Letter of Iacopo Antonio Marcello
To the Fairest and Most Noble Queen Isabelle,
Jacopo Antonio Marcello humbly commends himself.
Last year in the field of Milan, when I was in the camp of the highest and most celebrated leader Francesco Sforza, I was put in charge of the troops of our most illustrious republic, which he had relieved with assistance while we were waging war against Milan.
At that time it happened that Scipio Caraffa had just returned from the region of Provence, where he had spent the most delightful and refined time in the fairest comfort of your singular realm; and I considered most observantly his conversation concerning the best and happiest conditions of my lords. By some chance the conversation turned to this game, which is called “Triumph”, certain cards that had been offered to me and which I give as they were given.
When Scipio had seen them, being a thoughtful and diligent man, he said your Majesty would be very much pleased by them: and he urged exceedingly and immediately that they should be sent to you at the first opportunity. Thus indeed he affirmed that with them you might give considerations to divine things, as such great things are the business of royalty. Yours are of this kind; they are accustomed to being conducted any time you are unoccupied with many and various thoughts and subjects by means of these pastimes, that you might restore and revive in some measure the wearied mind. On account of this fact, nothing should be able to bring you anything unpleasant or disagreeable.
But these particular cards I regarded as unworthy of so great majesty (as indeed only the highest ornament and decoration ought to be seen by a king). In the desire of being satisfying to you, and being concerned for your spirit and study, I diligently set to work inquiring into how someone among the class of most highly skilled artisans of these things might be found. With the thought of such an enormous undertaking anguishing me vehemently, and taxing my resources, all the while my heart told me I should press on with it.
Now I was aware that the most distinguished, illustrious Prince of Milan had thought out a certain new and exquisite sort of triumphs, being, as he was of everything, at one time the keenest in the invention of all the greatest things. I would briefly explain them now to you. They were indeed sixteen celestial princes and barons, to which were added four kings presiding over different kinds of birds. Afterward he gave the plan of this entire game to someone most learned among men, most expert in both the stars and the heaven, to be set up and described. Nor with this was that prince content, being provided with a great spirit and highest ingenuity: he summoned Michelino, the finest painter, another Polycletus of our time, that he should paint this entire game with greatest artifice and ornament. Therefore by the highest Prince was this invented: such great elegance as these being worthy to be known by your majesty.
With the above in the back of my mind especially for this reason, I brought together in planning all my care, thought, industry, study, spirit, and mind. I exerted all of the keenest ingenuity for it, I started to pursue it night and day, how by negotiation after the death of the former prince, I might be influential for you. Indeed, for a long time it was difficult for one book and deck of cards to be able to be found among the furniture, so much of the riches and splendours of the Duke being scattered as well as destroyed in the disturbance. And because of the difficulty of things I would not have been able to investigate and to know, in any way whatsoever, unless I had depended on the enemy himself. Truly, seeing that I myself am persuaded, that nothing is so arduous, nothing so difficult, that it should not be able to be thought out, discovered, accomplished and fulfilled, by the best and most faithful soul for his Lord and Prince.
Thus I laboured, thus by all means it was striven for, that for which I so greatly longed and desired, so that, benefitted to a great extent by good fortune, by the resources of character I rendered that which was so pleasing and precious to me, both book and cards, into my power. I leave it to you, fairest Queen, to be the judge.
For my part, by no speech, by no words, would I be able to convey it. This book, these cards I greatly prize, will be carried by Giovanni Cossa to be given to you. Also attached, the cards mentioned above, although they might be unequal to your Boundless Highness; the splendour of such dignity, the power of such royal majesty, the dignity of such most august authority, as to light up the most obscure, and bring the lowliest to nobility, that by your authority you may be able to raise up the abject and prostrated, and extol them in heaven. For to the benefit of these it has been done, whom your authority and majesty has honoured, as to those who are brilliant among them. For this reason I undertook this search. Otherwise they would deservedly have been angry with me, unless they should have seen your customary mercy and kindness.
I beg therefore, your Majesty, Fairest Queen: my gift is not so beautiful as I wished, but it is to be wished that the dedication as well as the spirit be esteemed and reflected upon. And as often as you will restore the mind wearied by the highest labours by means of this game, and to revive the spirit by this new Italian invention: so many times this one, poor and wretched, ruled by oppression, abject, lost, daily longing for the king, his protector and parent: he requests, implores you to remember him to your husband the most sacred King.
Queen Isabella 1434,
From Monselice, the day before the Ides November (= 12th of November) 1449 ... Jacopo Antonio Marcello
Translation by ROSS GREGORY CALDWELL
(First published in 'The Playing Card', vol. 33 no. 2 (Oct.- Dec. 2004), pp. 111-126)