'Renaissance Italians lived in a mental universe which was animate rather than mechanical, moralised rather than objective, and organised in terms of correspondences rather than causes.'
(Peter Burke, Culture and Society in Renaissance Italy, London, 1972, p. 171)
Very few works of art offer as fascinating an insight into the 15th century world-view as the present set of engravings, one of the rarest and most enigmatic in the history of print-making.
As a pictorial cycle, the prints form a complete cosmology and describe the universe in a hierarchical progression. The fifty engravings are consecutively numbered 1 to 50 and sub-divided into five groups of ten images, lettered from E to A. These five groups represent different strata of the world, from the lowliest earthly existence to the most powerful and abstract force. The first level is that of mankind, shown in the order of rank from beggar to Pope. The second group consists of the Nine Muses and Apollo, the third depicts the Liberal Arts, the fourth three Genii and the Seven Virtues, and the last the heavenly bodies and spheres, beginning with the Seven Planets - the gods of antiquity - and culminating with The Eighth Sphere, The Prime Mover and The First Cause.
The name Mantegna Tarocchi, by which they have long been known, is doubly misleading, as they are certainly not by Mantegna, nor are they Tarot-cards in the modern sense of the term. Whilst in structure and appearance they resemble a pack of playing cards, they do not relate to any known game and it is very doubtful they were ever played with in the conventional sense. Whatever their precise use they must in some way have served an intellectual, educational or even just a conversational purpose. Given the beauty and elegance of the images we can assume that they were created for a very sophisticated, perhaps courtly, audience.
Despite the fact that the attribution, place of origin and purpose of these prints remains undetermined, 'as a visual encapsulation of knowledge about the cosmos in the period just prior to the beginning of the modern era, they are nearly without parallel; and within the field of 15th century Italian engraving, the elegant craftsmanship of the E-Series is unsurpassed.' (Mark J. Zucker, Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 24, III, p. 5)
Complete sets of the so-called Mantegna Tarocchi are extremely rare and none have come to the market in recent decades. Bartsch records ten complete sets in public collections, including the three bound sets in Naples, Paris (BN) and Pavia. Another bound set with one plate missing is in Chantilly.
We are grateful to Peter Bower, London, for providing a detailed report on the paper and the watermarks of this set.
The paper report as well as images of all plates are available upon request from the department. Please call Tim Schmelcher on ++44-(0)20 7389 2268.