The origins of tarot cards are clouded in mystery. History’s oldest surviving tarot decks are all partially incomplete, and will likely never be seen in their entirety — unless the missing cards are one day found.
These partial decks, which survive only in the provenance of museums and private collections, are hand-painted masterpieces which only give us hints at what the complete decks must have looked like.
These are the lost treasures of the tarot world: Priceless tarot decks, lost to the ages. They are the oldest tarot cards in existence.
The Visconti-Sforza Decks
The term “Visconti Sforza tarot” is commonly used to apply to these rare cards from the Middle Ages, but the term does not apply to a single deck. Instead, the term is used to apply to an entire artistic period of tarot creation during the 1400’s. There is not just one Visconti Sforza tarot deck. Several partial decks from this era exist today.
None are complete.
The Pierpont Morgan Bergamo Tarot
This beautiful partial tarot deck is possibly the oldest in existence. Dating back to 1451, It consists of only 20 Major Arcana cards (There are 22 Major Arcana cards in a complete tarot deck), 15 “court cards” (There are 16 in a complete tarot deck), and 39 “pip” cards.
This deck is also known as: The Colleoni-Baglioni tarot and the Francesco Sforza tarot
What’s missing? This ancient deck is missing the Devil and the Tower tarot cards from the Major Arcana. They have never been found.
Some modern reproductions of the Pierpont Morgan Bergamo deck have re-created both the Devil and Tower cards in the style of the original artist in order to provide a complete deck of modern tarot cards. The truth is that the full Pierpont Morgan Bergamo deck has been lost to the ages, and we may never know what the deck looked like in its entirety.
The Cary-Yale Tarot
This extremely rare and beautiful tarot deck only exists in an incomplete state. The cards are hand painted on metallic gilt backgrounds and are thought to date back to 1466. Some scholars disagree with this date however, and believe they may date back to as early as 1442 — which would make them the oldest surviving cards in existence.
What makes the Cary-Yale deck unusual are the additional “court cards”. Each suit in the Cary-Yale tarot has 6 court cards consisting of: Damsel, Page, Lady on Horse, Knight, Queen and King.
Only 67 cards of this deck have survived. Given the inclusion of the extra court cards, it is believed the complete deck may have consisted of 86 cards — although a lack of consensus exists on this point.
This deck is also known as: The Filippo Maria Visconti Tarot
The Brera-Brambilla Tarot
Like the Cary-Yale tarot deck, the Brera-Brambilla tarot is hand painted on metallic gilt backgrounds. The deck, which dates back to 1463, is one of the most incomplete surviving decks in the world today. Of the original complete set, only 48 cards survive. Of the Major Arcana, only 2 cards exist: The Emperor, and the Wheel of Fortune.
The nearly complete loss of the Major Arcana in this deck has surrounded it with a sense of mystery. Barring any major tarot discovery, we will likely never know what the complete deck looked like.
This deck is also known as: The Bembo Sforza tarot
What’s missing? Of the Major Arcana, all but two cards (The Emperor and Wheel of Fortune) have been lost to the ages.
Can you do tarot readings with Visconti Sforza tarot cards?
While there are no existing complete decks from the Visconti Sforza era, there are a number of modern reproductions which represent “complete” 78-card tarot decks. These decks use artists’ conceptions of missing cards, but can be used for tarot reading.
However, to be historically accurate, the practice of reading tarot cards for divination purposes did not begin until long after the Visconti Sforza period. Decks during the Visconti Sforza period were created for playing everyday card games. The first decks to be purposefully created for the purposes of tarot reading were created at the end of the 19th century.