This historical reproduction of one of the earliest known Tarot decks is an absolute gem. The Golden Tarot: the Visconti-Sforza Deck by Mary Packard (not to be confused with Kat Black’s Golden Tarot) is a reproduction of the playing deck commissioned by the noble Milanese Visconti-Sforza family in 1451. Nearly all of the cards are exact reprints of the original deck, although a few missing cards from the original pack have been redrawn in similar style.
This deck is breathtaking. It’s one of those Tarot decks that I think every serious reader should own, not only for its historical value but for the beauty of the art and the symbolic richness of the cards themselves.
The deck comes in a large, sturdy box, which contains the cards themselves, a beautifully bound LWB (that’s actually black), and a small purple polyester reading cloth. The cloth is really too small to be of any use with these cards, but it’s found a place on my Tarot altar*, and for that I’m glad it was included with the deck. Plus, it’s just a classy touch on the part of the publisher (even though the box claims the cloth is satin, which it is clearly not).
One thing to know about these cards: they are big. Like, seriously big. I am not a small-handed man, but my handspan is not wide enough to hold these cards end-to-end for a riffle shuffle. On the one hand, this is a good thing; the cards have serious heft to them, and they look damned impressive on a reading table. On the other hand, riffle shufflers like me may find the deck a bit unwieldy to work with.
The Major Arcana are just breathtaking. They’re unnumbered and untitled, so you have to be fairly familiar with Tarot in order to work effectively with them, but beginner readers can always consult the LWB if need be. And the colors in this deck are just so striking. The cards are generally worked in neutral tones–a lot of beige and brown–but occasional spots of red, blue, and gold really light up the deck as a whole. (The extravagance of the colors is a result of the painting materials used on the original cards; the commissioned deck was painted with gold leaf, lapis lazuli, and various other precious and semi-precious materials.) Above are some of my favorite cards from the Majors (although it kind of looks like the Fool has a scrotum dangling from his chin, which strikes me as odd).
Many of the figures in this deck are actual members of the Visconti-Sforza family, who were drawn into the deck by the artist as a personalizing touch. Most notably, the Lovers are Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti, the married couple who commissioned the deck in the first place. Several background elements (such as the pattern against which the Major Arcana are displayed) are also in direct homage to the Visconti-Sforza family.
The Major Arcana and the Court Cards all have royal blue borders; the Minor Arcana are bordered in bright red. The Minor Arcana themselves are relatively standard TdM-style pips, and RWS readers may have some difficulty reading with them because of the lack of narrative symbolism. Still, for anyone who is familiar with the TdM or who wants to learn, these pip cards are richly illustrated and read quite well.
Several cards in the Minor Arcana bear a banner that reads “abon drout”. The LWB has nothing to say about this phrase, but I would guess it’s a heraldic phrase belonging to the Visconti-Sforza family. The internet has been no help in my attempts to translate the Renaissance Milanese dialect, but if it’s anything like French, I’d say it likely means something like “In the right” or “With a good right”. This is the only such banner I found on the Minor Arcana, except on the Two of Cups, where the phrase “amor mio” (my love) appears.
The Court Cards are probably my favorite aspect of this deck. They’re just magnificently done, and they feel like real people (most likely because they are). The Courts, once again, are actual members of this family, Tarotfied and immortalized; looking at them, I get a real sense of personality and power.
Finally, a note on the LWB. The companion book to this deck is marvelous. Beautifully designed, it has chapters on Tarot’s history, on the Visconti-Sforza family, on the evolution of occult and esoteric Tarot, in addition to the requisite pages describing the cards themselves. Each of the Major Arcana and the Court Cards is given a full page of description, with a color reprint of the card and both upright and reversed meanings. The Minor Arcana are limited to a few keywords each. The back of the book also includes a few basic spreads and sample readings, which may be helpful for the beginner reader.
I cannot say enough how lovely this deck is. As a TdM deck, it’s essential for any collection, because of its historical significance, because of its classic TdM imagery, and because of the stunning way the cards are illustrated. Non-TdM readers might be less interested in it, but I would still encourage anyone interested in Tarot to buy this deck.
*Brief Kabbalah tangent: the color purple is associated with two cards from the Major Arcana: the Wheel of Fortune and the Star. Nice symbolism to have in a sacred space.