Arts & Culture

Mystery in a tarot card

Object lesson: a hand-painted artifact from the 1400s.

Timothy Young is the curator of modern books and manuscripts with the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Beinecke Library

Beinecke Library

This fifteenth-century playing card, showing the Page of Staves, is being readied for the Beinecke’s fall exhibit of new acquisitions, as conservators work to solve its mysteries. View full image

Take a close look at this fifteenth-century miniature of an apprentice (left). The colors of the young man’s fine clothing vary from head to toe, showing that something must have happened to the pigment over the past 500 years. His likeness, though, isn’t on a painting. It’s on a playing card.

At this writing, paper conservator Marie-France Lemay is making a detailed examination of the card as she prepares it for the Beinecke Library’s fall exhibition of new acquisitions. She’s paying special attention to the differences between the upper and lower halves of the image. Was it never completed? Is the color shift evidence of an early conservation attempt? Is it due to fading of pigments? No clear answer has been found—yet.

We do know that this card depicts the Page of Staves (or Batons); that it is from Italy; and that it is a tarot card—though meant for card playing, not reading the future. Tarot decks did not acquire their fortune-telling purpose until the sixteenth century, when their fantastical imagery apparently gave rise to occult associations. In the 1400s they were used for a game called tarocco or trionfi, which involved trick-taking that was roughly similar to the play in bridge and pinochle, and which used the traditional Italian suits of Swords, Staves, Coins, and Cups. The lavish nature of tarot decks in this era suggests that they were probably produced not for everyday use, but as decorative objects, most likely wedding gifts.

The Beinecke acquired this card in late 2013, giving scholars an opportunity to study an otherwise lost deck. Yale also has cards from two other early decks, both made in Italy in the mid-fifteenth century. The Este tarot, of which 16 cards survive, was created for the Este family, rulers of the duchy of Ferrara in northern Italy; the design is somewhat crude, but charming. The other set is the Visconti tarot—more elegantly rendered and, understandably, more famous: all of the 67 surviving cards were painted by hand, their images built up with layers of gesso (a common white paint) and gold or silver leaf and embossed with decorative patterns. The Visconti has the most cards of any surviving deck of the era. It also has a unique feature: an extra rank of pages who are, quite exceptionally, female. The deck may have been created for a woman.

The history of playing cards is obscure. They turned up in Europe around the beginning of the fifteenth century, and there are strong indications that the cards and the games associated with them migrated from Asia to western Europe. Cards are mentioned in dowries and wills, as well as in certain proclamations decrying them as new forms of vice, but sets of cards from the late medieval period are extremely rare. Like this Page of Staves with its varying colors, those that do survive often raise more questions than they answer.


  • Thierry Depaulis
    Thierry Depaulis, 5:12am September 07 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    "Tarot decks did not acquire their fortune-telling purpose until the sixteenth century"...
    I guess you mean "eighteenth century".
    (Please have a look at: R. Decker, T. Depaulis, M. Dummett, A Wicked Pack of Cards, London, 1996.)

    I look forward to hearing from any serious examination of this tarot card (and its paper).
    These copies and "imitations" of one tarot pack (namely the so-called Visconti-Sforza pack) could be 19th-century forgeries...


  • Jean-Michel David
    Jean-Michel David, 5:27am September 12 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Perhaps was meant the eighteenth - but then again, we also both know that there is historical evidence that quite early on these cards and images were also used for 'story-telling'. So it would partly depend on the meaning of 'fortune-telling'.

    In any case, I would also very much encourage a look at _A Wicked Pack of Cards_ (and other works by those co-others), as well as I too looking forward to further examination of the card.


  • Bertrand Saint-Guillain
    Bertrand Saint-Guillain, 7:28am September 12 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Dear JMD, wouldn't this be a sloppy and overly forgiving interpretation ? We do have earlier evidence for non ambiguous (intentions of) fortune telling by other means - including playing cards pack - but, as noted above by TD and exposed in his book, nothing genuinely and unambiguously related to fortune telling using the tarot pack before Court de Gebelin.


  • Michael S. Howard
    Michael S. Howard, 3:15am September 23 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    This card is comparable to the Bergamo Page of Staves, reproduced in Dummett, The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, p. 73. The coloration, of course, is different, as is the state of preservation/conservation. That the Bergamo card's right border changes color at about the same place as the Yale's suggests some relationship between the two. Monike Dachs suggested in 1992 that the Bergamo card was retouched by the same artist who did the "6 added cards" of that deck (we call it the PMB), now divided between the Carrara at Bergamo and the Pierpont Morgan in New York (Antonio Cigognara als "Restaurator": Die Uberarbeitung der Colleoni-Tarocchi aus dem Atelier der Cremoniser Malerfamilie Bembo, in Pantheon, L, 176-178). I have not read Dachs; my source is Sandrina Bandera in the Brera's catalog to their "Tarocchi dei Bembo" exhibition of 2013 ("Quelle carte de triumphi che se fanno a Cremona", ed. Bandera and Tanzi), p. 52. Dachs suggests that this artist (Cigognara in her view) touched up several other of the cards in the PMB as well, including the Papessa. However, the coloration of your card is to me reminiscent of the Fournier Papessa. It might be worth comparing the colors on your card with those of other so-called "PMB clone" court cards. A unique thing about your card, at least to me, is that the break between "conserved" and "non-conserved" is so sharp as to make a kind of horizontal line across the card.

The comment period has expired.