Cards from a Tarocchi (Tarot Pack): Love and charity
Tempera and gold leaf on paper, each 7Y2 x 3Y2 in. (19 x 9 cm)
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven (ITA 109)
Although card games in general have a long history dating back to antiquity, these two fifteenth-century cards come from what may be the earliest known tarocchi, or tarot pack. Tarocchi have been associated primarily with divination since at least the eighteenth century. However, in the Renaissance they were used for trick-taking games. These were presumably played like the modern game of Crazy Eights, in which each player tries to discard his or her hand first by matching suits or numbers in turn. The typical tarocchi pack of seventy-eight cards is composed of fifty-six minor arcana: four suits (swords, batons, cups, coins), each with cards numbered one through ten as well as court cards representing a male page, a male knight, a queen, and a king. It also contains twenty-two major arcana, or trick or trump cards, represented by figures or allegories whose original meanings are lost. These trump cards allowed players to change the course of the game for their own benefit; for example, if the last discard was a baton, but the player had no batons, he or she could play a trump and call for a change of suit. But rules-and no complete set of rules survives for this period-seemed to vary widely and no full pack is known, so it is difficult to understand exactly why each trump had such an individual appearance and what each one could do in a game situation.
The cards here, representing Love and Charity, are two of the eleven known trumps from the so-called Cary-Yale pack, which has been dated to anywhere between 1428 and 1447. Like many of the hand-painted packs from the Renaissance, it is associated with the court of Filippo Maria Visconti, who was duke of Milan from 1412 until his death in 1447· Each of the trumps in this pack has a gold diaper background patterned with Filippo Maria's sunburst device. On the baldacchino of the Love card, his coiled-viper arms alternate with the Savoy cross of his second wife, and his phrase, ''A bon droyt," or "By legitimate rule," is inscribed on the youth's hat. Other cards in the pack have additional devices related to the duke, such as
the impression from a Milanese florin struck during his reign used as the image of the coin in most of the cards in that suit. There thus seems little reason to question Filippo Maria's connection to the pack, particularly because, although best known as an able politician and soldier, he was also interested in the arts and especially in card games.
Between 1410 and 1425, according to his biographer Pier Candido Decembrio, Filippo Maria paid the painter Michelino da Besozzo the sizable sum of fifteen hundred gold ducats for an elaborate pack of cards, almost certainly a tarocchi, decorated with gods, court figures, animals, and birds.1 Although no further purchases were recorded, some 271 cards, representing perhaps as many as fifteen different packs, can be linked to the Visconti or their successors, the Sforza, in fifteenth-century Milan.2 In fact, the majority of Italian tarocchi, both the hand-painted packs and the earliest printed examples, as well as most of the documentary evidence for their production and use, come from the North Italian courts of Milan, Ferrara, and Bologna. The cost associated with these cards-with their fine silver and gold leaf, elaborate punchwork, and carefully composed and painted fronts-indicates that card playing was primarily a cultured courtly pastime, particularly before printing made it much cheaper to produce packs in multiples for wider dissemination. The Cary-Yale pack was particularly extravagant; the condition of the delicate paint and gilding reveals that the cards were handled rarely and carefully, and the tiny holes in the top margins of each imply that they were strung together for safekeeping when not in use. This would have kept them in a particular order, which may have been a way to teach a new player the rules of the game.
Tarocchi were not standardized during this early period.3 A total of sixty-seven cards survive from the Cary-Yale pack, but there is no agreement on the original number, which must have been at least eighty-six or perhaps eighty-nine. Instead of the more usual four court cards per suit, the Cary-Yale pack has six: along with the male page, male knight, queen, and king, it also has a female page and a female knight. Since no other pack has those additional characters, these cards may be an indication that this pack was intended for a female member of the court. The CaryYale trumps may have been more numerous
overall. Among its eleven known trumps are the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, which no other pack has, as well as the Cardinal Virtue of Fortitude, which implies that the remaining Virtues ofJustice, Temperance, and Prudence were also once present. Of course the trumps vary across all packs, and the vagaries of survival obscure what exactly is missing in every case. Despite these mysteries, the two cards shown here are excellent examples of the great richness and variety of the Cary-Yale pack as a whole. The image of the game as it was played-the courtiers dressed as magnificently as the characters on the cards, and the reflections of the punched silver and gold in the candlelit gaming room-offers a vivid picture of fifteenth-century court life.
These players also needed a reasonably learned background to understand the complex representations on the trump cards. The Love card depicts a couple wearing rich contemporary dress clasping hands in a marital gesture under a baldacchino. A blindfolded Cupid, preparing to drop his arrows on each, flies above them, and a small dog, perhaps a miniature greyhound (a symbol of fidelity and a popular breed in Renaissance courts), scampers at their feet. As with so many objects in this exhibition, the heraldry and handclasp seem to signify a marriage, perhaps indicating that the pack originated as a marriage gift. The Charity card is a simpler composition, dominated, as many of the court and trump cards were, by a single largescale figure. The crowned Virtue is seated on a dais, her luxurious fur-lined mantle gilt and punched in a floral pattern. One of her hands holds a now-tarnished silver bell or censer, while the other supports the small naked boy she nurses. An older male figure in a rose-colored robe under the dais looks out at the player as if commiserating. Although he is not part of the traditional iconography of the Virtue, it has been suggested that he may be King Herod, symbolizing the Vice of Disdain, subdued and crushed by Charity above him.4
Scholars are divided on the interrelated issues of attribution and dating. Some date this pack early, as part of the celebrations surrounding Filippo Maria's own marriage to Maria of Savoy in 1428; if so, the cards may well be a product of the artists associated with the Zavattari, a prominent family of painters who enjoyed court favor in Milan.
History reveals that Filippo Maria and his wife needed all the help they could get. Their arranged marriage was never consummated, and there is considerable evidence that the couple were deeply unhappy. In this way, the romantic iconography of the Love card might have been meant as a sort of talisman for a successful marriage. Alternately, the pack may have been made later, at some point prior to Filippo Maria's death in 1447.5
The most likely occasions were the marriage of his illegitimate daughter and only heir, Bianca Maria, to Francesco Sforza in 1441,6 or the marriage of Francesco's son Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Bona of Savoy in 1468? If indeed they do date to one of those later marriages, they may instead be associated with Bonifacio Bembo, to whom other, similar tarocchi have been attributed. Bembo's work for the Sforza court is well documented, and his training as a miniaturist would have been a great help in the planning and execution of the Cary-Yale pack. Regardless of authorship, the Visconti and Savoy references on the Love card put this pack in the Milanese courtly ambient, which was known throughout the fifteenth century to have a great interest in cards and card playing.
1. Pratesi 1989.
2. Visconti Tarocchi Deck 1984, pp. 4-6.
3· Dummett 1986, p. 15.
4· R. Decker and C. Decker 1975, p. 28.
5· Toesca 1912, pp. 523-25.
6. Kaplan 1978.
7· Algeri 1981, p. 72.
SELECTED REFERENCES: R. Steele 1900; Parravicino 1903; Toesca 1912, pp. 522-25; Moakley 1966, p. 77; R. Decker and C. Decker 1975; Jane Hayward in Secular Spirit 1975, p. 214, no. 225, pl. 10; Cahn and Marrow 1978, pp. 227-28; Kaplan 1978; Algeri 1981, pp. 64-85; Mulazzani 1981; Visconti Tarocchi Deck 1984; Dummett 1986, pp. 12-15; Pratesi 1989; Bandera 1999, PP· 52-63
From: Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, Edited by Andrea Bayer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008 [AVAILABLE ONLINE]