Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Sigismondo Malatesta and the Triumphs

A Golden World


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, December 2017


The following is part of the presentation by Andrea Vitali, I Malatesta e i Trionfi (Malatesta and Triumphs), in the Acts of the Conference organized by the Department of History, Culture, and Civilization, Section on Ancient [in Italian, this term includes medieval and Renaissance] History, of the University of Bologna, cosponsored by the Municipal Museums of Rimini, which took place in Rimini from 9 to 11 June 2016 on "The Ancients at the Court of Malatesta: Echoes, Models and Fortunes of the Classical Tradition in Fifteenth Century Romagna".


Sigismondo Malatesta and the Triumphs


Coming to Malatesta's relationship with Triumphs, it is necessary to consider that the packs used consisted of 14 triumphs and 56 number and court cards, that is, the so-called Ludus Triumphorum [Game of Triumphs].


For a long time it was believed that the first document mentioning the game of  Triumphs belonged to the Este Court: on February 10, 1442, in the Court's Wardrobe Registry, four decks of triumphal cards were recorded: «Maistro Iacomo depentore dito Sagramoro de avere adi 10 fiebraro per sue merzede de avere cho(lo)rido e depento.... 4 para de chartexele da trionffi, ... le quale ave lo nostro Signore per suo uxo...»  (Maestro Iacomo, painter, called Sagramoro, having on the 10th of February for his recompense, for having coloured and painted... 4 packs of small triumph cards ...  which our Lord had for his use...). This document only attests that in Ferrara those years Triumph cards were produced and not that they were invented in that city at that time. In fact we know, thanks to an investigation into the Florentine Statutes of 1450 governing the playing of card games, that there were Triumph cards used by the people, made of lightweight cardboard, which were thrown away once they were worn out.


In 2002, historian Nerida Newbigin reported information from the Diari (Diaries) of the notary Giusto Giusti, who in 1440 gave Sigismondo Malatesta a pack of Triumphs made specially in Florence. As of today's research, this document is therefore the first known citation concerning the game of Triumphs: «Venerdì a dì 16 settembre donai al magnifico signore messer Gismondo un paio di naibi a trionfi, che io avevo fatto fare a posta a Fiorenza con l’armi sua, belli, che mi costaro ducati quattro e mezzo». ("On Friday, September 16, I gave the magnificent Lord Messer Gismondo one pack of triumph cards, which I had had to be made in Florence with his beautiful arms, which cost me four and a half ducats.") (1) The Triumph pack was embellished with Malatesta’s insignia, according to a practice that we find also in the decks made by the Visconti and Estensi. The sum paid must have been quite high, considering that Giusti, who had served Malatesta for about a year, would have felt obliged to give the Duke a gift of some importance.


Giusti Giusti was born in Anghiari in 1406 and had for twenty years been practicing the profession of notary for the Florentine Republic. The relationship with Malatesta dates back to late 1439, when the person of our concern convinced Agnolo Taglia, captain of an Anghiari company [of soldiers], to enlist the service of the Lord of Rimini. Giusti allegedly died in his native town in 1484 and was buried in the Anghiari church of Badia.


Giusti’s Diaries were made up of a series of twenty notebooks, memoirs in which he noted all the important events of his private and professional life, including negotiations, contracts, special meetings, weddings, payments, extraordinary events, storms, earthquakes, and festivals. Since the original manuscripts have been lost, the Diaries have come through seventeenth-century copies partially transcribed by people who had different interests and who made choices based on entirely personal criteria. Among them are the Florentine architect Antonio (1551-1636), the historian Lorenzo Taglieschi (1598-1654) and especially Carlo Strozzi (1587-1570), senator of the grand duke of Tuscany and one of the most important members of the Academy of the Crusca. It is his transcription that is of our interest, dated 1621, housed in the State Archives of Florence (2).


The game of Triumphs was one of the most popular amusements at the courts of Northern Italy, so much so that the Visconti, Sforza and Estensi commissioned a number of famous artists.  The biggest production center of illuminated Triumphs was Cremona, and Sigismondo Malatesta, lover in the highest degree of games, did not despise asking the lords of Milan the favor of obtaining a deck.


In October of 1452 he sent to Bianca Maria Visconti, wife of Duke Francesco Sforza, a letter requesting a pack "che se fanno a Cremona" (that are made in Cremona), a request that Bianca Maria transmitted to her husband. We know of this from a letter dated 28 October 1452 that Francesco's secretary Simonetta, called Cicco, on behalf of the Duke himself, sent to Antonio Trecco (Trecho), ducal treasurer of Cremona, to make the required cards:


«Perchè el Mag[nifi]co Sig[no]re Sigismondo [Malatesta] ha rechesto ad la Ill[ustrissi]ma Madonna Bianca nostra consorte uno paro de carte da triumpho per zugare, ti commettimo et volemo che subito ne debij fare fare uno paro de belle quanto più sarà possibile pincte et ornate con le arme ducali et al insigne nostre et mandaraile subito como serano facte. Apud Calvisanum XXVIIJ octobris 1452.


Non obstante quello dicemo de sopra de mandarne qui le dicte carte volevo le ritegne lì, et ne avisi como serano facte et similmente retegni tre berrette quali te mandarà Mattheo da Pesaro. Data ut supra.





(Because the Magnificent Lord Sigismondo [Malatesta] has requested of the Illustrious Lady Bianca our consort a pack of triumph playing cards, we commission you and require the obligation of quickly having made a pack painted of as much beauty as possible and ornamented with the ducal insignia and our own, to be sent as soon as they are made. Apud Calvisanum (At Calvisano) XXVIII octobris 1452 (3)


Notwithstanding that we say above to send said cards here, I want you to hold them there, and advise me when they are done,and similarly hold three hats that Matteo will send you from Pesaro. Dat utsupra. (Date as above).


                                                                              Irius. (1)     

                                                                                                  Cichus»)  (4)                


(1) Irio da Venegono, chancellor of the Duke of Milan from 1452


That deck of triumphs did not survive, but because Cremona was famous for making hand-painted cards, and since the only known triumphs of Cremona up to that time were those made with pure gold backgrounds during the period of the previous duke, Filippo Maria Visconti, we can suppose that the cards sent to Malatesta were of that type, considering that the order of the Duke for "uno paro de belle quanto più sarà possibile" (a pack of as much beauty as possible). Illuminated cards whose realization involved numerous expensive materials, including a heated press for the cardboard, pure gold leaf and silver leaf, well sharpened punches, and a series of engraving tools with various angular bits: almond-shaped, half-round, flat with square sections, flat with stripes; fine grain plaster and blue lapis lazuli pigments, a good dose of carmine and even purple and ruby red for garments, in addition to a bright yellow for highlighting, also light green and a darker one for the grass where persons and animals would have their feet and hooves, and also indigo and violet colors; brushes and of course pressed and curved cardboard, each piece nearly twenty centimeters long and nine wide, like the Visconti Triumphs.


Considering that no other documents regarding the game of Triumphs in Rimini are known from Malatesta’s time, it is of interest to focus our attention on the Malatesta Temple, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful achievements of Italian humanism, designed by the architect Leon Battista Alberti on the commission of Pandolfo Sigismondo Malatesta.


Given the presence of various symbols also present in the tarot, including Justice, Strength, the Moon with Cancer underneath, the Angel of Judgment, and the Muses and Saturn found in the so-called Tarot of Mantegna, some have hypothesized a relationship, in reality non-existent, with the Triumphs of the tarot, so as to come up with decks entitled I Tarocchi di Sigismondo ispirati dal Signore dei Malatesta (The Tarot of Sigismondo inspired by the Lord of Malatesta) or I tarocchi del Tempio Malatestiano (The Tarot of the Malatesta Temple). This is not the place to deepen the Neoplatonic and Hermetic theme to which the symbols described relate, but it seems intriguing to focus on the Piero della Francesca’s fresco of 1451 depicting Sigismondo in prayer before Saint Sigismondo, given the presence of two dogs, one of a dark color and the other lighter, as we find facing each other in the tarot Moon card, beginning in the 17th century, a presence that has given rise to various iconological conjectures. In the fresco, the two dogs are instead depicted on the right, crouched and their muzzles turned in opposite directions (5).


The depiction of day and night was expressed iconographically by two animals, usually dogs, but also by other species such as mice or horses, one white and the other dark, according to a concept that combined these colors to opposite situations, as by Cartari, who, speaking of a chariot with two horses, asserts that “Di questo l'uno era negro, e l'altro bianco, come dice il Boccaccio, perché non solamente appare di notte la luna, ma si vede anche il dì” (Of these one was black and the other white, because, as Boccaccio says, not only does the moon appear by night but also day) (6).


I have found another example of this way of portraying day and night in the splendid painting The Triumph of Time by Jacopo del Sellaio: the Old Man is suspended above a sundial in which the hours are numbered. Below this, in the hours of light and darkness, are depicted respectively a white dog and a black dog, to indicate that time passes without ever stopping, both day and night (7).


In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but also later as described in the treatises of iconology, it was customary to relate human virtues allegorically to members of the animal world. Saint Ambrose in the Hexameron (8) affirms that Christians should take the dog as a model, due to its loyalty and gratitude to its benefactors. The presence of dogs in the Moon card therefore signifies the fidelity of that celestial body in its actions aimed at influencing various terrestrial aspects, an influence that manifests not only at night when the moon appears in the sky but also in the daytime.


The presence of the two dogs in the fresco is motivated by a precise allegory: the fidelity and gratitude of Sigismund to his patron saint, here exalted in the depiction of these animals, again considered as symbols of such virtues.


If the colors of the animals indicate that Sigismondo's fidelity was continuously alive, both during the day and at night, the black dog’s attitude of greater guard, indicated by the height of its head, shows that at night Sigismondo's dedication towards his saint needed more attention, as then the senses tend to fall off. What is most important, however, is to highlight their muzzles pointing in opposite directions, an attitude that in our view shows that Sigismund's dedication to his patron saint was not an exclusive prerogative of the present time but had always been and would always be, as in the past so in the future.


This is an Interpretation that, as far as we know, has not been the subject of scholarship.




1 -  Nerida Newbigin, “I Giornali di Ser Giusto Giusti D'Anghiari (1437-148)” [The Diaries of Mr. Giusto Giusti of Anghiari], Letteratura Italiana Antica, III, Rome, 2002, pp. 41-246. This text was brought to the attention of tarot historians by Thierry Depaulis.

2 -  Transcriptions of the Diaries are contained in the following five codicies:

 Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Fondo Nazionale N.II, II 127 (Codices on paper of the 17th century, by Senator Carlo Strozzi)

 Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Nuove Accessioni 982

 Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Fondo Nazionale II III 88

 Florence, Archivio di Stato, ms. 161.5

 Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Lat. 11887

3 - At that time Francesco Sforza, engaged in a war against the Most Serene Republic [i.e. Venice], was situated in the territory of Calvisano, not far from Brescia.

4 Archivio di Stato [State Archives] of Milan, no. 7, folio 348, year 1452. The Istituto Lombardo, Accademia di Scienze e Lettere, in their transcription, gives only one signatory for the letter, “Irius”, p. 275. See at link: 

Emilio Motta, in contrast, gives as signatories “Irius” followed on another line by “Cichus”, in "Altri documenti per la libreria sforzesca" (Other documents of the Sforza library), Il Bibliofilo, X, 1889, p. 108. A special thanks goes to our partners Stephen Mangan and Ross Caldwell: to Mangan for the investigation on Irio da Venegono (, and to Caldwell for communicating the Istituto Lombardo study to us.

5 - For the image, see The Moon in our Iconological Essays, figure 12.

6 - Vincenzo Cartari, Imagini de gli Dei de gli Antichi, (Images of the Gods of the Ancients) Venice, 1609, p. 75.

7 - See The Moon in our Iconological Essays, figure 11.

8 - Saint Ambrose, Hexameron VI.c, IV.17.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  - © All rights reserved 2016