Brescia? 1420s? – Milan?
Knight of staves
[Cavallo di bastoni] 1440s
tempera and gold on paper laid on card
17.6 (h) x 8.7 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Count Francesco Baglione 1900
Among the most precious objects to survive from the Milanese court of Francesco Sforza are playing cards known as tarocchi. In those six on display the court cards are attributed to Bonifacio Bembo, the trump cards to Antonio Cicognara. The pack comprised 78 cards, of which some are lost, notably the Devil. They were once in the Colleoni collection, Bergamo, but are now divided: 23 cards at the Accademia Carrara; 35 at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, and 13 remain with the Colleoni family. The motif of three interlaced diamond rings is prominent on the card of the Empress in the Pierpont Morgan Library, implying the cards were made for Francesco Sforza, who had exclusive rights to this motto, as a gift around the time of his marriage to Bianca Maria Visconti on 24 October 1441.
Three packs of cards survive which were made for the Visconti and the Sforza. The first is the Brambilla group, 48 of which are at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; the second, from the Visconti collection at Modrone, is now in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale. The Bergamo/New York pack is the latest in date; it is the most complex stylistically and the most beautiful. Invented to play with at moments of leisure, in order to escape from boredom, the cards reflect courtly fashion in every detail of their heraldry and the sumptuous golden decoration. Tarocchi may also have been used to play a children’s game—like today’s Crazy Eights. There are four estates or suits of the realm, swords, cups, coins and staves—the equivalent to spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs—as well as the trump cards.
Against a golden background of punched diamond and floral motifs a young King of cups wearing a short cape, his legs in red stockings, is seated on a throne holding the symbol of government. Those who are in the suit of staves have a family resemblance: they are all blond and dressed in a refined luxurious style. A matronly Queen is seated squarely on her throne holding two bastions; a very young Knight rides a horse bearing the Visconti arms; and the Jack plays his role with studied elegance. On the trump card of The world as Cicognara imagined it, two Cupids join their hands seamlessly to support the starry city in a globe. The trump of The moon is represented by a woman with long blond hair holding aloft a quarter moon as she stands barefoot in a green landscape with small hills highlighted in gold.
Collectors have loved these cards, going to great lengths to obtain them. It was said that Count Alessandro Colleoni jealously kept his cards for his own pleasure, allowing access to only a very few relatives. A friend and rival collector, Count Francesco Baglione, found a wonderful portrait of a Colleoni ancestor, Countess Cecilia Colleoni, painted by Fra Galgario in 1705, and somehow he managed to exchange the portrait for cards—which Colleoni immediately regretted. J.P. Morgan was similarly entranced with his cards and in 1919 he bought a fourteenth-century French casket in which to keep them. He is said to have played with the cards alone in his library in the Renaissance-style building on Madison Avenue. The casket was appropriately decorated with scenes of chivalry, a lady showing her heart to a knight, and a knight accepting the heart and giving the lady a ring.
In 1969 Italo Calvino was inspired to write a novel, The castle of crossed destinies, by this very pack of cards.
Cara Dufour Denison (ed.), The master’s hand: Drawings and manuscripts from the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1998, pp. 319–21; Sandrina Bandera, I tarocchi: il caso e la fortuna. Bonifacio Bembo e la cultura cortese tardgotica, Milan: Electa, 1999, pp. 64–94.
Count Emiliano di Parravicino, ‘Three packs of Italian Tarot cards’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 3, 1930, pp. 237–51.
Michael Dummett, The game of tarot from Ferrara to Salt Lake City, London: Duckworth, 1980, who argues that the astrological use of the cards developed much later.