Development of the Chapter "Oldest Tarot Cards"

a. Earlier Reports about the Documents

The object described here, by us called "The Oldest Tarotcards" is refered to in Kaplan: Tarot Encyclopedia I, p. 26, under two different entries: Decembrio, 1440, translated by Polismagna in Italian language, and Isabella de Lorraine, 1449. Kaplan presented his data as refering to two different objects. The Encyclopedia I became the most distributed book for Tarot history, so possibly his presentation is most responsible for the publical opinion in the matter:

Decembrio, 1440: "Around 1440 Decembrio, the official biographer of Filippo Maria Visconti , third duke of Milan, wrote that the duke enjoyed playing a game that used painted figures. According to Robert Steele, writing in 1900 in A Notice of the Ludus Triumphorum, Decembrio also relates that Duke Filippo paid 1500 gold pieces to Marziano da Tortona for a pack of cards decorated with images of gods, emblematic animals and figures of birds."
Isabelle of Lorraine, 1449 "According to P. Durrieux, writing in 1911 in Michelino de Besozzo et les relations entre l'art de italien et l'art francais, a series of 16 cards is described in a letter dated 1449 from Jacobo Antonio Marcello, a servant of King Rene of Anjou, to Isabelle da Lorraine, first wife of King Rene."

Kaplan published his book in 1978, but in 1989 the game researcher Franco Pratesi discovered by revisiting the source, Codex 8745, in Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, that both entries relate to the same object, a playing card deck of Filippo Maria Visconti, painted by Michelino da Besozzo and described by Marziano da Tortona in an accompanying manuscript. This was quite a revolutionary change in the perception of these documents.

Beside that Kaplan's information was corrected in some minor points: Marcello calls himself a servant in his letter, but was a Venetian official in high function (provviditore; that means responsible for payment and organisation for the current army in war). Decembrio didn't write "around 1440", but precisely August/September 1447 immediately after the death of the biographed person, Filippo Maria Visconti.
As Kaplan correctly states, P. Durrieu had noted the letter of Marcello 1911 in "Michelino de Besozzo et les relations entre l'art francais", but it was also already mentioned in a conference held on in March 1895 in Paris. It was not realised in playing card research, that Marcello's letter and Decembrio's remark do refer to the same deck, until 1989, although it was occasionally suspected, for instance by Gertrude Moakley. Kaplan also didn't report, that the letter of Marcello was apparently accompanied by a manuscript from Martiano da Tortona, in which the playing card deck is described by a short introduction. and a detailed report about each single card.
Franco Pratesi's report was published in the magazine of the International Playing Card Society in 1989, which had only a small field of distribution. When Internet started around 1995/1996 and a worldwide discussion around the details of Tarot history took place and endures till today, his article stayed more or less unknown. Relatively late a small article of Tom Tadfor Little ( in 1999 described the sensation.
In spring 2002 I got personal contact to Franco Pratesi, who in the meantime had retired from his playing card research interests, but was very friendly towards my specific questions and helped with informations and long private discussions. As a first important detail it evolved, that Marcello in 1449 called the deck without reluctance "a new ludus triumphorum", although it only had 16 trumps (if they were already trumps in the common sense). As I was collecting further evidence for the 5x14-theory I got an argument there, in the case the situation of 1449 already knew a sort of "standard deck" with 22 trumps, Marcello likely wouldn't have written this passage. Around June 2003 a second revised version after an earlier not rather professionell try was set up in internet. Together with the results of Franco Pratesi I presented my personal analyses of the deck, which stated, that a major object of the deck is the antique concept of the 12 Olympic Gods and that probably Daphne should be considered the centralised person. This older version is still reachable.
Further discussion took then place in the group LTarot and some additional points unknown in June 2003 were discovered in community with special honours for Ross Gregory Caldwell, who did the most work on it. This version will now become the revised edition of April/May 2004, partly updated.

New - in this 3rd version - are specifically considerations about the dating of the deck: Franco Pratesi suggested originally 1414 - 1418, but our researches in winter 2003/2004 made it likely, that Michelino was not present in Milano in 1414 - 16, but probably returned in 1417. A consideration of the specific Milanese conditions makes it likely to us, that the deck developed in 1424/1425 and was used as "Trionfi"-deck at the rare occasion of a triumphal festivity for Filippo Maria Visconti in June 1425. The research around this question did enlarge the biographical section "Who' who". Ross Caldwell could identify the correct date for the production of the Decembrio text and made further exploration around the person of Polismagna, who translated the Decembrio biography and used the term "Trionfi". Further biographical details about Marcello became known to us mainly by the text of Margareth L King, which helped to understand the specific situation in 1449. Biographical details to Filippo Maria Visconti could be added, for instance his playing card laws from 1420 - 1429 and about his first marriage to Sophia of Montferrat. The person of Scipio Caraffa could be identified as a Venetian ambassador in France. The analyses of the content of the deck could make some progress. The possibility opened, that the Michelino deck returned to Milan in the 50ies of 15th century - a very hot idea - and that the Daphne-motif was repeated in the Sforza family by Galeazzo Maria.

b. The Documents

According to the informations given by the source, in the late year 1449 a parcel was sent by Jacopo Antonio Marcello to Isabella, Queen of Lorraine, wife of Rene d'Anjou. As transporting messenger served a Giovanni Cossa, probably identical to a better known Jean de Cossa, an Italian with some very important functions in France, mostly in the service of Rene d'Anjou. From the real content of the parcel, we've nothing than the letter, but we have in the Codex 8745 in the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris three parts:

1. A letter, written in the "ides of november, 1449" by Jacopo Antonio Marcello, a Venezian general, adressed to Isabella, Queen of Lorraine, wife of Rene d’Anjou.

2. An introduction made by Marziano da Tortona (which calls himself in the text Martianus de Sankto Alosio, Sankto Alosio being a small village near Tortona) to a treatise about a card play. The text is titled: "Tractatus De Deificatione Sexdecim Heroum".

3.A description of the 16 special motifs of the cards, Greek gods, which were later by Marcello called "Trionfi cards", are described in a longer passage, ca. 50 pages, in detail. These part was also made by Martiano da Tortona.

Missing: The main object of the letter, the introduction and the treatise, a famous and precious card play, however, is missing. It was painted by Michelino da Besozzo.

Missing : A second, less famous card play, which was probably also part of the parcel sent to Isabella is - unlucky world of card research - missing, too.

It's not the Original: The book (introduction and description as mentioned above), probably with text compiled by Marziano (and in its original form possibly with figures and book-paintings) is not present in its original form, but just as a handwritten copy combined with the letter. So all we do really have, is probably produced in the year 1449, or, as indicated below, even later. Letter and copy are written by the same hand, so it even is unclear, if letter + book are both written by Marcello, or if both had been copied later, probably in France. According to Franco Pratesi, who doesn't regard himself as expert in such questions, the hand doesn't appear to him as "from Venice". Moreover, this hand writing appears to him both of a professional quality and different from professional styles common in Italy at the time. Maybe this book was a copy made in Lorraine or elsewhere in France (with manuscripts of that provenance Franco Pratesi is not familiar).

As already mentioned - the article is in development. So some headers only exist as project, I beg for patience.

Note December 2004: Ross G.R. Caldwell has published part I of his article on Jacopo Antonio Marcello and Marziano da Tortona's text "Tractatus de deificatione sexdecim heroum" in "The Playing Card", vol. 33 number 3 (November-December 2004) pp. 50-55. Part I introduces the text and builds on the previous work of Franco Pratesi. The translated text itself will appear as Part II in vol. 33 number 6 (March-April 2005).
Other organisatorial work at didn't allow much progress with the researches about the Michelino deck, so some articles stayed unfinished. Necessary are:

Missing are specifically also reactions from the general playing card research establishment. This is a world with internet and ideal conditions of communication. But things and persons continue to move with the speed of snail mail.

Note January 2005: Ross Gregory Caldwell has set up a translation of the texts (see links to the left), Iacopo Antonio Marcello's letter and the deck describing text of Martiano da Tortona.


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