Thursday, November 10, 2016

(This blog-essay was originally at and

The cover article for The Playing Card of April-June 2016, is "New Insights into the So-called Alessandro Sforza Deck", by Emilia Maggio. It is her second article on that deck, the first being one a couple of years ago on the Stag Rider. Both, and also the article on the Rothschild cards by her countrywoman Christina Fiorini in 2006, fit well into my own hypotheses about the evolution of the tarot, which I will address at some point. However Maggio's arguments are not very good, as I will explain. First I want to summarize what they are.

1. Magio's identification of the figure, its deck, and its earliest possible date.

Her point of departure is an Empress card in a collection of Italian cards, 15th-19th century, at the Palazzo Abatellus, Palermo. After Magio noticed it, attendees at the 2015 Italian ICPS convention in Palermo had a chance to look at it, too. It and a Two of Bastoni had their inner layers of paper separated from the outer painted layer. The inner layers were recycled notarial acts on which the dates 1427 and 1428 could clearly be read.

She adds that stylistically the two cards are very similar to the Castello Ursino cards in Catania: she compares the Palermo Empress to the lady on the Catania "Fame" card, as she calls it (below left, with the Charles VI version next to it): their faces are very similar.

Besides the Empress, there was also a Two of Bastoni in Palermo that looks like it is from the same deck, as can be seen by comparing it with the Catania Six of Bastoni. As it happens, the Catania group is missing those cards. As further confirmation, she says that the Stag Rider, of the Catania group, also shows traces of writing and the date 1428, as "accidentally discovered by the staff at Castello Ursino in 2014".


That the card is of an Empress is clear from the attributes of the fleur de lys and the globe, Emperor-attributes in art of the time. She gives several examples, one from 1375 Catalonia and the other from c. 1430 (in the text, "first half of the 15th century") Piedmont (below; the fleur de lys decorates Charlemagne's robe, second from the right):


Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Empire, was traditionally associated with that symbol (as was, to be sure the Kingdom of France). Magio says that the Palermo Empress and the Charles VI Emperor both have tripartite globes, exaggerating the extent of their rule to "the boundaries of the known world". (I do not doubt that interpretation, but I do not see that division into three on the cards. I don't think it matters.)

The same attributes are also on the Rothschild and Charles VI cards, both of which also have two small figures at the bottom of the card, male instead of female. In the Rothschild, she points out, the poses of the figure are quite complementary to those on the Palermo Empress.


In the Palermo and Rothschild, they represent the clemency of the Emperor. In the Charles VI, they are two vassals of the Emperor, perhaps related to the four kings in the deck, of which Alessandro Sforza, or someone else entitled to display the "diamond ring" emblem, may be one (vassal, that is).

2. Magio's dating of the deck and of the Charles VI

First, we have to see the similarity between the Catania and the Charles VI, at least in some cards. For Magio, that is grounds for considering them done around the same time. Another pair, besides the Fame card, is that of Time, or the Old Man:


The Charles VI Emperor, Magio argues, is likely modeled on Sigismund, who became emperor in 1433, then in his 60s. The Charles VI Emperor's "crooked nose, white beard, and short eyebrows" are similar to Sigismund's (I don't see a crooked nose, just similar ones). If so, the famous Pisanello portrait ( ... an_Emperor) makes him look younger than he was. She points out that the Cary-Yale and Brera-Brambilla are more closely related to that portrait, in that the hat is similar and the face more similar; also,the attendant holding the crown might symbolize Filippo Maria Visconti himself, who was the custodian of the Iron Crown of Italy, and in whose city Sigismund in fact was crowned with that crown and title.So the idea that another deck might do the same is not unthinkable. Also, there is a portrait in an illumination of a document from the Council of Constance, where Sigismund played a major role, that is more similar to the Charles VI Emperor.


The Palermo Empress, then, would be Barbara of Cilli, Sigismund's wife. She did not accompany her husband to Italy, so there would be less resemblance to her actual features. However that same document from Constance is an approximation of what we see on the card, mainly in the hair, while the crown is a simplification of hers. (Oddly, I see two women with elaborate crowns in the illumination, one accompanied by a young commoner. Is she perhaps the ghost of Pope Joan?! But perhaps the illuminator simply wanted to portray her twice.)


Magio also points to the resemblance of the Charles VI Pope's face to Eugenius IV, pope from 1431 to 1447.

Magio thinks that it is most likely that the "Charles VI" was painted in the lifetimes of both Sigismund and Eugenius, specifically to commemorate the crowning of Sigismund:
These elements point to a hypothesis of the Catania and Paris packs being devised in the mid-1430s to celebrate Sigismund's visit to Italy. Early tarot sets were produced for special occasions, such as weddings or career advancement:a state visit such as that of the emperor would inevitably be marked by, and remembered with, the creation of luxury items made to impress and sometimes used as gifts.
In consequence, Magio downplays the idea that the deck was produced for Alessandro Sforza. He, or one of the Estense, may be simply one of several personages on the cards, cast in the role of Charlemagne's palladins and other associates in relation to the Emperor himself, in a chivalric metaphor.

3, Critique of Magio: The dates on the paper.

That the Polermo Empress has the date 1427 and 1428, and Catania Stag Rider 1428, written on Notrial Acsts whose paper forms the inner layer of the cards is not that interesting in itself. The real question is, how near to those years are the cards likely to be? I know that late 15th century watermarks in the case of the Sermones de Ludos led Decker to propose "around 1500" for the Sermones. This, like the Notorial Act, is on a handwritten manuscript, not machine-printed material. I cannot think of other cases where datings have been made for manuscripts based on watermarks or other roughly datable marks on the paper.

What is fresh my mind is something on printed material. Franco Pratesi recently wrote about the Third Rosenwald Sheet, or more precisely, the Leinfelden copy of that sheet. It had stored with it four sheets of "legal opinions" from a book that was printed in many copies and editions. The museum told Franco, by email, "The Tarot sheet has been found within these printed sheets", to which Franco adds, "Sono due fogli di carta stampata di un volume di pareri giuridici in folio", they are two sheets of printed pages from a volume of bound legal opinions". In fact they are two copies of the same two pages, so that it is sure that they are not pages cut out of a book, but either rejected copies of pages, due to some error, or pages left over for some reason. By finding the right edition, that of 1501, he was able to say something about when the cards were probably made: (viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1105):
Appare improbabile che queste carte siano rimaste a lungo a disposizione dopo la stampa. L’editoria si basava su un numero limitato di copie e i fogli di carta non utilizzati erano subito richiesti per le più varie applicazioni, anche come carta per involgere merce varia. Insomma, aver trovato il 1501 come data di origine in pratica corrisponde all’incirca anche alla data di utilizzazione. Lo stesso vale per la località; non è pensabile che questi fogli scartati da una tipografia abbiano viaggiato a distanza prima di essere utilizzati; ciò sarebbe stato possibile per le pagine di un libro finito, ma non per residui di lavorazione; quindi i fogli furono incollati al terzo foglio Rosenwald vicino al tempo e [14] al luogo di produzione, Perugia 1501. In base a quanto abbiamo saputo sulla sorte di questa edizione, possiamo anche supporre che questi avanzi di lavorazione fossero stati tenuti in serbo per la produzione di ulteriori copie del libro che per le questioni legali insorte non vennero poi ultimate; in tal caso, la datazione relativa si potrebbe estendere fino al 1515; quello che è certo è che la data non poteva precedere il 1501 se non eventualmente di pochi mesi, necessari per il completamento dell’impaginazione del libro.

(It seems unlikely that these pages remained available for long after printing. The publishing business was based on a limited number of copies and the unused sheets of paper were immediately required for the most varied applications, even as paper to wrap up cargo. In short, having found 1501 as a practical date for the source, it also corresponds roughly to the date of utilization. The same applies for the town; it is unthinkable that these sheets discarded in printing would have traveled a distance before being used; this would have been possible for the pages of a finished book, but not for residues from processing; thus the sheets were stuck to the third Rosenwald sheet near to the time and [14] place of production, Perugia 1501. Based on what we have learned about the fate of this edition, we can also assume that these leftovers from processing were held in reserve for the production of additional copies of the book that because of legal matters were then not fated to be completed; in this case, the related date could extend until 1515; what is certain is that the date could not be earlier than 1501 except possibly by a few months, required to complete the layout of the book.
Would the same considerations apply to the pages of a handwritten book? The first of these clearly does, namely that any pages discarded for errors would quite soon be used for other purposes. The other circumstance is that of an interrupted publishing process due to the fact that the printers of this edition were hauled into court for a case that didn't resolve until 1515. I do not know if some similar problem could have arisen in 1528, with the eventual outcome--perhaps as long as 15 years--of the pages not being used. However there is the additional problem, it seems to me, of ruling out that the occurrence of the dates is not in reference to something recent but of several years before, citing a precedent, perhaps. It would be useful to know more about the context of these dates in the Acts. Perhaps it is not possible. If so, we are left in a state of doubt.

4. Critique of Magio: the Emperor and the Pope

Why should whatever resemblance there is between the Pisanello painting, or the Constance illumination, and the Emperor card lead us to think that the card was painted during Sigismund's tenure as Emperor? In the case of the Cary-Yale and Brera-Brambilla, which is more believably based on Pisanello, the decks were produced, according to all the experts, in the 1440s. This is after Sigismund's death. It is true that Sigismund was worth commemorating in Milan, because he received the Iron Crown there in 1431, a fact only applies to the Milan decks. Sigismund did not even visit Florence or Ferrara, if Magio's report of his itinerary is to be believed. Why should either of these cities commemorate him in particular at all?

The resemblances between the Charles VI Emperor and that of Sigismund's portrait are not in fact that great. They may have been there, such as they are, to give a nod to Sigismund while the differences show a primary intention to paint a generic Emperor. It is possible that these Emperors are modeled on a previous card in the game of "VIII Emperors", recorded in Ferrara in 1423. At that time there was no Emperor, and in fact Sigismund's claim had been undermined by Charles IV's heir-apparent Wenceslaus while the latter was alive (d. 1419). There was no clear Emperor until 1433. Both wore beards, as did Charles IV. Also, it must be remembered that the next emperor wasn't crowned until 1452. Sigimund remains the most current emperor until that date.

The resemblance between the Charles VI Pope and Eugenius IV is more convincing. But why should it only be worth commemorating during his lifetime? Eugenius IV had distinguished himself by residing in both Ferrara, until the plague broke out, and in Florence, the latter for an extended period of five years. That in itself is worth commemorating in a deck from one of those cities. And even this only applies to the Charles VI, not the other decks with similar emperors, because we don't have the popes, if there ever were any, for those decks.

5. Critique of Magio: Are the Palermo Empress and Two of Bastoni from the same deck as the Catania cards?

All the Catania cards have an orange cast to them. The Palermo cards do not. So I wonder if perhaps the Palermo cards do not belong to the Catania set after all. But I do not know about orange sheens; perhaps they are the result of different storage methods or things they have come into contact with. It would be nice if we had information about the dimensions of the cards, including the thickness, and their backs. However I don't think this matters much. They do seem of the same time and place.

 6. Another criticism of Magio

She says, "Early tarot sets were produced for special occasions, such as weddings or career advancement". Franco tells me there are no records of tarots ever being given as a wedding presents in Florence. On the other hand, it seems to me that the Visconti had a long history of giving paper products (missals, psalters, etc.) at such occasions, with thinly disguised portraits of themselves as one saint or another. So it depends. We do know that Sigismond Malatesta got a deck shortly after his victory for Florence at Angieri, which might qualify as a "special occasion".

What else can be said to date the Palermo Empress and other cards mentioned?

7. Events worth commemorating in the life of Alessandro Sforza.

If the deck of present interest was indeed for Alessandro Sforza, as weakly suggested by the Ferrarese diamond ring emblem on the shield (granted by the Estense), and luxury decks were for big occasions, his big military victory was in 1435. In 1444, it is true, he gained Pesaro from Galeazzo Malatesta, but for 20.000 florins, and so coins rather than swords. In 1445. Alessandro suffered a rather devastating defeat at Assisi in 1445. In 1446 his brother Francesco installed him at Parma, but hardly worth commemorating with a King of Swords. The Estense, who whose emblem it was, weren't particularly good at warfare. Borso never had a big victory in battle and was usually on the opposite side from Florence. Ercole studied the martial arts in Naples, but in warfare his only distinction was humiliation in the "salt war" of 1482-4 and never fought a war again.

8. The significance of the "palle" on the Charles VI Chariot.

They are in groups of seven along the lower canopy of the card. Red palle (balls) of various numbers (5 to 8) in a similar pattern on a yellow background was a device of the Medici and in Florence. It is impossible to date the cards by this because even after they got the right to include the French fleur de lys in 1465 (which has nothing to do with the card's use of the fleur de lys on the staff, as it is not part of the "palle" configuration), they continued to use versions without it, e.g. the tomb of Duke Cosimo I has five, per ... ici-balls/). But the palle at least tends to locate the sponsorship of the Charles VI in Florence, and probably also its production. And thus probably also the cards like them, the Catania. In 1433-34 the supporters of the Medici were rather busy saving Cosimo from first execution and then exile. But after 1435 they had more cause to celebrate, especially after the triumph of being the seat of the Conclave. In this scenario the palle on the chariot might identify, for some, the charioteer, despite his condottiere's hat, with Cosimo, giving him the triumphal entry into Florence that he never had or wanted in real life. I doubt whether the Charles VI was a gift for a young boy, such as Lorenzo, because it was most likely not made mainly for playing with, just looking at. That would be hard even for a boy 13 or 14 year old. (For another possible occasion, see my item 9 below.)

9. An occasion for a deck with Eugenius IV in the Pope card.

An occasion for Eugenius's face being the model for the Pope of the Charles VI might be his residence in the city 1438-1443. The game of triumphs was then illegal in Florence and occasionally the subject of fines. However it was played nonetheless, as Franco Pratesi has shown. One motive for the Charles VI might have been to convince Eugenius that it was an educational game about life and the road to salvation, so as to get the Church to make this exception to its opposition to the proliferation of card games. It wouldn't hurt to put his portrait on the Pope card, to show the importance of the pope, and so Eugenius, in the allegory. This may even have been the first time the Pope appeared in the cards, inserted after the Emperor to show the Pope's superiority. For whatever reason, tarot was added to those very few games that were excluded from the prohibitions the next time the Council considered the matter, in 1450. The exception in 1450 and the previous non-exception from provisions were documented by Franco Pratesi.

10. Relationship of the Palermo Empress with the Rothschild cards, with the similar Emperor.

The Rothschild cards are generally given to Florence. Bellosi in 1985 ("A drawing by Giovanni del Ponte and some tarot cards". Art Bulletin, 1985, 30, pp. 27-35) noted the similarity of the Rothschild Knight of Bastoni to a "St. George and the dragon" painted by Del (or Dal) Ponte (1385-c.1437) in 1434; the two can be seen together at ... merged.jpg. For more on the Rothschild cards and Dal/Del Ponte, see the thread viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1005.

11. Comparison of the Catania Stag Rider with work of Lo Scheggia and Apollonio di Giovanni.

The comparison of the Stag Rider to a cassone lid by Lo Scheggia (1409-1486), a Florentine artist whose workshop is known to have produced playing cards (in 1447, per Franco Pratesi), was noticed by Huck. Magio in her earlier article saw a resemblance to a c. 1450 Virgil illumination by Apollonio di Giovanni (c. 1416-1465), I think regarding the same feature, male breasts ("pectorals"). Lo Scheggio is said to have had his own workshop starting in 1429. Unfortunately Apollonio's documentation is more meager, starting only in 1456. For pictures, links, and references on Lo Scheggia at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=964. For Apollonio, I used Google.

12. Comparison of the Catania Charioteer with Dal Ponte's "triumph of fame" and Lo Scheggia's Birth Tray.

The full Dal Ponte cassone panel can be seen at ... anPL25.JPG, which comes from Callman, Apollonio di Giovanni; Callman says that it is "1420s or 1430s" (p. 12). What is significant for the Catania Chariot card are the two "grooms" (or captives), whose legs can be seen on the Catania ( ... L25DET.jpg). The horses are symmetrical, even if their heads point inward instead of outward as on the card. Everything is quite stylized in both. Dal Ponte died in 1437. He could have made the Catania, or something similar; his cassone subjects included Petrarchan themes and the seven virtues. But other considerations (see item 11) point to Lo Scheggia for the Catania itself, and Dal Ponte just for the Rothschild. At a later point in his life Lo Scheggia could also have made the Charles VI, which does not have the grooms but is in general livelier. If the Charles VI was made for the Medici, Lo Scheggio is a known artist for them, doing the Lorenzo "birth tray" of 1449 (no groom, but one captive; two "triumph of fame" illuminations by him, however, do have the two grooms; see viewtopic.php?f=11&t=858&start=60).

I do not know if there was any personal relationship between Dal Ponte and Lo Scheggio. Both are known by nicknames ("By the Bridge" and "The Splinter"). If Lo Scheggio had his own workshop in 1429, he would have been 20 at the time; so I wonder how independent he really was then. As for Apollonio, his "triumph of fame" has the two grooms but in a very different depiction; I notice that Apollonio has a "naked boys", c. 1450-1460, similar to the famous one by Lo Scheggio, c. 1450, but pulling on poppy seed pods. Apollonio seems to have used Scheggia motifs.

Magio sees the Catania and the Charles VI as essentially the same in style. To me the Charles VI seems more the characteristically Renaissance style initiated by Lo Scheggio's brother Massacchio, and the Rothschild Emperor a whole epoch away, flat and medieval compared to the illusion of depth, as a result of shading, in the Charles VI. The Palermo Empress complements the Rothschild Emperor. The Catania cards seem of the same time period or a little later.

13. How the cards fit into my hypothesis for the development of the tarot. out of 16 special cards in Milan.

For myself, I like to see the card and its deck in terms of the point of view I expressed in Pratesi's note on the Cary-Yale (notably my post at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1086&start=30#p16731), namely, that the 16 triumphs of the Visconti-inspired deck-type, seen later in the Cary-Yale, came to Florence in the early to middle 1430s. Florence then added other subjects to one version of the deck, while removing the theological virtues and Prudence. Another version kept all four but also added the new ones and at some point added even more, to become Minchiate. The "Alessandro Sforza" would be an expression of the tarot at the earlier state of development, earlier than the "Charles VI" and as early as within a couple of years of the Rothschild, c. 1435. At least so far, there are no surviving cards in the "Alessandro Sforza" that are not part of the Cary-Yale's hypothesized 16. That deck may still have had the theologicals plus prudence, a possibility entertained by Magio in her other article (p. 229 for Charity, but not very convincing). Then we see the replacements for the theologicals in the otherwise similar but somewhat later "Charles VI." Or, conceivably, the substitutions were already made by the time of the "Alessandro Sforza" and are now lost.

Needless to say, all this is still rather hypothetical, with many alternative scenarios. But the dates on the paper used to make the Palermo Empress and the manner of her depiction (similar to the Rothschild Emperor) have been a big help in fitting various extant cards into the slots it provides. I end up with roughly the same dating as Magio for the Catania and Palermo, 1435-1438, reaffirming a possible connection to Alessandro Sforza, but the next decade for the Charles VI, for the Medici. There remains, to be sure, much uncertainty about dates and deck composition, but much less so about place. Given the long life of the Scheggia workshop, until at least 1470, some or all of the Charles VI might even be "added cards", as the tarot grew, but by the same shop and done so as to blend in with the others. It may even at some point have had an Empress.