The Visconti Sforza deck - 5 suits of 14 cards



Probably no other card maker ever followed the 5 x 16 suit structure of the Visconti di Modrone deck that we discussed in the previous section. Not one single evidence in history is pointing in that direction. But also no early sources indicates the contrary. The first hint to a 14 Trump card structure are the 14 illustrations offered to Bianca Maria Sforza on New Years day of 1441. It might have nothing to do with the Trionfo structure, but the number 14 is significant, clearly a hint in this sense.

Since the earliest references to playing cards, almost all popular European card games had 13 or 14 cards per suit. In order to make a card game popular, it would have made sense not to change this number of suit cards.

In the early years of 1450, the Visconti Sforza cards have been produced. Of the surviving cards of this deck, 6 Trump cards have a different style and were realized later in the same Century. Are these 6 cards replacement or additional cards? As we will see in this section, the 14 earlier Trumps have a strong and complete structure where no card is missing.

In 1557 the account books of the court of Este mention the purchase of a complete Trionfi deck of 70 cards. For me this is the most convincing evidence that up to 1557 the structure of a Trionfi deck consisted of 5 suits, each with exactly 14 cards. This includes the Trump suit. The first real evidence we have of a possible 78 cards structure (22 Trump cards and 4 suits of 14 cards) are the two Estensi decks commissioned probably both by Ercole I d'Este (one deck made in 1573 on the occasion of his marriage and the other, the so called Charles VI deck, maybe earlier, but if it is indeed him who commissioned the deck, not before 1560, the year when he returned from Naples to Ferrare). The cards added to the Visconti Sforza deck very probably post date the Estensi decks.

The Visconti and Este families were very close. Even if the men could be against each other on the battle field, the women always were close. Bianca Maria Visconti and Beatrice d'Este were bosom friends, and Beatrice, like Bianca Maria, married into the Sforza family. So they knew each others versions of the Trionfi decks very well.

In the last years of his life, Filippo Maria Visconti commissioned another hand painted Trionfi deck. We don't know at all at which occasion. In contrary to the Visconti di Modrone deck, heraldic symbols are very rare. They are restricted to the tissues covering the horses of the Knights (as we can see at the figure at the right representing the knight of Coins) and to some rare banners on the pip cards. No heraldic symbols appear on the clothing of any of the court cards. There are 39 pip cards surviving, 7 court cards and only 2 Trump cards. The deck is commonly called the Brera Brambilla Visconti deck. Several theories are possible, maybe the deck has never been finished due to the early death of the Duke or maybe the remaining cards have been destroyed during the following riot on the Visconti Castle. We will never know.

Whatsoever, we have to work with the evidence we have. In the seven court cards, there are no female horse riders nor servants. If they were present, the chance that none of them would survive in the 7 remaining cards is only 3,3%. Still this is possible. There are also no court cards representing the suit of Swords. With a 14 cards per suit structure, this chance would have been 7 %. With a 16 cards per suit structure, this particular outcome (no female horse riders, no servants and no court cards from the suit of swords) had only a 0,2 % chance to produce itself. So we can state with more than 95% of confidence that the Brera Brambilla deck had only 14 cards per suit. In correspondence with the Visconti di Modrone deck, where the Trump suit have the same number of cards as the regular suits, we conclude that probably there were only 14 Trump cards. This agrees with the account book of the Estensi mentioning the purchase of a complete Trionfi deck consisting of 70 cards. In the Brere Brambilla deck, there are only 2 Trump cards surviving, the Emperor, both present on earlier and later decks and the Wheel of Fortune, present on later decks and maybe also (but not surviving, it is only a hypothesis)) on the Visconti di Modrone. So this does not give us any useful information.

The pip cards of the Brere Brambilla deck are made in the same style as the pip cards of the Visconti di Modrone deck, made by an identical process and in the same colors. Here at the left the 2 of Swords as an example. But in detail there are many differences.

  • Coins. The cards are almost identical to the Visconti di Modrone deck. In contrary to the older deck, there are no special fancy cards for the one or two of Coins.
  • Cups. The Ace of Cups is different on both decks. But slowly these differences become less apparent and starting from the six of cups, both decks are almost identical.
  • Batons. Arrows appears on the numerals of the Visconti di Modrone pip cards and on the Brere Brambilla Court cards. Scepters are represented on the Visconti di Modrone Court cards and on the numbered cards of the Brere Brambilla deck.
  • Swords. No hand is holding the Ace of Swords on the Brere Brambilla deck. All further Sword cards are curved on the Brere Brambilla deck and straight on the Visconti di Modrone deck.

Several years after the death of her father, Bianca Maria Visconti was probably the driving force behind a new Trionfi deck. This deck has maybe been commissionned to celebrate the 10 years of marriage between Bianca Maria and Francesco Sfroza. In any case, we are well before 1557 and the standard structure by that time was 70 cards. There are fourteen original trump cards, the other 6 trumps we know today have been added later to the deck. We have no evidence at all that these card were replacement cards. For me this is more than enough evidence, the original Visconti Sforza deck consisted of 70 cards. As we will see here below, the structure of the fourteen original Visconti Sforza Trump cards is extremely clear and logic. There are two groups of six cards, with each group topped up by a card representing Justice.

As we will see on the following pages, the 14 Trumps of the original Visconti Sforza deck had a clear educational message. This message is certainly influenced by Biance Maria Sforza who wanted probably a deck that could help her educate her son Galeazzo Maria. When the deck was created, the boy was about 7 to 9 years old. The main groups consist of 6 cards each. The first group of six cards represents the Estates of the Realm, the division of Society in Commoners, in Nobility and in the Clergy. We come back later in detail into these cards. The second group of six cards represents the influences on our life, internal influences that we can handle, like sexual desir and the lust for power and external influences that act beyond our control, like the aging process, destiny, illnesses and death.  The first group of cards is explaining how society is organized, the second group of cards is advising you how to behave in daily life. Both groups are accompanied by a card representing Justice. The first group is topped up by the Justice in our world, and the second group by God's Justice. These two Justice cards emphasize that nobody can escape Justice. Even the most clever man who commits a perfect crime, if the world's Justice won't get him, God is there. God is everywhere, God is within you, you cannot hide anything for Him.

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