THREE PACKS OF ITALIAN TAROCCO CARDS (THE LOMBARDY CARDS)
WRITTEN BY THE COUNT EMILIANO DI PARRAVICINO
From the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1903
Translated by Virginia M. Crawford
(contributed by Murray Menzies)
I will not discuss here any question concerning the invention or the
earliest use of playing cards, whether they be of Spanish or French,
of Italian or German origin. Concerning these problems I must refer my
readers, without repeating the old arguments on either side, to
authors who have treated the subject with a competence far superior to
my own. I will merely give the authorities for the benefit of those
curious in these matters. Jacob Burckhardt, the illustrious historian
of the Renascence, and also Merlin are in favour of an Italian origin,
for in Italy alone, as early as the beginning of the thirteenth
century, professional players known as barattieri or ribaldi were
organized in gilds recognized by the law. Breitkopf, William Jones, W.
A. Chatto and others, on the contrary, see in playing cards an Indian
adaptation of chess. The Rev. E. S. Taylor adds that they were brought
to Europe by the gipsies. Abel Remusat believes them to have been
invented by the Chinese, and I refrain from quoting other
Frenchmen,who claim every glory for their countrymen and the invention
of playing cards among the rest. Brunei y Bellet supports a Spanish
origin owing to the existence as early as 1300 of prohibitions against
games, which he believes to refer to games of cards. Finally S. W.
Singer, in the appendix of his magnificent work on playing cards
published in London in 1816, brings to bear on the problem learned
letters from Alexander Buchan, J. Cock Blomhoff, and Robert Cruden.
Neither do I intend to write here on the subject of games of patience,
but shall restrict myself to the Italian game of tarocco, and to
describing the three illuminated packs of incalculable artistic value
now to be found in Lombardy. But first I must give a few necessary
explanations concerning the game in order to render intelligible the
description of the cards themselves.
Like the game of patience, tarocco, which can undoubtedly be traced
back to the thirteenth century, consists of four suits (pali), but
bearing different names: i.e., denari for quadrl, coppe for cuori,
spade for picche, and bastoni for fiori. To the ten pip cards and the
three figure cards of king queen and knave must be added the knight.
Besides these there are twenty-one cards, known more specifically as
tarots, which distinguish this game from all others. These tarots
count as trumps, but besides these there is yet another card called
the matto (fool) from the figure it represents, which counts in the
game neither as a trump nor yet as an ordinary card, but which the
holder can retain in his hand and play at will.
Thus there are fourteen cards in each suit, or fifty-six common and
twenty-one tarocco cards plus the fool, making a complete pack of
seventy-eight. I need scarcely explain here that the four suits
represent the four estates of the realm-the spade (swords) represent
the nobility; the coppe (cups), shaped like a chalice, typify the
ecclesiastical state; the denari (coins) the civil order or commercial
classes; while the bastoni (staves) recall the shepherd's crook, and
are therefore held to represent agriculture; these four suits of
swords, cups, coins, and staves are represented respectively in modern
playing cards by spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. In the same way
the four colours represent the four squadrons in the ancient
carrousels. I propose to dwell in greater detail on the meaning of the
In his work, 'The Primitive Compared with the Modern World,' M. Court
de Gebelin discourses at length on the game of tarocco, both as
regards its origin and the allegorical significance of the cards, and
also concerning fortune-telling by packs of cards. He derives the name
tarocco from THO, which in Egyptian means way or road, and from ERRO,
meaning king, kingly. Thus he explains tarocco literally as ' the
royal road of life,' for, if we pass in review the various states and
conditions of human life, it becomes easy to interpret the various
allegories of the game.
The explanation suggested by Mgr. Antonio Dragoni (1814), an authority
alike in dry and agreeable studies, is highly ingenious. According to
him the emblematical cards of the pack being twenty-one in number
represent the Egyptian doctrine, beloved of Pythagoras, of the perfect
number 3 and the mystical number 7. Hence THOTH, the Mercury of the
Egyptians, forms with the pack of tarots his book or picture of the
creation of three classes of images which symbolized the three first
ages of the world, i.e. the golden, the silver, the bronze; and each
of these three classes is to represent in its seven divisions a
greater perfection or a more profound mysticism, because this book of
cards was to contain the whole sum of perfection and mysticism, a
mysterious book of the highest value in the art of divination. The
tarots are numbered according to their playing value in the game, and
are called after the curious figures represented upon them, although
we must remember that the earliest cards bore neither names nor
numbers upon them. They are as follows :
I. The bagat, from PAG, head, and GAD, fortune. In the most ancient
cards it was in fact represented by a juggler the arbitrator of
fortune, but to-day, by homonymy, it has been changed to a bagatto,
II. The priestess, represented by Juno with peacocks, changed in the
middle ages to a papessa or female pope.
III. The queen, afterwards called the empress, representing supreme
civil and feminine authority.
IV. The king, known later as the emperor, the supreme civil authority.
V. The hierophant, now called the pope, representing the priesthood.
VI. Marriage, emblematical of a legal tie in times when it was
necessary concubitu prohibere "sago, dare jura maritis. The card is
now known as the lovers.
VII. The car, Osiris on his triumphal car, symbol of war in the age of
bronze. At this point we pass to the age of silver.
VIII. Justice, ready to abandon the earth and open the age of bronze.
IX. The hermit, or philosopher, seeking in vain, with lantern in hand,
X. Fortune : the monkeys, dogs, and rabbits which climb up the wheel show
that she takes into account neither ability nor merit.
XI. Force, tearing to pieces a lion, the symbol of the desert and all
unfilled soil, which no longer gives forth spontaneously in the age of
silver as in the age of gold.
XII. Prudence, represented by a Mercury poised on one foot, whence the
figure has been changed in modern cards to that of a man hanged.
XIII. Death : a funereal figure come down from the most remote times.
XIV. Temperance, opening the age of silver, who by mixing water and
wine teaches the necessity of controlling the passions.
XV. The devil or Typhon, brother to Isis and Osiris, the genius of
evil, closes the age of gold.
XVI. The castle of Plutus, a castle full of gold which sinks beneath
the waves as a lesson to misers ; it is now called the tower.
XVII. The stars, or the seven planets known to antiquity, and Sirius,
or the star of Isis, who at the rising of the dog star sheds tears in
allusion to the regeneration of nature.
XVIII. The moon, whence fall the tears of Isis which flood the Nile
and irrigate the Egyptian land. Two hounds bay at the moon.
XIX. The sun, the soul of all creation in the estimation of all
nations of the world.
XX. Judgement, represented by a boy and a girl springing from the
ground at the voice of Osiris, who rules matter and spirit with fire,
the symbol of creation.
XXI. The world, the first figure of the age of gold. In the egg, the
symbol of creation, we see Isis, with her head veiled ; in the four corners stand the four seasons of the year, the eagle for
the spring, the lion for summer, the ox for the autumn, and the angel
for the winter, figures which have been held in modern times to be the
symbols of the four evangelists. The last card is the fool, which has
no number, but which completes this sacred book of THOTH, and
corresponds with the Egyptian word MAT, which means beginning or
perfection. The fool carries his failings in a sack on his back, and
is held back by remorse in the guise of a tiger. In this case also as
with the bagat, the middle ages derived a matto, fool, from the
Egyptian MAT, with an appropriate figure.
There exist in Lombardy to-day three packs of tarocco cards, of really
unique workmanship. The happy possessors are :
the ducal family of Visconti, of a pack of sixty-seven cards,
originally belonging to Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, mentioned by
Decembrio in his life of the duke (Vol. X), and executed by Marziano
da Tortona early in the fifteenth century ; Signer Giovanni Brambilla,
of a portion of a pack numbering forty-eight cards, of which forty one
are pip cards and nine are figure cards, as may be seen in the
accompanying illustration ; Count Alessandro Colleoni, in joint
ownership with the Carrara museum at Bergamo, of an almost complete
pack once the property of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza. From this pack are
missing three cards only, i.e. the knight of coins, the devil, and the
The game of tarots executed for Duke Filippo Maria Visconti differs in
various particulars from the packs now in use in Germany and Italy, as
may be seen from the work of Breitkopf published in Leipsic in 1724.
It must further be noted that the number of figure cards of each suit
in this pack is five instead of four as in all others, and we
sometimes find the knave duplicated and sometimes the knight, and
further variations as regards the sex of other figure cards. Very
probably the absence of the male knave from the suit of spades, and of
other figures from other suits, is due to the fact that the cards in
question have been lost. ^f According to the game as it is played
to-day, and counting the four amazons over and above each suit, there
would be in all fifteen cards missing from this mediaeval pack. But it
is impossible to verify those that are missing with any certainty,
more especially when we remember the variations that exist be tween
the figures on these cards and thoseof other packs.
I will now give a summary of the description given by Count Cicognara
in his work on chalcography of the Visconti pack, it being of all the
packs in existence the most ancient and the most historically
authentic, and from personal inspection I can testify to the accuracy
of the description. The second tarot represents religion or faith. A
matron, represented full face, is seated, robed in cloth of gold and
ermine, holding in her right hand a chalice above which is the sacred
host, and in her left a crucifix. The remains of an inscription at her
feet justify us in believing it to be the name of the painter,
Marziano da Tortona. (editor's note: He speaks of a card of the Cary-Yale-Tarocchi, wich is presented in Kaplan II, p. 27 as "faith", but doesn't mention the king below her.
Kaplan notes to this: "Cicognara (1831) believes the inscription bears the name of the 15th century
painter Marziano da Tortona. However it is more likely that the illegible white lettters were an allegorical
legend, perhaps identifying the king.")
The third tarot, the empress, represents a matronly figure crowned and
robed in gold and ermine, seated with a sceptre in her right hand and
the imperial coat of arms in her left. She is accompanied by four
maids of honour, variously clothed, but each only half the size of the
empress. On the mantle of the right-hand maid may be read in golden
lettering Deus propicio Imperatori.
The fourth card represents the emperor, a male figure seated on a
throne and clothed in a suit of armour, wearing a large plumed hat,
with turned up brim on which is painted in black the imperial eagle.
He holds his sceptre in his right hand and the golden orb in his left,
and round him are four little pages. On the doublet of the lower page
on the right is inscribed the motto A Bon Droit,
words which form part of the Visconti coat of arms.
The sixth card is love, a cupid with eyes blindfolded, who in his
flight discharges two burning darts above the husband and wife. The
male figure represents Duke Filippo Maria, whom he resembles in
feature, with a large wide-brimmed hat on which is inscribed the usual
device A Bon Droit. The femalefigure should represent his first wife
Beatrice di Tenda, the widow of Faccino Cane. On the ceiling of the
pavilion is inscribed the word Amor in letters of gold, and we may
assume that the second word mio is supposed to be hidden by the fold
of the curtain. The surrounding border is en tirely composed of small
emblazoned shields, alternating the Visconti arms with those of Pavia.
The only inaccuracy to be noted is in the figure of Filippo Maria, who
is represented with fair locks instead of the black hair ascribed to
him by the contemporary historian Decembrio. But possibly this was in
accordance with the custom of the times, for all the figures of this
pack, whether male or female, are painted with bright gold hair, and
even the beard of the old man who represents the king of hearts is of
the same shade. And this similarity of treatment is an argument in
support of the authenticity of the cards as identical with those
painted for Filippo Maria, quite apart from the uninterrupted
possession of the pack by the house of Visconti.
The seventh card, the car, represents a matron, possibly the same
Duchess Beatrice robed as before, seated in the chariot with a sceptre
in her left hand, and in her right the armorial dove of the Visconti.
The eleventh. Force, a woman tearing open the jaws of a lion. This
figure, instead of having her head covered by a wide-brimmed hat, as
in all the other tarots, wears a large gold crown and has long fair
hair floating in the wind. Her ample robes are of silver brocade lined
The thirteenth card represents Death on a black horse, his forehead
bound with a white fillet with floating ends, galloping over a
huddled group of persons among whom may be distinguished a pope, a
cardinal, etc., for in mediaeval days artists were all penetrated by the words of Horace : Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede Pauperum tabernas regumque turres, as may be seen in the frescoes of Orcagna in the Campo Santo of Pisa,
in those of Giotto in the Arena chapel at Padua, and in the carved pulpits by Nicco Pisano.
On the fourteenth card, Hope, we find the crowned figure of a woman in profile with her hands joined in prayer and her eyes fixed upon a ray
of light. From her right arm hangs a cord to which an anchor is attached. At the feet of Hope crouches an old man on hands and knees
with a rope round his neck and with the words "Juda traditor" written in white letters on his purple garment. It is worthy of note that in
all other packs of tarots we invariably find a figure of Temperance, and never that of Hope. Possibly the latter has been substituted for
the former, but bearing in mind the figure of Judas with the rope round his neck it seems more probable that the card corresponds with
the twelfth tarot of the man hanged.
Another tarot represents Charity, a crowned and seated female figure,
richly draped in gold brocade, with an ermine cloak, holding in her
right hand a vase within which burns a small flame, and with her left
supporting a nude child which she is feeding at her left breast. At
her feet appears an aged king with upturned face. It is impossible to
say to what number this card corresponds, but the design may be taken
to show that in olden times people preferred figures symbolical of the
theological, rather than, as later, of the cardinal virtues.
In the twentieth card, Judgement, two angels upon clouds announce the
resurrection of the dead. High up in the sky may be read the words in
letters of gold, Surgite ad judlcium; below maybe seen open tombs out
of which appear persons of varying age and sex. The same emblems were
used in the middle ages in the various systems and mythologies to
express objects differing widely from each other.
0n the twenty-first card, the World, we find the half-length figure of
a matron richly attired, but with head uncovered, with a trumpet by
her side in her right hand, and a golden wreath in her left. Over her
is suspended a large golden diadem which terminates above in a kind of
twisted ornamentation of many colours. Below appears a grand arch, and
below this again the sea with ships afloat, and a river upon which is
a boat manned by sailors. On the banks are a warrior on horseback on
one side and a fisherman on the other. The background is made up of
hills, towers, and castles, surrounded with streams, fields,houses,
meadows, and what not.
According to the established order of the game as played in ancient
times, and according to the explanations of Cattaneo, the following
tarots are missing from the pack : the bagat (I), the pope (V),
Justice (VIII), the hermit (IX), Fortune (X), Temperance (XIV), the
devil (XV), the tower, or house of God (XVI), the stars (XVII), the
moon (XVIII), the sun (XIX), the fool, two figure cards, and finally
the three of coins, making fifteen cards in all. That it was
originally complete is certain, and equally certain that a work of so
much value and elegance could not have escaped the avidity and
rapacity of collectors, as Count Leopoldo Cicognara truly remarks in
his work on chalcography already quoted, not to mention the many
vicissitudes to which a pack of cards is inevitably exposed. It
differs in many respects from all others, for the artist, Marziano da
Tortona, was a man of learning as well as a painter, who aspired to
create, and was not content to be bound down by the methods of others.
In proof of his originality we may refer to the pip cards of coins,
which are entirely of gold, and bear as their emblem the heraldic dove
of the figure cards, while on the lower cards are invariably
represented the largest gold coins of Duke Filippo Maria (published by
Argelati, Vol. I, table XV, number XXIX), reproduced in pairs with
their obverse side. The ace, however, and the two of coins, in which
the pips are of larger size, arc painted with a groundwork of silver
on which is depicted in ultramarine the viper of the Visconti. Having
personally examined the pack, I have not the smallest hesitation in
saying that it is the one referred to by Dccembrio (Ital. Script. Vita
de Philippo Maria Vicecom. Vol. XX, c. LXI) in the following words : '
Variis etiam ludendi modis ab adolescentia usus est Philippus M.: nam
modo pila se exercebat, nunc folliculo, plerumque eo ludi genere, qui
dcpictus sit, in quo praecipue oblectatus est, adeo ut integrum earum
ludum mille et quingentis aureis emerit, auctore vel in primis
Martiano Tordonensi, eius secretario qui Deorum imagines subiectasque
his animalium figuras, et avium miro ingenio summaque industria pcrfecit.
The 1,500 gold ducats are the exact equivalent of 18,180 lire or
francs, or UKP 727, which in those days of great scarcity of gold
would be worth, according to the historian, C. Cantu, at least six
times as much, or let us say, roughly, 120,000 francs. Nor can it be
said that their actual value in Italy to-day is any smaller, for
Signor Brambilla refused 30,000 francs offered him for his pack of
only forty-eight cards by Signer Baslini, a Milanese antiquary, well
known throughout Europe, and more especially in Paris in the days of
Napoleon III, who frequently consulted him concerning his artistic
purchases. No offers of purchase have ever been made to the ducal
family of Visconti, and it was as a special favour, granted only after
much entreaty, that I have been allowed to de scribe the cards in THE
BURLINGTON MAGAZINE. It is a favour for which my thanks are due, the
cards not having been shown to anyone for many years. Finally, a
relative of my own. Count Colleoni, has refused 50,000 francs offered
him by Count Roncalli of Bergamo, although his pack of tarots is by no
means complete, twenty nine cards being missing.
How this came about may be worth the telling. The count kept his pack
in such jealous custody that only a few of his relations were allowed
to see them. One day his friend Count Baglioni, to whom he showed
them, persuaded him to exhibit them in his house. Then bringing for
his inspection a portrait by Galgario of a Countess Colleoni his
ancestress, and other objects of art that had once belonged to his
family, he persuaded him by degrees to make the exchange with twelve
figure and fourteen pip cards, in all twenty-six cards of the pack.
Three cards, as I have already stated, had long been missing. Count
Colleoni still bitterly regrets the exchange proposed to him by his
friend, and repeats the proverb,' Heaven preserve me from my friends
!' Nor, in spite of all his efforts, has he ever been able to possess
himself of them again.
Now these twenty-eight cards at the death of Count Baglioni passed by
his will to the Carrara gallery at Bergamo. This is the story as to
how they got there. No other public collections in Italy possess any
except the Correr gallery at Venice, and it only owns four or five pip
cards and no figure cards, and these are of far less value than those
in the possession of the three families I have mentioned.
The figure cards in these three packs are of exceedingly beautiful and
delicate workmanship upon a background of gold, while the background
of the pip cards is of silver, except that of certain cards already
described belonging to the Visconti pack. The painter, Marziano da
Tortona, lived at the court of Duke Filippo Maria, and acted as his
secretary during the early part of the fifteenth century. The
celebrated Antonio Cicognara, a Ferrarese painter who illuminated the
beautiful choir books in the cathedral of Cremona, is the designer of
the cards in the possession of Count Colleoni, which, like those in
the Visconti family, have passed uninterruptedly by inheritance
through several centuries. The annals of Cremona written by Domenico
Bordigallo contain the following reference : ' 1484. In this year our
townsman, Antonio di Cicognara, a most skilful painter of pictures and
an admirable miniaturist, designed and illuminated a magnificent pack
of cards called tarots, which have been seen by me, and made a present
of them to the most reverend and illustrious Lord Ascanio M. Sforza,
cardinal of holy church, bishop of Pavia and Novara, at one time dean
of our cathedral, and now commendatory of the canons of St. Gregory,
also of the cathedral, and son of the most illustrious and excellent
Francesco Sforza and the Lady Bianca Visconti, born here in Cremona.
The same artist illuminated other packs for the two sisters of the
said cardinal, nuns of the Augustinian convent founded in this town by
the aforesaid Madonna Bianca.'
From this passage we may infer that the pack belonging to Signor
Brambilla, and acquired by an uncle of his in Venice at the beginning
of the last century, is one of those painted by Cicognara, as it also
bears the device of the Visconti, and closely resembles in design and
execution that of Count Colleoni.
Probably in the suppression and pillaging of convents which took place
in the ensuing centuries, these cards which belonged to the Sforza
nuns passed through many hands before they turned up at Venice in the
possession of those antiquaries from whom Signor Brambilla purchased
his pack. The Colleoni and Brambilla cards measure 17 centimetres by
7, while on the other hand those of the Visconti family measure 19
centimetres by 9. The figures bear all the characteristics of the
Paduan school as depicted by Andrea Mantegna, by Campagnola and
others. Several cards bear emblems of the house of Visconti, A Bon
Droit and Amor myo, as we have already seen, and Signor Brambilla's
ace of swords bears the motto Phote mantenir(?), which we here come
across for the first time. Although I have made careful investigations
I have not been able to find any authentic explanation of these words,
but I think they should be translated, Il faut maintenir. Although
the accompanying illustrations are far from giving an adequate
representation of the cards, since their main beauty lies in their
colouring, which cannot be reproduced by photography, nevertheless
from their drawing and composition every lover of art can realize
something of their delicacy and beauty. For those who may wish to
study more fully the many and various artists of this particular
branch of the miniaturist's art which flourished under the Este family
at Ferrara, I would recommend the article by Adolfo Venturi in the '
Rivista Storica di Torino,' and those by the Marquis Campori in the '
Atti delle Deputazioni di Storia-patria per Ie provincie Modenesi e
I will only add, since I have mentioned Mantegna, that the study of
embossed tarots attributed to Mantegna, although as a matter of fact
Mantegna seems to have had no connexion with them, is no less
necessary for connoisseurs than that of illuminated tarots. For the
full knowledge of the earliest examples of printing and engraving, as
Signer G. Fumagalli, the director of the Brera library, so rightly
observes. I am indebted to him for various information concerning the
illumination of cards, and no less to the three owners of the existing
games of tarots, for having kindly allowed me to photograph their
packs, and for having furnished me with the necessary details for the
writing of this article.
|Parravicino's text is variously cited in Stuart Kaplan's Encyclopedias. Parravicino noted (for instance), that the Pierpont-Morgan-Bergamo Tarocchi in 1903 had 75 cards - so it became obvious,
that one card was lost in 20th century. Also he noted details of the transactions connected to the cards.|