An MA Thesis in French on the 3 Milanese decks

The University of Montreal recently published an online, downloadable, searchable pdf of a somewhat interesting MA thesis in art history, "LES JEUX DE TAROT VISCONTI-SFORZA: Une analyse iconographique", by Joana Nunes de Souza, submitted October 2016.

The abstract is at ... 1866/18746

The thesis itself is at ... sequence=2

It is in fairly easy French. That may be a feature of Canadian French, as it is for American English, which has a much smaller vocabulary and simpler sentence structure than British English. The French in this thesis has the added bonus of using many cognates with English, probably influenced by Quebec’s English-dominated history. Since this thesis is searchable and can be made into a text file, topics of interest can be found readily enough (well, you have to know the French words) and should convert to English (or most other languages) from a text file. In this review, when I quote her I will for the most part be translating her French.

De Souza discusses the three Visconti-Sforza decks from what she says is an art historical perspective. Actually, she derives most of its perspective and material from two works, both by non-art historians. One is Gertrude Moakley's 1966 book on the PMB, i.e. the deck shared by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the Academy of Bergamo; her book is now online starting at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1168). The other main source is Dummett's 1968 The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, which is also about that deck. Another frequent source is Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Tarot Vol. 1: “Only vol. 1 is pertinent”, she says (p. 12); how she can dismiss Volume 2’s 170 or so pages devoted to these cards and their milieu (she has one whole chapter on their milieu) I do not know.

Still, the thesis is a good introduction for French speakers to these cards as covered by these works, seamlessly merging the three into one narrative and adding details from many other sources, often French or Italian and as late as 2016. At the same time she is not very critical of her sources and relatively unaware of discoveries that make some of her citations out of date. She tends to cite sources that support her ideas and ignore those that don't, unless her favored sources have arguments against them. Her observations themselves are useful but should be checked for accuracy before using; for example, she says that the Cary-Yale Chariot card's horses have wings (p. 81); that is of course the PMB. But at least she understands (although often disputed) that it is a reference to Plato's Phaedrus!

One of the Italian sources she draws on for details (certainly not for its attributions) is the 2013 catalog to the Brera's exhibition of cards from the Brera-Brambilla (BB) and PMB (on that catalog see my posts at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1058). A point in that catalog (p. 38) that she brings up as fact, in support of a relationship of Petrarch's poem and the tarot sequence, is that not only "a bon droyt" but also "phote mantenir", two mottoes on the BB suit cards, are both Petrarchan (de Souza’s p. 40). That is a connection to Petrarch that I had not thought of. Checking Bandera and Tanzi, I see that they don't give a reference or say anything further about either motto. Yet it is important and relevant issue. I know the connection of the phrase "a bon droyt" to Petrarch ( ... ight=droyt), but not "phote mantenir", i.e. "il faut mantenir" (in French). It is a phrase made popular by Epictetus, presumably in Latin ( and is likely to be part of Petrarch's general philosophical stance, as Platonic as it is Stoic, that it is necessary to resist physical desire excited by ideal beauty, if one is to know peace of mind (Atarassia, from the Greek a, not, and tarachos, agitated, curiously like the word "tarocco"). But I'd like to know if there is a connection between that phrase itself and Petrarch's use of it. De Souza does not pursue the issue.

In her chapter 3, on the iconography (chapter 1 is about the historical milieu, and chapter 2 the heraldics), she finally departs from Moakley (and Dummett), who found only the three named virtues of Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance in the PMB. She thinks the Chariot card represents the virtue of Prudence, which then correlates to the suit of Coins, one of which the Chariot-lady holds in her hand (pp.78-80). Like the other virtues, this one has a feminine representative. She agrees with Moakley that the suits correlate to the four cardinal virtues. There is a sword on the Justice card, a coin on the Chariot card, cups on the Temperance card, and a stick on the PMB Fortitude card. Although there is no stick on the CY Fortitude card, she points out that other early cards had a broken column (visually like a stick); and a poem cited by Moakley, written at the time of Gian-Galeazzo Visconti, seems to compare him to symbols of the four virtues, with a column (unbroken) for fortitude (de Souza p. 79). (For me the Beinecke catalogue's suit associations—not mine, let me emphasize--for the CY triumphs are sufficient; they are the cards in all capital letters in the table at the top of p. 18 of Pratesi’s note on the CY, translated at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1086#p16687; the cards in Italics there are my speculations as to what is missing.)

As for the Petrarchan Triumphs, de Souza thinks that both of the presumably last two cards, in the PMB and CY, reflect Eternity (p. 64). It does not occur to her that the lady with the trumpet on top of one of them might be Fama; for her she is there only because it is a deck aimed at women. As for Moakley, the moon and sun qualify as Eternity's captives, for de Souza "representing the time that they measure but rendered insignificant by their vanquisher" (p. 64). She does not say why the Star is excluded, but it is presumably because in the illuminated manuscripts of Petrarch's poem, it is only those two that sometimes appear in the Triumph of Eternity. Petrarch's triumph of Time is seen in the Vecchio, which Moakley and then Dummett had renamed Time, although there are differences between the PMB figure and the figure in the illuminations of Petrarch. Death of course is represented by Death and Love by Love. Fame is not present in these tarot decks (or at least not clearly, she says carefully, but she offers no candidates); Chastity may perhaps be hidden in other figures, notably Temperance (p. 62). So there are only four Petrarchan triumphs clearly indicated. As for Moakley in the 1966 book, she says, p. 48 (my transcription is at ... ity#p19066): "Chastity is banished in favor of her enemy, Fortune. Time is reduced to being an attendant of Death, and Fame is forgotten". This is in contrast to the minchiate, where Moakley found all six represented (Moakley p. 47). For myself, I do not see how Chastity, in minchiate a lady on a chariot, would be different in the PMB and CY. The problem might be that in the PMB she is the same lady as on the Love card, as Moakley says, and so not chaste. But pudicitie, the sense of shame, was a virtue that did not exclude marriage; it was the same for chastity. In that regard the nude lady of minchiate is not setting a very good example. There is also the question, in the PMB, of whether Moakley is not, in the passage just quoted, elevating Fortune to the status of a Triumph, as in Boccaccio. Moakley is not very clear. For both Moakley and de Souza, however, the story told by the tarot sequence remains similar enough to Petrarch's to make the conneciton. Except for correlating two cards with Eternity, De Souza makes no correlations to groups of cards (as Moakley had done, both in her book and in her 1956 article, for which see Pratesi's helpful chart at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1092&start=20#p17714 ).

In that chapter 3 she goes on to analyze all 22 of the cards named in Suzio's poem in relation to these decks, naturally focusing on the PMB. First are the two "tricheurs" (p. 66); neither Dummett nor Moakley had put these two cards together, the Matto and the Bagatella, given that the Matto does not have the function of a triumph; but many have since. Then come the two imperial (p. 69) and two religious (p. 70) powers. So we have high and low examples of the social hierarchy of those times (p. 73), who perhaps "n'avait pas une valeur d'action dans le jeu", do not have a value (or position) of action in the game", as opposed to (in my words now) the procession-like quasi-Petrarchan sequence that follows.

Then come the "conditions of human life" (p. 73), Love through Death - Dummett’s characterization in his FMR article (although citing this source in her first chapter, in relation to other matters, she does not mention it here). Then she gives the four cardinal virtues, even if these do not occur in sequence and mostly do not follow Death in the sequence (I am not criticizing her, although there may be a question of why the virtues are spread out the way they are in the Milan orders). The “negative spiritual powers” (Devil, Fire) may or may not have been originally present. Then come the Celestial Powers, followed by the “positive spiritual powers” (p. 84). After that she gives special attention to the CY's Faith, Hope, and Charity, although not putting them in any particular place in the sequence.

For the PMB Bagatella, she readily identifies the objects on the table as corresponding to the four suits (p. 68). I certainly agree, although many don't. She proposes that perhaps the card had a similar "wild card" role as the Matto, but one restricted to just those four suits rather than the whole deck (p. 69). This argument is contraverted by the same evidence that supports the Matto’s unique role.

In discussing Moakley on the Popess, she credits my blog on that card (by title but not author) for the photo of the painting in Brumante of Guglielma (Figure 43). I must admit that I didn't credit anybody for that photo; I had merely given a link earlier to an online essay by Filesi with this and other pictures, which credited Ross for that one. I have now fixed my omission and offer my apologies to Ross. De Souza comes to the same conclusion about the card's relationship to Guglielma as I did in my blog (, that it most likely had a double meaning, one for the people and an another for the Sforza and Visconti, fusing Sister Maifreda and The Faith (p. 73). She does not credit me or deal with the many counter-arguments, saying that to deal with the issue in depth is beyond the present investigation. Still, it is one of the few places where she shows some awareness of discussion after Moakley and Dummett.

In her Conclusion she argues that the Brera-Brambilla was probably done by the Zavattari (p. 91 and figures 7 and 8), because only they are known to have had dealings with Filippo Maria Visconti. As for the Cary-Yale, she says it was likely done by the Bembo workshop and commissioned by Francesco Sforza after his Oct. 1441 marriage, possibly as late as 1450, because of the many Sforza emblems and the good relations between the Bembo and the Sforza (p. 94). The PMB first artist cards had the same artists and commissioners, she says, sometime between 1432 and 1450 (p. 94 and figs. 7 and 8); the Emperor card with its combination of the ducal crown and Sforza's three rings reflect his claim to the Duchy (p. 95). That is likely, but her dating seems to ignore her earlier quotation from Dummett (p. 51) that it is very improbable that Francesco would have dared before 1450 to put the ducal crown together with the three rings on the same card.

It seems to me that judging the commissioner of a deck, and hence the artist, by the presence of a known relationship between artist and commissioner is misguided. Many Visconti records (e.g. on taxes and other debts owed, crimes committed) would have been intentionally destroyed when the Visconti Castle was looted and burned, and others along with them. Also, when Filippo Maria employed an illuminator to finish his father's book of hours, in around 1427, he picked a young unknown (see my quote from Kirsch at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=917&p=13402&hilit=1427#p13402; I am not sure if Kirsch identifies him or not). They were cheaper.

I would like to have seen a stylistic comparison of the six added cards with the work of other artists. I have not seen any by an art historian. De Souza notes that Bandera in 2013 “persists” in assigning the cards to Cicognara, even after Moakley’s exposure of the “confusion Cicognara” (de Souza p. 33; for Bandera see my transcription and translation at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1058#p16209). She cites approvingly Dummett's 2007 comparisons with Benedetto Bembo’s polyptic of 1462, but never looks at them in detail, or other works by Benedetto, or the works of Cicognara. Later there is only the argument that the Bembo workshop had a long-standing relationship with the Sforza. But they had relationship with many artists. Moreover, we have no idea when the added cards were added—it could have been much later, by a collector from another partial deck, as Phaeded has pointed out. In fact we really don’t know who commissioned the six added cards. For all we know, even the PMB first artist cards were not made for the Sforza, given that at least one personage, Sigismondo Malatesta, had requested a pack "con le arme ducale”, with the ducal insignia - presumably those of the Sforza and Visconti - included on the cards, “et al insignia nostre”, and his own insignia (the full quote is at ... -dei-bembo). We do not see such insignia in the PMB, unless they are on the faded Ace of Coins, or one is the Lion of St. Mark on the King of Swords. De Souza notes that lion (reflecting Dummett 1986) and says she has no explanation. But we might wonder, was that for Sforza, who stopped working for Venice in 1447. or some other condottiere that Sforza wished to honor, such as Malatesta or perhaps Colleone? Colleone should be considered not only because of his friendship with Sforza and his elevation to the status of Captain-General of the Venetian Republic in 1455 (about when Bendera and Tanzi think the PMB was made) but because of the murals at the castle he had remodeled as his residence, some of which reflect themes in the tarot sequence, while one shows a game in progress with large cards, as was characteristic of tarocchi then (see and ... 54&lng=ENG).

De Souza has no problem with Filippo's coins being acceptable to Francesco after 1447 as a pattern for the CY's suit of Coins (p. 91). Most people think that when Filippo's coins are on Coins cards, it means they were done during his lifetime (d. 1447), but I think de Souza has a good point, that they would be acceptable to Francesco until he had his own coins. If so, then Pavia would make sense as representing the groom on the Love card if the CY was made after Francesco's take-over of Pavia in 1447. She seems to think that the banners with white cross on red background above the couple would make sense as representing Francesco and Pavia even before 1447, but this would seem a confusion on her part. That he was lord of Pavia during their marriage, as she says (p. 92, "seigneur lors de son mariage"), is true, but that does not imply that he was its lord at all times during that marriage. In The Life and Times of Francesco Sforza, vol. 2, p. 18, 1852 edition, I read that he controlled Pavia, and was made its Count, only from 1447, when the city's citadel was surrendered to him and a portion of the loot transferred to the condottiere entrusted with the town's defense ( ... ia&f=false). In that instance, the book says, Bianca's mother played a crucial role in persuading the condottiere to transfer his allegience.

I still think Savoy has a claim. However prestigious the title of Count of Pavia might have been, the Dukes of Savoy are a more equal counterpart to the Visconti of the viper than the Counts of Pavia, on a card whose basic pattern, I suspect, had been set considerably before the Sforza fountain-device happened to be inserted on the groom's chest. Besides the marriage of Filippo-Maria to Marie of Savoy, there had been that of Galeazzo II and Blanche of Savoy. I realize that I am in a minority here.) On the other hand, I concede that Pavia was a great day for Bianca's mother. But the defenders of Pavia have to say that either the deck was done after 1447, which may or may not be a problem, or that both banners are Visconti, rather odd for a card suggesting the union of two families.

About the coins on the CY and BB cards, it was known even in the 19th century (but then forgotten) that the images on the cards are too big to have been made by actual coins (see Andrea’s recent essay, of which the relevant portion is transcribed and translated at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=659&p=19524&hilit= ... 968#p19524). Dummett later corrected himself on that point (viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1019&p=15152&hilit=dies#p15152). In fact nobody yet has produced any actual coins that match the images: the lettering around the circumference doesn't fit the known coins, as Marco showed (viewtopic.php?f=11&t=917&start=150#p13807). Bandera and Tanzi maintained even in 2013 that actual coins were used (p. 38 of the catalog); that claim is credible only if they produce the coins, different from the ones usually shown.

Looking at de Souza's bibliography. I see quite a few things I haven't read. An example is Roy Strong's book on festivals, from which she gets the information that the Purgatorio contains a description of a triumphal procession, in cantos 29, 30 (where Beatrice makes her entrance) and 32. There is also what would seem an interesting University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. thesis on the 15th century tarot in the context of aristocratic women's recreations; however that one cannot even be purchased, the page with the abstract says. And there is a Norwegian Master’s Thesis of 2009 comparing clothing and hairstyles on the cards with art of the time and finding them closest to the Zavatarri, according to the abstract online. The author does not say in the abstract whether she considered, like Algieri, the Lancelot illustrations as by the Zavatarri. Bandera and Tanzi argue convincingly, in my opinion, that it as well as the PMB (if the suit cards are included) show the characteristic touches of both Bonifacio and Ambrogio Bembo (see my posts at viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1058).

This MA thesis is worth reading, especially for people who may not know Moakley 1966 and Dummett 1986, and also for ideas not encountered elsewhere; I have discussed what I think are the most significant, but there are others. A fresh look at these elusive cards is always welcome.

Re: An MA Thesis in French on the 3 Milanese decks

I don't know if UV would work on the words on the banner, but I think it is worth a try. The frame around the fresco makes it dim enough. If I remember correctly, the fresco faces south, so I'd go early in the morning or late in the evening to get as much darkness as possible. Not many tourists go into the church - most go up there for the ride on the famous funicular and the incredible view over lake Como - so you can wait to be undisturbed.

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