The First Tarot Magician

The Identity of Bonifacio Bembo’s Visconti-Sforza Tarot Magician

by Michael Pearce, Ph.D., M.F.A

Among those who created the first of the tarot decks we find the name of a Lombard family of painters named Bembo, whose Gothic style was already becoming unfashionable as the Renaissance took root. Although Art History hasn’t been kind to the Bembos, who remain quite obscure, we know they did some work as contract employees of the indomitable Bianca Visconti, wife to Francesco Sforza, the soldier turned Duke of Milan, doing a good job of painting a fresco portrait of the couple in a church in Cremona and creating other frescos in the Sforza castle in Milan. In addition to his bottega’s wall painting work Bonifacio Bembo was an enthusiastic participant in creating Arthurian art and is remembered for a collection of two hundred and eighty-nine lovely little drawings illustrating an Italian manuscript copy of the tales of Lancelot and Tristan dated 1446, the Storia di Lancilotto, or Tristano Palatino.[i] 

Page one of Bonifiacio Bembo's Lancelot manuscript

These delightful drawings have led to the attribution of a large part of the Visconti Sforza Tarot to Bembo because of their stylistic similarities to the cards, which are certainly by the same hand.

Bembo’s Visconti Sforza Tarot Magician

The first card in Bembo’s Visconti Sforza tarot is the Magician. Bembo’s dramatically red-dressed character is seated on a paneled cube placed on a green ground surface at a trestle table bearing a cup, two round shapes and a knife. He holds a slender reed in his left hand. The strange blobby shape under the man’s right hand has been the cause of puzzlement among tarot writers. Gertrude Moakley thinks it’s a dish with a lid. Others think it’s a hat, or perhaps a pile of money. Later in this paper I will reveal what it actually is, and use this strange assortment of objects to correctly identify the occupation of this character.

He wears a tidy beard and has shoulder length blond hair that is wrapped in a green turban that’s part of a floppy red hat. The cuffs of his jacket are folded back onto his forearms, while a red sash tightens it around his stomach at the bottom of a deep neckline, revealing a high-buttoned, green long sleeved shirt. The striking red of the Magician’s clothing stands out among the other cards because he is one of only four of the full sized figures in the Visconti Sforza deck to wear anything other than the rich blue hues of lapis lazuli with plenty of gold decoration and additional layering of other colours, the other exceptions being the Fool and the Priestess who are clad in humble light browns and whites, and the Hanged Man, who wears green and white. (I’m not counting Death!)

The colour of the Magician’s leggings and shoes matches his jacket and hat, the traditional red of a medieval scholar,[ii] particularly indicating the ubiquitous clothing of a graduate of the University of Bologna. Boccaccio disparages the graduates of the institution in the preamble to the story of Master Simone in the Decameron (1353):

“It is matter of daily experience that our citizens come back to us from Bologna, this man a judge, that a physician, and the other a notary, flaunting it in ample flowing robes, and adorned with the scarlet and the vair and other array most goodly to see; and how far their doings correspond with this fair seeming, is also matter of daily experience.”[iii]

Boccaccio follows this by mocking pseudo-intellectuals known for flaunting their splendid scarlet costumes with an entertaining story of the duping of the doctor Master Simone, who wishes to join a bogus magical secret society that had supposedly been started by the legendary magician Michael Scot. In the course of the tale we learn that during his initiation he must wear his red robe, which is the best he owns. Fooled into riding on the back of one of his tormentors he is dumped into a cesspit. The story pokes fun at the imaginary Master Simone, an especially block-headed pseudo-intellectual graduate of the University of Bologna, “whose patrimony was more ample than his knowledge”, and “whose skill did not reach perhaps beyond the treatment of children for the scurf”, but Michael Scot was a real person, and definitely not a blockhead. By the 15th Century Scot had become a popular legend and was a well-known author among students of natural science in the renaissance. A priest and scholar who served the great Emperor Frederick II at the beginning of the 13th Century, he taught at the University of Bologna, where he doubtlessly wore the traditional red of a scholar and was well-known for habit of wearing clothes that he had bought during his stay in Toledo as a translator of Arab science.

The Magician’s high-necked shirt alludes to standard academic wear, with his sleeves folded close to the elbows, conveniently getting them out of the way of ink and also indicates an Eastern influence.[iv] His hat is an extravagant floppy brimmed affair, built over the turban-like folds of his fashionably rolled head-dress, which had evolved from wrapped cappuccio hoods and reveals the influence of the Moors on North Italian fashion in the first half of the fifteenth century. Eastern fashion was profoundly influential among scholars of the quattrocento, who wished to identify themselves with intellectuals like Scot who had traveled to Moorish Spain, where they translated philosophic and medical texts, including the writing of the greatest of the Arab doctors, Avicenna, who would inspire medical followers all over Europe. A couple of hundred years later in the 15th century, scholars who traveled to Byzantium were to bring back crates of Greek codices for the benefit of the West, inspiring the renaissance. Having lived for long periods in the East these scholars were drawn to Eastern clothing as an expression of their sophistication.

Laurentius de Voltolina's mid-14th Century painting of Henricus de Alemannia

Laurentius de Voltolina captures this trend nicely in his mid 14th Century painting of Henricus de Alemannia teaching in a University of Bologna auditorium to students who seem to be about as engaged in his lecture as a class of modern undergraduates – chatting and napping in the back row. It’s interesting in these much-vaunted days of globalization to note that Henricus was a German professor visiting an Italian University wearing the costume of a Moor.

The tools of scribes in the early Fifteenth Century hadn’t changed much for more than a thousand years, including a very sharp pen-knife, a lead disc for marking lines (before 1500 lead discs were used instead of graphite, which hadn’t been discovered yet in the solid form that would allow for the invention of the pencil), seashells or little cups for ink (those odd round things), a pounce pot (pounce was used to prepare the surface of the page before writing on it), cuttle fish for making the pounce, little oak balls for gall (to make the mordant by soaking them in vinegar), a sponge for wiping pens and erasing errors, a pumice stone for fixing up the pen-nib – it’s a collection of items that includes all the objects in the magician’s table-top assemblage.

To emphasize the consistency of these scribal tools over the ages we can compare this list to one found in a lovely Greek dedicatory epigram dating from a millennium and a half before Bembo’s time and published in 1494 as part of Lascaris’ edition of the Greek Anthology:

“Callimenes, resting from his long labour his sluggish hand that trembles with age, dedicates to Hermes his disc of lead that running close to the straight ruler can deftly mark its track, the hard steel that eats the pens, the ruler itself too, guide of the undeviating line, the rough stone on which the double tooth of the pen is sharpened when blunted by long use, the sponge, wandering Triton’s couch in the deep, healer of the pen’s errors, and the inkbox with many cavities that holds in one all the implements of calligraphy.”[v]

Close examination of the reed held by the Magician reveals that both ends are sharpened to a pen-nib shape - it’s a long reed pen that’s being displayed as the emblem of a scholar. In antiquity a sharpened reed called a calamus was used as a pen just as often as a feather, and we find that during the fifteenth century the use of this lightweight reed pen experienced a revival among North Italian humanists busy enthusiastically resurrecting all things classical right at the time that our miniature painting Bembo was at his busiest.[vi]

Because the reed was mentioned in both Ezekiel and John’s Revelation as a means of measurement it was used in the West as a symbol of regulative authority in portraiture throughout the medieval period, and we can find numerous paintings of Kings and Queens holding a reed and a baton as dual symbols of their authority, showing that they governed both military authority and civic regulation. In this case the symbolic objects alongside the reed do not match such iconography. The Visconti Sforza Magician is not a king. The confusion is understandable – even Bembo’s Lancelot reveals a few drawings that show the reed in its allegorical context as sign of authority in the hands of a king. This kind of iconography led Gertrude Moakley to her error of interpreting the Magician card as an image of a carnival king, although none of the other standard royal symbols (baton, crown, throne, etc) are present in the Magician card. Objects mean different things in different contexts, especially in allegorical imagery – in the context of the other scribes’ paraphernalia in this image the reed is just a pen, the symbol of a writer.

An Illustration in Harvard's Decamaron - MA.MH-H.5005

This left-handed red-clad scholar holds his reed like a pen, has rolled up sleeves in the fashion of an Easterner and that the objects on the table correspond with those needed for writing in the age before printing; but one serious question remains before we can identify the profession of the thin red man – what is that strange blobby shape beneath his right hand?

It looks so alien to us, but it would have been very familiar to Bembo the illuminist and miniature painter – it’s another writer’s tool, a sea sponge, like the similarly amorphous one we see in a beautifully illuminated Decameron[vii] now held at Harvard University dating from the fifteenth century in which we find an image of a man writing at a table with an inkpot and sponge, knife and pen in hand. Since antiquity scribes had used the sponge for wiping away ink from the pen and even for deleting whole passages if the ink had had no mordant added to it to make it “stick” to the vellum.

We can be absolutely certain that the object under the Magician’s hand is a sponge, because Bembo drew a sponge in four of his illustrations for the Lancelot book, in a particularly exciting sequence in the story when we find three knights on the point of discovering the Holy Grail and other artifacts from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. By great good fortune the text of this part of the tale has been translated by Margherita Pampinella-Cropper. (The Storia di Lancilotto has never been completely translated into English – as far as I am aware not even fragments had been translated before this obscure 2008 publication appeared within the appendices of a collection of academic papers about Arthurian texts and provided a glimpse into it.):

“Our book says and history honours that after Galasso, Borzo and Princivallo had received the grace of the blood grail they left that place and went down to the sea shore, where they found a very ancient church; and it had a cave underground which no-one could enter because it was too dark. The three knights dismount from their horses and enter the cave as it pleased God. They descended for a long way and when they had gone down a good distance they heard great singing and angels. Reaching the bottom, they saw a little chapel in which there were many lighted candelabra and in the middle there was an altar; on the altar was the holy blood grail. Firstly there was the holy vessel and inside the vessel was the lance all dripping and on one side was the crown of thorns and on the other were the nails with which our Lord Jesus Christ was nailed and the hammer and the pliers and the sponge, and these things God wished to be taken until the time of these from the hands of the Jews. When the three knights saw these things, they kneel before the altar and thanking God for granting them such a grace of such a high adventure. While they stayed in such fashion, the said things rise of their own accord and came out of the cave. The three knights follow after them, and when they emerge from that church they saw the ship in which they had been and then the bed and the body of Percinvalo’s sister; and around her body were the holy vessel where the precious blood was, and the crown and the nails and the hammer and the pliers and the sponge because God wished to lead her to the holy quest just like them as she was worthy and all these things were near her.”[viii]

The Knights enter the Chapel of the Holy Grail in Bembo's Lancelot

The Holy artefacts are placed about the body of Percinvalo's sister

The Knights leave the chapel, taking the holy artefacts

The third drawing includes a sponge very similar to the one on the tarot card. The translation confirms that the strange plant on the altar is Bembo’s illustration of the sponge that was used to offer sour wine to the crucified Christ.

In the Cotton Domitian, Christ shows his wounds to Peter. The sacred relics are held by an attendant at left.

Similar images of the relics of the crucifixion can be found in other medieval texts, where they encouraged the fashion for going on pilgrimage. In the Cotton Domitian we find Jesus showing the spear wound in his side to prove his resurrection from the dead, while an attendant at his side holds the spear, the sponge held at the end of a reed and the crown of thorns.[ix]

Even now pieces of the holy sponge are kept in several European reliquaries: in Aix-la Chapelle a piece of it is part of the collection of sacred artifacts kept at Charlemagne’s tomb; in Rome the reliquary at the St. Maria Trastavere church includes the holy sponge; In Paris the Sante Chapelle held a piece of it among twenty two relics of the passion and some saints’ heads until the collection was dispersed during the French revolution.

The Magician’s name has caused confusion among tarot enthusiasts who have misunderstood him as a street magician because of his trestle table and the gesture of his right hand over the sponge. The evidence that indicates that the thin man is a writer doesn’t conflict with his identity as a magician; as Thorndike clearly indicated in his History of Magic and Experimental Science, the two fields are closely related, inseparable from a mass of ideas and doctrine, and deeply rooted in philosophy.[x] The word “magic” itself is derived from “magos”, a Greek word for “a member of the learned and priestly class”.[xi] In the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century natural magic in the context of new studies in philosophy was a burgeoning area of study because of the emergence of neo-platonic texts that had generated an interest in alchemy via Spain, where European scholars co-operated with their Moorish colleagues to bring new translations of commentaries on classical writings and alchemical texts to Europe. By the beginning of the fifteenth century hundreds of Greek texts became available to humanists from the libraries of Byzantium prior to that city’s fall, a doom which was clear to many of its inhabitants for decades before the actual event (by 1478 there were nearly four thousand Greeks in Venice, refugees from the Turkish invasion of the Balkans.[xii]) In the first five years of printing in Milan, from 1471 – 1476, of a total of twenty-nine books, eleven were books about natural sciences, including Aristotle.[xiii].

Because of the association of red clothing to the University, the eastern flavor in his dress placing him among the North Italian medieval educated elite, his scribe’s equipment – especially the reed and sponge, the figure on Bembo’s first Visconti Sforza card corresponds closely to the archetype of the late medieval natural magician – a scholar, writer and sage.

[i] Gloria Allaire describes the manuscript as: “Pal. 556 (former 198/2; Pal. E5.4.47) Parchment. 276 x 201mm. Dated 20 July 1446.172ff. Copied by Zuliano di Anzoli, Cremonese or Veronese. Prov.: Veneto region. 289 pen designs by Bonifacio Bembo. Model was owned by Geno deli Franceschi of Pisa; Peter of Savoy. Unique version of Tristan combined with Tavola Ritonda material. Called the “Tristano Palatino” or Storia di Lancilotto (Gentile; Tris. Ricc., ed. Parodi xxxvi; Breillat 1938; Eusebi; Scolari 1990, 23; Delcorno Branca 1992, 1998”. The manuscript is in Florence at the National Library.

[ii] Herald, Jacqueline. Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400 – 1500. Bell and Hyman, 1981, 120

[iii] Boccaccio, Decameron. Day 8, Story 9

[iv] Herald, Jacqueline. Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400 – 1500. Bell and Hyman 1981, 113

[v] Paulus Silentiarius. Epigram for Callimenes. In: The Greek Anthology. Book VI. The Dedicatory Epigrams. 333

[vi] Powell, James M. Medieval studies: an introduction. Syracuse University Press 1992, 55


[viii] (My italics) Barber, Richard. Appendix I. in Lacy, Norris. The Grail, the Quest and the World of Arthur. Woodbridge 2008, 182

[ix] Crucifixion Artefacts. Detail from Cotton MS Domitian A XVII f.207r

[x] Volume I. Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Macmillan 1923, 4


[xii] Harris, Jonathan. Byzantines in Renaissance Italy

[xiii] Scholderer, Victor. Printing at Milan in the Fifteenth Century (Analysis of Milanese Incunabula) in Library, Series 4 Vol. 7 no. 4. London, 1927, 374