Italian renaissance woodcut playing cards

A group of closely related packs of woodcut playing cards, among these a tarot pack, 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 pack.

The largest collection is located in Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest. What seems to be duplicates separated from this collection are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University; and formerly in the collection of Theodore B. Donson, New York, but sold at an auction by Christie's in 2002. A single card found in Egypt is held by the Μουσείο Μπενάκη (Benaki Museum) in Athens. Together these cover four of the packs; a fifth pack is represented by a group of fragments in Museo Fournier de Naipes (the Fournier Playing Card Museum), Vitoria-Gasteiz.

Even more fragments are known to exist in other collections, but as these have not been published, they are not covered by the treatment here.

The cards are clearly of north Italian origin; Michael Dummett assigns them to Ferrara and dates them to the second half of the fifteenth century.

The tarot pack

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 pack. Given the stylistic similarity and the very peculiar distribution of the trumps between them, it is obvious that they are part of the same pack.

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 pack 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 standard 78-card tarot pack (two positions are left blank in the first block).

Block T1
VIIII I DF BF CRª
DRª BRª SRª XI XII
XVIII XVIIII XX [XXI] XVII
VIII VI XVI
Block T2
SR CR DR BR SF
CF SC CC DC BC
[VII] XV X XIII XIIII
IIII V II III [M]
Block T3
B6 B5 B4 B3 BA
B7 B8 B2 B9 BX
S5 S4 S3 S2 SA
S6 S7 S8 S9 SX
Block T4
C5? C4? C3? C2? CA?
C6? C7? C8? C9? CX?
D5? D4? D3? D2? DA?
D6? D7? D8? D9? DX?

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 given as tool­tips on these.

The crude pack

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 packs 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 pack in the collection. I have chosen the term crude to denote this pack, as it differs from the other packs in being somewhat simpler both in design and execution of the pip cards.

Block C1
S5 S7 S9 B9 B8 B7
B6 B5 B4 B3 B2 BA
DC BF DF CF SF SC
BC DR CR BR SR CC
Block C2
SA S3 CA S2 C9 S4
D3 D9 D2 D8 DA D7
C6 C2 D6 S6 C8 D5
D4 C7 S8 C4 C3 C5
Block C3
CX BX DX SX CX BX
DX SX CX BX DX SX
BX CX SX DX BX CX
SX DX BX CX SX DX

The Fournier pack

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 pack.

The pip cards from two to nine in the suit of spade are identical to those in the tarot pack, 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.

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 pack, one might speculate that some packs 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), I find it probable that a now lost type 3 block once accompanied this preserved pair. The lack of evidence for such sheets, if they ever existed, is primarily due to there being printed only a sixth as many of them as the other two types; a proportion which could be even lower if part of the production was sold to a market where 48-card packs were preferred. On top of this comes the circumstance that what survives tends to be sheets that were never cut up into cards, but was rejected and reused as scrap paper. As type 1 and 2 sheets became worn at a rate at least six times greater, it must be assumed that these suffered from misprints leading to rejection more often as a result.

Block F1
B3 B2 BA CA SA DA
B9 B8 B7 B6 B5 B4
BF DF SF CF BC SC
DC CC CR SR DR BR
Block F2
C9? C8 C7 C6 C5 C4
C3? C2? D9? D8 D7 D6
S3 S2 D2 D3 D4 D5
S4 S5 S6 S7 S8 S9
Block F3
CX? BX? DX? SX? CX? BX?
DX? SX? CX? BX? DX? SX?
BX? CX? SX? DX? BX? CX?
SX? DX? BX? CX? SX? DX?

The reversed pack

Besides the pip cards mentioned above, the strongest link between the Fournier pack and the main collection is a type 1 block from the latter where all but one of the cards in the upper half 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 pack, and a third is a non-reversed copy. Such reversals are common in historical card production, as the easiest way to copy a pack 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 reversed pack.

The lost type 2 and 3 blocks would presumably be mirror images of the corresponding blocks of the Fournier pack. 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.

Block R1
B3 B2 BA CA SA DA
B4 B5 B6 B7 B8 B9
CF DF SF BF SC BC
DC CC SR BR DR CR
Block R2
C9? C8? C7? C6? C5? C4?
C3? C2? D9? D8? D7? D6?
S3? S2? D2? D3? D4? D5?
S4? S5? S6? S7? S8? S9?
Block R3
CX? BX? DX? SX? CX? BX?
DX? SX? CX? BX? DX? SX?
BX? CX? SX? DX? BX? CX?
SX? DX? BX? CX? SX? DX?

The elegant pack

The relationship between the final block and all the others presents something of a conundrum.

On one hand, these cards are stylistically less closely related to the other packs, and shares no identical designs with any of them. It has more detailed pip cards in the suit of coppe than the Fournier pack, which in this regard is substantially better than the crude pack (the only other packs to preserve these cards). The court cards are more refined, using hatched shading (this is also used in the Fournier pack) and more detailed foregrounds in the court cards. I have therefore chosen to call this the elegant pack.

On the other hand, it has the same block and card sizes, identical borders around the cards and around the outer edge. The selection of cards and their general placement within the block is identical to block 1 of the Fournier and reversed packs, except having the pip cards from two to nine of coppe instead of bastoni. It is not only preserved in the same collection as the majority of the other sheets, but the chararteristic shapes of the fragments, including small rectangular holes along one of the short edges, indicates that it went through the same kind of reuse after being scrapped. Thus these fragments are not merely placed among the others at a later date by a collector.

Absent any other explanation of the latter points, my tentative conclusion is that despite the stylistic differences, this pack was most likely made in the same workshop and at the same time as the others.

On this background, it is of great interest to observe that the elegant pack’s asso di spade (ace of swords) fits much better with the pip cards of this suit in the tarot and the Fournier packs than the ones actually present in those packs.

Block E1
DA BA SA CA C9 C8
C2 C4 C3 C5 C6 C7
CF BF SC BC SF DF
CC BR CR SR DR DC
Block E2
B9? B8? B7? B6? B5? B4?
B3? B2? D9? D8? D7? D6?
S3? S2? D2? D3? D4? D5?
S4? S5? S6? S7? S8? S9?
Block E3
CX? BX? DX? SX? CX? BX?
DX? SX? CX? BX? DX? SX?
BX? CX? SX? DX? BX? CX?
SX? DX? BX? CX? SX? DX?

In depth