This story appears in the February 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
At his tiny studio in Milan, just past the Porta Ticinese, 89-year-old Osvaldo Menegazzi has been creating his own versions of classic tarot decks since the 1970s. The cards are made of thick stock and hand-dyed; the faces seem to gaze at you from across the centuries. Of the countless tarot decks that flood the market each year, those by Menegazzi, a formally trained fine artist, are unique primarily because they feel so personal. “Le carte parlano,” he has said. “The cards speak.”
He is one reason tarot lovers, like me, come to Milan. In the mid-15th century, the Visconti and Sforza families, rulers of Milan for more than two centuries, commissioned a local artist named Bonifacio Bembo to illustrate a custom tarot deck for them. Painted in tempera, then embellished with gold and silver leaf, the Visconti-Sforza deck attests not only to Bembo’s talent but also to the families’ keen taste for pocket-size art. Travelers can view 26 of the surviving cards at the Accademia Carrara, a fine-art academy and gallery in Bergamo, an hour northeast of Milan. (Read more about Caterina Sforza, a Renaissance warrior woman who defied powerful popes to defend her lands.)
Splendid Sforza Castle, with its brick ramparts, is where cards dating from about 1500 were discovered in the early 20th century, at the bottom of a well. Closer to the center of Milan, the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery houses, along with masterpieces by Caravaggio and Raphael, the Sola Busca deck, completed in 1491. Considered the inspiration for the Rider-Waite-Smith deck—a gold standard for tarot users today—the Sola Busca was the first known to put detailed illustrations on all 78 cards. These original cards, which recall an era of knights, knaves, and family crests, fit right in with the frescoes and panels in 15th- and 16th-century churches.
Arnell Ando, a Los Angeles-based expert who leads tarot-themed tours of northern Italy, delights in these parallels. On her itinerary is the Palazzo Schifanoia, near the town of Ferrara, in the Emilia-Romagna region. Its walls teem with astrological symbols. In Tuscany, the Siena cathedral features a tiled floor mosaic depicting what looks like the tarot symbol for the wheel of fortune. (Take a road trip through Tuscany’s breathtaking countryside.)
Think of tarot nowadays and you might conjure images of fraudster psychics, but in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, before divination ever entered the picture, tarocchi was a ripe new medium for artists and poets. Playing cards had just come into fashion, and tarocchi was distinctive: Each 78-card deck had four suits—wands, coins, swords, and cups—plus 22 special trionfi (trump) cards with evocative names such as the Devil, the Emperor, and Justice. With their rich illustrations, the cards set the imagination aflame while distilling universal truths about life.
Like the Renaissance paintings of Raphael and Michelangelo, the cards were full of emotion—and magic. To those who knew the references, tarot spoke a secret language that the Roman Catholic Church wanted to suppress. In code, artists were able to include references to alchemy, astrology, and even kabbalah, a mystical branch of Judaism.
It doesn’t surprise me that tarot, in its eloquent beauty, its effortless melding of the religious and the secular, is a wholeheartedly Italian invention. It bears the unmistakable signature of a culture that gave us the “Birth of Venus” and the Sistine Chapel. There’s even an urgency in the way the cards communicate (consider the ominous figures of the Judgment card, rising from their graves, for example), as if they can’t get the message out fast enough. How Italian is that?
I first studied tarot in my 20s, when I was part of a radical tarot school in New York City called the Brooklyn Fools. The reason I fell in love with tarot then is the same reason people did 600 years ago: It’s relatable. We share many of the same concerns as in Renaissance times: We worry about money, get our hearts broken, wonder how to make changes for the better in our lives.
In Menegazzi’s Milan workshop, which doubles as a gallery for his paintings, shadow boxes, and every imaginable style of tarot, it’s hard not to feel moved by his passion. Surrounded by watercolor brushes, inkpots, and cardboard, he reaffirms what the original tarot artists of the 1400s sought to do: Express ideas in a beautiful way about the complexities of being human.
Six hundred years later, we’re still listening to what they have to say.
Alex Schechter is a writer and sound therapist based in Los Angeles.