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Happy Birthday Francesco Sforza: July 23, 1401

Knight of Swords, Visconti-Sforza Deck

Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan and the most successful condottiere of his time, gave the world the Visconti-Sforza deck, and contributed immensely to our knowledge of Tarot’s origins.

Francesco’s father-in-law, Duke Maria Filippo Visconti, commissioned two gold-leaf tarot decks in the 1440s, but so many cards are missing, we can only speculate on what the complete deck was like. Francesco’s deck, painted with precious mineral pigments on gold leaf, is nearly complete, showing us that the familiar 78-card deck existed in the mid-15th century.

Throughout the 1440s, tarot decks were mentioned in account books and correspondence from Ferrara, Bologna and Venice; but we have nothing from Milan because the castle and all the court’s records were destroyed during the political turmoil of 1447. Two letters Francesco wrote in 1450 are our earliest written clues about tarot’s place at the Milan court.

In December 1450, Francesco wrote a note to his accountant asking him to obtain two decks of carte de triumphi (most likely a 78-card tarot deck). If these weren’t available, then he’d settle for two decks of regular playing cards (carte da giocare). The Duke wanted the finest available and he needed them by Sunday, probably for a party. Several days later, Francesco wrote another note thanking his accountant for obtaining the playing cards, but saying he still wanted two triumphi decks as soon as possible.

These letters show that by 1450 playing cards were mass-produced and could be bought off the shelf, and that triumphi decks were harder to find. They also tell us what the two types of decks were called.

Biography of Francesco Sforza

Francesco Sforza, Duke of MilanFrancesco lived at a time when condottiere, leaders of mercenary armies, did all the fighting in the constant inter-city feuding that dominated medieval Italy. Francesco’s father, Muzio Attendolo, was one of the more successful condottiere. Dubbed Sforza by his mentor, he took it as his family name. Muzio was wealthy and politically well-connected. Francesco was educated in the D’Este court at Ferrara, married a wealthy heiress, and inherited her estates when she died two years later.

Francesco joined his father’s band of warriors as a teenager. When his father drowned in 1424 while fording a river, Francesco demonstrated his leadership skills by rallying the troops and leading them to a victory later that day. Adding his father’s numerous castles and estates to the inheritance from his late wife made him one of the wealthiest and most socially prominent condottiere of his time.

In 1432, he became engaged to nine-year-old Bianca Sforza, the only surviving child of the Duke of Milan. For years, the Duke dangled his daughter and her dowry under Sforza’s nose to buy his loyalty. In 1441, Bianca and Francesco married in Cremona, a city that was part of her dowry. She was 18 and he was 40, with grown children. Some say Bianca had her husband’s mistresses murdered, and he couldn’t find any more willing partners. Whatever the reason, they had an unusually close and monogamous marriage. Bianca advised her husband, took part in the city’s political life, and even led a defensive battle in his absence.

By the time of his marriage, Francesco was one of the greatest condottiere of his time, and a political and military force in his own right. But he still had to fight to become Duke of Milan. After the death of Bianca’s father, Duke Maria Filippo, in 1446, the city of Milan established the Ambrosian Republic, kicking off three years of riots, invasions, terror, and the destruction of the castle. In early 1450, the city council asked Francesco to pacify the region. Ironically, he became Duke by popular acclaim, and not because of his marriage into the Visconti family.

For the remaining sixteen years of his life, Francesco presided over an era of peace and prosperity. He died in 1466 and was succeeded by his oldest son, Galeazzo Maria.

Family History in the Trump Cards

Strength, Visconti-Sforza deckWe don’t know to what extent Francesco, or anyone else in the court, instructed Bembo on how to personalize the trump cards. But we can make some associations of our own.

Lovers: The couple on this card resembles a wedding portrait of Francesco and Bianca from an illuminated codex.

The Some of Francesco’s greatest feats involved wars or negotiations with Venice. The lion holding a book on the King of Sword’s shield is a symbol for Venice. The Strength card may depict Francesco clubbing the Venetian lion into submission.

Hanged Man: Muzio deserted the Pope for his opponent when the Pope was unable to pay his fee. The Pope ordered a “shame painting” of Muzio, but we don’t know where it was displayed.

Papesse: Her plain robe may associate her with Sister Manfreda, a Visconti nun who was elected Pope by an overly-enthusiastic religious sect, then was burnt at the stake in 1300.

Bagatto: This enigmatic and well-dressed figure with a pile of coins on his table isn’t the usual carnival trickster. He might be a merchant or banker associated with the Sforza.

Emperor and Empress: Niccolo D’Este awarded the heraldic symbol of a diamond ring to Muzio after he murdered a tyrant. Francesco turned the device into the interlocking rings seen on the front of the Emperor’s and Empress’s robes.

In his younger days, Muzio served under Alberico of Barbiana, a great condottiere who invented the leather caparison to protect horses in battle. All the Knights’ horses are wearing one.

Sources for more biographical information:

Stuart Kaplan, The Encyclopedia of Tarot, volume I, pp.60-62

Stuart Kaplan, The Encyclopedia of Tarot, volume II,

     pp. 4-5: facsimiles and translations of the letters discussed above.

     pp. 86-119, biographies of all the Sforzas with a family tree.

Read about 15th century tarot in the history section.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joseph (Joep) van Loon #

    Dear Sherryl,
    Today I am in Cotonou, so I can post some contributions. On the Strength card it is very probable Francesco Sforza who is portrayed, but the scene itself is in my opinion the biblic scene of David slaying a lion (see my contribition for the ATS newsletter in july 2011). In that time it was very common to portray famous people in biblic scenes.
    The lovers card portrays the same persons as the lovers card in the Cary Yale Visconti. On this older card Francesco is wearing a tunic with the fountain of life pictured on it, a paraheraldic symbol for Francesco Sforza. On the older card the couple is portrayed under a parasol with the shields of Filipo Matio Visconti and his wife from the house of Savoie, So the marriage of Francesco Sforza and Maria Bianca Visconti was protected by this couple. In the Visconti Sforza deck the parasol has been removed, It is a confirmation of their union, but now they are together on their own strength.
    The lion on the card of the king of swords has a halo and is carying a book, so probably it is not a symbol for Venice but rather St Marc the evangelist. Note that Francesco made peace with Venice, not war. Hefought even for Venice against Milan before he married Bianca Maria Visconti. Venice was in war with Milan almost all the time since Francesco Foscari became doge in 1423. This marriage had clearly as objectif to have Francesco Sforza change sides. I know, the betroyal dated from years earlier when Francesco Sforza worked for Filipo Maria Visconti and pope Martin V, but some time after this betroyal he started working (fighting) for Venice, so it was urgent to have him chanfe sides again. The actual marriage with Bianca Maria Visconti was the best occasion..Note that while the condotierry changed often from side, this was the main reason for having them depicted in shame paintings like the hanged man.
    Note also that on the card of the pope we see probably an image of the antipope Felix V, father of the Filipo Visconti’s wife Mary of Savoie (not the mother of Bianca Maria, she was born before this marriage).. Her father, Amadeo VIII of Savoie, had a long beard, at least before he became antipope Felix V, He was often portrayed as such. There is not one single other pope of the 15th Century who has been portrayed with a beard. This makes a terrific couple, antipope Felix V plus the heretic popess Maifreda da Pirovano. This is perfectly logical if you consider that Milan was a Ghibelline city.

    November 3, 2013
    • Hello Joseph,
      Thank you for these comments. I agree that the man on the Strength card is Francesco Sforza. It’s becoming more obvious to me that all the original 14 cards of the Visconti-Sforza deck illustrate something or someone from those two families. I’ve been reading about Guelphs and Ghibellines and thinking of those two factions in terms of the Emperor and Pope cards. At first, I couldn’t believe the Duke would want to portray a family member on his tarocchi who had been burnt at the stake. But it makes sense considering his Ghibelline sympathies. I want to learn more about the history of Francesco’s time and his family. You obviously have more detailed knowledge than I have. Can you recommend any books or websites? I read French and Italian, so I’ll probably search my favorite online Italian bookstore ( to see what they have.
      Thank you again for your comments. They add depth to my quick articles.

      November 4, 2013
      • Joseph (Joep) van Loon #

        Dear Sherryl,
        By far the best website about the early Tarot history is in my opinion, a site you know very well. I have some good books, will check this when I’m back home. But for specific information about someone or something, nothing can beat searching google. Another very rich site in many languages is wikipedia, they have tons of valuable information. What is important when searching on the Internet is to always cross check the information on other sites, many sites state ‘facts’ that are completely wrong, so never give confidence to the ‘facts’ that are given on a site.
        I’m trying myself to write a book about the Tarot and its history, but I have collected such a wealth of information that I have problems putting it all together. But by far the bhe best books are the cards themselves. Example the Vieville deck. Most people are asking why the Vieville cards are mirrored with respect to the TdM cards (I hate the name TdM, because the origin is not in Marseille). In fact, the Vieville cards are not mirrored, they are consistent with respect to older italian decks. The great novelty of the Noblet deck (as oldest known TdM deck) is that he considered the cards as a meditation tool, as a mirror of our Soul. Because he considered the cards as a mirror of our Soul it was obvious for him that he had to mirror the images. And so did all following TdM decks. This conclusion is not from books, it came from card meditation itself. But as with the Internet, never give confidence to one single deck. Tarot decks are made by human, and every Tarot artist gave its very personal interpretation. One can only reveal significant information in studying and comparing many decks at the same time and in comparing them with other art works from the same time.
        Other example, comparing the Virtues on the Charles VI deck (another name I hate) with paintings from the Florentine painters Lo Scheggia and Pesollino makes it obvious (for me at least) that this deck has been painted by Florentine painters. But in comparing individual cards with cards of the Ercole I d’Este deck it becomes evident that the cards were probably commissioned by the same person(s), the Este family from Ferrara. From this comparison one can even conclude that the Emperor card of the Charles VI deck is probably not the Emperor, but the King of Coins.
        Thanks for your positive appreciation of my humble mails.

        November 5, 2013
      • Hello Joseph,
        I can sympathize with having so many ideas and so much information you don’t know where to start. I have a list of about 30 ideas for blog articles and sometimes get paralyzed thinking about it all. Perhaps a remedy is to specialize. Personally, I would love to see more about tarot in Ferrara. It seems that Milan and the Visconti-Sforza deck get all the attention because the deck is so easy to obtain — just as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck dominates tarot in the United States because at one time it was the only deck that was easy to find.

        Since my schedule is lighter for the rest of this week, I’m going to look up those Florentine artists you mentioned, take a look at the Charles VI deck, and will probably have some questions for you in a few days.

        November 5, 2013

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