The Vacchetta Deck, Part II

As I said in Part I, the details on the Denari cards are based on authentic Roman coins and generally reproduced with fidelity–except for one thing. The profiles on some of the coins have reversed so that the faces are looking at each other. Also, the first five coin cards present the Roman Emperors in order, starting with Augustus (but skipping over Caligula and Trajan).

The Ace is exceptional in that it seems to show not one, but three coins, and it contains two images which Vacchetta drew from contemporary Italy instead of Ancient Rome. Beneath the central coin depicting Augustus, Vacchetta has depicted, very accurately, the 50-centisimi tax stamp required for every deck of playing cards: “Ufficio Del Bollo Stra[ordinario].  Torino.” Department of Special Stamps, Turin. The figure depicted in the stamp is hard to make out in Vacchetta’s deck, but it is Mercury. Is Vacchetta making a sly joke here about not needing to purchase the tax stamp for the deck, since he’s simply painted one on it?

An actual playing card tax stamp of Vacchetta’s time

Vacchetta’s Coin, or Denari cards display particularly unusual details. For example, the Three of Denari shows, in addition to coins depicting the Emperors Otho, Nero, and Galba, what looks like a blank metal placard of some sort leaning against a tree. What could the point of that be?

Is it the same placard that reappears in the Four of Denari, now in the arms of a putto and bearing the image of two coins on it?

(Note, by the way, the bull’s skull, yet another reference to Vachetta’s name and his home town of Turin.)

Similarly, that strange badge resting against the Three of Denari–was it, like the placard, just resting there until Vacchetta got around to installing it on a subsequent card, in this case the Ten of Denari? [Update: there may be reason to think that it is just that, a blank shield waiting to be inscribed with a coat of arms. The joke may be that Vacchetta is depicting a deck in the process of being created. More on this later.)

What is that object in the middle of the card? Is it something from Heraldry?

Furthermore, the badge/shield is just about the same shape as the negative space created by the looping rope in the middle of the Eight of Denari…

…it crops up on the Six and Ten of Denari cards as well. It is indeed in the shape of a shield and is no doubt meant to suggest a shield, but, unlike most of the “real” shields that Vacchetta depicts, this particular shape is usually void of any kind of textures or markings that would make it concrete. Someone pointed out to me that this shape closely resembles some of the shields seen on the Sola Busca deck. But there, at least, they are depicted as actual, physical shields, whereas Vacchetta usually just abstracts the shape. The shape–and its blankness–must, therefore, have had some significance.

The Queen of Denari is unique in that hers is the only the coin that has an abstract image on it. She’s holding it up as if she were looking at it, as Queens of Coins do, except that if you look closely, you can see that she’s not in fact looking at it.

It’s more as if she were holding it up for someone else to see.

The King of Denari: A Jewish Leatherworker?

By contrast, the coin in this card is just floating in the air, like a thought balloon, and perhaps that’s what it is. The figure’s facial features and turban are stereotypically Semitic, and he is preoccupied with scratching coins with his awl, apparently ascertaining their metal content. I presume we are meant to regard him as Jewish.

His tools–an awl, a knife, a pair of scissors, and the horn–are all the tools of leather workers, touching once again on our bovine motif. Recall that Vacchetta means “leather worker.” However, I am not entirely convinced that’s what he is. In any event, that black object looks to me like a touchstone, a rectangular surface people run objects on to test for gold content.

Also, the circle displayed very prominently on his left arm looks like it could represent the badge that Jews in many parts of medieval Europe (including Turin) were obliged to wear. It’s usually referred to in Latin as the rota, or wheel.

Oddly, the coin on this card bears the image of a winged hour glass, a tempus fugit icon. What could this mean? That he has given up all his time to making money?


If you have any notions about the significance of any of the images in this deck, please, by all means, let me know your thoughts.

[Go back to PART I]