a pagan king named Authari (Arthur?) and being led by a dove to build a cathedral could have been at all related to the King Arthur legend, that became popular in 15th century Lombardy?