Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Female knights and pages in medieval Italy

A recent post about artists' tarot cards sent me back to the 15th century's Visconti-Sforza deck, one of the oldest and arguably the most opulent ever created. One nearly complete set resides in the Cary Collection of Playing Cards at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Commissioned by two successive Dukes of Milan, the cards were known then as Trionfi ("trumps") and were used for card games as opposed to fortune telling ("cartomancy").

Attributed to Italian fresco artist Bonifacio Bembo, the deck includes eleven trump cards and six court cards, including the King, Queen, Male Knight, Female Knight, Male Valet, and Female Valet/Page. The unique addition of the female knight and page (Page of Swords and Knight of Batons are shown above) may indicate that this set was made for a female member of court.
At a mere 9 by 19 cm, these resplendent cards remind one of book illuminations of the period in their rich colors and costly gold leafing. Below are the Knight of Coins, Judgment (Coins), and Love (Swords).

A gaming tradition from another culture is found in Otedama: Traditional Japanese Juggling Toys and Games. Because of the Japanese tradition of creating exquisite fabrics, these everyday beanbag objects can be quite lovely.


  1. Those cards are gorgeous! At first I thought they were tapestries, which makes me love them even more. I would love to see these in person, must be spectacular.

  2. What kind of paper stock was used in those days? Each card had to be hand painted, I'm guessing, but upon what material?

  3. They're 3½ x 7½ inches and painted on thick cardboard. Their gold and silver backgrounds feature textures with geometric shapes and family devices made of tiny hammered dots. Some details of the illustrations are also gold, especially in trumps and courts. Amazing they have survived so well; they've obviously been treasured as objects of great artistry and luxury. This history and iconography are fascinating.

  4. Will these painting be part of a traditional Italian home design? They are lovely and made me feel so powerful, to see women being a knight.