Above: Bianca Maria Visconti as the Virgin with her eldest son, Galeazzo Maria, as the Child Jesus Christ and her husband, Francesco Sforza (left), as Saint Franziskus of Assisi and her father-in-law, Muzio Attendolo Sforza (right), as Saint Bernardin of Siena. Source.
Picture yourself in Italy, in the year 1440. You are living during a momentous time in history. The Renaissance has begun, and culture is literally being reborn. For the next 200 years, society and culture will undergo a dramatic transformation, as Europeans leave the dark ages of medieval times behind and give birth to the modern world.
The leading thinkers and artists of the day are inspired by the golden age of Greece. Age-old myths are told and retold, and the ancient gods and goddesses are everywhere — in art, in song, in poetry, and drama. Young people are even memorizing the classic philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle.
In the winter of 1440, a teenage girl named Bianca Maria Visconti found herself immersed in the heart of Renaissance art and culture, when she was sent to visit the royal court of d’Este in Ferrara, Italy, a regional center of Renaissance art and culture.
Bianca was the daughter of a duke, so she was a member of high society. In those days, young nobles would travel from palace to palace, to study and spend time together. Their pursuit was high-minded: The young aristocrats were preparing to assume the rulership of their country. So by day, Bianca and her friends would read, ponder, and debate the great works of science, history, and literature.
But at night, they played cards.
Bianca was especially fond of a new card game called tarocchi. It was a complicated pastime, because it involved a whole host of literary and mythological figures, all of whom embodied the virtues and ideals of the ancient Greeks and Romans. There were twenty-two cards that depicted allegorical figures like Justice, The Wheel of Fortune, and the Moon. There were also four suits in each deck, numbered one through ten, as well as four sets of court cards — a page, a knight, a queen, and a king.
Bianca was so captivated by the game that when it was time for her to go home, in January 1441, one of her friends gave her a set of fourteen hand-painted cards to take with her. And later that year, when Bianca was engaged to marry a young man named Francesco Sforza, her father Filippo actually commissioned a deck of his own to commemorate the wedding.
Bianca’s tarocchi deck, of course, was the forerunner of today’s tarot. And Bianca’s wedding deck, the Visconti-Sforza tarot, is one of the oldest tarot decks still in existence. To this date, it also rates as one of the most romantic decks of all time. In fact, the Lovers card may even be a portrait of the newlyweds Bianca and Francesco, dressed in their wedding best. Many of the surviving cards are housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, and you can find replicas of the deck practically anywhere tarot cards are sold.