Ortalli’s subject is the history of the fascination of the Estense court with playing cards, from records and notices which span the years 1422 to 1516.

After briefly surveying the history of playing cards in Europe beginning with their introduction from the Arab world around 1370, Ortalli notes their rapid diffusion and enthusiastic reception on the part of game-players, met equally with regulation and condemnation on the part of city authorities and religious leaders. It is primarily from the second set of circumstances that we know about playing cards in the 14th century, based on city laws that attempted to regulate them, along with other gambling games like dice (175-177).

Ortalli writes that “in short, whenever ludus cartarum appeared in European countries, it was attacked, viewed with suspicion and usually prohibited.” Given this tremendous weight of sudden legislation and invective against the new game, he wonders “how it spread on such a vast and lasting scale despite all the obstacles.” He answers that although ludic practices and deep human drives play a part, it is simplistic to rely on these vague notions entirely; concretely and practically it was the haven that playing cards found in the upper echelons of society, princely courts in various cities of Europe, but most spectacularly in the courts of northern Italy, Milan and Ferrara in particular, that helped them weather the storm and take the form they did during the course of the 15th century.(177) It is the court of Este, Marquises then Dukes (1471) of Ferrara, that becomes Ortalli’s principle focus (177-197).

Ortalli’s strength lies in the close reading, careful assessment, and clear presentation of relevant documents published between 1993 and 1996 by Andriano Franceschini, relating to artistic production in Ferrara from the years 1341 to 1492 (Franceschini publishes a related article in the same issue of Ludica). From these and other records, Ortalli develops a vivid picture of the Estense courts’ deep love of playing cards throughout the 15th century into the early years of the 16th.

Ortalli first introduces us to Iacomo di Bartolomeo Sagramoro, an artist whose life and involvement with his d’Este patrons had already been touched upon by the studies of Giuseppe Campori in 1874 and 1885. Sagramoro’s painting of cards, first normal cards and then triumph cards, is traced from 1422 until his death in 1459 (179-185). In addition, Ortalli notes that the taste of the Estes for playing cards was such that they had already begun buying printed cards (as opposed to having cards painted) as early as 1424 (181).

He then briefly discusses (182-183) the way that cards edged out chess as a pastime of the court. While chess was still revered, “There is an undeniable sensation, however, that the periodic inventory made of the precious chess sets indicated that the passion for the game was far from being very intense, thought it did continue, and that the preeminent appeal of chess for the Este was a thing of the past.. . Now it had to reckon with the considerable fascination with cards.” (183)

From this point, Ortalli’s focus turns to the specifics of the card games attested in the Este court, and new games invented in the ‘40s and ‘50s, including Imperatori and Triumphi (183-189). He demonstrates the fascination for Triumphi (which he indiscriminately calls also Tarots), by showing how the game of Imperatori, which included 8 “Emperor” cards, died out by 1452, just when Tarots began to take off.

Ortalli details (186-189) the establishment and operations of a special workshop set up in 1454 in the court, specializing in Tarot production, under the artistic direction of Don Domenico (Messore) and a painter Giovanni Lazzaro (Cagnolo), the latter of whom was soon replaced in this capacity by Alessandro di Bartolomeo da Quartesana. Although a specialized workshop turned out to be unnecessary to meet the demands for cards in the Este court, its existence illustrates vividly the importance of cards to them; although production on the hand-painted packs slowed, until it was gradually replaced by printed packs hand-colored, and finally entirely printed cards, a specialist was still necessary for luxurious commissions. From 1457-1463, that specialist was an artist named Gherardo d’Andrea da Vicenza.

As an example of the value of Franceschini’s documentation, Ortalli extracts from a receipt of 1457 the first reference to the actual number of cards in a pack of Trionfi.
Gherardo Ortalli in Ludica 2, 1996, article: 'The Prince and the playing cards', p. 186. Ortalli refers to Adriano Franceschini: Artisti a Ferrara in eta humanistica e rinascimentale, Testimonianze archivistiche, vol. I, Dal 1341 al 1471, 1993, Corbo, Ferrara-Roma 1993, p. 485 and 823 f.. in a short note:
"The cards had to be painted thick gold and all made with fine splendid colours: 'messe d'oro fitamente, et fate tute de colori fini et brunide, et depinte de roverso uno paro rosa, uno paro verde''. There were 'carte 70 per zogo' - not an easy number to explain. If we add the 14 cards per suit (the numerals from the ace to 10 plus the four faces, king, queen, knight and knave) to the 22 figured cards (the 21 trumps and the Fool) the figure does not tally. This question is still to be solved by playing cards specialists. See also Campori 1874, pp. 127 - 128."

Some of the implications of this crucial piece of information for the evolution of the Tarot pack are explored at


While with the demise of Imperatori in 1452 it looks as though there were only one kind of game, Triumphi, Ortalli timely reminds us “We must, however, proceed cautiously in suggesting parallels between the actual practice and the documentary evidence. It is important to remember that the available sources almost exclusively refer to the highest echelons of society.. . the documentation is far from homogenous in origin and develops in a way that often distorts reality.. . Cards made by stencil or press easily obtained in shops will hardly be documented, but nonetheless for a long time they very much represented the true centre of card production” (188).

But while keeping this cautionary note in mind, Ortalli senses that Tarots were the preeminent card game in Borso d’Este’s court, and given the adaptability of Tarots, which could play other games with removal the trumps, the attraction and economy of tarot production appears easy to justify.

Ortalli’s focus then turns to a consideration of printed cards and their role in the demise of painted cards (189-197). For the last few decades of the 15th century painted cards, printed then hand-finished cards, and crude entirely printed cards all coexisted, thus meeting the card-playing demands of all economic levels of society. But expensive hand-painted cards’ days were numbered, an evolution from hand to machine-production which Ortalli explicitly compares to that of manuscript copyists and illuminators facing the spread of books printed with movable type (192).

After giving examples of the three kinds of cards, in the form of lovely colour reproductions from Ferrara, to illustrate chronologically the move from hand to machine (figs. 6-10), Ortalli summarizes his examination of Este card-production and playing habits, noting that for the time being “.. . the Ferrara documents are the earliest evidence attesting to direct control over playing-card printing by an important princely family” (197).

In the final section of his essay (197-203), Ortalli turns to a consideration of the rise and success of playing cards in Europe, emphasizing the appropriateness of a phrase coined in 1990 by Helmut Rosenfeld, the Kartenspiel-Invasion. Having traced the rocky beginnings of card-playing’s introduction in Europe, and focusing on one very important noble family’s intimate involvement with playing cards, by the end of the 15th century dozens of card games are known by name, illustrating the tremendous richness and potential inherent in this ludic system.
Chariot or Fortuna
Trionfi card, Ferrara, dated ca. 1450
Gherardo Ortalli

“The Prince and the playing cards. The Este family and the role of courts
at the time of the Kartenspiel-Invasion”
Ludica 2 (1996) pp. 175-205.

Review by Ross Gregory Caldwell
Gherardo Ortalli's groundbreaking 1996 study of the role of the Este court in Ferrara in the production and spread of playing cards, particularly Triumph cards, or Tarots, presents a synthesis of much new information only published in the course of the 1990s. For playing card research, and especially Tarots, it supplements in detail the last major studies by Stuart Kaplan (1978,1986) and  Michael Dummett (1980, 1986, 1993) by providing an intimate look at the day-to-day production and use of cards during the course of the 15th century by the noble family of Este - Marquises, then Dukes, of Ferrara - and the artists commissioned by them to make Tarot cards.

A small note in Ortalli's article about "carte 70 per zogo", in its importance not understood by Ortalli himself, is the first known number of the Trionfi cards used at this time - it indicates, that Trionfi cards were used in 70 cards packs with a 5x14 structure and not - as later common -  in 78 cards packs with a 4x14+22 structure.

Ortalli's article appeared in Ludica, a multilingual magazine dedicated to the history of games.
15th Century Trionfi in Ferrara
"The Prince and the Playing cards"
Gherardo Ortalli
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