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The Mystery Of Mantegna Tarocchi

Renaissance

The Mystery Of Mantegna Tarocchi

The Mantegna Tarocchi, also known as the Tarocchi Cards, Tarocchi in the style of Mantegna,  is a double series of 50 instructional engravings each. The sets are known as the E-series Tarocchi Cards and the S-series Tarocchi Cards. And they are absolutely fascinating. Everything about them is mysterious – the authorship, their purpose their iconography.

The name appears to be a mistaken confusion by later writers with the contemporary card-game of Tarocco, which includes many extra picture-cards. These are neither playing cards nor Tarot cards for fortune-telling but were presumably educational tools for upper-class children, although no documentation of their use survives.

Mantegna Tarocchi

Tarocchi of Mantegna, c. 1465,  location unknown

Art historians for many centuries believed that Andrea Mantegna was the engraver of any of them, as was thought until the nineteenth century, but the name is still used, mostly as “the so-called Mantegna Tarocchi”. All because the subjects of the set are mentioned by Giorgio Vasari who writes in his Lives about Mantegna that he created copper prints of trionfi – another name for the tarot Trumps. But now, Baccio Baldini who was a Florentine engraver is also brought into consideration as a possible author in the past, hence the name also used in the past of Baldini Cards or Tarocchi.


There are no suits and the images are numbered consecutively from 1 to 50, divided into the following groups: Society ⋄ Apollo and the Nine Muses ⋄ the Arts and the Sciences ⋄ the Seven Virtues and Sun, Time and the World ⋄ the Planets and the Spheres. The cards were made with a very high quality – which was unusual at the time. They are decorated with golden petals!

The Logic, one of the Tarocchi Mantegna cards.

The Logic, one of the Mantegna Tarocchi cards,  Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

Besides the double series of 50 engravings each, there are a number of copies by different artists of the Tarocchi di Mantegna. The engravings are also known to have provided inspiration to later artists, including the prolific Bolognese artist Amico Aspertini (c.1474–1552), who made copies of the tarocchi in his notebooks and produced fresco cycles with the same subjects. Ludovico Lazzarelli (late 16th century) was also inspired by the tarocchi images.  Even the young Dürer copied some of them. Also, the woodcut copies of these engraved images occur in later educational or didactic books.

Mantegna Tarocchi Albrecht Dürer Serie A, 42 - Mercury (Cards from the Mantegna Tarocchi)

Albrecht Dürer Serie A, 42 – Mercury (Cards from the Mantegna Tarocchi). location unknown


Each figure in the Tarocchi di Mantegna has a name and a number. The Tarocchi reflects a world order prompted by humanism, with the aristocracy and the church ranking lower than the arts, the sciences, the virtues, the planets and the spheres. The cards differ from tarot cards – but perhaps some of the iconographies of Mantegna Tarocchi was copied from the earlies tarots cards.

Mantegna Tarocchi Mantegna Tarocchi Engraving no. 44, Sol (The Sun), from the E-series

Engraving no. 44, Sol (The Sun), from the E-series, Book scan: Chiara Guarnieri (Herausgeber): Bildlexikon der Kunst, Bd. 8: Astrologie, Magie und Alchemie. Berlin: Parthas-Verlag 2005, source: Wikimedia commons

Card games based on the Virtues and Vices, or Social Subjects, have of course been produced from time to time over the centuries. Possibly the tarot trumps were merely an alternative or condensed version of these images, which most educated people would recognize, added to a pack of cards for the purpose of making a new card game.


From April 17 to July 1, 2018, in the rooms 2 and 3 of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan it will be possible to admire the exhibition “Tarocchi del Mantegna” which shows 28 engravings. You can find more about the exhibition here.

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