Italian renaissance woodcut playing cards

About the pip cards in the suit of spade

The Cisalpine playing cards fall into three families, confusingly named after three nations while their distribution does not follow the borders of the corresponding nation states. Italian cards were originally used in northern Italy – today only in the northeast, as French cards (a Transalpine style) have replaced them in the northwest. Portuguese cards were used in Portugal, southern Spain and southern Italy, but are now extinct. Spanish cards were originally only used in northern Spain, but have later replaced Portuguese cards everywhere except in Portugal, where French cards eventually took over.

Among the distinctions between these three families, the representation of the pip cards of swords and batons/clubs are among the clearest. Italian cards preserved the Mamluk representation of swords, having curved swords divided in two equal groups, plus a single straight sword for the odd numbers. The groups cross each other at two points where they either interlace or are covered by an ornament. Portuguese cards divide them likewise, but represent them by long straight swords crossing in the center of the card. In Spanish cards, the swords are short and straight, and distributed without touching each other like cups and coins. For the descendant of the Mamluk polo-sticks, Italian cards have straight and smooth ceremonial batons crossing in the center like Portuguese swords, while Portuguese cards substitute rougher branches of wood placed in the same layout. Spanish cards have even rougher short clubs treated like the swords.

The present group of cards conform to the Italian conventions in most aspects, but have a unique treatment of the pip cards in the suit of swords. In the three decks where they are present they are curved with the hilts and tips of each sword pointing to the same long edge like normal Italian swords, but overlapping only in the centre like Portuguese ones – though not crossing like these. In the tarot cards, the swords pass through an open crown (circlet) which cover the overlapping area. The Fournier cards are identical apart from having the left and right edges trimmed away in order to fit on the narrower cards. The crude deck instead has a band of cloth wrapped around the central area. As the pip cards of batons in the reversed deck are identical to those in the Fornier cards (except for being reversed), it seems reasonable to assume that the same is the case for its lost pip cards of swords.

This leaves the elegant deck, which does not have any preseved pip cards of this suit. However, its ace of swords complements the pip designs in the tarot and Fournier cards much better than the very different aces present there. It has a straight sword, similar to the central ones in odd-numbered pip cards (but more detailled and upward-pointing) passing through an almost identical crown. Apart from making it highly likely that the elegant deck's pip cards in this suit was identical to those in the Fournier cards, the significance of this lies in the light it shines on the probable origin of the unusual pip cards. In contrast to these, the ace is very typical of Italian designs, in particular the Bergamasche and tarot de Marseille patterns (all aces in the elegant deck conform to one of these).

Thus, it has to be the ace that is the inspiration for the pip cards and not the other way round. Most of the non-tarot cards have designs which clearly are copies of a slightly wider original, but the preserved tarot deck cannot be the source of the elegant deck’s ace with an older design for the ace of swords. A lost deck, presumably a tarot, must therefore be postulated. This would have had aces like the elegant deck but the proportions and the pip cards of the tarot.