Meet a Master Tarot Card Designer From Milan, Birthplace of Tarot

Osvaldo Menegazzi’s supply-laden desk. (Photo: Lakshmi Ramgopal)

Want to divine the future by looking at beautiful drawings? Pick up a tarot deck. These symbolism-heavy illustrated cards have been helping people make psychic predictions since the 15th century. But where did those cards come from before they hit your local witch store?  Perhaps from a master tarot artist who has devoted his life and livelihood to crafting occult imagery.

Osvaldo Menegazzi is one such master. A resident of Milan, Italy, the white-haired, bright-eyed septuagenarian has spent decades designing and selling tarot cards, or tarocchi, in his shop, Il Meneghello di Osvaldo Menegazzi. Decks of them form bright, teetering towers on every surface of the store, stacked alongside posters and calendars boasting tarot imagery. 

Menegazzi’s shop and studio in Milan, Italy. (Photo: © Cristina Dorsini)

As a creator of sumptuous tarot cards in Milan, Menegazzi holds a special place in the history of tarocchiMilan was a major center for tarot in Renaissance Italy. What we call tarot descended from playing cards that came to Milan and other European cities from the Islamic world in the 14th century. In the early 15th century, Milan’s reclusive Duke Filippo Maria Visconti asked the artist Michelino da Besozzo to make him a version of playing cards that included trionfi, or trumps.

These new cards eventually gave rise to the modern tarot deck. In addition to trumps, da Besozzo’s deck contained figures called princes and barons that were divided into categories called the Virtues, the Riches, the Virginities, and the Pleasures. This deck was probably more luxurious than most of the ones we would find today. Known for his fresco and stained glass work, da Besozzo was no novice. The cards he made for the duke may have been as opulent as his paintings, which sparkle with gold leaf to this day.

Other parts of Renaissance Italy also produced lavish cards around this time. Records from Ferrara describe an extraordinary deck that Bolognese painter Jacopo Sagramoro had made as a gift for Visconti’s 15-year-old daughter in 1441. According to the documents, Sagramoro had painted and even gilded the cards by hand.

Boxes for storing tarot cards in Menegazzi’s shop. (Photo: © Cristina Dorsini)

With his lavish, handmade cards, Osvaldo Menegazzi is clearly preserving the tradition of his predecessors in present-day Milan. As Menegazzi tells it, making tarot cards is no hobby. It’s a calling. He is the first in his family to be a tarot artist—his father, Aurelio Menegazzi, was a track cyclist who competed at the 1924 Olympics. A self-described “born painter,” he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brera. After graduating, he decided to combine his love of art and with his love for antique playing cards, the early ancestors of tarot, by founding a publishing house for out-of-print cards. But he also wanted to make his own designs. He published his first deck, inspired by seashells, in 1974.

The process, Menegazzi shares, isn’t always in his control. The images on his cards are often inspired by history, and ideas can appear without warning. Sometimes he finds himself stopping and sketching during a walk through the streets of Milan, or even while dining at a restaurant. But most of the work takes place in his shop, where he has a studio space full of paints, brushes, cardstock and discarded designs. Since Menegazzi researches every theme, some decks take up to a year to develop and print.

Cards from the deck developed by Menegazzi in collaboration with his niece, Cristina Dorsini, in honor of Expo Milano 2015. (Photo: © Cristina Dorsini)

That means his shop boasts an endless variety of cards, making it a treasure trove for lovers of the occult in the Italian North. Some decks depict the major and minor arcana (tarot’s “face card” and “number card” equivalents) in Cubist shapes. Others portray them as animals or even flowers, inspired by vintage science books. One deck reimagines traditional iconography with old maps that Menegazzi finds at Milanese flea markets. 

Menegazzi also sells the work of other Italian tarot artists in addition to his own. One of those artists is Anna Maria D’Onofrio, whose limited-edition watercolor decks are a unique example of modern Italian tarot. Menegazzi also carries Les Tarot Noirs, a deck by his Milanese friend Franco Coletti. Featuring stark black-and-white illustrations, Coletti’s cards depict the Magician as Osvaldo Menegazzi himself.

Stacks of tarot decks by watercolorist Anna Maria D’Onofrio. (Photo: © Cristina Dorsini)

 Though he doesn’t read tarot himself—for him, it’s all about the artistry—Menegazzi is immersed in the history and symbolism of the cards. And he’s no longer the only one in the family to make tarot cards: his niece Cristina Dorsini shares his passion, too. In addition to handling art direction and public relations for his shop, Dorsini studied art history at the University of Milan and aspires to follow in her uncle’s footsteps. This year, she collaborated with him on a deck celebrating the 2015 Expo in Milan by designing the Angel and Hanged Man. She’s looking forward to creating a full deck of her own in the coming years. The future of Milanese tarot is looking bright.