Explore tarot’s centuries-old history in Milan

For devotees of this 600-year-old esoteric art, a trip to northern Italy is in the cards.

A pigeon takes flight in front of Milan’s Duomo. The city’s wealth made it a hub for medieval and Renaissance artists and architects.
Photograph by Chiara Goia

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.

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