We know that playing cards were first used for foretelling the future and were linked with religious symbols. Ancient Hindu cards, for example, had ten suits representing the ten incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god.
Playing cards were probably introduced into Europe during the thirteenth century. We can trace the playing cards we have today to certain cards that existed in Italy. They were called “tarots,” or picture cards, and there were 22 of them. They were used for fortunetelling or simple games.
These 22 picture cards were then combined with 56 number cards to make a deck of 78 cards. One of the tarot cards was called “il matto,” the fool, from which we get our joker. There were four suits in this deck, representing the chalice, the sword, money, and the baton. There were also four “court” cards, the king, queen, knight, and knave.
From these 56 cards of the Italian deck came the 52-card French deck. The French kept the king, queen, knave, and ten numeral cards in each of the four suits, which they gave new names- spade, heart, diamond, and club. The English adopted this deck, which is the deck we now use.
The earliest European cards were hand-painted, and too expensive for general use. With the invention of printing, it became possible for most people to own playing cards.
Early cards were either square, extremely oblong, or even round, but today they are rectangle and of a standardized size.
Many efforts have been made to put the pictures of national heroes or current events on cards, but these usually end up as novelties. The figures on American and English cards wear costumes from the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII.
All early cards were elaborately painted and there are tarocco packs decorated delightfully by quattrocento artists with tooling, gouache and illumination in gold and silver. Sets were decorated in this way by Antonio di Cicognara, who also painted the choir books in Cremona cathedral; and in 1392 the French craftsman Jacquermin Gringonneau was commissioned to paint for Charles the Mad of France that famous pack of tarocco cards responsible for the tale that cards were invented for the amusement of this king in his attacks of insanity.