January/February 2015 Issue
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Review of the Visconti Tarots
This article was written by Donald Michael Kraig, Certified Tarot Grandmaster on November 30, -0001
An amazing and beautiful recreation of one of the oldest and most complete Tarot decks extant. Suitable for any reading for which you might use a Rider-Waite-Smith-based deck, it’s also ideal for working in costume, at renaissance fairs, etc. The beauty and textures of this deck may take you away from focusing on the reading.
When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to take a trip through Europe. I desperately wanted to see some of the famous sites. I ended up disappointed with many of them. The Leaning Tower of Pisa was just an old building falling on its side. The Eiffel Tower was an enormous rusty hunk of metal. The Mona Lisa was dark, dingy, and criss-crossed with hairline cracks. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was likewise dark and dismal with muted colors (it’s been cleaned since I was there). The truth is that great works of art and architecture age and need to be cared for. Most art does not receive the appropriate care.
Perhaps the oldest—and certainly the most complete—example we have of the Tarot is known by a variety of names. Attributed to Bonifacio Bembo, they were commissioned in 1450 for Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan, Italy. Because they weren’t finished until his successor, Francesco Sforza, was in office, this deck is often called the Visconti-Sforza Tarot or simply the Visconti Tarot. Today, part of the deck is housed in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, part is kept at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, and the rest are held in the private collection of the Colleoni family also of Bergamo. As a result of its current ownership, it is also known as the Morgan-Bergamo version of the Tarot.
After over half a millennium, the original artwork shows its age. There are a few reproductions of this deck available, and they are, at best, historical oddities. To return it to its full glory required not a reproduction, but a careful recreation. Further, four cards—the Devil, the Tower, the 3 of Swords and the Knight of Pentacles—are missing and need to be invented based on the artistic styles and art of that era.
That is why I am absolutely amazed at the Visconti Tarots deck so lovingly and energetically recreated by Bulgarian artist A.A. Atanassov. To say he has brought new life to this deck is such a total understatement that it’s almost embarrassing to put it forward. If you have seen any of the reproductions and try to compare it to this deck you may wonder if they are the same deck. This isn’t because the imagery is different, but rather because Atanassov not only returns this deck to its original glory, but it actually reveals the original concepts in a way that could have only be achieved by viewing the original art.
Lost in the reproductions and now finally revealed is the typical intricacy of the artistic style of the time. But Atanassov extends this by presenting some of the backgrounds in metallic gold. This is not a simple flat wash as is sometimes done on book covers, for even the gold has patterns within it. Photos of this deck simply do not reveal the patterns hidden in the gold stamping and the only way to reveal it is by moving the cards under a bright light and is found on the court cards and Major Arcana. When someone says "pictures don’t do it justice" about this deck, that person is being modest. Pictures can’t do it justice. The intricacies of patterns continue on the ornate backs of the deck which looks like a tapestry waiting to be raised on a castle’s wall.
So is this Tarot also great for giving readings? Frankly, I don’t know. Most Tarot decks have names and numbers of the cards at the top or bottom of each card so they can be easily identified. In this deck all of the identifications run along the left side of the cards, making them a bit difficult to read. But that’s not the real "problem" with this deck.
Every time I would lay down a card to interpret it, I’d end up picking it up, looking at it under light so I could see the patterns in the metallic golden ink, and get "lost" in the enjoyment of the intricacies of the card. So often I’d have an "Aha! I never saw that before" moment with this deck. As a result, I’d get taken away from the focus of the reading and end up staring at the art. Hmmm. The Fool has feathers in his hair and his pants hanging below his knees. What is he up to? What’s that thing beneath the Magician’s hand? The High Priestess (the French is "La Papesse" on the card) reminds me of the Female Pope legend—and she’s clearly pregnant. I can literally fall into the cards and work with the symbolism. I’m going to have to get the book for this deck.
No, I don’t have the book, but the deck does come with a typical Little White Booklet that includes a bit of history and information, divinatory meanings and a five card position spread. The instructions for using this spread are interesting. You separate the Majors and Minors. Then you only use the suit associated with your question, followed by just the Majors, giving you ten cards on the five-position spread. This technique can be added to any Tarot reading that answers a question.
I really love this deck. I find myself returning to it frequently. I just get so buried in the beauty and texture of the art and gold stamping that I don’t use it for readings. You may find more ease with this deck, and it’s especially appropriate for use at Renaissance fairs and other period events.
Name of deck: Visconti Tarots
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
Artist: Atanas Alexander Atanassov
Name of accompanying book/booklet: Visconti Tarot
Number of pages of book/booklet: 64 (14 in English)
Available in a boxed kit?: No, however beside distributing the deck, Llewellyn also offers a full-size book on this deck, a miniature version of the deck, and a large version (almost 6" tall) of just the Major Arcana cards.
Reading Uses: General purpose Tarot deck—if you can bring yourself to use it for that purpose
Ethnic Focus: European
Artistic Style: Renaissance
Theme: A restoration of one of the earliest known Tarot decks
Tarot, Divination Deck, Other: Tarot
Does it follow Rider-Waite-Smith Standard?: Yes, but as with all pre-RWS decks, the numeration of Justice and Strength is exchanged.
Does it have extra cards?: No
Does it have alternate names for Major Arcana cards?: No.
Does it have alternate names for Minor Arcana suits?: No
Does it have alternate names for the Court Cards? If yes, what are they?: The RWS Pages are here called "Knaves."
Book suggestions for Tarot beginners and this deck: How to Read the Tarot by Sylvia Abraham; Tarot Plain and Simple by Anthony Louis
Book suggestions for experienced Tarot users and this deck: The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals by Mary K. Greer; Twenty Years of Tarot by Lo Scarabeo.
Alternative decks you might like:
Universal Marseille Tarot
Tarot of the Renaissance
Ancient Italian Tarots
Ancient Tarot of Lombardy
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