The Prince's Cards

Written by  Gherardo Ortalli
Ferrara, the Estes and the spread of playing cards.
In the closing decades of the Fourteenth century a new spectre appeared to trouble the austere tutors of public morality. It was in that period that playing cards, which originated in the Far East, made their appearance in Europe.
In 1377 playing cards are mentioned for the first time in Italy: in Florence and Siena, where worries about the threat posed by their diffusion took the form of strict countermeasures. In the space of a very few years similar measures were taken throughout Europe. In 1404 the Church joined forces with the temporal powers in condemning the new fad.

However the struggle against cards was doomed to resounding failure. Games that people enjoy are almost impossible to repress: at best they can be restricted to that grey area between the tolerated and the forbidden, while concessions must be invented from time to time, such as gaming houses, betting or state-sponsored lotteries.
Ferrara was a bridgehead in the Kartenspiel-Invasion, even though its importance in this sense cannot be measured in terms of precocity. The first mention of cards in the city dates from a relatively late 1422, the year in which one Iacobo Sagramoro, painter, was paid by the ducal administration for having refurbished four packs of cards. Thereafter, cards are mentioned more and more frequently.

In 1423 the young marquise Parisina sent to Florence for an expensive pack of gold-embellished cards for the game known as Imperatori. This is the very first record anywhere of this game, which remained in vogue until midway through the century.
Parisina was not the only member of her family who enjoyed cards. Her interest was shared by her young daughters and even her husband, the marquis Niccolò, shared her enthusiasm. History tells us that his marriage with Parisina ended in tragedy: in 1425 a relationship between his wife and his step-son Ugo was punished with severity, as both lovers were beheaded for their betrayal.
But as far as playing cards went, it seems that the couple saw eye to eye in a way that they failed to do with regard to affairs of the heart. And in fact Niccolò is recorded as having ordered two packs of playing cards from Florence in exchange for 7 gold florins.

While Imperatori cards had already appeared by 1423, other games arrived soon after that. At court they were ordering packs for ronfa or scartino, but from other sources we know that in the city people were playing at falcinelli, terza e quarta, carta di dietro, candiana, spiciga, re a cavallo, flusso or farina contro farina; such snippets, moreover, often come to us from court or criminal records. Playing cards had really struck root in Ferrara, as an anonymous diarist noted in 1499: «It is both use and habit to play much at cartes, [games] such as falcinelli, rompha, scarto... and a thousand other devilries».

But even if we restrict ourselves to the court, we discover that the passion for cards was strong enough to persuade Duke Borso, in 1454, to go as far as to establish a specialized workshop, wherein worked a priest, don Domenico - known as Messore - and the painter Giovanni di Lazzaro - known as Cagnolo. The packs they produced must have been of relatively high, albeit not of the highest, quality: but for the most refined cards people commissioned artists of a higher calibre, such as Sagramoro or Gherardo d'Andrea da Vicenza. Such men produced packs ornamented with gold and silverwork, and lapis lazuli, with the backs decorated with checks, roundels or the insignia of their aristocratic clients.

It is interesting to note the affection of the Este family for hand painted cards in an age in which printed cards were widespread. But even in that sector the Este court had a role to play as it used its own print shop as well as printers in its service. As early as 1436 (with Niccolò II), the court purchased "a printing press FOR cards" and we also know that a certain Mantovano printed packs of cards for the Este court between 1436 and 1452.
With so many cards in circulation the (ill) luck of the game was a part of daily life at the Este court. In the early Sixteenth century the debts of Sigismondo, the son of Ercole I, were placed on record; his sister Isabella (who was married off to the marquis of Mantua) was hard put to recover one of her favourite rings, which she had lost to a Ferrarese nobleman who had lost it in his turn to a professional "card sharp".
But the risks did not frighten anybody overmuch and that playing cards was an absolutely normal part of life emerges clearly from the fact that they were continually placed in the hands of children. We know of packs bought (in 1516) «for the illustrious children of our Lord» (i.e., Alfonso I): in particular, "Don Hercule" (i.e., Ercole II), then an eight year old, was not only presented with books by Ovid, Virgilio or Pliny but also with packs for scartini and tarocchi.

The first certain references to tarocchi cards (known for the whole of the Fifteenth century as the trionfi) come down to us from the Este court. The year was 1442, in the time of Duke Lionello, therefore, when Sagramoro was paid for having painted four packs of tarocchi, or tarot, cards. The new game, probably invented at court in Ferrara, ushered in great novelties. In addition to the traditional pack with numbered suits (wands, cups, pentacles and swords) and court cards, the new pack also boasted the 22 figures known as the trionfi (triumphs), whence the name of the game.

Later, these same figures corresponded to the major arcana. The Hanged Man, the World, the Angel, the Sun, or the High Priestess mark the introduction of the predominant card: the trump or atout. But in the refined world of the Estes the trionfi represented a chance to commission works of art, as well as inspiration for sophisticated poetic compositions, such as the one written by Matteo Maria Boiardo around 1461 entitled Tarocchi, an eloquent witness to the importance of playing cards within Ferrarese culture.