Discovering the Origins of the Tarot: The Ghosts of the Visconti

Discovering the Origins of the Tarot: The Ghosts of the Visconti

Discovering the Tarot’s Origins: The Ghosts of the Viscontis

While there’s much debate on the origins of the cards – and many accusations from the church that they were ‘the devil’s picture-book’ – most evidence points to the cards’ early origins in Italy during the 1400s. The first tarots were not used for divination, nor for any occult practice, but were painted and printed to celebrate a royal family and a public holiday.

The first cards: the Visconti Sforza tarots

The earliest surviving tarot cards were created for the family of the third Duke of Milan, Filippo Visconti. There are many early versions of this deck, kept in collections in Italy and NewYork; 239 surviving cards, in total. One version is believed to commemorate the the wedding of Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan, to Francesco Sforza in 1441, joining together two of the most influential families in Northern Italy; The Lovers card depicts Francesca and Bianca Maria beneath a wedding bower.

The Duke made this deck, and others he commissioned that we now refer to as Visconti or Visconti Sforza [link to deck in Market] not only unique but controversial: he painted other members of his family into the major arcana sequence.

The Visconti Sforza Family Album

The Hanged Man Francesco Sforza’s father, Muzio Attendolo Sforza –  a mercenary who changed his allegiance from Pope John, who had him caricatured as a traitor – the alternative name for the card.

From the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Tarot


The Hierophant, or Pope Pope John XXIII

From the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Tarot

The High Priestess Sister Manfreda, a relative of the bride and an Umilata nun elected as a female Pope by the Guglielmite sect and burned for heresy in 1300.

From the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Tarot

The Empress Bianca Maria, also depicted on the Lovers

From the Cary Yale Visconti Tarot

The Lovers Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti

From the Cary Yale Visconti Tarot


Is there evidence for any earlier major arcana?

While it’s likely the earlier playing cards, from which the minor arcana evolves, came from China, there’s another contender for the majors: the Grigonneur deck, or Charles VI, supposedly of 1392. Griggoneur was a Parisian painter who, according to an early record, was paid to paint three packs of cards, ‘ornamented with many devices’, for the French king. However, it’s now believed these cards are mid-fifteenth century and Venetian. One clue lies in the Page of Swords, whose armour appears more fifteenth than fourteenth century in design. Seventeen cards from this deck are held at the Bilbiotheque Nationale in Paris.

Three Powerful Ways to Read Your Tarot Cards

Three Powerful Ways to Read Your Tarot Cards

Three Powerful Ways to Read Your Tarot Cards

Try to work directly with the cards rather than sit with a guidebook next to you. The reason for this is that to read tarot, we need intuition and creativity (a right-brain function, the sphere associated with images and dreams). When we read words, we’re engaging the logical right brain – which judges what we’re doing, and can disconnect us from our intuition. Swapping between words and images during a reading can certainly interrupt the flow!

The three techniques here ask you to use your intuition and imagination in whichever way feels right. So don’t get hooked on learning any more card meanings for now – you can do a great tarot reading without them. Here’s how.

1. Go with a Symbol

Tarot card images are rich in symbolism. Symbols are thought-forms or values that can be unpacked and interpreted in a multitude of ways. When you look at a tarot card, you’ll find you’re drawn to one or two symbols (and not all of them at once!)

Note which symbols attract you instantly; don’t think about it. Your intuition, which is stimulated by imagery rather than words, guides you to notice the symbols that are the most important for you or your client now. The next time you look at the same card, you may be drawn to a different symbol.

This is why a professional reader might have the same three cards for two clients, but give them very different readings.

The symbols you notice first can help you instantly decode a card’s meaning. If you’re drawn to animals on any of the cards, for example, the message is about following our instincts. Fascinated by the Sun on The Sun card? Say aloud what the sun means for you – heat, light, warmth, holidays? The meaning is emerging…!

2. Follow the Secret Map

Here are two easy ways to interpret the major and minor cards in an instant – by seeing them as map. This is a map you can read easily (and without having to look at any card meanings). Read on…

Why a ‘secret’ map?

The word ‘arcana’ means ‘secret’ , or ‘key’. The 78-card tarot deck is divided into 22 major and 56 minor arcana cards. When you lay them out to give a reading, you’re creating pathways – a map – showing approaches to your past and ways forward into the future.

How to read the majors: Where are you on your journey?

In a reading, look at the Major arcana cards first (these are the cards numbered 0-XXI). They show you the priorities – the most important themes of your reading.

Look at the numbers on the major arcana cards you’ve chosen. The numbers range from 0, The Fool, to XXI, The World. The mid-point of the cycle is card X, The Wheel of Fortune. See below to assess how many major cards fall in the first or second part of the majors sequence:

  •  If the cards are numbered 0-IX, we’re in the first phase of a journey. As a signifier of a situation, low-numbered majors mean a young situation – a relationship, career, project, or new home, for example.
  • Card X, The Wheel of Fortune: mid-cycle; Fate takes a hand, and circumstances move us up to the second phase of the journey.
  • If the cards are numbered X-XXI, we’re in the second part of the journey, which brings opportunities for spiritual growth. This comes through tests (The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, The Devil, The Tower) and self-reflection (The Moon, Judgement)

How to read the minors: How are you travelling?

Next, look at the balance of minor arcana cards that appear in your spread (before you get into the specific card meanings). Are there more Swords cards than Cups? Or are there lots of Wands and no Pentacles? Assessing this balance instantly gives you a steer on how you (or the person you’re reading for) may be dealing with the themes revealed by the major cards:

The Pentacles cards link with the physical reality – the material world and the body. Pentacles show that practical matters – home, money, work – are key issues right now.

The Cups cards link with emotions – love and other relationships. Cups reveal your feelings.

The Wands cards link with passion and communication – desire, creativity and inspiration. Wands show there’s lots of movement, activity and talking.

The Swords cards link with the mind – thought, analysis and decisions. Swords show there’s opposition and ego around.

Finally, look for what’s missing. Why are there no Cups and lots of Swords cards when you’re asking your cards about a relationship? (ask, ‘Where’s the love? Is it all just drama?) Does the fact that there are lots of Wands cards and few Pentacles mean you’re distracted from finances just now?

3. Discover the Story

Reading the tarot is telling a story. Something magical happens when you begin to talk without knowing the end of the story – just look at the cards before you as if they are characters in a fairy tale. The deck is full of archetypes – from Knights, Kings and Queens to the sage (The Hermit), the maiden (The Star) to the evil sorcerer (The Devil); the young adventurer (The Fool), to The Magician. Working with archetypes stirs us at a very deep, primal level; it connects us with an old wisdom we have about ourselves.

Here’s a practice technique to try:

Take The Fool from your deck and place him face-up on the left. They lay four cards to the right of him, in a line. The Fool is the young hero of your story (which can be male or female). Turn over the remaining cards, but just one at a time, and interpret it, then move on to the next card. What happens to Fool next on his journey?

Ask yourself: is this my journey, too?