A group of five closely related decks of woodcut playing cards of 16th or late 15th century north Italian origin, among these a tarot deck, survive in the form of several fragments of uncut sheets of cards. All fragments are incomplete pieces of one or more imprints from ten different printing blocks. Taken together, the fragments of each group give an almost complete picture of the block they are printed from. Some blocks belong together, forming parts of the same deck.
The largest collection is located in Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest. Duplicates from this collection are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Smaller groups are found in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University and previously in the collection of Theodore B. Donson, New York, in 2002 sold at an auction by Christie's. A single card found in Egypt is held by the Benaki Museum in Athens. Together these cover four of the decks; the fifth deck is represented by a group of fragments in Museo Fournier de Naipes (the Fournier Playing Card Museum), Vitoria-Gasteiz.
All blocks are of the same size – slightly smaller than a modern A3 sheet. Each consists four rows of cards, with six cards per row in the majority of the blocks. Three blocks are notably different in having only five slighly wider cards in each row. Two of these are the only ones to contain tarot trumps; together they contain all trumps and court cards of a standard tarot deck. Given the stylistic similarity and the very peculiar distribution of the trumps between them, it is obvious that they are part of the same deck.
The third of these blocks contains all cards from ace to ten in the suits of bastoni (batons) and spade (swords). Again, stylistical and pragmatical reasons indicate that it is part of the same deck as the previous two. A lost block with the same structure, only with the suits of coppe (cups) and denari (coins), would complete the set of four blocks of 20 cards each for a 78-card tarot deck (two positions are left blank in the first block).
In the diagrams, the background colour denote the proportion of the area of each card is preserved when the combination of all fragments are considered:
White – (almost) all
Yellow – three quarters
Peach – half
Pink – a quarter or less
Red – entirely missing
The titles of the extant blocks link to images of the preserved
fragments. Expansions of the abbreviated card identifiers are
The remaining blocks, all with 24 cards, fall in three subtypes. Type 1 have the twelve court cards – fante (knave), cavallo (knight) and re (king) in each suit – in the lower half, while the upper half and the type 2 blocks have the cards from ace to nine in each suit. While this covers the normal structure for decks of the Spanish and Portuguese types of cards, Italian style cards of the period also contains tens. This discrepancy is explained by the single instance of a type 3 block, consisting of six copies of each of the four tens.
One pair of type 1 and 2 two blocks obviously belong together because
of stylistic similarities and a distinctive division of the non-court
cards between the two blocks. The single surviving type 3 block matches
these (and only these) stylistically, resulting in the only completely
preserved deck in the collection. I have chosen the term
denote this deck, as it differs from the other decks in being somewhat
simpler both in design and execution of the pip cards.
One group of six fragments have been preserved independently of the main collection, and is now in the Fournier Playing Card Museum. Two fragments overlap, forming the top half of a type 1 block, another consists of an entire lower half of such a block, with a small tab extending into the upper half, and this matches the corresponding part of the upper half. The three remaining fragments do not overlap, but if it is assumed that they belong together, they form an exact type 2 complement to the type 1 sheet preseved alongside it. As they are also stylistically very compatible, there can be no doubt that they form parts of the same deck.
As mentioned above, the Spanish and Portuguese types of
cards have the same structure as Italian ones, except that they
lack tens. As it is precisely the tens that were relegated to a separate
printing block in the
crude deck, one might speculate that some
decks were made for export, using only the type 1 and 2 blocks. Still,
as the designs are recognisably Italian (though with a
significant variation in the suit of spade), it is
almost certain that a now lost type 3 block once accompanied this
The pip cards from two to nine in the suit of spade are identical to those in the tarot deck, apart from having the right and left edges trimmed somewhat in order to fit on the narrower cards, while those of bastoni are very similar.
Besides the pip cards mentioned above, the strongest link between the
Fournier deck and the main collection is a type 1 block from the latter
where all cards in the upper half but one are mirror-image copies of the
corresponding Fournier designs. While most of its court cards are
unique, two of the knight cards are mirror-image copies of those in the
crude deck (a third is a non-reversed copy). Such reversals are
common in historical card production, as the easiest way to copy a deck
was to trace an existing set of cards directly onto the face of a
woodblock, which of course gives a reversed image when used for
printing. The peculiar thing about this instance is that the text
denoting the value of the pip cards in the suit of bastoni is also reversed. For this reason I have chosen to
call this the
The lost type 2 and 3 blocks would presumably be mirror images of the corresponding blocks of the Fournier deck. However, as the asso di denari (ace of coins) is different, it is possible that also the other cards of this suit also had another design.
The final sheet seems stylistically less closely related to the other
decks, and contains no identical cards with any of them. It has more
detailed pip cards in the suit of coppe than the
Fournier deck, which in this regard is substantially better than the
crude deck (the only other decks to preserve these cards). The
court cards are more refined, using hatched shading (this is also used
in the Fournier deck) and more detailed foregrounds in the court cards.
I have therefore chosen to call this the
On the other hand, it has the same block and card sizes, identical
borders around the cards and a selection of cards identical to block 1
of the Fournier and
reversed decks, except having the pip cards
from two to nine of coppe instead of bastoni on block 1. As it is preserved in the same
collection as the majority of the other sheets, it must have been made
in the same workshop at the same time.
It is therefore of great interest to observe that its asso di spade (ace of swords) fits much better with the pip cards of this suit in the tarot and the Fournier decks than the corresponding aces actually present in those.