history question re; the visconti tarot


the kings and knights on the visconti tarot look very childlike. why is this? it really threw me off at first, as i kept thinking they were all knaves/pages at first glance. lol. the queens appear much more mature. i thought that this representation may have been simply because of the fashions of the times, but the heads are rendered larger in proportion to the bodies, like a child would be rendered. were these real portraits of perhaps very young people?


Some references of the female figures in the Visconti Tarots might resemble Maria Bianca Visconti, who had been married to Francesco Sforza for ten years by 1451. Some references suggest the cards came after the fourth Duke of Milan was crowned in celebration of their tenth anniversary or in celebration of his popular appeal for the Milan citizens. If you have access to the Stuart Kaplan Encyclopedia of the Tarot Volume II, there are good portraits. But no suggestions about the childish look of the figures in the courts, as far as I can tell. For lack of a good model, perhaps they just went along with certain card/game conventions of the time?
For the use of naive figures, only suggestions follow
It's puzzling sometimes why naive styles seem to be around in these minature paintings. My only clue was when we came to the Siennese schools of painting with Giotto, the muralist, and Giovanni di Paulo, who painted Paradiso scenes in the 1400s. If you scroll down in the link below, a sample of Giovanni di Paulo's naive figures can be seen:


What it showed me was a naive style was favored by the patrons when they did certain narrative scenes, so the schools of artists/artisans under Giotto or Giovanni di Paulo would have painted that way. In Giotto's case, he was actually painting to fit a particular setting.
Perhaps you will find other sources that suggest the Visconti cards weren't done in the 1400s--but Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedia of the Tarot, Volume II and Lo Scarabeo's Visconti Gold book and deck set seem to agree on this.
I cannot find any other online examples of anything close to the Boniface Bembo style of the 1400s. I did see at a museum something attributed to the school of artists in Milan---it was a private alterpiece with the same style of yellow-haired, childish aliens and allegorical figures. I'm thinking maybe the naive style of minatures had a lot of cupid/putti/angelic figures with childish bodies and big heads might have been considered---well, cute to them. I've heard that the golden-haired motif was popular and desired among Northern Italians.
My last suggestion--the appeal of the funny big-headed cartoon characters with the tiny figures appeared in early television and movies for kids---maybe there's something to this style of art that is appealing to family audiences, so it is a reoccuring motif.
Another suggestion is the Art of the Tarot by Christine Oleson--it's a five dollar giftbook that shows lots of historic tarot cards. It might be that the styles of naive figures to be quite popular in gaming cards...



thank you so much for the time and effort you put into your response. you sent me running to my art books. unfortunately all the works of giotto that i could find, had elderly bearded men.

i still have to wonder why, although the female figures may be called naive in facial features, the proportions are not as childlike as the male figures are rendered. the exception would be the lovers card, where both figures appear to me as children playing dress up.

the more mature male figures, such as the heirophant and the hermit, are in 'adult' proportions.

could it be the models that were available and used by the artist?


The heavenly figures of Giovanni di Paolo are naive, as cupids or small boys or infant girls. That is possibly the only real convention that I can trace outside of tarocchi cards and it was a workshop devoted to Dante Algheri's Paradiso.

Stuart Kaplan suggests that Maria Bianca Visconti was the woman model. I do not know all the stylistic conventions nor all the models for the cards...Hopefully you will gain access to texts that describe the cards by Stuart Kaplan.

While I like the Visconti Gold tarot set by Lo Scarabeo, I found some of the paraphrasing in the Lo Scarabeo version that might have come from Kaplan's Encyclopedia to be less descriptive---in other words, I found the Kaplan text in his Encyclopedia to be better. His booklet is also excellent and accompanies the Pierpont Morgan deck, by U.S. Games, in the large Visconti cards.

Because of classes, it may take awhile for further comparisons. I like digging into my Visconti references--wish that the Mantegna had the same range of sources.

Mari H.


I just remembered there are online links and image descriptions

Andy's Playing cards probably has one of the best descriptions of the Visconti tarots.


I'll be around later tomorrow to check the messages, but Joan Cole's mini-reviews also show all the Visconti links available that discuss many of the Cary Yale and Pierpont Morgan cards. Andy's Playing cards are listed also---but I think what you would find invaluable is the online samples of all the Cary-Yale and Pierpont Morgan Visconti images, for later reference.


I'm going to post the same above links to others asking about Visconti figures in another thread.

Best wishes and happy reading.

Mari H.