The Note of Decembrio

Pier Candid Decembrio, the secretary of Filippo Maria Visconti, wrote short after the death of the duke in August /September 1447 a biography of Filippo, himself being at the occasion in Ferrara at the court of Leonello with the intention to work as diplomat for a peace treaty between Milan and Venetia in the recent war (as long as Filippo lived) already since an 1/2 year. Decembrio was drawn in the revolutionary changements inside Milan, which did lead to establish the shortliving Ambrosian republic, but he finished his work already around September 1447 and did send it to Leonello for revision.

Decembrio was as Filippo's secretary in an unclear manner the follower of Martiano da Tortona (probably not immediately). When he returned to Milan from Ferrara after the death of Filippo Maria Visconti, he became a leading figure in the new republic, but he had to pay a high price later, when Francesco Sforza conquered the city in 1450 (Decembrio had worked on the side of the defenders). Decembrio stayed banned for the rest of his life. Decembrio is known by various surviving manuscripts, his tombstone notes 127 scriptures, between them biographies from Filippo Maria Visconti (mentioned below), Francesco Sforza and Sforza's opponent Niccolo Piccinino and a Vita Francisci Petrarchae, many translations from Greek to Latin, between them the Ilias and Platon's republic, Diodor of Sicilia, Xenophon and Aristoteles. Most of his texts still have the state of being "unedited".

The deciding passage about a card game, which had the proud price of 1500 ducatos, in the "Vita de Filippo Visconti" was translated by Michael Dummett in this way:

"He (Filippo Maria Visconti) was accustomed from his youth to play games of various kinds ...
and particularly that type of game in which images are painted, which
delighted him to such an extent that he paid 1500 gold pieces for a
whole pack (ludum) of them, made in the first place by Marziano da
Tortona, his secretary, who executed with the utmost diligence images
of the gods, and placed under them with wonderful skill figures of
animals and birds."

The passage appears in chapter 61 of an Latin edition of Decembrio's text from the year 1781. We've prepared the complete text in an online-edition for further research of the person of Filippo Maria Visconti: The work of Decembrio is a major source for Filippo's life (here our online edition). Compare also the collection of Ross Caldwell to the situation from August/September/October 1447 in Ferrara. A specific problem exists with the early translation of Decembrio's Latin text in Italian language at an unknown time (ca 1460 - 1470 ?) by Polismagna in Ferrara. Polismagna used the term "Trionfi" for the Michelino deck, but Decembrio didn't (Polismagna used the term "Trionfi").

Decembrio's own biography - together with that of his family - has some aspects which throw a specific light upon the conditions of the production of the Michelino deck. Filippo Maria Visconti behaved quite modern, when he made Greek gods to playing cards motifs - already in 1425. The Decembrio family mirrors the early invasion of Greek in Italy, before it actually happened in a broad stream, the development of the Decembrio family explains the "modern Filippo Maria.

Pier Candid Decembrio had the role of an early Marsilio Ficino (the young boy, who was educated in Florence to translate Platon later), the talented young man with Greek education, but he appeared a little too early and he had to suffer for it.

Time Line of the Decembrio family

? 1350 - 1370: The birthyear of Uberto Decembrio, Pier Candids father, is unknown. His birth place is Vigevano. Later in Pavia Uberto married Caterina Marazzi, the daughter of a famous physician named Maracio and 4 sons are known: Modesto, Pier Candid, Paolo Valerio, Angelo Camillo.

Around 1390: Uberto becomes acquainted to Peter of Candida, later pope Alexander V., and becomes secretary to him.

Peter of Candia, also Pietro Philarghi (or Filargo), born c. 1339, on the island of Crete (called Candia then - but this birth place is in dispute, as there are arguments which point to the "hamlet of Candia in Lomellina, south of Novara"), elected as pope Alexander V. at 26 June, 1409; died at Bologna, 3 May, 1410.

In the farspread version of "being born in the island of Crete" Peter of Candia was a beggar's son taught by a Capuchin friar, from whom he received an elementary education and under whose guidance he became a Franciscan in a Cretan monastery. Cause of his splendid abilities he was sent to Italy and got opportunity to study in Paris and Oxford. He became involved in the begin of the Great Schism 1378/1379 and followed the party of Urban VI.. Some time after this he entered the service of Giangaleazzo Visconti in Milan and was used as tutor for his sons and as ambassador, becoming bishop of Piacenza in 1386, of Vicenza in 1387, of Navoya in 1389 and finally Archbishop of Milan in May 1402, that means he became in the course of time the "second" great man of Lombardy right after duke Giangaleazzo, who showed all signs of becoming soon a king of Italy. The story of success, true for both men, Giangaleazzo and Peter of Candia, took an abrupt end already in September 1402, when Giangaleazzo suddenly died - a death, which was suspected to be caused by the poison of a Florentian priest. The Milanese stability broke to pieces soon. Peter of Candias career proceeded, however, in 1405 he was made cardinal and in 1409 a pope - or counterpope - for 10 monthes only.

Uberto Decembrio was secretary to this "Greek" pope in the time, before he was pope. As already noted above, it seems insecure, if Peter of Candido really was of Greek origin, but there is some logic in the assumption, cause Uberto Decembrio in his development showed a great interest in Greek literature - which might be due to his close involvement with this man. On the other hand - the Greek interest of his secretary Umberto, which left a broad influence, might have caused, that later times acknowledged, that this Pope was his teacher and therefore must have been surely of Greek origin - an imagination, which was near cause the name "of Candia".

1394: Uberto Decembrio in his role as secretary is active at the emperor's court in Praha in the interest of the Visconti to get the title of duke for Giangaleazzo Visconti from the Emperor Wenzel. (183. Hortis Attilio, La città di Praga descritta da un umanista nel MCCCXCIX. - Due lettere di Umberto Decembrio a Coluccio Salutati, pp. 439-451).

Just reflecting this situation: The interest of the Visconti for the title duke did need a genealogical presentation of the Visconti family as fundament. So we see some years later (1403) Michelino da Besozzo really paint this genealogy (which later did lead - perhaps - to the Michelino deck) - as a consequence of this earlier actions in 1394.

1399 (or 1392): Pier Candid Decembrio is born in Pavia by Caterina Marezzi, daughter of a famous physician named Maracio, after the first born brother Modesto. He got his name Pier Candido (or Pier Candid) just in the honour to the above mentioned Peter of Candia.

1400: The great Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, after teaching 3 years in Florence from 1397 - 1400, resides and teaches in Pavia with the great Visconti library, probably occasionally also in Milan and other surrounding cities from 1400 - 1403. It seems, that the enthusiastic Uberto becomes his major follower. In 1402 Uberto works with Manuel Chrysoloras on a translation of Platon's Republic, the text is finished later by Pier Candido Decembrio in 1439 (or earlier ?). Uberto and Chrysoloras communicate via letters in the later time till the death of Chrysoloras (died 1415 in Constance as messenger of the Greek emperor).

1402: Giangaleazzo dies and the political change causes much trouble in Milan. Probably as one of the results of this change Chrysoloras leaves Pavia in 1403.

1404: Uberto gets functions in the Visconti administration and leaves the service of Peter of Candia.

May 1411: The condottieri Facino Cane imprisons Umberto Decembrio, the secretary of the current duke Giovanni Maria Visconti. The family of Decembrio flees to Genova and has help from the Doria family, the dukedom of Milan is now more or less under control of Facino Cane.

May 1412: The new duke Giovanni Maria is assassinated and Ficino Cane dies at the same time. Filippo Maria marries Beatrice de Tender, gets enough money to hire troops and surprizes the sons of his uncle Bernabo Visconti, which already feel as new dukes of Milano.

? 1415 - 1418: The much younger brother Angelo Camillo Decembrio is born.

October 1418: The new pope Martin V., elected at the council of Constance, is at a visit in Milano on his journey from Constance to Rome. Uberto Decembrio appears as important orator.

1419: Pier Candid enters the service of Filippo Maria Visconti.

He starts the same year to continue or complete Virgil's Aeneid, but he abandoned the project after only 89 lines. The project was proceded later (1428) by Maffeo Vegio's book-length treatment of the same material. Vegio knew Decembrio personally, and in spite of the fact that Decembrio accused him of plagiarism, they maintained a friendly correspondence.

Decembrio's youthful attempt, which missed the energy of the later writer, probably must be seen in the context, that Decembrio had just entered the service of Filippo Maria, and that Aeneas was regarded by the Visconti genealogy as an ancestor of the Visconti. This specific genealogical interest might be suspected to have caused the theme of the later Michelino deck.

In the following years Uberto is known for various literary activities. Pier Candid seems to stand in the shadow of his father and also of his older brother Modesto (father Uberto dedicates a work to his oldest son Modesto).

1424: Pier Candid marries Caterina Bossi - two sons die quickly (? - these notes are missing in other biographies, perhaps an error, compare the following). In the next years a series of familiary death cases change the situation rapidly: In 1424 the mother and brother Paolo Valerio die, 1427 father Uberto and 1430 brother Modesto.

Pier Candids role in the "second row" of the family and his private involvements (young marriage, in the case, that it is true) raise doubts about Decembrio's informative position about the matters in the years 1424/1425. Decembrio for instance doesn't note the triumphal activities of Filippo Maria Visconti in the year 1425. The real reason for the high price "1500 ducatos for a card deck" is with that hidden to our eyes.

1424/1425: Assumed production time of the Michelino deck. Uberto Decembrio belongs to the persons, which believe Michelino da Besozzo to be the best artist of his time.

1st of February 1425: Martiano da Tortona is surely dead.

1425: Bianca Maria Visconti born, Filippo Maria has a Trionfo in Milan at the St. Juliette's day in June. The ideal date to present a deck, which later is called Trionfi deck.

1427: Father Uberto Decembrio dies.

1430: Death (?, see 1424) of mother Catherina Marazzi and brother Modesto. Decembrio now has responsibility for his youngest brother Angelo Camillo, at this occasion perhaps 15 or less years old.

1430 or 1432: Angelo Camillo, before educated by the famous teacher Gasperino Barzizza (dies 1431) in Milan leaves to Ferrara for studying medicine from Ugo Bensi and letters frm Guarino da Verona. He stays at least till 1438. The both brothers build a living link between Ferrara and Milan, which in the time under Niccolo III. d'Este reassured good political connections between Milan and Ferrara. Angelo Camillo is called later one of the major humanists of the Leonello court.

1438/1439: In the follow up to the council of Ferrara/Florence Pier Candido is active in text translations. It's said, that Angelo Camillo is helpful in these matters.

1441: Pier Candid leaves hard words about his younger brother Angelo Camillo, attributing to him youthful arrogance and ungratefulness. In this year of literary trouble between the brothers (which showed a concurrence, which is proceeded in rest of their life) in Ferrara (and Milan) important developments about Trionfi decks take place.

1444: The condottieri Niccolò Piccinino dies. Orazione apologetica by Pier Candid Decembrio.

1446/1447: Angelo Camillo active in Milan.

1447: Pier Candid as diplomatic guest at the court of Leonello in Ferrara, working for peace between Venezia and Milan in Milanese interests.

Filippo Maria dies (August) and Pier Candid writes immediately the biography (August/September). Jacob Burckhardt notes on this:

The description of the last Visconti, written by Piercandido Decembrio--an enlarged imitation of Suetonius--is of special importance. Sismondi regrets that so much trouble has been spent on so unworthy an object, but the author would hardly have been equal to deal with a greater man, while he was thoroughly competent to describe the mixed nature of Filippo Maria, and in and through it to represent with accuracy the conditions, the forms, and the consequences of this particular kind of despotism.
The despotism of the Dukes of Milan, whose government from the time of Giangaleazzo onwards was an absolute monarchy of the most thorough-going sort, shows the genuine Italian character of the fifteenth century. The last of the Visconti Filippo Maria (1412-1447), is a character of peculiar interest, and of which fortunately an admirable description has been left us. What a man of uncommon gifts and high position can be made by the passion of fear, is here shown with what may be called a mathematical completeness. All the resources of the State were devoted to the one end of securing his personal safety, though happily his cruel egotism did not degenerate into a purposeless thirst for blood. He lived in the Citadel of Milan, surrounded by magnificent gardens, arbors, and lawns. For years he never set foot in the city, making his excursions only in the country, where lay several of his splendid castles; the flotilla which, drawn by the swiftest horses, conducted him to them along canals constructed for the purpose, was so arranged as to allow of the application of the most rigorous etiquette. Whoever entered the citadel was watched by a hundred eyes; it was forbidden even to stand at the window, lest signs should be given to those without. All who were admitted among the personal followers of the Prince were subjected to a series of the strictest examinations; then, once accepted, were charged with the highest diplomatic commissions, as well as with the humblest personal services both in this Court being alike honorable. And this was the man who conducted long and difficult wars, who dealt habitually with political affairs of the first importance, and every day sent his plenipotentiaries to all parts of Italy. His safety lay in the fact that none of his servants trusted the others, that his Condottieri were watched and misled by spies, and that the ambassadors and higher officials were baffled and kept apart by artificially nourished jealousies, and in particular by the device of coupling an honest man with a knave. His inward faith, too, rested upon opposed and contradictory systems; he believed in blind necessity, and in the influence of the stars, and offering prayers at one and the same time to helpers of every sort; he was a student of the ancient authors, as well as of French tales of chivalry. And yet the same man, who would never suffer death to be mentioned in his presence, and caused his dying favorites to be removed from the castle, that no shadow might fall on the abode of happiness, deliberately hastened his own death by closing up a wound, and, refusing to be bled, died at last with dignity and grace.

Pier Candid's biography contains the deciding passage, which reports about Filippo Maria Visconti's card playing interests and the price of the Michelino deck, 1500 ducatos.

It seems, that Angelo Camillo returns 1447 to Ferrara and stays till 1450.

Angelo Camillo should have been already active to write his major work De Politeia Litteraria, in which he involves dialogues between the Ferrarese Signore Leonello and his teacher Guarino inside the humanistic circle of Ferrara. Leonello as sponsor of the work died 1450 and Angelo Camilla ended the text much later in larger dimensions in the year 1463, dedicating the work to pope Pius II.

1448: Pisanello manufactures a medal with the portrait of Pier Candid.

1448/1449: Pier Candid is active in the Ambrosian republic as diplomat (especially at the French court, also in Rome), one French source even uses the title "president of the Milanese republic" for him - this is not mentioned for instance by storia di Milano. If this is true, than Decembrio had in these years the real chance to sit at one table with persons like Alfonso of Aragon, Francesco Sforza, Cosimo di Medici, Francesco Foscari. The chance passed and Decembrio had turned to be "a humanist, which once tried to be a - dangerous - politican" and now he was perceived by the possible further sponsors as serious concurrent. Decembrio earned a difficult time in his later age for his shortliving political ambitions.

1450: Francesco Sforza conquers Milan. Pier Candido leaves Milan (?). Angelo Camillo has a journey to Saragossa (Spain) in spring, but is called to be present at the death of Leonello in October 1450 in Ferrara. He leaves to Naples in the service of Alfonso d'Aragon, where he stays till 1458.

ca. 1450 - 1455: Pier Candido in the service of the manuscript collecting Pope Nicolaus in Rome, he appears also in Milan and Naples.

1455 - 1458: Pier Candido also in the service of Alfons of Aragon, following his younger brother. After the death of Alfonso of Aragon Angelo Camillo leaves to Spain. Pier Candid tries various things to become established either in Naples, Rome, Ferrara or Milan, but has difficulties.

1462: Pier Candid Decembrio, then in Ferrara, writes Vita di Francesco Sforza, especially with the intention to get excuse from the duke.

1465: Angelo Camillo returns from Spain, but loses many manuscripts from foreign and own hand in France. New difficulties between Pier Candid and Angelo Camillo in Ferrara. Angelo Camillo gets a diplomatic mission and "disappears". Pier Candid, already rather old, stays in Ferrara. He has contacts to Niccolo da Correggio, the later poet, and his mother Beatrice d'Este, also to Tito Vespasiano Strozzi, persons, which are either near of the Trionfi situation in Ferrara 1441 or to Matteo Maria Boiardo, the producer of the Tarocchi poem.

1473: Pier Candid gets trouble with Galeazzo Maria Sforza cause the Vita di Filippo Maria Visconti. Perhaps this reflects the translation from Polismagna, which might have been done around this time.

1477, 12th of November: Decembrio dies, short after returning to Milan. His tombstone notes 127 works, that he is said to have written. He centered on historical texts, under them also a Vita di Petrarca. A translation of the Ilias and other Greek texts.

Decembrio, formed in his early life by the themes of the court of Filippo Maria Visconti, mirrors in his life interests, which appear also in the Michelino deck and are suggested to be the content of it: Petrarca and Greek mythology.

Note to Angelo Camillo Decembrio

The most noted work of Angelo Camillo is De Politeia Literaria. Anthony Grafton comments him in an exhibition critique (Text from here)

Early in the 1460s the Milanese scholar Angelo Decembrio completed a set of dialogues, entitled De politia literaria, in which the Este prince Leonello, his teacher Guarino of Verona, and other scholars and courtiers, mostly from Ferrara, discussed a wide range of literary and historical questions. In the course of a dialogue on art, which Michael Baxandall edited and translated in 1963, Decembrio had Leonello d'Este condemn Flemish tapestries. Their makers, the erudite prince disdainfully pointed out, "are far more concerned with the opulence of color and the frivolous charm of the tapestry than they are with the principles of painting." Instead of following the true stories of the ancients, moreover, they depicted "popular absurdities," like the story of "the discovery, centuries after, of Trajan's head with its tongue still pink and living, because it had always told the truth."

Yet the historical Leonello, as we have seen, loved and eagerly shopped for exactly the sort of tapestries that Decembrio's character rejected. It seems clear, as Thomas Campbell's learned catalog points out, that Decembrio misrepresented what the Este and those like them felt. Just as Italian collectors loved Flemish oil painting—and just as they admired and emulated the chivalric bearing and superb horsemanship of the Burgundian rulers of Flanders — so they saw traditional tapestries as attractive, despite, or even because of, their traditional forms and nonclassical content. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why they invested so heavily in tapestries —m ore heavily, indeed, than they did in any other form of visual art.

It seems, that it intensively reflects the phase 1447 - 1450 in Ferrara, involving persons like Leonello, Guarino, Tito Vespassiano Strozzi and Feltrino Boiardo.

Picture from Decembrio's Bestiarium

Picture from Decembrio's Bestiarium

More miniatures of Decembrio's Bestiarium

1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8

"Petrus Candidus (1399-1477) created
wondrous beasts, often giving
them subtle human characteristics. "
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1424/1425 - Michelino Deck 1447 / ca. 1470 - Decembrio Manuscript 1449 - Marcello's letter Great Condottieri (1424) Great Foes (1424) Filippo Maria's wifes The French Side, the great Context