T is for Trionfi

Visconte-Sforza deck, Photo from wikipedia.

Playing cards came from Italy. Or France. Or Islam. Or China. The Internet will give you all those answers. But, in Europe, the first cards used were called trionfi also called tarot or tarock, and they reflected the 78-card tarot deck which became familiar to cartomancers across the centuries. At the time, they weren’t used for divination. Later folks claim they went back to the pharoah’s Egypt which has been disproved. No one seems to know why the Mamluk Egyptians had them, but they weren’t from Hermes Trismegistus.

The Milanese tarocchi, @1500. Photo from wikipedia.

When They Weren’t Riding Horses, They Needed Other Pastimes

The oldest surviving European decks came out of Milan from the early part of the 1400s. They are named the Visconti-Sforza deck, after Fra Lippo Visconti who commissioned them and his son, Francesco, of whom his later son tried to get Leonardo to build a bronze statue of horse. See L is for Leonardo. (I’m getting late in the alphabet–everybody seems to know everybody else).

The cards were exquisitely painted, sometimes with jewels. (What did a 14th century glue gun look like?) They even painted members of the duke’s family, which makes them historical documents. No complete deck has survived; multiple museums have incomplete decks.

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