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  • Writer's pictureTero Goldenhill

Zavattari brothers & the Tarocchi

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

Mary K. Greer writes in her blog about the history of the Visconti tarot cards. One suggestion for the possible creator/s of these first still-existing tarot cards is Zavattari brothers. I promised Mary to post whatever information I could find regarding the matter. So here’s the result. Not that much, really, but hopefully it will inspire other tarot history enthusiasts to research into their archives and libraries.

Detail of the frescoes in the Theodelinda Chapel in the Cathedral of Monza

“These works of art, to judge by their content, were undoubtedly conceived by Humanist scholars, while the same artists commissioned to paint portraits, frescoes or illuminated manuscripts actually realised them. Recurring names, well-known to art historians, are those of Marziano da Tortona, Bonifacio Bembo, Francesco Zavattari, Antonio Cicognara and Michelino da Besozzo, although scholars are not in full agreement as to which packs to attribute to which artists.” –Giordano Berti, Introduction to the Visconti Tarot Cards (Lo Scarabeo, 2002)

So who were the Zavattari? Stuart Kaplan informs us:

“Bonifacio Bembo is often cited in association with the Zavattari style, and it is possible that he apprenticed in their shop. The Zavattari brothers worked in Milan and neighboring areas, together or individually, between 1407 and 1479. The brothers were Ambrogio, Cristoforo, Franceschino, Francesco, Giorgio, Giovanni, Gregorio and Vicenzo. In 1444, the Zavattari brothers executed the famous frescoes in the chapel of Queen Teodolinda (Theodelinda) at the cathedral of Monza. The frescoes describe the life of Queen Teodolinda: her arrival in Italy, her marriage, the death of Agehalf (Authari, aka Agilolf), her second marriage, her dream regarding the construction of a basilica, and so on. The frescoes depict beautiful costumes and elegant gatherings with a multitude of people, horses and dogs. It is not known which of the brothers participated in the Monza project. Van Marle (1926) suggested that the paintings which decorate the fifteenth-century Cary-Yale, Brera-Brambilla and Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo tarocchi cards closely approach the manner of the Zavattari and perhaps were executed by a progeny of the family. Giuliana Algeri (1981) attributed the tarocchi cards to the Zavattari brothers instead of to Bembo.” (Kaplan, Stuart R.: The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. II. U.S. Games Systems, Inc. 1986, p. 140)

The Brothers are also briefly mentioned in Kaplan’s The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. IV (p. 669) and concerning the above-mentioned Van Marle, M. L. D’Otrange writes in her article Thirteen Tarot Cards from the Visconti-Sforza Set (The Connoisseur, vol. 133, 1954, p. 60): “Van Marle, although suggesting a Zavattari attribution for the cards in the Bergamo Museum and the Colleoni Collection, admits that this set [here referring to the so-called Tozzi cards] is of later date...”

Michael Dummett says nothing of the brothers in The Game of Tarot (Duckworth, 1980) but luckily, in The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards (George Braziller, Inc. 1986, p. 12) he offers us a very enlightening revelation (highlighting by me):

“The style of the Brambilla pack, from which remain only two trumps, the Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune, is indistinguishable from that of the Visconti-Sforza deck: it is inconceivable that they are not the work of the same artist. Serious study by art historians of the three tarot packs [here Dummett refers to Brambilla, Visconti di Modrone aka Cary-Yale, and the Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo Visconti-Sforza] dates from 1912, when Tosca first assigned them all to the circle of the Zavattari brothers. In 1928, Longhi proposed that they were painted by Bonifacio Bembo, a hypothesis firmly adopted by Wittgens in 1936 and by Rasmo in 1939. This attribution has been unanimously accepted until very recently, when Giuliana Algeri suggested that both the Brambilla and Visconti-Sforza packs were painted by Francesco Zavattari on the ground of their stylistic resemblance to his work in the chapel of Theodolinda at Monza. She explains the even closer resemblance to the illustrations in the manuscript Story of Lancelot, attributed to Bembo, by assigning them to Zavattari as well. An attribution on stylistic grounds is shaky because there is little attributed with certainty to Bembo, save the frescoes in the Cavalcabo chapel in the church of S. Agostino in Cremona. Nevertheless, nothing would stand in the way of attributing the Visconti-Sforza pack to him if the Brambilla deck did not exist. Bembo is known to have worked for Francesco Sforza, but not for Filippo Maria; the attribution to him of packs painted for the Visconti duke leaves quite a narrow margin for dating them. He was born around 1420; the earliest datable work ascribed to him is from 1442. Filippo Maria is unlikely to have commissioned so young an artist at that date, or to have had playing cards made for him at the very end of his life, when he was almost blind. The difficulty is resolved if the artist were Zavattari, who was active between 1417 and 1453. The Brambilla pack might then have been painted at any time between 1420 and 1444, while the Visconti-Sforza deck must be dated to 1450 or at the most two years later.”

Dummett continues (p. 14): “The attribution of both the Brambilla and Visconti-Sforza packs to Francesco Zavattari – the first made for Filippo Maria and the second for Francesco Sforza – may, thus, be tentatively accepted, but not a late date for the Visconti di Modrone cards, which must be dated 1441. For the history of tarot cards it is the dating, rather than the artist, that is important: the identification of the latter only serves as a key to the former. Several artists may have worked on the Visconti di Modrone pack; if none of them was Francesco Zavattari, they were of the same school. So far, there is only the vaguest dating for the Brambilla pack, but the best clue lies in the nonstandard composition of the Visconti di Modrone one.”

Dummett also mentions the Algeri / Zavattari connection in his article Tracing the Tarot (part of Tarot Triumphant in FMR Magazine, No. 8, 1985): “The earliest surviving packs are the three now usually ascribed to the Cremonese painter Bonifacio Bembo (c. 1420 – c. 1480), although Giuliana Algeri has recently argued the claim of Francesco Zavattari, in Gli Zavattare (Rome, 1981).”

Ross Caldwell has produced an english translation of Algeri’s arguments on dating the decks here.

Thierry Depaulis equally favours Francesco Zavattari, when writing in the exhibition catalogue Tarot, Jeu et Magie (1984): “A little after the First World War, Italian art historians advanced the hypothesis of Bonifacio Bembo, presumed author of the majority of “first hand” cards. This attribution, which has had some success among specialists, has been recently disputed by Giuliana Algeri (Gli Zavaratti: Una famiglia di pittori e la cultura tardogotica in Lombardia, Rome 1981): not only do the dates not harmonize well, but there is no other certain work (“documented”) of Bembo. The name of Francesco Zavattari, author, with his brothers, of a signed fresco in the Chapel of Monza, appears more convincing.” (link here)

So that was in the mid-eighties. Then in 1991 appeared a book entitled Bonifacio Bembo – Tarocchi Viscontei della Pinacoteca di Brera / Visconti Tarots of the Brera Gallery (Martello Libreria 1991) by Sandrina Bandera Bistoletti, where we find (highlighting by me):

“When the tarocchi deck known as Brambilla appeared on the scene, in a Finarte sale in 1971, its relationship to the Visconti-Sforza tradition was clear, and the attribution of the Brambilla deck to the same artist recognised by Longhi, Bonifacio Bembo, was unanimous. The possibility of attributing the three aforementioned decks [Brera-Brambilla, Visconti di Modrone aka Cary-Yale, and the Visconti-Sforza aka Colleoni-Baglioni] to a single artist has been questioned by Algeri and Mulazzani (1981). The expert recognised the hand of Francesco Zavattari in the Brambilla and the Colleoni-Baglioni decks, returning to the attribution of Venturi, and, as has been mentioned above, dates the Visconti di Modrone deck to a later period, interpreting the presence of the Savoy coat of arms together with that of the Visconti-Sforza family, as a reference to the marriage of Galeazzo Maria Sforza to Bona di Savoja in 1468. Mulazzani, instead, considers the Visconti di Modrone tarocchi to be the earliest of all, in fact even earlier than period of Bonifacio Bembo’s activity; the other two decks have been attributed by Mulazzani to an anonymous “Maestro dei Tarocchi”, quite different from Bembo who was considered to be a painter of pictures and frescoes only. Recently, Boskovits (1988) discovered an ink drawing, painted in water colours, in the Ledger of the Consorzio di Sant’Omobono in use in Cremona between 1450 and 1484, which a document declares to have come from the Bembo workshop, the work of Ambrogio, Bonifacio’s brother and close collaborator. Being beyond all doubt of the same style as the tarocchi and other works from Cremona (paintings and miniatures), this drawing confirms Longhi’s initial attribution, clearing any shadow of doubt regarding the origin of the three Brambilla, Visconti di Modrone and Colleoni-Baglioni decks – the Cremona workshop of the Bembo family.” (p. 14 & 16)

Regarding the Zavattari brothers Bistoletti continues: “Compared with the Visconti di Modrone deck, the Brambilla cards show no traces of the influence of the figurative style of the Zavattari family, who, with the Monza frescoes of 1445, made a decisive development with a taste for round faces, figures with a solid aspect, together with a basic cultural eclectism which was able to combine the influence of Pisanello with that of Masolino resulting in a knightly tradition, closely linked to the purpose of the court. The Brambilla deck can therefore be considered as a production of the Bembo workshop, and can be dated about 1442-43. (p. 32)

The influence of the Zavattari style on the cards now in Yale [a.k.a. Visconti di Modrone] should be mentioned: there is a clear reference to the spirit of chivalry and worldliness which is present in the series of frescoes in the cathedral of Monza – the best-known work of the Zavattari family. This influence can be noted in the ritual attitudes of the figures in the Yale deck: they are frequently accompanied by pages, as was the custom at court. Another Zavattari characteristic is the emphasis on the facial features which can be seen in the cards. In the cards of the later deck, split between Bergamo and New York [a.k.a. the Visconti-Sforza deck], on the other hand, we find a greater sense of the monumental nature of the figures: they are characterised by imperious gestures, by the architecture of the thrones which are no longer gothic, but squarer in shape, and by the less frivolous surroundings; perhaps this was an adjustment to the new political climate introduced by the rough soldierly origins of Francesco Sforza at the outset of his dukedom, with some stylistic influence from the followers of Squarcione who worked in Lombardy.” (p. 34)

Okay, now Ich bin confused. So, according to Bistoletti, Bembo and/or his workshop wins the prize for “who painted them cards” but the influence of the Zavattari Bros. in the Visconti di Modrone is obvious? Well, that does make sense – the past usually does influence what we do, be that then in art or anything else. But I’m still thinking what VanMarle /Algeri /Depaulis/Dummett wrote; with a young Bembo painting for the old Filippo, with a narrow time margin. Or then there is something which I haven’t quite grasped (that happens a lot so I wouldn’t be surprised). Also, there’s the frivolous question of “Why should I care who painted the cards?”, which I can easily neglect due to being a tarot history addict. Yeah, it does matter. And no, most likely we will never find out who did what, unless a letter should present itself which would clearly state: “I, Francesco Zavattari, painted the whole deck just by myself – Bembo had nothing to do with it!” An enigma. One could say that is the essential – if not the central – element of tarot itself, and it is also present in the history of tarot, like it or not. I noticed Bistoletti has another tarot themed book as well: I tarocchi: il Caso e la Fortuna (1999). I wonder if she says anything regarding the Zavattari / Bembo question there.

While pondering on these nagging questions, why not enjoy a couple of YouTube clips which feature the Zavattari art:

Edit. June 21, 2022: according to the recently published exhibition catalogue Tarots enluminés - Chefs-d'oeuvre de la Renaissance italienne (Musée Français de la Carte à Jouer, Paris: Lienart 2022, p. 58), edited by Thierry Depaulis:

"Andrea Bembo (attr.)

Tarot <<Visconti di Modrone>>

Brescia, vers 1441-1442

[...] Roberta Delmoro (voir son essai "Trois célèbres tarots ducaux") pense pouvoir attribuer l'ensemble à un autre Bembo, Andrea, frère aîné de Bonifacio, actif à Brescia et fort admiré en son temps, mais dont l'oeuvre reste à identifier."

Andrea Bembo? Zavattari brothers? Or someone else?

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