A question I hear with some regularity, when I teach tarot or when people contact me through my web site, is “What is the oldest tarot deck?” and sometimes “how can I get one?”. The answer is that we don’t know what the oldest tarot deck was, and it is almost certainly something that did not survive. Cards, like other ephemera, tend to survive only by chance, and six centuries is an awful long time for a deck of cards to hang around in someone’s personal affects without being discarded or lost.
The decks that have come down to us from the earliest days of tarot were very expensive, hand-made works of art created for the powerful families who ruled the cities of northern Italy in the 1400s. They were preserved not because they were tarot cards, but because they were expensive family heirlooms, like a portrait or a silver tiara. One such deck (and the case can be made that it is the earliest deck to survive) is the Visconti-Sforza Tarot. (A related deck, the Cary-Yale Visconti, is most likely earlier by a few years, but it is also missing many cards.)
You can get your own Visconti-Sforza Tarot, in several different forms. US Games and Dal Negro have produced full-scale facsimile decks (as shown in the photo here). Lo Scarabeo has produced a small-size recreation of the cards, called Visconti Tarot, distributed in the US through Llewellyn. This is not a true reproduction, but instead a very faithful copy of the originals made by a modern artist, printed with metallic gold ink. It has the advantage of being small enough to shuffle and handle like a regular deck, and it has a vibrancy and richness free from centuries of wear. However, some of the detail of the originals is lost, and the modern format (with borders and card titles added) changes the experience of viewing and using the cards. The original cards bore no titles or numbers.
You can identify the true facsimile decks by their size (the cards are 7 inches high and about 3-1/2 inches wide) and price (around $45). They are beyond the capacity of even my own rather large hands to shuffle. A few cards are missing from the original deck, most notably The Devil and The Tower. In the commercially available decks, a modern artist’s version of these cards is included in place of the lost ones.
Although many people who purchase one of these decks will do so simply to admire the artwork or study the symbolism, I do enjoy reading with the Visconti-Sforza from time to time. The elegance of the artwork can put me in a positive, peaceful frame of mind. There is a gentleness about the images (which, after all, were intended for the refined sensibilities of courtly life) that can be a relief from the drama of many of my other decks. In any case, it is a connection with the roots of the tarot and the historical era that gave birth to it.