Happy Birthday Francesco Sforza: July 23, 1401
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 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
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.