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GALLERY INDEX
~~ Gallery 5 ~~
The Tarot and other Early Cards
· page VII ·

THE TAROTS OF FERRARA
back to the
GALLERY INDEX


other pages

page I
classic
tarots
page II
regional
tarots
page III
trump card
arrangements
page IV
modern &
non-standard
page V
theMulûk
wa-Nuwwâb
page VI
the Visconti
Tarots
page VIII
the tarot
of Marseille
page IX
the Tarot
de Paris
page X
Viéville's
Tarot
page XI
the
Minchiate
page XII
Mitelli's
Tarocchino
page XIII
Mantegna's
Tarot
page XIV
the
Hofjagdspiel
page XV
the
Hofämsterspiel
page XVI
the deck by
Jost Amman
page XVII
the Italy 2
Moorish deck


~ NOTE ~



The early illuminated decks whose pattern, according to Dummett's classification, is labelled as B, or eastern group, most of which created in Ferrara during the second half of the 15th century, undoubtly played an important role in the history of tarots, despite the small number of samples consistent with this design still extant today.
Besides Ferrara and its close surroundings, the same tarot pattern was also used in other north-eastern Italian areas, particularly around Venice, and along the Adriatic coast, likely as south as Pesaro; this means that its influence had spread well beyond the boundaries of the Duchy of Ferrara, ruled by the House of Este. But unlike the other two main groups of tarots of similar age, which developed in the nearby Bologna and in the area of Milan, Ferrara's pattern had an unexpectedly short lifetime: according to the known specimens, it barely lasted up to the first half of the 1500s, which means less than one century after it had been devised.

RS ~ queen of Batons
Therefore, these cards are inevitably less known than the famous Visconti tarots, also because most of the surviving decks lack so many cards that referring to them as "decks" may even sound inappropriate. Nevertheless, by comparing the specimens still extant, including some from tarots of less refined quality, the original composition of the deck could be fully retrieved; in particular, the series of trumps and their ranking could be retrieved, sufficiently in detail to analyze their iconography and tell the difference with the ones found in tarots belonging to the Visconti group, thus with those of the whole western group (which includes the famous Tarot of Marseille), that is to say with the tarots the whole world is more acquainted with. The differences are discussed in part 3 and part 4.
Interestingly, in Ferrara the tarot decks had the same standard composition as the ones used in Lombardy, i.e. 72 cards, 22 of which trumps, and suits running from 1 (ace) to 10, with a knave (male), cavalier, queen and king as courts. This remark is not so obvious, considering that next to Ferrara, in Bologna, the local tarot dropped five pip cards.

However, the 'standard' tarot may have not been the only type of deck used in Ferrara. Notes about playing cards, either bought or repaired frequently appear in account books of the local castle, and in letters written by members of the princely court. In particular, a variety known as emperor cards is mentioned several times in documents dating to the first half of the 15th century. Since no description of their pattern nor of the number of cards in the deck is found, we cannot exclude that 'emperor cards' may have only been an early name for the tarot, although the well-known expression triumph cards had already appeared in 1442 (also the word 'tarots' is mentioned for the first time in a written document from Ferrara, dated 1516). The only interesting detail known about 'emperor cards' is that this type of deck was opposed to a cheaper variety referred to as small playing cards; both of them were played with by knights. The latter variety may have been consistent with the decks of Moorish origin, dealt with by page XV.
In 1457 a set of two 'triumph card' decks was made; according to the source that mentions them, they consisted of 70 cards each. If the entry is correct, this tarot had less subjects than a standard one, but nothing about its composition is known. Some scholars maintain that it may have had five suits, similar to some very early non-tarot decks used in Germany (late 14th century), with no trumps and fourteen cards in each suit, i.e. from 1 to 10, and four courts.


These pages take into consideration four important tarots of the eastern group, from which at least one trump card has survived, thus providing some information about features shared by all 22 subjects in the relevant series, such as their size, their background texture, their ornate frame, and the technique used for their making.

The following diagrams show in  yellow  which cards have survived from each deck (on the far right, C, C, S, B respectively stand for Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons):

  • Tarot of Alessandro Sforza - 15 surviving subjects:
  • Tarot of Ercole I d'Este - 16 surviving subjects:
  • Tarot of Charles VI - 17 surviving subjects:
  • Rothschild Tarot - 32 surviving subjects:

  • Temperance from EE (above)
    and CVI (below)

    NOTE - Controversies exist concerning the attribution of some cards to the Rotschild tarot


    three trumps from one of the Dick sheets
    Important details, such as the ordering of the trumps, could also be retrieved thanks to a number of uncut sheets featuring 'economy tarots'. They consist of simple woodblock prints, whose subjects, though, clearly match in style the illuminated ones, of much greater value, whence the undoubtful attribution to the eastern group or type B.
    In these editions (see sample on the left), the trumps bear a numbers spelt in roman numerals, referring to their ordering.

    The players they were made for, less cultured than members of princely families, probably needed this reference, having little knowledge (if any) of the classic allegories featured on these cards; in other words, they might have ignored the ranking of these subjects, according to the moral principles of that age, which also reflected their value in play.
    The same difficulty in telling one trump from the other was the reason why somebody added small numbers to those of the Tarot of Alessandro Sforza and the Tarot of Charles VI, likely by the time these decks no longer belonged to the original owners.

    AS - Time (detail)

    tiny numbers were added
    to the trumps of AS (Western numerals) and CVI (Roman numerals), probably in the 16th century

    CVI ~ Death (detail)

    This review consists of four parts:
    part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4
    INTRODUCING THE DECKS HISTORICAL BACKGROUND THE TRUMPS THE TRUMPS  (continued)
    DATING THE DECKS THE SUIT CARDS
    WHO PAINTED THE DECKS?


    · part 1 ·


    INTRODUCING THE DECKS
    The names which Ferrara tarots have been labelled with are less confusing than those of the Visconti family; a brief outline of each deck explains the origin of such names.

    The Tarot of Alessandro Sforza (AS) was given this name after the crest featured on the shield of the king of Swords. Alessandro was Francesco Sforza's brother; he was duke of Pesaro (1445-73), a city located on Italy's Adriatic coast, about 160 Km (or 100 mi) south-east of Ferrara, thus not within the jurisdiction of the Este, yet still within the area of influence of the eastern group of tarots. The cards are now held by the museum of Ursino Castle, in Catania (Sicily).

    The Tarot of Ercole I d'Este (EE) features heraldic references to the most influent member of the princely family, and to his wife Leonora of Aragon (see also HISTORICAL BACKGROUND in part 2); all the cards are in the Cary Collection in the Yale University Library, New Haven (U.S.A.), together with one of the Visconti tarots.

    AS ~ the Chariot

    RS ~ cavalier of Swords
    The Tarot of Charles VI (CVI) is probably the most well-known of the eastern group. According to an old theory, the cards were named after the French king (reigned 1380-1422) for whom the deck had allegedly been created by a painter called Gringonneur, towards the end of Charles' reign, to entertain the monarch after he had turned insane. Since the early 20th century, this version has been rejected by all card historians, who reset the date of the tarot to the late 15th century, i.e. almost one hundred years later. The cards are presently held by the National Library in Paris (France).

    The Rothschild Tarot (RS) is so called after the Rothschild Collection in the Louvre Museum, Paris, which holds all the cards but one. The cavalier of Swords alone belongs to the Civic Museum of Bassano del Grappa (north-eastern Italy).



    cavaliers of Swords and Cups
    from a Dick sheet
    Besides the illuminated tarots, other interesting specimens from Ferrara are the woodblock prints known as Dick sheets. They consist of two different uncut sheets, one featuring only trumps, the other one trumps and courts, very likely belonging to the same deck, whose dating is around year 1500. Copies of both are held by the Metropolitan Museum of New York (U.S.A.) and the Museum of Decorative Arts of Budapest (Hungary). The edges of the sheets are miscut, so most of the subjects are actually fragments, yet all of them can still be told by their details. These sheets were named after one of the donors who left his specimens to the Metropolitan Museum.

    Another tarot likely printed in Ferrara from woodblocks around 1500 is the one featured on the three uncut Rosenwald sheets, held by the National Gallery of Art in Washington (USA). The first sheet contains trump subjects, whose iconography is partly consistent with that of other Ferrara tarots (e.g. Fortitude is a female figure by a column, Death rides on horseback, etc., see page III), and partly similar to the one typical of group C (the Conjurer, the Lovers, and others, including the ranking of Justice, VIII).
    The other two sheets contain court cards and pip cards, but more than one scholar disagrees that the three sheets may belong to the same tarot, claiming that the second and third ones probably represent one of the earliest version of Minchiate cards (see the relevant gallery for more details).

    All illuminated tarots from Ferrara are made of thick pasteboard, obtained from several sheets of thin paper pressed together. An important difference with the Visconti tarots is the use of flaps, folded frontwards and glued along the rims, thanks to which the front and the back of the card were held together.

    EE - detail of the flap

    EE - detail of the background texture (king of Swords)
    The illustrations, instead, were obtained following the same technique as the one used in Lombardy: a golden leaf, with a hammered motif, was fixed to the background before painting the foreground pictures with tempera paint.

    In Ferrara tarots, the background motif is a generic floral pattern, and does not refer to any of the family's devices.

    In one of the four decks, namely the Rothschild Tarot, the outline of the illustrations was printed on the cards by means of a woodblock, and then coloured. The thick outlines that this technique yields are clearly visible (see detail below).
    The less refined procedure, compared to fully hand-painted subjects, marks a difference from other illuminated tarots known, regardless of the group, although the hammered gold leaf and the tempera colouring are the usual ones. The use of printing the cards before painting them was a common custom at the Este court, at the point that in 1436 a small press had been purchased for this purpose.

    Originally, the colours of these cards must have been very bright, but due the present state of preservation, which in most cases shows heavier signs of ageing than the Visconti cards, many specimens lost some of their original shine. Only the subjects from the Tarot of Charles VI, preserved better than the others, maintained their allure intact.
    (left) AS ~ detail from the king of Swords,
    (right) RS ~ detail from the cavalier of Batons;
    note the thicker outlines of the Rothschild Tarot


    comparison of the frame textures
    A frame, just before the folded flaps, is a feature shared by all these tarots; most of them are decorated with a wavy pattern, and only the Tarot of Ercole I d'Este has small flowers made of dots; all of them are hammered. The different frame pattern, together with the size of the cards, are the two main details used for telling whether a subject belongs to one tarot or the other.

    Some pip cards have survived only from the Tarot of Alessandro Sforza and the Rothschild Tarot, and both of them are consistent with those of the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Visconti Sforza deck (see the Visconti Tarots in page VI, part 4): a white background, without a hammered pattern, painted with colourful flowers and leaves. The same decoration is also found in four spare cards, probably made in Ferrara, held by the Correr Museum in Venice.


    detail of the hole
    The trumps belonging to Ferrara tarots feature a small puncture along the top and bottom edge (EE and AS), or above the top one alone (RS), sometimes surrounded by a brownish halo, as if the card had been fixed or hung to a board with a pin for some time. CVI is the only tarot of the four whose trumps were not pierced. Similar holes are also found in the Visconti tarots.

    The Tarot of Alessandro Sforza and the Tarot of Charles VI are exactly the same size, about 90 x 180 mm (3½ x 7 in), the Rotschild Tarot, the largest of the four, is 90 x 189 mm (3½ x 7½ in.), while the Tarot of Ercole I d'Este is considerably smaller, 78 x 140 mm (3 x 5½ in).
    The diagram on the right shows a size comparison, obtained by virtually overlapping one card from each of the most famous illuminated tarots belonging to Dummett's type B, i.e. from Ferrara, and those of type C, from Milan (see also the Visconti tarots in page VI). Among the latter, coloured in shades of red, Cocchi Visconti refers to four spare Visconti cards in the Cocchi Collection (Milan), while Colleoni refers to the four cards belonging to the Colleoni Tarot, held by the Victoria and Albert Museum (London).


    go to
    PART 2
    historical background
    dating the decks
    who painted the decks?

    PART 3
    the trumps
    PART 4
    the trumps   (continued)
    the suit cards



    further reference to tarot decks can be found in Trionfi and in The Hermitage



    page I
    classic
    tarots
    page II
    regional
    tarots
    page III
    trump card
    arrangements
    page IV
    modern &
    non-standard
    page V
    theMulûk
    wa-Nuwwâb
    page VI
    the Visconti
    Tarots
    page VIII
    the tarot
    of Marseille
    page IX
    the Tarot
    de Paris
    page X
    Viéville's
    Tarot
    page XI
    the
    Minchiate
    page XII
    Mitelli's
    Tarocchino
    page XIII
    Mantegna's
    Tarot
    page XIV
    the
    Hofjagdspiel
    page XV
    the
    Hofämsterspiel
    page XVI
    the deck by
    Jost Amman
    page XVII
    the Italy 2
    Moorish deck



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