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Re: Playing Cards (fwd)

Poster: David KUIJT <kuijt@umiacs.umd.edu>

Kathryn Rous wrote:

> The decks were not intended to be played with?  Please tell me more
> about this!  
> (oh, I just realized this is not going to the list as well...maybe your
> answer should, though?)

All the decks mentioned are stunning and expensive works of art, hand-made
by the most adept artists a wealthy patron could command.  They show no
signs of ever having been used for card games.  Some of them (the playing
cards of Master E.S., for example) are printed on paper too thin to stand
the rigours of play.  The Visconti-Sforza and Cary-Yale Visconti decks
were painted in the shop, and partly by the hand, of Bonifacio Bembo, one
of the premier painters of his day.  Although the artisans who painted the
Hunting deck and Hofamterspiel aren't known, they were clearly adept.

I believe that some of the bills for production of one of the Bembo decks
survive; there are also bills for production of similar decks including
one for Charles VI of France (the deck does not survive).

Although translation of expense to modern terms is inexact, it is clear
that these were commissioned masterpieces and very expensive.  One
measurement of comparison frequently used is the cost of a car being about
the same as a cost of a horse: by that measure, one of the decks of Bembo
cards might have cost its patron $300,000 or more; perhaps ten times as
much.  If I get time, I'll try to find exact figures (the above quote is
from my vague memory, and certainly shouldn't be considered infallible).

The reason that so many beautiful decks survive is exactly because they
were never used for playing.  At an educated quess, millions of playing
card decks were produced a year during the 15th century.  Something on the
order of a dozen decks survive in full or in part from the 15th century. 
Almost all of the survivors are premier examples of fine artistry never
used for playing.  In an era before plastic-coating of cards a deck
probably was tattered and stained after a single long evening's play.

The idea of playing a card game with such a deck is similar to the idea of
using a commissioned painting by a master painter as a tablecloth.



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