Italy in this period was not one unified country, but was instead made up of a great constellation of city-states: some tiny, others wealthy, powerful and magnificent. The five great powers were Florence and Venice, the Kingdom of Naples, the Papal States and the Duchy of Milan.
The stories of the Renaissance most closely lodged in many people’s minds are those of the great trading republic of Venice, of the beauties of Florence and the power of the Popes in Rome. In contrast, the Milanese ruling families of the period, the Visconti and the Sforza, don't hold a prominent place in public consciousness. Yet they embody just as much of what we find fascinating about the Renaissance – the beauty of the art coupled with the brutality and corruption of its politics – as do the Medici or the Borgias. Leonardo da Vinci, after all, spent nearly 20 years in Milan and created some of his greatest masterpieces there.
There were smaller treasures, too. For example, the ‘Visconti-Sforza tarot cards’ demonstrate the wealth and artistry that the Dukes of Milan could command. They were created most likely in the mid fifteenth century, probably shortly after Francesco Sforza’s ascension to the ducal throne in 1450.
The pack is made up of seventy four hand-painted playing cards (four are missing from the original pack of seventy eight). They are large compared to modern playing cards (and to other, lesser-quality cards from the fifteenth century) indicating that they probably were produced as items for display and to demonstrate status, rather than as cards to play with. They are mostly painted by the same person, although six were made by a different artist (who also painted other extant packs of cards). They are stunning, tiny masterpieces of Gothic art: rich with gold and the jewel-bright colours of a master illuminator’s craft; saturated with the symbolism of what we would think of as the medieval world: with knights, kings and queens, swords and grails.
|Knight of Swords|
There is no evidence that tarot (from the Italian tarroco, plural tarrochi) were used at this point for divination or were linked to the occult. Instead they were playing cards: a mixture of suit cards, which will be familiar to all as the basis for modern playing cards, plus a series of ‘trump’ cards, including a range of Virtues, astronomical symbols (the sun, moon etc) and people – Popes and Popesses, the Hanged Man and others.
We know that card games – both played with and without trumps – were highly popular across Italy at this time, although there were regional variations in how the games were played. In Milan, the duchess Beatrice d’Este, wife of Ludovico Sforza reportedly won three thousand ducats at play at one point in 1494 (and spent her winnings on alms and embroidery, although her husband was at a loss to see how she could have spent all of the money on just those two things!)
It is a fascinating glimpse into a courtly world, perhaps all the more so because it was a world doomed to disappear, a fact foretold by the cards themselves. One of the cards shows the Wheel of Fortune. A man is depicted in four different states: destined to rule, ruling and then, his Fortune overturned, on his hands and knees, without dominion.
|The Wheel of Fortune|
Only a few years after Ludovico Sforza wrote so cheerfully to his wife about her gains at the card table, he would be imprisoned by the French, his glittering court destroyed.
But in a strange way, that court lives on, for it was the Milanese version of these card games, and not those of other cities, which was taken back to France by the victors, and thence on to other parts of Europe and beyond, and so into modern culture.
For me, therefore, the Visconti-Sforza tarot stand not only in their own right as works of art, but of links between a glittering past and our own world today.
(All pictures from Wikimedia Commons)