The Art of The Visconti Devils

The Visconti Devils was inspired by a real-life art mystery – why is the Devil missing from every one of the surviving Visconti tarocchi decks?

Let’s take a tour of the artworks that factor into The Visconti Devils.

We’ll start with the back cover.

“Female Knight of Swords” from the Cary-Yale Visconti tarot. This card is from one of the three Visconti tarocchi in existence. This deck is at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the Yale campus and is stored in an archive – it is not out on public display. The Cary-Yale deck is unusual, in that it has both male and female knights and pages.

“Death” card from the same deck.

Vanessa carefully perused the series of Dürer’s woodcuts depicting the Apocalypse. One picture in particular caught her eye. “St. Michael Fighting the Dragon,” she read the caption aloud. She studied the picture for a moment and then said, “Whoa!” Looking up, she called, “Aunt Maggie!” Getting no response, Vanessa stuck her finger in the book to hold her place, shut the book on it, and ran down the hall, shouting, “Aunt Maggie!”’

“What is it?” Maggie asked, not looking up from her drafting table.

Vanessa came to stand beside her and flipped the book open. “Look at this, Aunt Maggie!” She pointed to the angel in the top right corner of the woodcut, brandishing a sword and shield. “This angel looks like Dr. LeClaire!”

With her heart still pounding, she reached out to touch the book that lay open on the bed beside her. She propped herself up on one elbow and looked down at the woodcut depicting the Beast of the Apocalypse, each of his seven ugly heads sporting a crown, menacing the Virgin Mary. Maggie slammed the book shut and turned off the lamp before flopping back down on the bed. “I don’t believe in the devil,” she muttered. “I’m only going to dream of beautiful things…like angels.”

“Hey, listen to this, Michael. There’s a church in Florence—” Maggie tried to sound out the name slowly. “—the Santissima Annunziata—that’s supposed to house a painting of the Virgin Mary that was painted by an angel. What do you think of that?”

“Here we go,” Michael said, stopping in front of another painting. “‘Assumption of the Magdalen’ by d’Oggiono.”

Maggie stopped in her tracks and pursed her lips. “Yeah, my namesake has to be the naked woman. And why are her hands and arms so big?”

“She sort of looks like you, though—in the face, I mean,” Michael added quickly when he saw how Maggie was looking at him.

“Though, actually, the painting I think looks most like you isn’t here—it’s in the Uffizi.”

“Oh? And which one is that?”

“You’re familiar with Botticelli’s ‘La Primavera’?”

“Of course. That’s one of my favorites.”

“The Three Graces—you’re a dead ringer for the one on the far left. Except that your hair is redder, of course.”

Maggie smiled. “She’s the prettiest one.”

“Exactly.”

Maggie smiled shyly back at him before turning away once more and moving to the next painting, another by d’Oggiono, depicting three Archangels surrounding the devil, who was pitching headfirst into a hole. “This must be your namesake,” she said, pointing to the angel who hovered over the devil, brandishing a sword. “But I can’t say you look anything like him, though. Why is the devil the only one here who looks like a guy? Why do they tend to make angels look feminine? Shouldn’t they look masculine instead? I mean, Michael, Raphael, Gabriel—who’s the fourth one?”

“Uriel.”

Maggie moved around the room until she came to a painting of a reclining Venus, obviously asleep, or pretending to be, with a small Cupid in the foreground and two satyrs who appeared to be pestering her. Maggie stopped and stared at the painting, a frown creasing her forehead as she regarded the satyrs. Sheesh, they’re ugly, she thought. That one looks like a Neanderthal. She looked over at Venus, who was very pale-skinned and amply fleshed. Mary Magdalene in that other painting may have had my face, but this Venus has my figure. Well, maybe not the arms and legs so much. Too bad this isn’t considered the epitome of beauty nowadays.

And here’s a bonus – another from Dürer’s Apocalypse series, “The Angel with the Key to the Bottomless Pit,” which is going to be the frontispiece to Heavens’ Irregulars, a new adventure featuring Michael and Maggie’s son Gabriel. Stay tuned!

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471 – 1528), The Angel with the Key to the Bottomless Pit, 1498, woodcut on laid paper, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Print Purchase Fund (Horace Gallatin and Lessing J. Rosenwald) 2008.109.16

All quotes from The Visconti Devils (c) 2006 by Ria Dimitra

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